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Originally published Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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Andrea Barrett’s “Archangel”: historical fiction about science

The stories in Andrea Barrett’s new collection, “Archangel,” follow both historical and fictional characters as their lives are affected or altered by developments in the history of science.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Archangel”

by Andrea Barrett

W.W. Norton, 238 pp., $24.95

Genetics research, early aviation, controversies over Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, controversies over Albert Einstein’s Relativity Theory, battlefield applications of early X-ray technology...

These aren’t the usual focuses of literary fiction.

But in “Archangel” by National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett (“Ship Fever,” “The Voyage of the Narwhal”), they’re not only addressed but obliquely linked.

“Archangel” consists of five novellas, ranging in time from 1873 to 1939, that might all be described as historical science fiction — that is, historical fiction about science. Each mixes imaginary characters with figures (or scenarios) drawn closely from the historical record.

While the connections between one story and the next aren’t shouted out, they’re there. Curious, troubled 12-year-old Constantine Boyd, a witness to G.H. Curtiss’ early flight successes in upstate New York in 1908, becomes an outraged World War I soldier wondering why he’s stuck fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919 Russia, long after most of his fellow soldiers have gone home.

Another youngster, Sam Cornelius, is glimpsed as a supporting player in a story about his widowed mother, then reappears as a geneticist in a tale that takes the destruction of the Athenia, the first British ship to be sunk by the Nazis during World War II, as its starting point.

Barrett sometimes masks her real-life characters with their nicknames or generic identities. In “The Investigators,” aviator Curtiss is referred to only as “G.H.” In “The Island,” Louis Agassiz, starting his natural-history summer school in 1873, is simply referred to as “the professor.”

Barrett’s aim seems to be to immerse readers in the situations of her invented characters as they would have experienced them — i.e., not knowing all the facts.

“The Island” is the strongest of the five. Its young heroine, aspiring science teacher Henrietta Atkins, attends Agassiz’s summer school, only to realize, in the weeks that follow, that even longtime Agassiz disciples have become more persuaded by Darwin’s theories than the Intelligent Design beliefs held by their professor. Agassiz and his wife clearly see this as a betrayal — and the story becomes a canny study of how personal feelings, inappropriately but all too understandably, can become enmeshed in serious scientific research.

“The Ether of Space,” set in 1920, tackles science and emotions from a different angle. Phoebe Cornelius, a widowed science writer who painfully misses her husband, grows baffled when reputable science lecturer and Relativity Theory detractor Sir Oliver Lodge, in his old age, seems only to care about “the possibility of communicating with the dead.” A comforting thought, perhaps — but unscientific enough to make her indignant.

The tales in “Archangel” are finely crafted, although occasionally Barrett stacks the deck too heavily in favor of her heroes/heroines and against her aggravating antagonists. Her focus on past scientific controversies, where a common wisdom has long been settled (Intelligent Design holdouts not withstanding), can feel overly safe, too. How, one wonders, would she handle present-day hot topics — climate change, for instance — that still rouse volatile feelings? Just a thought.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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