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The Science of Herself
     

The Science of Herself

by Karen Joy Fowler
 

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Widely respected in the so-called “mainstream” for her New York Times bestselling novels, Karen Joy Fowler is also a formidable, often controversial, and always exuberant presence in Science Fiction. Here she debuts a provocative new story written especially for this series. Set in the days of Darwin, “The Science of Herself” is a

Overview

Widely respected in the so-called “mainstream” for her New York Times bestselling novels, Karen Joy Fowler is also a formidable, often controversial, and always exuberant presence in Science Fiction. Here she debuts a provocative new story written especially for this series. Set in the days of Darwin, “The Science of Herself” is a marvelous hybrid of SF and historical fiction: the almost-true story of England’s first female paleontologist who took on the Victorian old-boy establishment armed with only her own fierce intelligence—and an arsenal of dino bones.

Plus...
The Pelican Bar,” a homely tale of family ties that makes Guantánamo look like summer camp; “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man,” a droll tale of sports, shoplifting and teen sex; and “The Motherhood Statement,” a quietly angry upending of easy assumptions that shows off Fowler’s deep radicalism and impatience with conservative homilies and liberal pieties alike.

And Featuring: our Outspoken Interview in which Fowler prophesies California’s fate, reveals the role of bad movies in good marriages, and intimates that girls just want to have fun (which means make trouble).

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/16/2013
Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) is best known for her novels, but these selections showcase her range and agility with briefer forms. Set in Lyme Regis, England, in 1814, “The Science of Herself” draws on the true story of Mary Anning and mixes it with the work and life of Jane Austen. An essay, “The Motherhood Statement,” calls for change in science fiction terminology and assumptions, and Fowler’s persuasive ideas on the amorphousness of motherhood are illuminated further in “The Pelican Bar,” set in a remarkably vivid, terrifying, and Atwood-esque boarding school run by the decidedly nonmaternal Mama Strong. In “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man,” narrator Nathan deals with bullies; his single mother hardly notices. An informal interview conducted by Outspoken Authors series editor Terry Bisson serves as an entryway into Fowler’s mind, revealing her politics, sensibility, sense of humor, interests and influences, and approaches to writing and teaching. This is a must-own for diehard Fowler fans, and an ideal pocket-sized primer for the uninitiated. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Agency. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“No contemporary writer creates characters more appealing, or examines them with greater acuity and forgiveness, than she does.”  —Michael Chabon, author, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on Karen Joy Fowler

“Fowler’s witty writing is a joy to read.”  —USA Today

“An astonishing narrative voice, at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic . . . Fowler can tell stories that engage and enchant.”  —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fowler manages to re-create both life’s extraordinary and its ordinary magic.” —New York Times Book Review

"This is a must-own for diehard Fowler fans, and an ideal pocket-sized primer for the uninitiated." —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781604868258
Publisher:
PM Press
Publication date:
10/01/2013
Series:
Outspoken Authors Series
Pages:
128
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.40(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

The Science of Herself


By Karen Joy Fowler

PM Press

Copyright © 2013 Karen Joy Fowler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-899-9



CHAPTER 1

THE SCIENCE OF HERSELF

None but a woman can teach the science of herself.

— Jane Austen


In 1814, Anne Elliot came to Lyme Regis and watched Louisa Musgrove fall from the steps of the breakwater onto the rocks below. It was late November, so even though the weather was good, the beach was empty of bathers and bathing machines. To their left, they could see the steep road spilling through the village, landing on the expanse of level beach. It was, Austen tells us, a vista both lovely and wonderful. The water was a dark Byronic blue. Seagulls wheeled in the air above them, shrieking. The air smelled of salt.

There might have been a scavenger or two, combing the tide-line for flotsam. Perhaps a fisherman had hauled his boat out, flipped it belly-up for repairs, and was hammering in the distance. Anne Elliot noticed none of these. Nor did she see a young girl, well known to the locals, selling snakestones, vertiberries, and devil's toenails from a stand. This girl might have identified the Elliot party as tourists, might have even been approaching them with a basket of curious rocks just in time to see Louisa fall.

Or not. Strangely dressed, lower class, odd in affect, and desperately poor, she was not really the kind of girl who wanders into an Austen novel.


* * *

In 1803, Austen herself had come to Lyme Regis and met this same girl's father. His name was Richard Anning. He was a cabinetmaker. Austen needed some repair work done on the lid to a box; he was recommended to her. We know these things because she found the price he asked so offensively high that she noted it in her diary.

