My husband and I were talking recently about the aphorisms that people dish at you and then act like they’re revelatory or meaningful. The one that we heaped the most scorn on was, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” O, rilly? Pretty much the opposite of any emotional state is the lack of an emotional state, from a certain observational angle, so you might as well say, “The opposite of hate is being in a coma” or, “The opposite of feeling itchy is being dead.” True enough, as far as it goes, but not helpful. I mean, I know that this proverb is mostly deployed in situations when love’s gone wrong, but it’s just so freaking dumb and unhelpful. The opposite of irritation is slumber!
Anyway, somewhat wobbly point being, I had classed the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, we can get an hurricane in another,” as one of those stupid aphorisms: something someone says to you when a tree flattens your garage or something. Oh those damn butterflies! Add in the fact that since Ray Bradbury‘s A Sound of Thunder, where time travelers squash a butterfly in the Jurassic, leading to Planet of the Apes-style changes in the hear-and-now, the whole butterfly thing has become something of a hoary old chestnut in sff.
[What happens when Homer squashed a butterfly. Donuts!]
But, turns out, it’s an actual mathematical thing! From the wikis:
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.
Oh look! Attractors! Maybe some of them will be strange.
So the story starts with grad student Heller Wilson bopping around New York, complaining about the soulless thesis topic he was given by his adviser, and just generally having the pre-graduate crisis. The art is sepia realism with bright punctuations of color, and the scientific-y drawings are wonderful, crossing a sort of biological feel with more airless, computer-generated structures. The image I found of one of these complexity maps has decided not to work, so you’ll have to take my word for it, sadly. I’m just saying I liked the art.
In order to kick-start his thesis, he goes to meet the old math department crank, Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who is a cross between a hobo and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but less sexy than the latter. Brownfield’s been working on something called “complexity theory” for the last 30 years – a mix of Asimov’s psychohistory and the Butterfly Effect – and believes himself to be the guardian of New York. He’s forever doing these inexplicable “adjustments” – things like setting a rat loose in a restaurant or subtly driving people towards a different subway entrance – which he believes keeps New York’s “immune system” robust.
Which is my segue to talk about New York. First and foremost, Strange Attractorsis a love letter to the cityest of American cities, a place with infrastructure so unbelievably barnacled, complex, and jury-rigged that it’s astonishing that it works at all, let alone that it weathers the shocks of terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and various NY mayors. One of the many facts that blew my mind in The World Without Us was that, without the pumps working every minute of every day, the subway system would revert to the underground rivers that every inch of the underground strains to become. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent destruction were just a hairsbreadth from knocking out these pumps and flooding the system. This could be repaired after months and months of work, but. Soule and Co do an excellent job of capturing the vibrancy, texture, and fragility of life in NY, as Heller gets more and more caught up in Dr. Brownfield’s crazy theories and such.
The plot is pretty perfunctory. Heller thinks Dr. Brownfield is a loon, but a brilliant one; he gets more caught up in Brownfield’s ideas; Heller gets in trouble with The Powers That Be over Brownfield’s influence; Brownfield asks for more than Heller is willing to give, etc, etc. The crisis and resolution is a little dorkily cheerful, with a whole pay it forward vibe that makes me gag just a little. But! Just a little. I am not immune to feel-good stories about majestic, chaotic cities repairing themselves in the wake of disaster, or in the forefront of it. I <3 cities. They might even <3 me back. Awww.
Also, way back in the day we had a bird named Boolean, and Dr. Brownfield has a dog with the same name. Nerd pet names represent!
I received my copy from NetGalley.com.