Science fiction is more than spaceships, lasers and aliens. Occasionally, a novel reminds us that ordinary academic science can be quite dramatic. Watermelon Snow, the debut novel by William A. Liggett, a trained social psychologist, points out that science is a human endeavor, blessed by humanity’s greatest strengths, such as intelligence and perseverance, and cursed by its faults, namely selfishness and ego.
In the novel, climate scientist Kate Landry makes a major paleontology discovery while researching a glacier in the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. As she prepares for her next research trip to the glacier, she’s forced to welcome a NASA scientist, Grant Poole, who studies how teams function in remote locations. Determined to keep her find a secret to ensure credit for the discovery, Landry’s plans fall apart after one and then all of her graduate students succumb to a mysterious illness on the mountain.
Author William A. Liggett writes compelling scenes of the landscape, which is familiar to him from trips to the Olympic Mountains.
Liggett writes compelling scenes of the landscape, which is familiar to him from trips to the region. A harrowing sequence showing the escape of Landry and Grant from the glacier during and after a storm is the best of the book. Liggett knows the ground, not only the physical place, but the landscape of science, ranging from the excitement of discovery to the petty jealousies that get in the way of collaboration, as well as the all-consuming necessity for recognition that drives science careers.
Despite its strengths, the book feels underdone. To like a protagonist, to want to walk with her on her journey, the reader needs to sympathize with her need to overcome the emotional barriers she faces. To do this, we need to know her heart’s desire. It goes beyond career goals or family experience. What does she really want at the core of her being?
In Landry’s case, she seems to care only about keeping a secret until it suits her purpose to reveal it, even at the cost of the health and well-being of the people around her. She’s not someone I can get behind as a reader, and when she finally reaches her goal, I have a hard time caring.
Another editorial pass with emphasis on fleshing out Landry’s inner core might have made this a standout novel. Her character arc could’ve have been modeled on Poole’s, which apparently resembles the author’s own. Poole begins as a lonely man with little purpose in life, only to find direction after his experience on the mountain. Landry, however, seems to learn very little, despite the deaths of people for whom she’s responsible. In the world of Watermelon Snow, Poole is the stronger character.
The best novels are almost never about the subject discussed in the blurb on the back cover, whether it’s love, war, or science. Compelling narratives are about the desires that make people do the things they do. Watermelon Snow could’ve reached this height.
The publisher supplied a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.