The Coral Thief, By Rebecca Stott

Peter Forbes
Friday 08 January 2010 01:00

Science has been invading literature. In fiction, Daniel Kehlmann's rendition of Humboldt's South American expedition, magical-realist style, in Measuring the World caused a stir; in biography, Richard Holmes admitted Humphry Davy to the Romantic pantheon in The Age of Wonder, and in poetry, Ruth Padel has given us Darwin's life in verse.

Fiction, especially, is raiding science for its rich trove of stories. Reimaginings of these narratives can be the raison d'être of a novel or the backdrop of a quite different story. Giles Foden's and Tracey Chevalier's recent novels both found brilliant données in science and in March we are promised Ian McEwan's global warming novel, Solar.

Rebecca Stott is uniquely poised between the worlds of science and fiction. Affiliated to the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge and a professor of creative writing at UEA, she has published both science non-fiction (Darwin and the Barnacle) and fiction (Ghostwalk), before the novel in question.

The Coral Thief is a fast-paced thriller set in the turmoil of France in 1815, with the memory of the Terror still strong and many people masquerading under aliases, "scavenging, picking over the remains of Napoleon's treasures". Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was a scientific landmark but, in the wars, a great deal of this "loot" changed hands in dubious circumstances.

Ideas of natural evolution, known as transformism, were more prevalent in France than England at the time, with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck the chief advocate. For many in those post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic times, the fixity of species, as upheld by Baron Cuvier, was a bulwark, alongside dogmatic Christianity and the sanctity of the social order. To question it was to be damned as a seditious revolutionary and atheist in the way that, in America now, a belief in anthropogenic global warming attracts the smear "communist" from the ultra-right.

The protagonist, Daniel, a young zoologist from Derbyshire, educated in Edinburgh and seeking enlightenment, is at first shocked by the impiety of those savants who dare question the account of creation in the Book of Genesis. But as he is swept up in a dangerous love affair, these wild notions - of one creature becoming another, of fossilised sea creatures thrown high up inside mountains by aeons of geological time – begin to work on him.

Stott identifies with the "infidels" struggling to survive in Paris as reactionary forces in Europe try to regain control of the continent. Science and life seamlessly intertwine in a wholly natural way as the characters pursue both personal fulfilment and an understanding of the bigger picture.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: mimicry and camouflage' is published by Yale

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments