The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Curiosity
Stephen P. Kiernan
William Morrow
Publication Date:  July 9, 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-222106-3

When Dr. Kate Philo of the Carthage Institute for Cellular Seeking heads a scientific expedition The Curiosityexploring the Arctic Sea, the hope is to find a berg with enough hard-ice to house significant numbers of frozen specimens for use in the Institute’s experimentations in reanimation.  They are looking for krill, shrimp, and if they are incredibly lucky, perhaps a higher form of life, even a seal.  Expectations are high when they come across a candidate berg five times the size of any previous find.  But what is held in the hard-ice surpasses anything they could ever dream of discovering.

Encased in the pristine ice, flash frozen and solidly preserved is a man.  A modern man, one that was most likely lost of a sea-faring vessel of years past, life snuffed out and body taken by the cold before any atrophy could set in.  The implications are earth-shattering – would it be possible to reawaken a human after 100 years of death?

The moral and ethical dilemmas are also complex and disturbing.  Never before has reanimation been attempted on anything more complex than shrimp.  And for every instance where reanimation has been successful, a strict cycle of Recovery, Plateau, and Frenzy has occurred, with an unrelenting timetable of less than 2% of lifespan restored before inevitable and final death.  Even if “Subject One” is successfully reanimated, would 21 days of restored life be an ethical justification for subjecting him to dying yet again a few weeks later?  Would this procedure at this juncture benefit our species enough to warrant playing god for what constitutes using a human being as a lab rat?  And more perversely, what are the true motivations behind Dr. Erastus Carthage and his Institute?  Philanthropy and scientific advancement, or power mongering and personal glory?

Yet these questions are not the heart and soul of Stephen P. Kiernan‘s marvelous new work, The Curiosity.  What captures our imagination and interest is the man at the center of the drama, and the reactions of the different players who surround him: the various scientists and technicians who push the buttons and evaluate the data, the Institute personnel who perhaps have their eyes on a larger prize than a single act of god, the press reporter who has gotten the scoop of a lifetime and finagles his way into keeping his cash cow productive.  Then there are the protesters, the whack jobs, the fundamentalists, the profiteers, the tabloids, the charlatans, who scramble for purchase on this slippery slope of possibility dubbed “The Lazarus Project”.

And then there is Dr. Kate Philo, the one person who sees beyond “Subject One” to the man who would emerge from death into a world so very different from any he had ever known, and whose existence should demand more than the stark, white environment of the laboratory.  She is smart, yes, but her love of science is driven by its beauty, not by its forward potential.  She is driven by wonder as well as knowledge.

My recompense was learning the many facets of beauty, how it occurs in patterns from tiny to giant.  Pull the plug on a bathtub drain, there’s an elegance to how the liquid runs out, a tidy efficiency worked out between gravity and water molecules and the shape of the pipes – but that’s not all.  The spiraling water looks just like a weather satellite’s image of a hurricane, bearing down on the Gulf Coast some rain-drenched September day.  What’s more, they both replicate the spiral of galaxies, the same shape responding to similar forces, identical laws, although one is a draining of soap bubbles and the other a cascade of stars.

It is Kate who sees a man rather than a test subject, and it is she who, once the reanimation commences (for of course, it does) who argues for his quality of life.  And it is she who defies procedure to connect with him, and in turn, is the one to whom he responds, the one who may not give him the spark of life, but who ensure that he truly lives.

The man himself, “Subject One”, becomes Jeremiah Rice, municipal judge from the city of Boston, devoted husband and father, lover of baseball and literature, man of principle and resounding curiosity.  The last thing he remembers is being swept overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906 while performing as auditor of the science aboard a research vessel attempting to “replicate in northern waters, if possible, Charles Darwin’s findings from a southern clime”.  Upon learning his new fate, he is taciturn yet grateful, and marvels poetically about the changes in the world while still deeply mourning the loss of all those of whom he held dear.  We expect a wide eyed, disbelieving rube; what we get is an intelligent, self-aware, gracious humanist.

I stood beside the frozen man, seeing the city with new eyes.  It was complex, it was beautiful.  I felt a compassion for its people almost like pity.  He lowered his hands, any pain from the salt air now anesthetized by the luminous spectacle at his feet.

“Well, your honor,” I said to him.  “What do you think?”

Judge Rice shook his head.  “Humanity,” he said, “you’ve been busy.”

Written in alternating points of view between scientist Kate, mogul Erastus Carthage, hack journalist Daniel Dixon and Judge Rice himself, author Kiernan is able to give us many disparate perspectives on actions and motivations, but also to key us in on how manipulations play out among all the various players, and allow us insight on the heart of the man (or woman) involved.  Occasionally the take is a bit naive or rings somewhat simplistic, but generally we are kept guessing and the story remains fresh throughout its various twists and turns.  It’s not a new convention, but it’s done very well.

Two other things stood out for me:  Kiernan’s attention to detail without sinking into minutia, and how he allowed the story to dictate the action rather than forcing it to veer into more dramatic tracks in order to sensationalize the narrative.

Although there was a lot of science in The Curiosity, it unfolds graciously; simply but not simplistically.  There is no pandering to the reader, but neither is there unnecessary posturing or obfuscation for the sake of appearing to take the dialog to a higher level.  And the scenes surrounding Jeremiah’s trip to Fenway Park are absolutely stunning, in how both the modern game experience and the archaic social outing are evoked, and how Kiernan uses effortless detail to meld both past and present in Jeremiah’s response to his experience (as well as how Dixon is exposed for being even more of a slob than he originally appeared).  And scattered throughout the narrative are lovely little touches which humanize the story; small, crystal moments that give luster to what is unfolding on the page.

The story unfold with plenty of drama, but it develops intrinsically rather than being forced.  Characters perform according to how they have developed rather than in a way that might prove most titillating.  Some of the bit players come across as extraordinarily shrill or stiff in order to drive plot points home, but these transgressions are minor against the backdrop of the larger story at play.  And some lesser characters – such as deadhead researcher Dr. Gerber – are unique and refreshing, giving interesting counterpoint to the main characters even as they play pivotal roles in the outcome of events.

The Curiosity tells a story that, by the author’s own admission in a recent interview, may not be all that far away.  One has to wonder, however, just how ready we are to handle the future that this story relates.  Timely or not, The Curiosity is an engaging read on many levels; might as well read it now while it’s still entertaining fiction, before you end up reading something very much like it in the newspapers.

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