Most fiction writers, I think, can't seem to wrap their brains around science. It's easy to understand why: If you employed the scientific method accurately in a novel, it would be pretty boring. The road to discovery is lined with lots of unsexy errors, monotonous note-taking and un-dramatic failures. Richard Powers is one of those rare novelists who manages to write fiction that feels scientifically sound. His book The Echo Maker was about an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who investigates a man whose head injury inspires him to think everyone around him—including his sister—has been replaced with impostors. And the book worked, in part, because Powers did the research and, more importantly, he learned the science.
Powers's new short story, "Genie," isn't as rooted in reality as Echo Maker was. In fact, it's a kind of very low key science fiction story. You can read the beginning of the story over at Byliner, which sets up the premise: A young couple steals a sample of heat-loving bugs from Yellowstone Park. The rest of "Genie" (it's about thirty-five pages or so, depending on how you like your font) is about the study of those bugs, and Powers made the story just the right size: Any longer, and Powers would begin to delve into the nuts and bolts of the scientific method, and he'd probably begin to lose readers. As it stands, "Genie" builds into a giddy climax that explains the reason why all those hours of beating one's head against a wall is worthwhile: That moment of discovery, when everything around you changes, maybe forever. That Powers manages to tell a story of a troubled relationship at the same time, and without belaboring the connection between his paired narratives of science and love, is why he's one of the best storytellers in the business today, science-minded or not.