Outside the bizarre landscapes of science fiction, science and fiction do not seem to mix well. The stuff of literature - the sticky oil of emotion and experience - seems naturally to repel the thinner, brighter fluid of scientific ideas. Thomas McMahon is a young scientist who is trying literature. In his latest novel, "McKay's Bees," there are passages about hydraulics and photography, bees and beetles, Darwin and Agassiz. McMahon is a professor of applied mechanics and biology at Harvard, and he puts his technical ideas simply and, sometimes, effectively.
His first novel, a well-received book called "Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry" also had shards of scientific thought neatly mixed into the story - that of an eccentirc and failing young scientist. In that book, McMahon evocatively described how science operates through the fitful medium of personality. The narrator, who remembers his adolescence, spent at Los Alamos with his father, who was helping to elevate equations into monstrous mechanisms, now finds life boring and directionless. The present compares unfavorably with those years when the world was wobbling on its axis, when the liveliest minds were separated from the world and brought together on the desert, when history was frozen for a single white frame, never to resume on the same reel.
McMahon was trying something very difficult in that first novel, and succeeded well enough for us to expect important things from him.
While the subject of the new book isn't as hypnotic as the Los Alamos story, it is still a good historical tale. Gordon McKay and his entourage - a wife, her twin brother and his wife, and a naturalist picked up along the way - all move to "bloody Kansas" in the 1830s, where attempts are being made to settle the issue of slavery by the simple expedient of murdering all its opponents. The McKay band, trying to ignore the local war, has come there for the unlikely purpose of establishing a honey trade, a beekeeping empire.
The book begins: "Gordon McKay based his plan for a new city in the West on bees because of their energy. One never finds them disappointed or confused.... In the morning, from the moment the sun touches the hives and warms them, the bees come forward and jump into the air. They are agricultural animals, like chickens and pigs, but the difference is their energy...."
Again McMahon is able to make science personal and poignant, chiefly through the character of William Sewell, a beetle-chasing naturalist. Unfortunately, he has failed to do as well with his title character, about whom we learn almost nothing interesting. And McKay's wife, who probably occupies more of the book's words than any other character, nonetheless remains colorless.
Unsteady in his use of language, McMahon commits an embarrassing number of cliches: Kisses are rained on a bride's face. Chests swell with confidence. As one character is about to land on the western shore of the Mississippi for the first time. McMahon tells us that "He must go into the forest and take a piece of this beautiful land for himself."
The book is enjoyable but seasonally light; after McMahon's interesting first experiment, it is a little disappointing. I can think of only three writers in all of modern literature who have managed, even clumsily, to fuse good science and good fiction (Thomas Pynchon, C. P. Snow, Sinclair Lewis). This failure to deal with science sensibly has been quite damaging to the vitality of fiction generally, and so it was pleasing to have another candidate starting off so well.
McMahon has yet to make his images work like diagrams or his sentences sing like equations, although we should continue to look forward to his next effort.