Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

2002: Radiance (Scholz, Carter)

Atmospheric irrelevancies or richly woven world-building? (4/5)

The name “Carter Scholz” will resonant will very few readers in science fiction who haven’t read this author’s Kafka-esque dalliances in The Amount to Carry (2003). I once read The Amount to Carry but either “couldn’t appreciate the diversity and randomness” or “thought the whole thing stunk.” There actually were a few gems amid the shoulder-shrugging grit, enough to convince me to shelve the book rather than chuck it out. I had also once read his novella “Radiance” in Greg Bear’s anthology New Legends (1995). The uniqueness of Carter’s story urged me purchase the full-length edition of the same story, Radiance (2002). Outside of his earlier novel Palimpsests (1985), this is his only novel yet still has material published in Kafka-inspired anthologies (i.e. Kafkaesque [2011]).

Inside flap synopsis:
“Somewhere in California, in the 1990s, a nuclear weapons lab develops advanced technologies for its post-Cold War mission. Advanced as in not working yet. Mission as in continued funding. A scandal-plagued missile defense program presses forward, dragging physicist Philip Quine deep into the machinations of those who would use the lab for their own gain.

The Soviet Union has collapsed. But new enemies are sought, and new reasons found to continue the work that has legitimized the power of the Lab, its managers, and the politicians who fund them. Quine is thrust into the center of programs born at the intersection of paranoia, greed, and ambition, and torn by incommensurable demands. Deadlines slip and cost overruns mount. He is drawn into a maelstrom of policy meetings, classified documents, petty betrayals, interrupted conversations, missed meanings, unanswered voicemail, stolen data, and pornographic files. Amid all the noise and static of the late twentieth century made manifest in weapons and anti-weapons, human beings have set in motion a malign and inhuman reality, which now is beyond their control."


A superb synopsis… probably one of the most accurate and summarized words for any hard cover novel. For a reviewer who likes to type 1,500-word reviews, I stun myself by saying that I have nothing to add to that. However, the inside flap continues with a summary of themes found in the novel:

“More than a critique of corrupt science and a permanent wartime economy, Radiance is a novel of lost ideals, broken aspirations, and human costs. In this vivid satire, relationships are just a question of who’s using whom. Failure is just another word for opportunity. “Spin” is a property not of atomic particles but of the news cycle. Nature is a blur beyond the windshield, where lives are spent on the road, on the phone, on the make, in fierce competition for financial, political, and intellectual resources. It is a world which language is used to evade, manipulate, and expedite. It is a world where everyone’s story is always open to revision and language is used for justifying everything from defense programs to divorce.”

Again, an excellent, excellent review of what’s inside the book! If you pay close attention to both synopses (for the plot and for the themes) you’ll notice many lists spaced with commas. This is one synoptic theme which is carried over into Scholz’s writing, who tends to omit very little when the commas start to roll (like the four full pages deluge of atomic test names [352-356])… or he even just ignores the comma and throws lists together end-on-end. It takes some getting used to, but this is indicative of more Kafka-esque prose which Scholz injects into his novel.

Scholz also follows in Kafka’s existentialist footsteps (and Barry M. Malzberg, who he dedicated his short collection to). When the synopsis mentions “policy meetings, classified documents, petty betrayals, interrupted conversations, missed meanings, unanswered voicemail, stolen data, and pornographic files,” all of these are written about in length throughout the novel. This first-person narrative is heavy on detail like this and even more so with the stuttered, tens of pages long dialogue. The detail involved borders on stream of consciousness: billboard signs read on the side of the highway, radio segments heard in the car stereo, stacked book titles read on the desk, etc. I think this immersion of detail gives an authentic picture to the life of Philip Quine, who lives in a dichotic world of politics and love, honesty and longevity., but he remains it the quagmire of self-loathing: “…he saw in his life only patterns of failure and emptiness” (9).

Reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Radiance has a stream of consciousness narration along with the inclusion of missile technology a recurring theme. Radiance is listed as being “nonfantastic” but I think the heavy amount of science jargon almost qualifies it as science fiction, but then again the heavy science is yet another one of the stream of consciousness elements imposed on by the narrator. I like the gratuitous amount of information loaded upon the reader; it places the reader in the same seat as the narrator, where both become the observer washed over in the omission of second-hand knowledge or thought. And Scholz even goes the extra mile and includes, what I consider, to be the pinnacle of extreme first person narrative: intermittent descriptions of voiding bladder or bowels:

He rose then, wiped, and flushed, gazing like a haruspex at the spiral arms of the swirl as the auguries were swept away. Red pepper, sausage, pasta. Fragments rose in the ebb unflushed and he flushed again. In the miasma was a faint scent of asparagus (88).

While the long 388-page ride is enjoyable, the trip isn’t without its tedium. The breaks between chapters are sparse, with one section stretching 107 pages (pages 73-179) without a single break except for internal narrative observations between dialogue and observation. The tedium isn’t monotonous, but breaks in the narration are good things. I’m a big fan of chapter breaks. Hell, I’d even say the more chapters the better and I’ll go even further and say that Nick Walker’s 840-chapter novel Blackbox is one of my favorite books of all-time.

One last thing to be said of Scholz and his novel is the addition of many rare words which had me reaching for a dictionary, among them: mendacious, oubliette, horologe, remontant, satrapies, obstreperous, chaparral, adumbration, and nulliparous. But he also sometimes finds himself in a repetitive rut, describing a façade with the adjective “avocado” too often and describing a voice as “orotund” too often, as well. Then there wondrous breaks in the canopy where Scholz shows the reader he can blend his verbose writing style with his keen observational eye:

The morning sky, pallid with haze, conveyed yet enough sun to cast through the high embrasure of his office window a faint rhombus which crept toward the doorway relentless as a horologe (23).


To say that this book is challenging would undermine its intentions. The novel’s design is obviously intended to be as loquacious and meticulous as possible with dialogue formatting intending to give (1) snippets of conversations at a party studded with incomplete sentences, (2) stuttering speech and cut off sentences, (3) and discourses which follow a hidden logic. It’s also a challenge to absorb the inane details of road signs and book titles (including Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [1989]), but it’s also refreshing to see someone attempt such a daring immersion into a character’s world. The icing on the cake of what Radiance is all about is the lack of finality—just as the details are frivolous, so is the direction of the plot. Instead, immerse yourself in the satire of a bureaucratic middleman torn between questing for authentic applied science and securing the monies to fund such science.

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