Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #36: Genius by Seagle & Kristiansen

Theoretical physics isn't an office job: its practitioners don't line up in cubes somewhere, thinking up deep thoughts for a steady paycheck from some random boss. They work by themselves, sometimes with tenure positions but often not -- a tiny cluster at each appropriate college or university, scratching to get some research money, fighting to get their latest paper published in the good journal, teaching huge sections of 101 to freshmen much of the time, often doing something else to scratch out a living -- many of them, he said over his glasses, even teach high school physics, as odd as that may seem. Some of them have tenure, and will stay where they are until retirement. The rest are adjuncts, and move every semester, or every other year, as necessary -- there's a migration in their lives, and seasons when migrations happen.

That's how it is for physicists in our world. Genius, the 2013 graphic novel by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, posits an alternate world where middle-aged Ted Halker inhabits a cube farm, among what look like dozens of other physicists, all thinking deep thoughts for Needham at the Pasadena Technical Institute. They seem to be all theory guys; all the talk is about "ideas." No experimental physicists, no cosmologists. They don't even seem to specialize: Ted doesn't have a line of inquiry that he's been working on for his career, and that's not strange: they all just sit around, waiting for inspiration to hit.

(Would it be cruel to say Genius reads as if Seagle was offended by the treatment of physicists on Big Bang Theory and proceeded to make entirely different stupid mistakes?)

Anyway, Genius is a book about Ideas. Capitalized, serious Ideas. The kind that every creative person is bored to talk about, the kind that ignorant people are always fascinated to ask about. The kind that come from Schenectady in a monthly package. If this was a story about a writer, Ted would be blocked and just need One Idea to get back to work. But physics works like that even less than creative writing does; if Ted doesn't have a specialty and a line of expertise twenty years into a theoretical physics career, he's utterly wasted all of his fucking time.

Seagle doesn't seem to realize that. Instead, he sets up a stupid implied ethical conundrum: Ted's loathsome father-in-law Francis guarded Einstein (the only physicist a layman could be expected to recognize) for a few months what must have been eighty years before, and learned A Secret. Yes, Einstein had A Great Idea that he never told anyone, except for his assholish army bodyguard, because science doesn't actually work like that Seagle desperately needs it for his story.

So: will Ted break Francis's code of secrecy, learn the Great Idea, and use it to save his job? Even though That Would Be Wrong? (Wrong in a way that Seagle can't actually define, and which goes against all of the norms of science -- which is a collective, social endeavor, not some hermetic self-centered bullshit -- but never mind that; his greasy thumb is pressing down the scale oh-so-obviously.) Or will he respect the great man's secrecy, and do his own goddamn work?

Genius is good when it focuses on Ted's home life: even the repulsive Francis is a vibrant, living character, and Ted's family -- worried wife Hope, oversexed teenage son Aron, budding genius grammar-school daughter Cece -- is even better. Seagle understands human beings and how they relate to each other, depend on each other, talk to each other. He doesn't, unfortunately, seem to understand the least damn thing about physics.

And, as usual, Kristiansen contributes suitably moody, soft-focus art, making the whole thing look serious and important and literary in the best way. But I really can only recommend Genius to people who have no idea how science actually works, and even there, I don't want to cement people in their ignorance. This book is the triumph of a silly, reductive notion -- one that I'm surprised any creative person with a long career would entertain for a minute.

(The only previous Seagle-Kristiansen collaboration -- they've done a bunch -- that I seem to have written about is their not-Superman story It's a Bird from a decade ago, which had flaws of pretension.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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