Discussed in this essay:
Radiance, Carter Scholz. Picador. 400pp, $15.00.
1. Into The Void
The dozen years between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror might be remembered as a time of peace and prosperity by most Americans, but for defense-related segments of business and government they were a time of crisis. Communism was collapsing, and stateless terrorist groups were not yet seen to be a menace. With no clear enemies to point weapons at, how could the billions and billions of tax dollars spent on weapons possibly be justified?
Carter Scholz’s 2002 novel, Radiance, dramatizes the effects of this crisis on an unnamed federal nuclear laboratory (“the Lab”). Not all of the Lab’s research is weapons-related, but the weapons work is understood by all the scientists to be the thing that keeps them employed. Most have mixed feelings about benefiting so directly from the technology of destruction, feelings that are also complicated by the Lab’s spotty record of producing weapons projects that are actually successful:
So far the beams flashed out only in theory. The theory, originated by Null, seemed to Quine sound, but the more he studied his computer model, the less he understood why any of Null’s tests had ever produced the ghost of a beam. Yet the farther tests fell behind expectations, the more strident became Highet’s public claims. Warren Slater, in charge of testing, had resigned in protest. His letter of resignation was classified and squelched. Bernd Dietz was given interim charge of testing, and to Quine fell the task of finding in disappointing test data any optimism about the promised results.
Scholz’s familiarity with his material has led some readers to assume he is a disgruntled nuclear physicist. But his background is in science fiction, not science, with a record of published shorter works stretching back over 30 years (representative samples are collected in the 2003 collection The Amount to Carry). He has also collaborated with Glenn Harcourt on the novel Palimpsests (1984) and with Jonathan Lethem on the collection Kafka Americana (1999), a set of re-imaginings of Kafka’s life and works.
Scholz shares with Lethem a love of the more speculative genres, and of their antecedents (Borges, Calvino, and of course Kafka). With Richard Powers he shares an enthusiasm for building his works around scientific ideas, and with the Don DeLillo of Ratner’s Star
he holds in common an irrepressible impulse to satirize the scientists responsible for them. But he departs from his contemporaries in the way he melds his observations of the descendental world of scientific practice with a reverent sense of the scientific vocation.
The result of such a melding is an alternately satirical and spiritual book. The harsh skepticism that Scholz the satirist brings to weapons science is not unlike the skepticism William Gaddis brings to business and law in his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own. Both authors begin by assuming that corruption and fraud are the rule; they then set the better natures of their characters (when present) against the evils of the field being satirized. Scholz also resembles Gaddis when presenting the corrupting effects of these evils on the speech of his characters. Consider the gems of technohype produced by the Lab’s press officer:
–Won’t be a minute gentlemen, don’t let us disturb you, you can see here the precision engineering we’re capable of, bang-up job of inventiveness, maximum return on investment, the answer to reversing the balance of trade deficit, innovative federally generated technology transfer to industry, improves the nation’s economic competitiveness as we work deliberately and consciously to build partnerships, a new class of information with commercial value, very creative cooperative efforts, freedom to negotiate intellectual property rights, fees and royalties, cover the technological waterfront, take for instance these fine-grained superplastic steels, not to mention x-ray lithography . . .
Incoherent babbling like this is almost always a clue that a character’s moral stance is incoherent, whether regarding the Lab’s testing results or its larger mission. It’s unsurprising, then, that the character in Radiance whose speech is the clearest (at least in regards to the work of the Lab) is also the one who examines his moral stance the hardest.
Philip Quine, the closest thing Radiance has to a hero, is a blank of a character, mild-manneredly fumbling through life. His one immoderate aspect is his devotion to his research at the Lab, where he works on weapons systems for defending America against nuclear attack.
Quine has become a master of war by accident. A pure theorist when he first comes to the Lab, he is seduced by the resources it offers for experimental confirmation of his theories, and before long he becomes a full-time employee. By and by, he learns the law that really governs the Lab: “Any solution, even if it laid bare principles, was beside the point if it couldn’t kill missiles.” But he keeps working.
