In the 19th century Western culture was on an exhilarating and frightening cusp; thinking people were confronted with new scientific discoveries and theories that chipped away at their age-old vision of a static creation ordained and ordered by God. We can still feel tremors from that shift today, which is one reason why fiction writers like Andrea Barrett (and her British counterpart, A.S. Byatt) find the era so intriguing. Not all the characters in Barrett's engrossing new collection of linked stories, "Servants of the Map," are Victorians, but they're all enthralled with biology in one form or another. For them, the hunger for knowledge is as tempting and dangerous as any sexual passion, and sometimes they find that the two are strangely entwined.
The first and title story in the book concerns Max Vigne, a surveyor sent out to map the Himalayas in the 1860s. His journey to the fringes of humanity's domain is paralleled by his forays into a book given to him as a going-away present: Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species." Letters Max writes to his beloved wife, Clara, back home in England alternate with accounts of his gradual seduction by an unlikely siren: alpine botany. "When I am alone," he imagines writing to Clara when he doesn't dare tell her the truth, "with my notes and plants and the correlations of weather and geology and flora springing clear before me, I feel: This is who I am. This is what I was born to do."
For Max, the craving for knowledge, the forbidden knowledge of evolution, tugs at and frays the bonds connecting him to home and family. The same holds true for a character named Caleb Bernhard, in another story set 50 years earlier. Caleb takes a holiday from running the boys school he inherited from his creationist father in order to investigate fossils in Kentucky: He's guilty over betraying his father's beliefs, but unable to resist the allure of discovery. Later his widow, Miriam, will catch this craving like a virus and travel even farther afield, as will Rose, a contemporary biochemist in yet another story, a young woman distantly and obscurely related to Caleb.
Rose begins an affair with a girlhood crush, a friend of her parents who still works in the unfashionable area of "whole-animal biology." Rose herself, a rising star, studies a protein called ubiquitin, whose molecules "bind to other proteins and mark them for degradation." Her kind of science eclipses his (starving it of grant money and other resources) even as they both try to recapture in each other a bit of their lost past.
The relentless forward movement of science may sometimes seem a cold inevitability, but Barrett shows that it's driven by human desire. For her, the impulse to explore further and deeper, the need of each generation to surpass the one before, is a force often more powerful than love itself, one both beautiful and terrifying. Her characters bear the scars of its rendings and yet few of them can resist it. Most of the people in these six stories are connected in some way by blood (though you have to be observant to spot the links), and there's a suggestion that the curiosity that impells most of them is a secret way in which the past lives on even when we aren't aware of it. Even, in fact, when we believe we've cast it away.