Radiance

By Carter Scholz, Picador USA (2002) $24

Carter Scholz's brilliant and densely researched first novel is a dizzying glimpse into the world of nuclear weapons research. Set in a compound similar to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (here simply "the Lab"), the book tracks a coven of government scientists charged with moving their research away from bomb-making in the early '90s. In theory, their focus is instead on post-Cold War concepts like "stewardship" and "dual use," but those terms are just convenient covers for an ongoing Star Wars-type missile defense program. Even worse, the scientists are so consumed by office politics and profiteering that they squabble like teenagers. In Scholz's fictional world, we're just one sleazy bureaucrat away from a global nuclear crisis, and dismantling warheads is as difficult as dismantling the flaws that make us human. So much for that peace dividend.

Scholz is a longtime Berkeley science-fiction writer, and Radiance has a simple genre-fiction plot: The bad guy, Leo Highet, exploits his position as lab director to push the lucrative but unworkable Radiance missile defense system for personal gain, while good guy Philip Quine is the low-level scientist blowing the whistle. Even so, there's remarkable depth to Scholz's approach. Borrowing less from sci-fi templates than from postmodern stylists like DeLillo and Pynchon (who've always had a thing for the Bomb), Scholz crafts a propulsive, conversation-heavy narrative that packs in scientific details but rarely gets bogged down by them. Few novelists ask dialogue to do so much descriptive heavy lifting, and fewer still pull it off so well. In fast-paced, almost stream-of-consciousness language, Scholz finds a direct line to Quine's conscience, as controlling Radiance becomes increasingly slippery. In doing so, Scholz has accomplished what all great science fiction attempts: to imagine a world that's both seductive and frightening.

 
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