Not noted: Richard Anning was a dissenter from the Church of England, a Congregationalist, and an outlier even there, an activist who'd organized a protest over the food shortages occasioned by the Napoleonic Wars and worked with the dominant church on issues of Poor Law.

Also not noted: his second career. Richard Anning was a fossil hunter. There is no mention of fossils in Austen's descriptions of the charms of Lyme Regis, yet it was said that smugglers could identify the beach in the dark simply by raking with their fingers through the sand. Two hundred million years ago, Lyme Regis lay at the bottom of a tropical sea, but no one knew this yet or would have believed it if they had.

Austen came again the following year. She and her sister Cassandra were uncommonly hardy, continuing their ocean bathing long into October. In 1804, they witnessed together the great fire that destroyed some fifty houses in Lyme.

Five years after Austen's second visit and five years before Anne's, Richard Anning died. He left behind a wife, two living children — a son, Joseph, thirteen at the time, and a daughter, Mary, ten — and eight dead and in the graveyard. Also a debt of £120. Within a year, the family was on parish relief.


* * *

Lyme's most notable manmade feature is the Cobb, the large wall of stone that curves around the harbor and has done so since at least 1328. The day they arrived, the Elliot party walked on top of the Cobb until they tired of the wind, and then descended to its shelter by a particularly steep set of stairs known as Granny's Teeth. They talked of poetry and ships, war and a young curate's prospects.

They stayed in Lyme only one night. Many of the inns and boarding houses, the indoor baths and the Assembly Rooms were closed. In the summer, they might have gone into the sea, a bell ringing to warn men to stay away as the ladies bathed. In November, Lyme had dwindled to its actual residents. Winter was the wrong season for tourists.

Winter was the season for fossil hunting. Ninety-five miles of crumbling cliffs stretch like wings on either side of Lyme Regis. These cliffs contain shale, lime, and sandstone in an unstable proportion particular to Lyme and called the Blue Lias. In the winter, storms strip and shift the terrain, exposing new bits of cliff face, tumbling old bits back into the sea. A fossil can appear after one storm, scrubbed free by the wind and rain, only to disappear again after the next. Diligence and persistence are required, but also courage. There can be no waiting for the weather to clear, no waiting for the tides to recede. The fossil hunter must wade and climb. Landslips are common, the waves treacherous.

The chief peril is the hanging cliffs. At any moment they may give, crushing anyone underneath. Later in her life, Mary Anning's beloved dog Tray was killed in just this way only a few feet from where she stood. Richard Anning was often criticized for taking his children into this dangerous terrain; he did so even on the Lord's Day. He himself had at least one serious fall and the resulting injuries usually share the blame with tuberculosis for his early death.

That young Joseph and Mary continued this work without him — that their mother, who had already lost so many of her children, allowed it — shows how desperate their finances were. Mary made her first sale in the period just after her father died. A Londoner gave her half a crown for a very fine ammonite, enough to feed them for a week. She was eleven years old.

Sometime later that same year, her older brother Joseph found a massive ichthyosaurus skull in a fallen rock. The skull measured almost four feet from snout to neck. He called Mary to come and see and they knelt together in the whipping wind and rain. The sockets of its eyes were twelve inches across.

The children were used to not knowing what it was that they had found. Ammonites were called snakestones because people thought they might be petrified snakes. Belemnites were caused by lightning and known therefore as thunderbolts. The world was vast and mysterious and no one knew how it was about to tip over.

But Mary had never seen a fossil so big as this one. What did she think as she looked into the eye sockets of that enormous skull? Did she suddenly wonder if the bay was still hiding other such beasts, beasts alive and hunting? That when she waded in the tidewaters, searching for her stones, those enormous, predatory eyes were watching her legs? Or did she already know more than enough about monsters — her life so hard, her heart so full of grief? She had been very close to her father.

Did she see only the money such an object would bring?

We do know what Joseph thought. He thought that fossil hunting was not for him and from then on he mostly left it to his little sister. He apprenticed as an upholsterer, trading any present income for future earnings. By the time those occurred, he would be married with a child of his own.

A mudslide buried the skull before it could be moved, the creature having raised its enormous head only briefly and then returned to the deep. Tides and storms prevented further searching for almost a year, and it was Mary, aged twelve now, who finally found it again, and also the rest of the skeleton in the cliffs high above.

The event was reported in a local newspaper:

A few days ago, immediately after the late high tide, was discovered, under the cliffs between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, the complete petrifaction of a crocodile, 17 feet in length, in a very perfect state.


