As mentioned elsewhere yesterday, I'm reading Allegra Goodman's Intuition on the advice of a friend in the hard sciences who claims it the most accurate (sociologically speaking) account of interlab dynamics. "Goodman captures," she said, "what happens when scientists stop being polite and start being real." (She reddened before the last word left her mouth.) I'm not sure she meant the entire novel—near the end, a lapsed Jew saves his lab's reputation in a House subcommittee by invoking Godwin's Law—but the routine indignance and perfunctory jealousy outlined in the first half of the novel ring true enough.
What makes this novel unique, possibly even brilliant, is the sly turn Goodman pulls more than halfway through it. To this humanist, the descriptions of research sound bleeding edge. Isolating strains of a virus and militating them against cancer cells? Sounds plenty contemporary to me. Then I stumble across this passage on page 165:
Larry and Wendy militated to keep software in the public domain and away from greedy profiteers like Lotus and Wordperfect, and their upstart rival, Microsoft. While other people wore FREE MANDELA T-shirts, Larry and Wendy donned shirts emblazoned FREE SOFTWARE.
Microsoft an upstart? Mandela still imprisoned? This novel takes place in the '80s. Skimming through the first 164 pages, I find one passage about a backwards character eager to discuss Reagan's Star Wars initiative; but because this character prides himself on possessing the mindset of an earlier era, I took that reference as one more indication of his obsolescence.
Sprung as it is, the Microsoft reference must be intentional. There's no other reason to, pause the sentence, and highlight, that Microsoft is, an upstart rival. Goodman wanted the reader to be shocked out of his or her moment, to feel their woeful ignorance of all this scientific.
The ploy is well-played. Only now I feel like a ham.