Carter Scholz isn’t a prolific writer. He published a grim, realistic novella about an interstellar spaceship, Gypsy, in 2015 – one of my favorite SF reads. There’s a handful of other short fiction, and only 2 novels: 1984’s Palimpsests and this one, Radiance – an overlooked masterpiece.
Scholz doesn’t write to earn the butter on his bread, and that shows. Unlike so many authors who just churn out stuff that needs to please fandom and sales figures, he does what he wants. That results in singular fiction, and Radiance is a remarkable, brilliant, demanding novel.
Not science fiction in the speculative sense, it is a novel about science. Also the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ needs a caveat: important parts of Radiance are based in reality. It is a roman à clef set in a government lab in California, a veiled Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,
centering on two nuclear physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War & start of the Dotcom Bubble, nuclear bombs & Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks, accelerationism, and the great scientific project of mankind. (quoted from Gwern’s impressive site on Radiance, that includes a free, annotated e-book edition)
I don’t normally do this, but I want to start with 2 pictures of the blurbs, because I feel they are not just the usual hyperbole taken out of context by the publisher, but really do the book justice, and, taken together, capture its spirit.
The back cover has these fuzzily printed quotes:
And inside there’s this further praise:
If these pique your interest, by all means, go buy the book already.
Radiance‘s language is not for everyone. Scholz writes very realistic dialogue, and that results in lots of speech chopped off in the middle of a sentence or a word. The snappy dialogue is set in other prose that is at times weighty, and sprinkled with the printed language found in the landscape & the rooms where the story is set – billboards, snippets from papers, notes, traffic signs, store front lettering. Likewise, the prose is also sprinkled with snippets of conversation the focal character hears as he moves through his world. This makes for a singular reading experience that takes a bit of time to adjust to. But when it clicks, it delivers a realism and a flow rarely encountered. Simply put: it is pure artistry.
Judging by other reviews, you’ll either love it or hate it. I can understand the haters: Scholz’ prose taxes the brain, and while the flow is great, it wore me out at times. But that is not a negative, not at all – people go to gym to get worn out. Similarly, I don’t want to imply the prose is not entertaining: it is, but not in an effortless manner.
Her dark eyes squinted, her lips parted in what was less a smile than delight arrested and contained at the moment it was born.
The book focuses on Philip Quine, and he is somewhat of a sad character. The bits on relationships are true to life, and again show a realism rarely seen – without much embellishments or framing, the book shows, not tells. Leo Highet, the other character we get to spend some time with is similarly tragic, but with another outlook on humanity. It’s important to stress we get to know both characters – this is not a book about politics & science or corrupt scheming only, and Scholz makes sure his dosage of their personal lives provides a deep emotional foundation for his story.
Thematically, Scholz pairs a character that is realistic and sees human politics for what it is – inevitable, Machiavellian, out of control, conflicted – and one that is naive, in search for truth. But in the novel – as in life – truth is problematic, as even smart men can’t agree. It is not much of a spoiler to say the tragedy of Quine is that he eventually makes ‘moral’ mistakes like Highet too. Yet, morality is in the eye of the beholder, and while Scholz has written an indicting, political book, it steers clear of easy judgements or quick finger pointing. Democratic oversight is very hard to get right, and bureaucracy unavoidable. Decisions are “taken in the absolute vacuum of procedure and contingency”, and humans have complex, differing motivations. We all need to eat. Money rules the world.
The book becomes even more morally grey with the knowledge that the real life lab it was based on has done important work over the years. It doesn’t really emerge from Radiance, as Scholz looks at what goes wrong, but just take a peak at this list of key accomplishments.
Carter Scholz has managed to do what great art often does: artificially construct something that uncannily resembles reality, a reality of which nor the moral nature, nor the physical nature is easy to pinpoint. Maybe the book’s reality is a bit too bleak: while Radiance features the beauty of nature, in real life there is beauty in humans too, and we hardly get a glimpse of that – even though the impossible love relation at the heart of the story has a distinct tenderness. But like a laser, this stuff only works with focus, and I cannot fault Scholz for staying on message: there are only 388 pages.
Should we abandon hope? Is Scholz a cynic? Or isn’t it his own voice that speaks through character Dan Root?
What are you really after? Happiness? Is it that? Peace? But there is no peace. A reckoning is coming, don’t you feel it? Too many people, too many wants. There’s not world enough. Do you think the so-called truth will protect you when that time comes?
It is maybe no surprise that in the Gypsy novella, that reckoning is at hand. An unnamed character in Radiance has this to say on the matter: “see people have always been stupid, problem today is technology’s a kind of amplifier”. That is near to prophetic writing, back in 2002, 4 years before Facebook opened up to everyone at least 13 years old.
I’ve made a whole lot more notes than during an average read, and rereading those reminds me of how many sharp insights Scholz manages to provide. There’s one scene where Highet invites new guys to the lab to speak their wildest dreams out loud.
He listened not for what they said but their saying of it. The dreams themselves were always puerile variations on the same themes: escape, power, revenge for injustice.
Maybe human reality isn’t that complex after all. “What man has not two masters, two minds, two hearts?”
Radiance is a rich, textured treat. It’s carefully, deliberatly constructed, with plenty of diverse references, and with a fair amount of symbolism hidden just beneath the first layer of what’s happening. The good thing is you don’t need to see the references to enjoy the novel, they are optional, and I’m sure I missed a whole bunch.
Not fully without fault, but among my favorite reads ever.