Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Chemistry for Beginners by Anthony Strong

What is science fiction? Chemistry for Beginners is not a novel most of us would fit under that umbrella, even though it's all about working scientists doing cutting-edge research on the frontiers of biological science in what may be the very near future. But that research is into female sexual response -- Female Sexual Dysfunction, to be even more clinical about it -- and Chemistry for Beginners turns out to be a romantic comedy in the end. (Though it's more Shakespearean in both its romance and comedy than the usual slapsticky modern style.)

So not even the fact that it's written in the form of a scientific paper -- with footnotes and references at the end and everything -- can save it from the taint of un-seriousness and girlyness. SF is about Big Men doing Big Things: shiny phallic rockets thrusting into the void and penetrating alien worlds, giant machines probing deeply into the inner recesses of the universe, wars and fighting and death. Getting an anorgasmic woman to achieve bliss is much too yonic for the True World of Skiffy.

Strong's hero is Dr. Steven J. Fisher, a brilliant young biochemist at Oxford working on a chemical treatment for FSD as head of a team comprising the usual hot-to-trot female sexologist and bevvy of young and eager post-docs. (Eager for each other in particular, as the reader learns bit by bit as Chemistry for Beginners goes on.) Strong has a weakness for the cliche in his characters; Fisher is implausibly innocent for a researcher into sex, and fits far too closely the typical media stereotype of the science nerd. He is our first person narrator, so we get inside his head, the better to learn how carefully organized, disciplined and regimented it really is. We're told that Steven is brilliant, but he never exhibits the quirky, random interests that the truly brilliant acquire; he's focused entirely on his work to an unlikely degree.

The other half of the sexual equation is provided by Ms. G. (Annie Gluck), a late addition to the study. She's goaded into it by her thesis advisor/boyfriend -- she's reading for a doctorate in English -- who gotten annoyed by her lack of response. She's attracted to Steven almost immediately, but denies it for a very long time; we read her locked blog entries interspersed throughout Chemistry for Beginners, so we can see that she's lying to herself as well. Strong isn't quite as clear about the results of the study -- since Annie is lying about it, and Steven is, of course, clueless -- but it seems as if she's quickly become orgasmic because of the sound of Steven's voice during the treatments, but lies about it for personal emotional reasons that never become entirely clear.

Steven and his team are preparing a major paper on his treatment, KXC79, which will be a showpiece of a major conference presented by Trock Pharmaceuticals, the sponsor of his research. Steven is working hard, in the way that only monomaniacal fictional scientists can, to iron out the last few discrepancies -- which are nearly all relating to Annie's continued lying to him and the other researchers about the orgasms that their test equipment keeps recording her as having.

Chemistry doesn't turn into anything like a conventional romance until very near the end, since Annie is trying to deny her feelings for Steven and he's written to be as obtuse as a 179-degree angle. Strong does maneuver them into a position where it makes sense for them to have sex for the good of the experiment, but never plays up the comedy as much as he could.

And, in the end, Chemistry does rely heavily on the expected morals and endings -- there are betrayals, but True Love cannot be defeated, and that nasty reductionist science-y stuff is swept away by feeling. It's a pleasant novel that doesn't aim all that high: it wants to be an amusing novel with some romantic and comedic elements without ever committing to being either a comedy or a romance. Strong is witty, and makes up in novelty and cultural references what he leaves out in gripping plotting. (There is a flurry of plot near the end, to set up the required confrontations and reverses, but most of the book is an amble through a few months of these people's lives.) Chemistry finally is neither a SF novel nor a romance, and is closest to a chick-lit book, with its clueless protagonist documenting everything happening to him. If he'd been actually as smart as he's supposed to be, Chemistry for Beginners could have really been something. But, as it is, its a decent diversion, with characters that came too directly from Central Casting to be entirely believable.

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