(A German translation of this review is available on the Bremer Literaturkontor website.)
No spoilers were harmed in the making of this review.
On June 18, 2015, astronomer-turned-novelist Pippa Goldschmidt visited the House of Science in Bremen, together with her translator Zoë Beck, to read excerpts from her novel “The Falling Sky.” As part of the series ‘Fiction meets Science,’ novelists, literary scholars, sociologists, and STEM scientists observe the relationship between literature and science. This examination takes place on two levels: literature becomes the object of sociological study within the context of public discourse on science and scientific progress, for one. On another level, there is a field of tension between science and its representation in art.
Science and academia as an institution
Pippa Goldschmidt wrote her debut novel into this field of tension — in spite of Science Fiction’s popularity, she could not find the science novel that she wanted to read, which dealt with what she was actually working on on a daily basis. So she wrote that novel herself, and thus the novel’s plot is based on a true story, an observation from the 70s that once threatened to topple the Big Bang Theory for real.
“The Falling Sky” is not just a soulful novel about people and their relationship constellations, it also contains a telling commentary on science and academia. Even Jeanette, who is ambitious and passionate about her field, sees academia as an institution permeated by routine and conventions. For her, a successful observation not only means that she can sustain her job and doing what she’s fascinated by. It also means that she will write more and more papers year after year, that she will spend hours of her life in a windowless room, removed from the stars by more than merely millions of lightyears.
At the Observatory, her colleagues question the wisdom of publishing her observation since it does not fit into the accepted model — ought any contemporary, living science push back against a possible paradigm shift like this? Jeanette is torn between her excitement about and fear of what her ‘discovery’ could mean, not least for the status quo. Jeanette Smith does not want to be afraid, she wants to discover something new, do more than collect data.
The reality of images
Jeanette, holding a PhD in astronomy, lives and works in Edinburgh. Following her sister Kate’s tragic death, she escaped to the stars to flee the oppressive silence in her parents’ home. Over the course of the novel, as her observation threatens to turn her professional and personal lives upside-down, that silence catches up with her. At the beginning, the galaxies that Jeanette zooms in on using massive telescopes seem to her more real than the people around her. The small worries of daily life seem unbearable to her, compared to the mapped and chartered vastness of the universe. Instead of closeness, she seems to build distance from others almost inevitably, and loses herself in it. The seemingly impossible connection between two distant galaxies becomes the symbol of Jeanette’s isolation — from her parents, her colleagues, her friends, from her love for Paula. Jeanette cannot be sure of what she sees, and still she takes refuge in images. Thus, photography and art as well as images of galaxies assume an increasing role in Jeanette’s life and eventually even substitute her interactions with others entirely.
The fear of the void
As science makes use of the language of life and death to describe phenomena, we learn how much Jeanette needs the language of astronomy to make sense of the emotional chaos in her life. So we see Jeanette’s world through her eyes, and yet not quite. Pippa Goldschmidt manages, through artful narration, to build enough distance towards Jeanette to let the reader sense how limited her perspective can be; and yet one is not omniscient. When Jeanette wonders whether her colleagues are talking about her behind her back, when she doesn’t understand what went wrong in her relationship with Paula, we can only ever guess. Goldschmidt thus does not only show Jeanette the boundaries of her knowledge, but her readers as well. Jeanette must recognise that there are things she cannot understand, that she cannot put in the context of an accepted theory and that she cannot form a hypothesis that holds up.
“The Falling Sky” does not boldly go where no man has gone before — and yet, this excellent science novel lets you travel through time and space, into the world of a unique, complex protagonist, thanks to whom one learns to understand a great deal more about the universe.
The Falling Sky
Pippa Goldschmidt, published by Freight Books (April 2013)
If you’d like to know more about Fiction meets Science, this is their website: http://www.fictionmeetsscience.org/