What knocks him out of his moral slumber is a random encounter with anti-nuclear activist Lynn Hamlin. Smitten by her, he finally begins to consider the larger effects of his work. Stress on begins—Quine’s awakening is a slow one and is quite possibly incomplete by the end of the book. But his romance with Hamlin is clearly a key element in this awakening. It’s in her presence that his guilelessness shifts toward actual virtue.
Quine’s voice is the strongest one in the novel, and it carries the most spiritual weight. Again, the closest parallel in the larger canon is with Gaddis and the overburdened artists who populate his work, especially Bast in J R. That this similarity is baldly evident is itself noteworthy, indicating a reluctance by Scholz to oppose the “two cultures” of the sciences and the arts with each other. He recognizes the analytic and emotional impulses common to both.
3. Gray Hats
Hamlin occupies one pole of the novel’s moral continuum. But except for her, it’s hard to identify clear good guys and bad guys in Radiance. Everyone else, involved either with unsound science or sound science used for bad ends, is compromised. In this aspect, the novel’s moral dynamic greatly resembles the one in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, which is set in a similarly cynical work environment (a newspaper office) and similarly presents its setting as a corrupting influence for its characters. Miss Lonelyhearts, an advice columnist, is overpowered by the suffering of his readers, but his attempts to engage that suffering in his columns are suppressed and made fun of by Shrike, his unprincipled editor.
Quine’s ambiguous place in the moral landscape of Radiance, and his half-conscious toiling and scheming to better that place, unite him with West’s frustrated columnist. And although Christ’s omnipresence in Miss Lonelyhearts (at least in name) contrasts with Quine avowed secularism, I don’t think it’s wrong to say the latter’s struggle is also a spiritual one. His sense of duty comes from science’s mission to understand the world, not from the orders to cloud understanding he receives from his human superiors. Disgusted by the Lab’s unwillingness to acknowledge the failure of one of its projects, he attempts to blow the whistle, only to be met with great resistance by Leo Highet, the director. Once a physicist himself, Highet has long since grown interested only in his own administrative power, and he tries to squelch any indication that the theoretical promise of the Lab’s weapons can’t be fulfilled.
Highet is not the only Shrike-like character in the book, although his frequent self-conscious ironizing situates him the closest to West’s demonic editor. There’s also the Lab’s founder Aron Réti, whose (un-ironic!) solution to the defense industry’s post-Cold War crisis is simply to point the missiles at more cosmic menaces:
–extinction of the dinosaurs caused by an enormous meteor impact. Such an impact, if it occurred today, would cost business over eight quadrillion dollars. And these impacts do occur, about once every hundred thousand years. Thus, simple division shows that killer asteroids cost us eighty billion per year, against which our proposed research budget of two billion per year is if anything too modest.
Again, the point is not to do the right thing (either scientifically or morally) but to continue the scam. The scam is almost a source of pride for these men, and these men’s pride becomes rich with meaning when in collision with the professional shame associated with it.
One thing Radiance handles remarkably well is the shame of a failed scientific career. Though the Lab’s researchers enjoy fat salaries and major political power, they constantly sound the theme of their work’s inferiority to purer forms of discovery. Here’s Quine on new research by an old colleague:
It was a new paper by Sorokin. At CERN now. Quine skimmed it as if reading news from a distant galaxy or a remote epoch. It solidified and extended the work they’d done together, the experiment that had separated them. It was clear that it was a field now and that Sorokin owned it. He stanched an upwelling of envy and self-pity.
Speaking of those last two things, here’s Highet on Quine:
All I really wanted was to do physics. The structure of the universe. The nature of matter. Members of the Academy, ladies and gentlemen. And what have I accomplished? Chemist of people, catalyst, holding the place together so others can do the real work. Like young Quine, that paper he coauthored with Sorokin years ago, that was the real thing. Still know it when I see it. Well, he’ll never get back to it now. Bitter satisfaction there. Reduced to living on others’ failures.
