Rivka Galchen spoke in favor of science last Tuesday night at the Russian Samovar before an audience of English majors, most of whom probably couldn’t remember how to light a bunsen burner. Ms. Galchen, 32, was participating in a reading series curated by editors from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, the prestigious publishing house that will issue her thrilling and affecting debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, on May 27.
“I’ve been researching for an article that I’m writing for Harper’s Magazine on recent advances in weather control technologies. And as a side note, if you’re curious, there have been quite a few such recent advances,” Ms. Galchen said. “In researching for this article, I came across a book that made me fall in love all over again with the scientific imagination.”
The book she was talking about was Macro-Engineering: A Challenge For the Future—in her words, a collection of “grand-scale, imaginative, rigorously thought-out, kind of ridiculous dreams … prepared by people who got extremely good grades in calculus.” They are fantasies, in other words, but well-researched and carefully crafted ones. Among them is a device called the “hybernaculum,” which wraps around the planet and lets us change the weather by turning a dial; also, a machine that allows us to control and steer hurricanes.
At the FSG reading, Ms. Galchen met the literary types in her audience halfway.
“I prefer to think of these ideas as scientificy rather than as just science,” she said. “They’re more like poems than like blueprints. They’re just kind of nice shapes to turn around in our heads. The constraint isn’t meter or rhyme or genre, but the stuff of our real world.”
Ms. Galchen, a bold, curious techno-utopian who holds a degree from Mount Sinai Medical School as well as an M.F.A. from Columbia, closed with a big-picture curtain quote about the possibility of marrying science and literature by being “rigorously playful.” Science as art, in other words—this was her pitch.
She might have said: Don’t be scared of my book!
THAT’S BECAUSE HER book, a winding, psychological quest story involving weather control, quantum theory, and an intricately calibrated, radically counterintuitive conception of space and time, might seem pretty sciencey at first. In fact, it’s a seriously emotional novel, about the devastating notion that love can stop as quickly as it starts.
That is a lonely notion indeed, and the novel is narrated by an appropriately fragile-sounding 51-year-old psychiatrist named Leo Liebenstein. Everything begins when this Leo discovers that his wife, Rema, has disappeared and been replaced by an impostor. The impostor does a pretty convincing impression of Rema, but there are tiny differences in her appearance and behavior that Leo cannot ignore or interpret as anything but evidence of a conspiracy.