Writers love to complain about the necessity of genre. They’d prefer to write above the petty differences among romance, mystery, fantasy, and dozens of other pigeonholes and sub-pigeonholes. Most writers, though, acknowledge the need for publishers and bookstore owners to make book-finding and thus book-selling intuitive for the reader through categorization.
Genre gets mischievous when a literary novel is miscategorized. After reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in the same year for her novel Bel Canto, it was clear that the 2011 novel belonged on the shelf next to Fahrenheit 451 and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. State of Wonder has so many science fiction elements that putting it anywhere else denies it a significant readership.
The irony of the sci-fi-ness in State of Wonder is Patchett’s own attitude toward technology.
The story concerns Marina Singh, a research scientist who learns of the death of a colleague in the Amazon rainforest. He was sent to Brazil by their pharmaceutical firm to urge another scientist, Annick Swenson, to speed up work on a treatment for infertility. Singh’s journey becomes a mashup of Heart of Darkness, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the motion picture Fitzcarraldo.
For a science fiction fan and speculative fiction writer like myself, the tropes in State of Wonder are easy to pick out. The rainforest is another planet, with the city of Manaus a lonely civilized outpost on the planet’s moon. After making contact with the reclusive Swenson, Singh negotiates a trip to the researcher’s lab in the deep, dark wilderness, surrounded and tolerated by the aliens known as the Lakashi.
Swenson is like Dr. Frankenstein
Swenson is the classic eccentric scientist essentially working alone, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein or Forbidden Planet’s Edward Morbius. She experiments on herself while protecting a second revolutionary finding tied to a singular ecosystem mythologists might call a “sacred grove” that she wishes to protect. There’s more sci-fi elements, but I won’t spoil them for you.
The irony of the sci-fi-ness in State of Wonder is Patchett’s own attitude toward technology. In an interview with the Washington Post, she discusses how she finds ways to eliminate silicon-based tech and behavior, such as cellphones and texting, from her narrative. It interferes with story lines.
“I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment,” she says. “…I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.”
C’mon, Ann. Sci-fi writers have been doing this since H.G. Wells.
State of Wonder has other problems, such as long speeches by characters that bear no resemblance to real conversation, and a long windup before the protagonist actually gets going on the core journey. That said, if you put on your sci-fi glasses before settling in for this read, you’ll be rewarded with a worthy yarn.
Have you read State of Wonder? What did you think?