This was the first ichthyosaurus ever to be found so complete. The Annings sold it to Henry Hoste Henley, the lord of the manor of Colway. Henley was also their landlord; no competitive bids were entertained. They got £23 for the specimen minus the wages of the workmen who dug it out.

Henley sold it in turn to a collector named William Bullock, and Bullock exhibited it in his Museum of Natural Curiosities in Piccadilly. In 1814, Everard Home, a surgeon and recent Baronet, wrote the first of six papers, all riddled with errors, arguing that the creature's anatomy suggested a closer relationship to fish than to crocodiles. It had a fish's delicate spine, four fin-shaped limbs, and a fish's tail. But the plates in its eyes were more like a bird's. In short, no one had ever seen a creature like it. It remained a mystery that opened into more mysteries, an infinite, unsettling puzzle box. What world did we live in? Whose world did we live in?

In 1819, it was sold again, in auction to Charles Konig of the British Museum, as a "crocodile in a fossil state." Konig was the first to suggest the name ichthyosaurus or fish lizard.

More papers were written and delivered and debated. Over in France, Georges Cuvier was gaining support for his extinction theory. His research, he said, seemed to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some catastrophe. But many scientists still hoped for an explanation in keeping with biblical dogma. The catastrophe could well have been the biblical flood, except that the animals had all been saved, two by two by two. God would never be so profligate, so wasteful as to make a creature only to lose its kind entirely. The theory of extinction suggested mistakes, or at the very least divine inattention. The church responded to each new theory with increasing alarm.

In any case, these perplexing matters were now comfortably in the hands of rich, and often titled, men. The price of Mary's specimen had risen to £45, and her role in recovering and cleaning it had already been forgotten by everyone outside Lyme Regis.


* * *

She was the second Anning girl to be named Mary. The first had died at the age of four, when, her mother having left the room for only a minute, she'd tried to add wood chips to the fire and her clothes had caught. It was Christmastime.

Five months later, her mother gave birth to the second Mary and this Mary also had a perilous childhood. The Annings lived so close to the water that the house often flooded. On one occasion the family had to climb out through an upstairs window to avoid being drowned in their own kitchen.

On another, a family friend, a woman named Elizabeth Haskings, took the baby Mary to nearby Rack Field for a show of horsemanship. The riders wheeled and danced their horses. They wore red vests and red ribbons were threaded through the horses' manes. Half the town had turned out to see them.

Mary lay against Elizabeth, her breath on Elizabeth's neck, one hand clutching her collar. Mary was small for her age, limp in Elizabeth's arms, and damp with her own heat. A wind came up and Elizabeth moved to the shelter of a nearby elm. The hooves of the horses pounded on the dirt like thunder. The sky opened white and struck, lightning without rain. Elizabeth Haskings was killed instantly along with two fifteen-year-old girls, friends from the village. John Haskings, Elizabeth's widower, wrote later, "The Child was taken from my wifes arms and carried to its parents in appearance dead but they was advised to put it in warm water and by so doing it soon recovered."

The crowd at Rack Field had followed to the Annings' house and waited outside. When the physician came to tell them that the baby had survived, a miracle, he said, the cheering could be heard even over the sound of the surf, all the way down to the Cobb.

Decades later, her nephew wrote that Mary had been born a sickly, listless child, but the lightning bolt turned her bright and lively. Perhaps there was simply no other way to explain a woman of her class and time, intelligent but little educated, no money, and an outcast Dissenter, who taught herself French so as to read Cuvier, followed the shifting theories of pre-Darwinian science with acuity, and had her own ideas about the objects she had found, touched, pried from the rocks, cleaned and polished for presentation. Like the fossils, she defied explanation.


* * *

Mary had begun fossil hunting at the age of five. She'd followed her father so tenaciously among the cliffs that he'd made a pick and hammer especially for her, something to fit her little hands. Back in his workroom, he taught her to chip away the rock, and then to clean and polish the fossil that emerged. Sometimes the work was so delicate it had to be done with a sewing needle. Her father teased her that she was, like any other girl, learning her needlework.

After his death, she roamed the beaches in her odd get-up — filthy clogs, multiple tattered skirts, one on top of the next for warmth, and then a patched cloak flung over the whole. She wore a man's top hat, stuffed with paper and shellacked for protection from falling rocks. Quite thin, but seen from a distance, kitted out for fossil hunting, she resembled a small round hut with a hat for a chimney.

