The struggle for life after death has been a theme in science fiction for ages. From Frankenstein, to cryogenics in all its myriad permutations, to uploaded cyber-consciousness, to even, in a sense, generation star ships and other attempts to find and colonize viable planets to replace our Earth, there’s been a focus on all the various ways individual humans or humanity in general can keep going after the final decline ever since SF became a recognizable genre.
The latest example of this provides an interesting twist: in The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan, the body of a man who has been frozen in the Arctic ice for over a century is reclaimed. Thanks to an experimental technique that’s so far only been used to revive small creatures like krill and shrimp for a limited amount of time, the frozen man is returned to life in our present time. It’s cryogenics meets Rip Van Winkle.
The Curiosity is divided in five sections, according the five stages in a reanimated creature’s second life: reclamation, reanimation, recovery, plateau, frenzy. (The “frenzy” stage refers to a period of heightened activity before the reanimated creature’s inevitable—and final—death.) Each section is divided into chapters that show various angles and perspectives on this amazing breakthrough, from scientists to journalists to, later on, the revived man himself. As such, the novel is as much a character study as a scientific thriller—an old-fashioned SF novel that explores the human impact of science as much as the science itself.
The three initial main characters are each spectacularly different. Kate Philo is the scientist who leads the team that discovers the frozen man and who, later on, builds a close bond with him. Daniel Dixon is the sleazy journalist who’s embedded in the project. Erasthus Carthage is the brilliant but egomaniacal creator of the reanimation technique. The fourth main character, who appears later in the novel, is Jeremiah Rice, the man who froze to death a century ago and now lives again.
Each character brings a different tone and perspective to the story. Kate Philo self-describes as a formerly “randy lady” who is now alone and completely immersed in her work and research. She narrates her chapters from a first person perspective in a contemplative, almost stately voice. Looking back at the events in the novel, she sets up the “doomed romance” arc of the story right from the start:
Because love, honestly, was what motivated me. Love was both curiosity and its fulfillment. Love was the miracle everyone overlooked while fixating on an accident of science. Love, it pains me to say, love was a beautiful man rowing a little boat, alone, away from me, into the infinite.
It was somewhat odd, for me at least, reading about the only real female character in this novel dedicating her life to her scientific work but then, inevitably, falling for the unattainable and fleeting man from the past. Yes, he’s a representation, not to say a direct product, of the science she lives for, but the whole conflict between rationality and emotion is more than a little overdone in The Curiosity. (Kiernan does sneak in a biting look at gender roles in this scientific community when Jeremiah Rice says that, based on the way Kate is treated in the lab, he thought she was a student.)
In the second chapter, the point of view switches to reporter Daniel Dixon. “Plain and simple, the nicest ass I have seen in my life” is the first line in that chapter—referring to Kate Philo, by the way. It’s a perfect introduction for this unlikable jerk of a character, an unapologetic male chauvinist pig who spends his time ogling women. He’s also the journalist hand-picked to report on the project, for reasons that are at first unclear even to him but eventually boil down to “exclusive access in exchange for positive reporting.” He’s highly cynical and thinks Carthage is just angling for a Nobel Prize, increased funding, or both.
The next chapter introduces Erastus Carthage, the brilliant but power-hungry egomaniac who uses manipulation and fear to further his own projects and causes. He is, like Daniel Dixon, almost impossibly unlikable. This chapter also inserts a short info-dump in the form of a science lecture, allowing Stephen P. Kiernan to explain the idea behind “nature’s cryogenics”: creatures flash-frozen in super-dense “hard ice” don’t suffer the cellular and organic damage caused by regular freezing, making them the only viable candidates for reanimation.
This is all fine and good while Carthage and his minions work on shrimp and krill, but when a revivable human corpse is discovered and successfully revived at the start of the story, the project changes completely in the eyes of the public. Almost overnight, religious fundamentalists start staging elaborate protests, politicians become interested in the project, and Daniel Dixon’s reporting enters the mainstream. Life changes completely for everyone involved.
At that point, a fourth point of view character is introduced: Jeremiah Rice, a judge who lived and died over a century ago, only to find himself revived in the unfamiliar surroundings of a high-tech 21st Century lab. Rice adds a welcome human touch to the novel as Kiernan explores the experiences and thoughts of Jeremiah Rice in several convincing chapters, which are easily the best parts of the novel.
The Jeremiah Rice chapters read like a reverse historical novel: a man from the past exploring the vastly changed present. He marvels at the technology, the clothing, the changed mores. He misses his family. He struggles to feel like a human being in the confinement and constant scrutiny of the lab environment. Some of the other characters treat him impersonally, as a research subject and a potential source of fame and wealth, while others form a more personal bond with him—and outside, unbeknownst to him, the protesters consider him an abomination.
He sees it all through his 19th Century eyes and, in the process, saves this novel and lifts it up to a higher level. He places everything around him in a different light. As Rice tries to remember his life, he both highlights the futility of hanging on to the past and the importance of the work Carthage is doing. His bond with Kate Philo is like Sleeping Beauty in reverse. From the first chapters and the limited lifespan of previously reanimated creatures, we know that their relationship is doomed, which adds a touching, bittersweet sense of fleetingness to the story.
The title is one of the most effective images in the novel. It can refer to scientific curiosity, the drive to make the next big discovery—even at the cost of treating a fellow human being like a lab rat. It also refers to Rice’s simple sense of wonder at seeing the many little miracles of modern life, not to mention to Rice himself, who is a curiosity from the past. And as the quote earlier in this review suggests, love (which is, after all, maybe the driving force of the two actually likeable characters in this novel) is “both curiosity and its fulfillment.”
In the end, The Curiosity is an interesting, occasionally moving, but not entirely successful novel. Part of the problem is that half of the viewpoint characters are spectacularly unlikeable, and that one of those (Erastus Carthage) is written in the dreaded second person. Another part of it is that the novel just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: is it a Michael Crichton-like science thriller? Is it a romance? Is it a reverse historical novel? The answer is yes to all three, and possibly a few more.
Combined with a not very satisfying ending—the resolution is announced in the opening chapters, and after it takes place the characters just sort of walk off stage—The Curiosity isn’t a complete success. I ended up reading through it a second time and gained a new appreciation for it in the process, especially the wistful tone of Kate Philo’s chapters and the arc of Jeremiah Rice’s life. By contrast, the chapter sets focusing on Erastus Carthage and Daniel Dixon have much less impact. Still, while it’s uneven and some parts feel almost grafted on to the story, there’s also genuine emotion and depth to be found in The Curiosity.