Robert A. Brown: The Tree and the Panzaic Plea
Review by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2011

Perfection Lake in the Lower Basin of the Enchantment Lakes 1986, photo by MCM
Perfection Lake in the Lower Basin of the Enchantment Lakes 1986, photo by MCM

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the iUniverse, Inc. 2010 edition.

Overall Impression: An exuberant book that passionately warns us of potential disasters ahead.

The author is a noted geophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington.  He is also a personal friend, so objectivity cannot be expected here.  This book is the second edition of what was originally published under the title, The Tree: Or the Panzaic Plea.  He published the latter in 2005 but states that it was gestating for more than 20 years.  Bob has written a remarkable full-length novel, streamlined now down to 366 pages whereas the earlier edition was 486 pages.

Bob's intention was to write a philosophical "thriller", an "anticipatory historical fiction" as he terms it.  As it entertains us, it also exposes us to his deeply felt concerns regarding the future of the human race and our world in general. The book has a strong sense of place. Calling on the author's extensive travels, it takes us to many scenic and dramatic locations that he knows well.  These include Seattle of course, the superb Enchantment Lakes region in the Washington state Cascades (my photo above), the Olympic Mountains and the Blue Glacier on the Olympic Peninsula, but also Paris and a number of African settings centered on northern Tanzania. The exotic locales, colorful criminal conspiracy, deployment of technical wizardry, and remarkable, almost superhuman abilities of the protagonist add a James Bond feeling to this novel. (Our hero, named only "J", bears a striking resemblance to the author, and like Bond he certainly knows how to handle his considerable firepower.)

Bob has lived a somewhat oversized life and his diverse interests and talents are evident throughout the book. A special strength of this highly polemical work is the in-depth portrayal of a species of educator we only rarely encounter: well-educated (even "overeducated"), versatile, scientifically literate, smart, brash, abrasive and assertive (in the Berkeley radical tradition), uncompromising, a Socratic gadfly—in short, a man who simply cannot be ignored. If J seems a bit arrogant or egotistical at times, Bob assures us that this misperception perhaps reflects our own lack of scientific understanding. The book leaves us no doubts regarding where J (and Bob) stand on a wide range of important issues: overpopulation, abortion, sociobiology, the problematic role of the sex drive and hormones that infuse this novel, the excessive political influence of the conservative right and the super-rich, the dangers of religious zealotry and dogma, the threat of nuclear war, radiation, and apocalypse, the consequences of global warming, and many many other issues too numerous to catalog here.

The title, as I understand it, refers to the central dichotomy in human belief and behavior that was immortalized by Cervantes in Don Quixote.  On the one hand we have the quixotic traits: idealistic, far-seeing, noble and essential for the highest achievements of humankind, but often dangerously misguided ideologically and potentially ineffective or even counterproductive.  On the other hand, we have the "Panzaic" approach—living only for the moment, pragmatic, down-to-earth, practical and comfort-seeking like Sancho Panza. If the reader may feel a little confused at times as to which is the better model, well that is the nature of scientific uncertainty...

It is enjoyable to see "J" at work with his hand-selected elite graduate students, studying it would appear atmospheric physics at the core of a broad curriculum. He and his like-minded professor colleagues are always challenging them, grooming them to continually examine their own lives and the scientific dogmas that must constantly undergo scrutiny, revision, and even paradigm shifts. We see Bob's idealized view of how a proper college level educational environment might function, always with a primary emphasis on scientific perspectives and method.  A notable example of this is the final spring 400-level (senior) lecture given on philosophy, religion, and science, etc. by the freethinking French professor Nicole. We also see J's somewhat painful encounters with university administrators, and worse, the behind the scenes fat cat conservative donors who as movers and shakers must be sucked up to.  As you might guess, J cannot bring himself to grovel before these influential if ignorant personages and like Don Quixote pays a high price for his ideals.

I have shared with the author a few minor suggestions regarding spellings, wording, etc., as well as about some of the biological concepts discussed.  However, Bob is a big-picture broad-brush person, and I see no point in belaboring these quibbles here. If you are religious, anti-abortion, from the South ("New Dixie"), fond of global warming denial, strongly favoring the humanities over the sciences, or perhaps female, you will probably take some offense or at least have some bones to pick, but I assure you that Bob is always up to a good argument and would relish a chance to spar with you intellectually if provided the proper forum.