Thomas Pynchon is an author that scientists should love. No other first-rate novelist has engaged more deeply with the actual content of our civilization's scientific discoveries, especially math and physics. His latest book, Against The Day, is no exception, and in fact incorporates even more scientific content than the rocketry-obsessed Gravity's Rainbow. This is because Against the Day spans the scientifically rich years around the start of the 20th century. Although a lot of my colleagues seem to have never heard of the guy, at least one physicist shares my taste for contemporary fiction and love for Pynchon's books.
What's great about the science in Pynchon's novels is that he knows his material well enough to purposely and very effectively blur the lines between what we'd call serious science and crank science. Ambiguity is a hallmark of Pynchon's writing, and the late (and not-so-late) 19th century advances in math and physics are fertile ground for Pynchon to plow: Grassman algebra, Maxwell's equations on electromagnetic theory, Hamilton's quarternions (there is even a crazy quarternion song at a Quarterionist party that begins: "O, the, Quizzical, queer Quarter-nioneer, that creature of i-j-k"!), Riemann surfaces, the Michelson-Morely experiment, etc. Throughout the book, Pynchon features fanatical crank devotees of various scientific ideas right alongside legitimate scientists. For example, various more or less nutty groups show up in Ohio for the Michelson-Morely experiment, which takes place early in the book.
Louis Menand, in a review of Against the Day for the New Yorker put it this way:
"We [today] know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes."
Yet Pynchon is by no means anti-science. His books are about forces that shape and drive people's lives, and how people respond to them - to the personal, societal, and physical forces that leave us uncertain about what's true and what control we have over our own lives. Science and technology have been major forces acting on all of our lives, and Pynchon handles this theme better (and with more complexity and nuance) than any novelist I've come accross, including great science fiction novelists like Asimov and Dick.
This is why I think Laura Miller is seriously wrong, reviewing Against the Day for Salon (under the ridiculously portentous title "The Fall of the House of Pynchon") when she writes that younger writers now have a "grasp of the systems that fascinate Pynchon -- science, capitalism, religion, politics, technology -- [that] is surer, more nuanced, more adult and inevitably yields more insight into how those systems work than Pynchon offers here." While I love the writers Miller mentions (David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephenson), nobody can do what Pynchon does as well as he does it. Maybe you need to have some basic literacy in math and science (and the aid of Wikipedia or Penrose's The Road to Reality) to really appreciate it, and as many professional reviewers of Against the Day admitted, 7th grade math is enough to confuse most people. (Pynchon started out as a physics or engineering major at Cornell before swtiching to English, and he worked as a technical writer for Boeing, so he has some background. But for most of it, I imagine he has to be self-taught, something he obviously has a great capacity for.)
Which leads me on to the subject of the high-profile negative reviews the book has received. (If you're bored by literary dust-ups, here is a good place to stop reading this post!) There were several prominent, early negative reviews that overshadowed the many positive ones. Kakutani, in the NY Times, trashed the book, but it's not surprising - she has a long history of hating this kind of fiction, and I doubt she really spent the necessary time with the 1,100 page novel - her mind was made up before the book was even published. For scientists, it's like having the guy who is philosophically opposed to your work review your manuscript submission - that's the kind of guy you ask editors to exclude from lists of potential reviewers. Incidentally, the NY Times also published a longer, very positive review by someone else. (For a positive review, and a ton of links to other reviews, check out the Literary Saloon.)
The common theme in most of the negative reviews (and a common complaint made by critics of Pynchon in general) is that his characters are flat and devoid of humanity. I find Pynchon's books to be some of the most human books I've read. The best way to make this clear is by a comparison with modern art: Some people think that characters in a novel are inhuman unless they are fully fleshed out, filled with rich and undistorted detail that allows us to know all about them, much like a Delacroix painting (like this or this.) But in great modern art, artists can capture the essential humanity of a character in more sparse, angular strokes, without the flood of realistic detail - like Picasso here and here. If Pynchon's character's are cold and inhuman, than so are Picasso's.
If you're tempted to read Against the Day, don't let the high-profile negative reviews scare you away. Pynchon's books are complex, but in a good way - the way wine is complex compared with Coke, or a good coffee compared with Nesquick. His prose is stunning, and I, for one, can't get enough of it.