She was not always alone on the beach. In 1812, someone new came to Lyme, a boy with prospects, sixteen years old to Mary's thirteen, and, like Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park, heir to a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Austen would have seen the possibilities. The only sure way out of poverty for Mary was to marry up.

She might have been more marriageable if she hadn't made a habit of picking up creatures that washed ashore and dissecting them on the Anning kitchen table. She was not a pretty girl and she had no pretty ways.

The boy's name was Henry De la Beche. Recently booted from military school for insubordination, he'd come to join his mother and her third husband at their home on Broad Street. There is no record of how he and Mary met, but we can imagine it as Austen might have written it — the older boy, in disgrace, but with the confidence of wealth, education, and good looks. Then Mary, who should have been quiet and deferential in his company, but was not.

At thirteen, she was already the expert on the Blue Lias. People talked later of how sharp her eye was, how she would set her chisel into the cliff at some spot no different from any other spot and, after a few blows, reveal the small skeleton of an ancient fish. If it was fossils Henry wanted, he did best to listen to her, keep in her good graces.

He did want fossils. He was as keen on fossils as a boy could be, given that he didn't need to find them in order to eat. Soon after meeting Mary, he had decided on a career in geology. They were often seen scouring the cliffs after a storm, their heads bent together over some find, their hands touching accidentally as they worked a specimen free. Mary's fingers would be rough and scraped, her nose red from the wind and salt. Mr. Elliot, Anne's father, would have been the first to note that she was seldom out in such weather as would improve her looks.

Sometimes an older woman, Miss Elizabeth Philpot, a noted collector who also lived in Lyme, joined them. But often it was just the two of them, alone in the wind and the water, scrambling about the cliffs.

He did not marry her. At twenty-one, he came into his fortune and used it to travel to sites of geological interest, to meet prominent scholars in the field. He was able, as she was not, to join the prestigious Geological Society of London. He was writing papers by then; one entitled "Memoir on the Genus Ichthyosaurus" consisted mostly of descriptions of Mary's finds.

Mary had continued to uncover skeletons. These, varying greatly in size and with subtle differences, particularly in regard to their teeth, suggested four distinct subspecies of ichthyosaurus. She learned of his marriage to the beautiful Letitia Whyte only after it had occurred. They continued as good friends, the carpenter's daughter and the plantation owner's son, although he was much less often in Lyme now.

By then she had other partners. Her terrier, Tray. Elizabeth Philpot on many occasions. And, when she was only sixteen, an Oxford professor named William Buckland. He had written to her first, asking for the privilege of accompanying her on her hunts. Buckland was a noted eccentric, a jokester, whose rooms at Oxford were filled with birds and mice, guinea pigs, snakes, and frogs. As a young man, he'd vowed to eat his way through the animal kingdom and was infamous for serving mice on toast to unsuspecting guests. The bluebottle fly, he said, was the worst-tasting animal he'd found.

Other geologists — the Anglican clergyman, William Conybeare, and Jean-André De Luc — came often to Lyme Regis during these same years and these men sought Mary out, young and poor as she was. She listened to them and they to her. She grew accustomed to the company of her betters. The residents of Lyme noticed.

These guests sometimes brought her papers from the various scientific societies. Mary copied these out, including the drawings, which she did very deftly. She read well and had a good hand. She deeply regretted not being able to go to the museums in London to see what could be seen.

She noticed that the men who'd bought the fossils from her were being credited with finding them. In addition to thinking well of herself, she began to feel hard done by. For all the flattering attention, her family's finances had not improved.

At thirteen, a neighbor had given her a book on geology, the first book she'd ever owned, and over the subsequent years, she had read it to tatters, carried on with her dissections, and learned to make her careful drawings, her beautiful, detailed descriptions of the fossils she found. She was becoming impressively learned. She was every inch a scientist.


* * *

She was a complete romantic. Fond of poetry, her fourth commonplace book (the first through third are lost) began with Lord Byron's "January 22nd, Missolonghi" copied onto the page.

'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it has ceased to move;
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Science of Herself by Karen Joy Fowler. Copyright © 2013 Karen Joy Fowler. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Joy Fowler is a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author who has written three story collections and six novels, including the New York Times bestseller, The Jane Austen Book Club. She is a two-time winner of the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and the cofounder of the Tiptree Award, given for works dealing with the politics of sex and gender. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Davis, California
Date of Birth:
February 7, 1950
Place of Birth:
Bloomington, Indiana
Education:
B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

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