Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (4th contender)

We come to Geoff Ryman’s “What We Found” from F&SF (Sept-Oct 2011). It has not been posted online.

The story is set in Nigeria, in something like present day. Patrick is the narrator, and he is sleepless at 3:30 AM on the day he is to be married. He is dreading marriage. He is writing a description of his youth and his growth to maturity, and the story takes two paths. First, he tells how his father and brother were insane and died miserable deaths. Second, he now works at a university and he tells us about his research on the suppression of a neurotropin that controls memory and emotional balance. Low levels of the neurotropin are believed to be caused by stress rather than genes. But he has found that the stress-related chemical that produces the effect can be passed on in sperm cells. The implication for him is that the madness that struck his father and brother will reappear in his future son. That is the reason he fears marriage.

But there is more to Patrick’s research. In replicating his studies, the effect has grown less, until Patrick can no longer replicate the effect at all. He has discovered other scientists who have encountered the same, inexplicable pattern: “It was as if the scientific truths wore out, as if the act of observing them reduced their effect.” It echoes a remark of Patrick’s grandmother: “The old ways did work…They wore out.”

A mathematician at the university has formulated equations to explain what is happening.

Simply put, science found the truth and by finding it, changed it. Science undid itself, in an endless cycle.
Someday the theory of evolution will be untrue and the law of the conservation of energy will no longer work…
Thomas has calculated how long it will take for observation to wear out even his observation. Then, he says, the universe will once again be stable. History melts down and is restored.

And so, we learn, Patrick is trying to make the phenomenon work for him instead of against him. If observing and examining makes an effect “wear out,” if the mere act of repeated observation changes the real world, then he will observe and examine the progress of his father’s and brother’s madness by writing down how it happened, what it was like. He concludes:

I think of my future son. His Christian name will be Raphael, but his personal name will be Ese, which means Wiped Out. It means that God will wipe out the past with all its expectations. If witchcraft once worked and science is wearing out, then it seems to me that God loves our freedom more than stable truth. If I have a son who is free from the past, then I know God loves me too.

Like “Six Months, Three Days,” this story centers on an idea; unlike it, the strange scientific proposition is bound up with a human problem and human characters. This is a sophisticated story that rewards the reader’s participation and thought.

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