The Curiosity

  • Stephen Kiernan
  • William Morrow
  • 448 pp.
  • Reviewed by Michael Landweber
  • July 30, 2013

Dead and frozen for 100 years in an Arctic iceberg, a reanimated man falls in love with the scientist who found him.

In The Curiosity, a team of scientists reanimates a man who has been frozen in ice for a hundred years. The novel flirts with broad statements on weighty issues of morality, ethics, religion and science, but ultimately it is a far simpler tale about love and loss.

Dr. Kate Philo is a young researcher who is leading an expedition to the Arctic in search of massive icebergs. The team is looking for small organisms, such as krill, that have been flash frozen. Before we are given any hint of why, Philo lays out the future fallout from the mission at hand.

“Now that the media has decamped from my doorstep, now that the zealots are busy condemning someone else, now that the president no longer uses my name with contempt, I hope to reclaim those quiet habits that served me before the world went wild. Maybe they can preserve my wobbly sanity. Maybe they can mend my shattered heart.”

That seems like a bit of an overreaction to excavating some frozen shrimp out of a block of ice, but Philo’s expedition is merely a prelude for the main event that takes place in a private laboratory in Boston: bringing the dead back to life. Led by Dr. Erastus Carthage, who is equal parts arrogant and brilliant, the scientists have been reviving krill and other deceased lower life forms, though their second lives last only a few moments.

Research like this may spark excited conversations at academic conferences, but it hardly warrants the attention of the press and the president. This changes when Philo finds a frozen man in her latest iceberg and Carthage decides to wake him up.

The parallels to Frankenstein are obvious, though the execution of this cautionary tale is not nearly so stark. Dr. Frankenstein stitches together a test subject from parts robbed from graves and predictably creates a monster. Carthage, who shares Frankenstein’s hubris if not his gothic sensibilities, has a far more eloquent subject to work with. The man in the iceberg is Jeremiah Rice, a judge who died during an Arctic expedition around the turn of the 20th century. A hundred years dead, he nonetheless emerges from the ordeal as an articulate and thoughtful person, more the curiosity of the title than the snarling monster of Frankenstein.

The Curiosity is Stephen Kiernan’s first novel. He is also the author of two non-fiction books, one of which focuses on civic responsibility and volunteerism. The author’s interest in how we should engage in public life lurks below the surface in The Curiosity, but is never fully explored.  One would expect what Carthage labels “The Lazarus Project” to trigger serious debate about bringing a man back to life, not unlike those ongoing about cloning and genetically modified foods. Indeed, religious fundamentalists protest vociferously against the notion of a human being granting life. But instead of giving a real voice to such concerns, Kiernan paints the protesters with a broad brush, never allowing readers to feel their fear or anger first hand. The result is that the moral considerations are largely glossed over, with one side of the argument relegated to a pitchfork-wielding mob and its scheming organizers.

The book does a better job navigating the ethical question of Rice’s treatment as a test subject and a patient, another topic that Kiernan has written on previously. Rice is a gentleman and not a monstrosity, making it hard to argue that he didn’t deserve a new lease on life. The more delicate question is how he should be treated once he has regained consciousness. On the one hand, he is a person who should have all the rights and freedoms afforded to others. At the same time, he knows nothing of the modern world and requires special care due to the experiment that was performed on him without his knowledge or consent. Kiernan handles these questions of who controls Rice with subtlety and depth.

The best parts of the novel focus on Rice discovering the modern world with Philo as his guide.  It is a love story, though not a completely predictable one. In the end, the book relies on the readers’ belief in that unconventional relationship. Overall, The Curiosity will appeal to readers looking for a novel to take to the beach that combines the fantastical and emotional elements found in The Time Traveler’s Wife with just enough scientific verisimilitude to hold the premise together.

Michael Landweber is the author of the novel, We. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, American Literary Review, Barrelhouse and Ardor. He is an Associate Editor at the Potomac 

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