Science/Fiction, or, “The Kolbert Report”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay from the 5/25/09 New Yorker (“The Sixth Extinction?”) is a standard/classic popular-scientific magazine article — narrative sections featuring travelogue reporting from exotic locales (Panama, caves) with colorful descriptions (a wildlife biologist is “tall and outgoing, with a barrel chest and ruddy cheeks”) intercut with cogent passages that explain recent scientific developments and things you should probably remember from sixth-grade Earth Science class (but don’t, unless you’re Neil) without making you feel like a total dumbass for needing to be reminded of the difference between the Paleozoic and the Cenozoic eras, or what Darwin said about extinction.

The article is gripping and urgent — is the Earth in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? Are we all going to die? What’s happening to all the frogs???? — without sounding alarmist or exaggerated or shrill. I realize that I’m not, like, “discovering” Elizabeth Kolbert — but my reading of the NYer has been spotty through most of my adult life, and I’ve only recently developed the readerly patience (that phrase makes me hate myself) to give pieces that aren’t short stories about hungover rock critics the attention they deserve [haven’t actually read the Lethem yet; looks like an excerpt from Chronic City]. (By the way, if this all strikes you as INCREDIBLY BORING, that’s because this is my blog and I’m writing this exclusively for my never-to-be-born daughters to read as a cautionary tale of folly and nincompoopery, and you have arrived, uninvited and unannounced, like a ruddy-cheeked, barrel-chested in-law the day before Thanksgiving.)

There’s a set piece (I hate myself for that phrase, too; I don’t even know what a “set piece” is) near the end of the story where a group of researchers from the NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation meet with Kolbert, some biologists, and a “local novelist who was thinking of incorporating a subplot about white nose [a fungus killing off huge numbers of bats] into his next book”:

Everyone put on snowshoes, except for the novelist, who hadn’t brought any, and began tromping up the slope toward the mine entrance.

The snow was icy and the going slow, so it took almost half an hour to reach an outlook over the Champlain Valley. While we were waiting for the novelist to catch up—apparently, he was having trouble hiking through the three-foot-deep drifts—the conversation turned to the potential dangers of entering an abandoned mine.

This struck me as very funny—this poor hapless local novelist didn’t realize he needed to bring snowshoes to the bat-cave. And it also implies, I think, that Kolbert, the narratively deft science writer, is in fact a novelist with snowshoes (or “en raquettes,” as the French critic Mlle. Poopiste has it); Kolbert expertly included that subplot about the white nose fungus into her story, which combines—as, surely, the local novelist hoped to combine in his—all the pleasures of fiction with good, hard science. [retching]

Not that I’d know good, hard science if someone pie-faced me with it. Why the fock am I “reviewing” an article in the New Yorker on the first day in many  that I’m guitlessly  out of work early???? I should be shooting pool with Timmy Parkinsons down at the Fat-Fat Klub or something!!!!!!!!!!

Elizabeth Kolbert and a local novelist get shredly on their first vacation together.