Most movingly, here’s Réti on the disappointments embedded in his own success:
We were all excellent, all first rate, but even so, some were a bit above the rest, yes? And the very best, these were the men who did not want to go on making bombs. So when this Lab started, I became director, because I had no competition. I was the best of those who remained. The best of not the very best, do you see? I had won by a forfeit. My friends were no longer my friends. Now I talked with generals and senators, to whom physics was a magic trick. To whom I was a magus. That was my compensation. Nobel prizes for Bohr, Wigner, Einstein, Lawrence, Fermi, Urey, Rabi, Bethe, Bloch. For me, the ear of generals and Presidents. Now you know something I never told even my good friend Leo Highet. Something I am maybe a little ashamed of. So that you will understand what this place is to me.
Beyond its tone of regret, Réti’s quote also nails how the professional and moral compromises of the bomb makers interpenetrate. Talking with generals, senators, and Presidents is far from innocent when what you’re talking about is technology that can vaporize the planet. And this remoteness from innocence carries its own thrill—the feeling of worldly power, judged by Réti to be just as good as the feeling of discovering the truth.
5. Everyman, Again
What separates Quine from colleagues like Highet and Réti is his relative lack of interest in worldly power. It’s this lack that draws Hamlin to him and leads her to regard him as reformable, but what Radiance stresses is how trapped Quine remains as long as he’s associated with the Lab. This stress assumes different forms as the book progresses. Initially it’s implicit, surfacing most plainly in descriptions of the Lab’s physical features:
On the walls, abandoned by the prior occupant and by Quine untouched, hung graphs and pictures, seismographs of bomb tests, the branched coils of particle decay, a geological map, electron micrographs of molecular etchings, a fractal mountainscape, all overlaid by memos, monthly construction maps, field test schedules, Everyone Needs To Know About Classification, cartoons, Curiosity Is Not A Need To Know, a whiteboard thick with equations in four colors so long unwiped that that Quine’s one pass with a wet rag had left the symbols down one edge ghosted but not erased, and a second desk, loose papers cascaded across its surface, the computer monitor topped by a seamsplit cardboard carton BERINGER GREY RIESLING and buttressed by books manuals folders xeroxes Autoregressive Modeling, Rings Fields and Groups, Leonardo da Vinci Notebooks, Numerical Solution of Differential Equations, Selling Yourself and Your Ideas! and under the desk banker’s boxes DESTROY AFTER, and D NULL in black marker.
But slowly Quine moves from being trapped by things to being trapped by people. He assumes the directorship of the Lab after Highet is fired, and in this job Quine finds new constraints placed on him by the conflicting demands of government departments, private contractors, rogue researchers, and Hamlin’s activists. Speech starts to outpace description, as here in this waspish conference-table exchange regarding the new Secretary of Energy:
–Okay, now look
–take anything she says serious
–ever get a real scientist in that office
–canceled that test series just before Leo left, you know her reason then? “I can’t explain this to my grandmother.”
–Okay, look everyone, can we get back on tra
–guess now we’re in the elder care business
There’s no way to win, and the confusion sparked by the march of amputated sentences forces empathy with Quine’s own confusion. It becomes clear that a nicer office is poor compensation for these new troubles, which Quine is swamped by at novel’s end. His loyalty to the Lab’s law makes him its prisoner.
6. Further Devices Without End
The theme of the carceral aspects of the workplace is one that Scholz has also explored in his short fictions, which spiral around the angsty inner lives of academics, think tank drones, and space explorers both retired and active. There’s also the title story in The Amount to Carry, which resurrects Kafka and thrusts him into an insurance convention with his colleagues Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens. None of the three mentions his real work to the others, of course.
In this context, Radiance is Scholz’s fullest exploration of the effects caused by misalignment between a career and a vocation. The clash between the demands of the two is uniquely well-illuminated in its pages.
Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation. His review of Vilnius Poker (2009, Open Letter) appears in a forthcoming issue of The Believer.
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