We’re reading THE FALLING SKY by Pippa Goldschmidt

22 May

Alastair Reynolds spots a rising star.


The Falling Sky
Pippa Goldschmidt
Freight Books, PPB £8.99

Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky is that rare thing: a literary novel that gets under the hood of science as a social enterprise, done by real and fallible people. It’s an extremely accomplished debut and the best evocation of the actual life of an astronomer I’ve ever read. It’s a study both of the haphazard process of uncovering scientific knowledge, and the mental disintegration of a human being trying to balance the professional and the personal.

Jeanette is a young researcher in Edinburgh, studying cosmology: the structure and origin of the large-scale universe. Against a backdrop of petty academic power games and rivalry, Jeanette makes a startling observational discovery. She has found a pair of galaxies with different redshifts (and which therefore ought to be located at very different distances) and they appear to be physically connected. If Jeanette’s result is validated, it could mean the end for Big Bang cosmology. But for the moment all Jeanette has to go on is a smudge of ambiguous pixels. They seem to imply a connection, but is it enough to justify publication? If she’s wrong, it could ruin her reputation almost before she’s had a career. Seeking to bolster her analysis, Jeanette makes a professional miscalculation by referencing a second data set which is not hers to use. This lapse embarrasses a colleague and damages a fragile professional relationship. But was it still the right thing to do? Jeanette’s data, after all, could be of vital significance, and it will be a long time before it can be independently verified by other means.

If professional headaches were all Jeanette had to worry about, her life would be complicated enough. But the astronomy is only half the book. Jeanette has a profoundly troubled background. She is haunted by the death of her sister in unexplained circumstances, and the silence which has accreted around this loss has chilled Jeanette’s relationship with her own equally troubled parents. To add to her woes, Jeanette, who has never acknowledged her sexuality to her parents, is in the end stages of a failing relationship with the enigmatic artist Paula. As the professional pressures intensify – a lot hinges on Jeanette’s data, and battle-lines are being drawn – Jeanette slowly begins to lose her grip on reality. She has made life difficult for herself by pursuing a largely solitary research path – would she have been better off surrendering herself to the relative anonymity of a large research consortium? Is there still room for the lone researcher, doggedly pursuing an obsession? Late in the novel, on the threshold of a breakdown, Jeanette delivers a comically silent lecture illustrated only with images of totally empty cosmic voids – forty five minutes of slides of identical black rectangles. Can she pull herself back from the brink?

The Falling Sky is beautifully written, uniting the cosmological and personal with effortless grace. On the anniversary of her sister’s death, Jeanette reflects: “No matter how many times the earth orbits the sun, it always has to go through this same bit of bruised space, exposing them to the same pain.” The Falling Sky is a triumph of scientific fiction and it will be fascinating to see where Pippa Goldschmidt goes next.

Read Alastair Reynolds’s story The Water Thief in Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins, out now for phones, tablets and screens.

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