Literary fiction that features science is a distinctly different genre than science fiction. Instead of catapulting from science into imaginary worlds, it dives through science ever more deeply into the known world. In the case of Susan M. Gaines’s Accidentals, that world is centered in Uruguay and populated by a dizzying array of animals and intersecting concerns, ranging from bacterial evolution to human dictatorship.
Accidentals is the first novel I’ve ever readwhose heart belongs to a passionate birdwatcher, and after seeing and seeking rare plumed species through Gabriel’s eyes, I was hooked. Each outing read like a mesmerizing treasure hunt.
“I saw the blue tanager again, and in the same tree, a lollipop-orange, yellow, and blue one. Celestón. Naranjero. I paused to watch a flycatcher fishing insect from the air, not brown or pale yellow like the flycatchers I knew, but a brilliant white. Monjita blanca. Little white nun? There was nothing nun-like about it. I did a quick sketch, trying to capture the bird’s elegant flirtatiousness, which the field guide didn’t mention. Blinding white, I scribbled beneath it, like bleached granite, fresh snow. Black-eyed, tail dragged in tar.”
Even more breathtaking was the journey that Gaines treated me to through Gabriel’s lover Alejandra, a microbiologist who discovers whole ecosystems—whole universes of bacteria!-- in spoonfuls of mud. This book has forever changed the way I’ll look at rain puddles and rice paddies.
But the fictional wonder of Accidentals is the skill with which Gaines threads environmental science on a plotline involving Uruguay’s modern political history, with lives, hearts, land, and livelihoods hanging in the balance. This is a love story, an unforgettable family saga, an environmentalist’s plea to connect the dots for our planet’s survival. And, yes, it’s for the birds.
Aimee Liu is the author of the 2020 novel Glorious Boy, as well as Flash House, Cloud Mountain, Face, and many works of nonfiction, including Gaining and Solitaire. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program in Port Townsend, WA.