What would physics look like if Einstein had never existed, or biology without Darwin? In one view, nothing much would change—the discoveries they made and theories they devised would have materialized anyway sooner or later. That’s the odd thing about heroes and heroines of science: They are revered, they get institutions and quantities and even chemical elements named after them, and yet they are also regarded as somewhat expendable and replaceable in the onward march of scientific understanding.
But are they? One way to find out is to ask who, in their absence, would have made the same discovery. This kind of “counterfactual history” is derided by some historians, but there’s more to it than a new parlor game for scientists (although it can be that, too). It allows us to scrutinize and maybe challenge some of the myths that we build around scientific heroes. And it helps us think about the way science works: how ideas arise out of the context of their time and the contingencies and quirks of individual scientists.
In the spring of 2014, on the editor forum of one of the internet’s most comprehensive encyclopedias, a project was underway. Mere days before, more than 90 percent of the content on the wiki, representing almost a decade of work by tens of thousands of volunteers, had been rendered obsolete by the corporate parent of their favorite franchise. The question put to the wiki’s stewards was whether to delete these artifacts from the site — in which case they would inevitably find their way onto some other, less-noticed quadrant of the web — or to allow them to remain as a shrine to the stories and characters that had nourished a fanbase for decades but had now seen their last days pass by. The Star Wars Expanded Universe was dead. Time to prepare for what was to come next.
But first, the matter of the archives. After several days of hand-wringing and politicking among the concerned, there was a vote. It was as unanimous as these things can be. The Star Wars universe so many had known for nearly four decades was to be relegated to a separate tab; a second vote later ensured that it would be secondary to the new canon, a new set of true and historical facts within a fictional universe. The stories adding color to the Battle of Endor or tales of how the Millennium Falcon became such a hunk of junk would be quarantined with the likes of fanfiction and unlicensed knockoffs.
It’s easy to forget that cemeteries were made for the living. Where first we may come in sorrow, seeking consolation, we often return again and again for something else.
We discover that places of eternal rest have many moods and designs — the moneyed hush of Oak Hill in Georgetown, the canine frolic of Congressional near Capitol Hill, the fields of infinite sacrifice at Arlington — yet in whichever idiosyncratic refuge we linger awhile, we sense the dead watching and taking our measure as well, keeping us company as much as we keep them.
The action of Anna Stothard’s fourth novel takes place on a single day in a single location, yet within those few hours the lives of Cathy and her current and former lovers unfold in flashbacks to create a vaster landscape. This tightly plotted yet expansive structure, in which tiny events release powerful memories, mirrors Cathy’s attempts to deal with her past.