In the middle of the twentieth century three men were charged with the task of removing the tension between minute and vast things. It was their job to render asunder the smallest unit of being known to be separable from itself; out of a particle so modest there are billions in a single tear, in a moment so brief it could not be perceived, they would make the finite infinite. [...]
And it should be admitted, the concession must be gracefully made: in the moment when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire, suddenly, then, all bets are off.
Suddenly there is no idea that cannot be entertained.
Nic: Home stretch! (If there's one thing we here at Alexandria have learned from this year's Clarke award shortlist reading/posting, it's that starting with a snarky bang is all well and good, but embarking on the other books slightly sooner than a week before the award ceremony might be an equally nifty idea...). Our final post, then, concerns Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a pretty but frustrating anti-nuke fable by Lydia Millet.
What happened was, the night of the dream three men were born again. One was born in a motel room, one in a gutter. And the third was born again beneath a table that smelled of french fries and disinfectant, in a cafeteria at the University of Chicago.
July 1945, New Mexico: at the very moment that the Manhattan project's first atomic bomb is tested, three of the physicists involved - Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard - abruptly find themselves deposited in 2003, where a librarian named Ann is dreaming about them. The why and the how are never explained - a clear sign, of course, of a non-genre writer borrowing SFnal devices, although I have no issue with this providing the devices are intriguingly deployed (unlike, say, in Oryx and Crake). So, here, the reader never learns whether our scientists have travelled in time, or been reborn, or split off somehow from their original selves (who remain a part of history, all dead by 2003), but for much of the novel this doesn't matter; it's a nice conceit, comfortable in its simplicity. The lack of a proper rationale suffers only when plot developments towards the end of the story push the scientists onto a much broader stage, as they are swept up (some more willingly than others) by a motley anti-nuke crusade marching on Washington. At that point, the issues arising - where the scientists have come from, whether they are the real thing, and what authority might be accorded to their words - become much more pressing as issues internal to the story and the world, but they are roundly ignored.
Longer-term readers of this blog will be aware that I have certain reservations about the use of real people (living or dead) as fictional characters. Millet does at least avoid one of the more irritating dimensions of this - that is, when real figures are shoehorned into a story that doesn't need them, for the sake of a spurious weightiness, 'authenticity', and/or Mary Sue-ishness - in that this is clearly and deliberately a novel about these men discovering the consequences of their actions. But for all the elegance of the idea, a part of me is still resistant to the notion, explicit or implicit, that it is possible or permissable to set out how Oppenheimer et al would react in an entirely fictional - and so morally- and emotionally-supercharged - situation. (I note in passing that, during an Eastercon discussion of the six shortlisted books, a panelist with much more knowledge of the topic than me praised the characterisation of the three scientists - up until the point where Oppenheimer agrees to join forces with the fundamentalist Christians, which was dismissed as so ludicrously implausible as to jolt the informed reader out of the novel entirely).
All this, I know, is a purely personal bugbear; a more pertinent question is whether it works as a novel. In certain respects, it truly does: the three scientists are vividly-characterised and wholly-believeable individuals, each responding in his own way to the strange new world in which he finds himself, and the destruction wrought by the Manhattan project's brainchild. All, in their own ways, are victims of the bomb as well as its creators. Thoughtful Oppenheimer initially sees his fate on a personal level, mourning the world he has been snatched from; but he comes to wonder if this very snatching isn't some sort of retribution for what they have done.
Watching the video registered not the strange, anomalous cloud but the rest of what he had lost, the vacuum that was left. That was what it looked like at a glance. It was sucking a vacuum on the ground, blistering a hole in the sky. It was vengeance on them all: it was the unspeakable and the divine.
It had taken everything.
The people he had known, he'd been with yesterday, all gone, gone from him now or he was gone from them, a robbed soul, a victim.
Gentle, shellshocked Fermi rejects as "ridiculous" Oppenheimer's tentative suggestions that there is divine punishment at work; but he, too, finds it hard to come to terms with the world they have helped create, and as the novel goes on he retreats further and further into himself, able to take pleasure only in nature and the most solitary activities. Shameless self-publicist Szilard, meanwhile, "a one-man assault on good taste" as Fermi calls him, shows little sign of remorse - but every intention of exploiting his newfound notoriety and effecting change in the world's policies on nuclear weapons (whether for the sake of that change, or for the fame, it is hard to say). That Szilard would adopt and adapt the crusade that launches in their name is not surprising; his ruthlessness is well drawn, and 'watching' as the noble cause is variously manipulated and hijacked makes for compelling reading. I baulked, however, at Oppenheimer's transition into a wishy-washy sort of messiah figure.
Much more problematic, at least for me, are the two characters via which the reader enters this story, and who serve in some respects as our translators of it: self-absorbed librarian Ann, and her drippy but well-meaning husband Ben. Ben is pleasant enough company, although he proves to be one of those people who goes into a rather tedious tailspin when the female centre of his existence gets an interest (admittedly, here, an eccentric and rather extreme one) that isn't directly related to him. Sample Ben-reflection:
Of course he did have preferences beyond the fact of [Ann's] existence, but that was all they were, a set of requests. Nothing was actually necessary beyond what he already had, any added pleasure or comfort he was willing to forgo if need be. In the center were the two of them, bound together, and what rotated, what clung, what distant satellite might orbit them in a faint attraction, far out from the core held fast, was mostly empty space.
This is interesting as a character study (and he does also have a sense of humour lurking in him, although all-too-often it is buried beneath his angsty impatience with Ann's crusade), but not a terribly absorbing quality in a central character who possesses few others. Ann, meanwhile, is a singularly solipsistic individual, who drifts her dreamy way from situation to situation with little noticeable engagement in what happens around her, beyond flat observations of her surroundings (described but rarely experienced, by which I mean they're usually rendered in a 2-D rather than fully sensory way) and banal thoughts about life. Again, this would not be critical - her characterisation is consistent if not overly interesting, and some of her distance may be explained by the fact that she witnesses a traumatic event early on (although she's little more switched-on before it happens; and note the witnesses... always at a remove) - were she not such a major part of the novel's fabric and tone. Ultimately, she gets in the way of the interesting stuff - sometimes literally, tuning out (and thus depriving us) of important exchanges:
--Not at all, said Szilard stoutly. We are not claiming to be believers ourselves. We have a task before us. We have a message. That is all. People are free to interpret our work as they choose. That is both their right and their privilege.
They started walking again, Ann feeling her feet to be almost equally solid as they sank into the wet sand, the weak foot forgiven. The sand could not tell the difference.
She wondered if she could live entirely in sand.
--Keep in mind, Robert, that science is an idea to these people but religion is a belief.
The whole thing is beautifully written, though, even when Millet is discussing things that clearly disquiet and even enrage her. The story is interspersed with info-dumped anecdotes and statistics regarding the ruinous legacy of that first bomb-testing, but Millet finds the beauty in the mushroom cloud nonetheless:
She saw the cloud churning and growing, majestic and broad, and thought: No, not a mushroom, but a tree. A great and ancient tree, growing and sheltering us all.
The sight of it was poetry, the kind that turns men's bones to dust before their hearts.
At times, unsurprisingly, the prose dips into overwrought and purple-tinged:
There was no birdsong. It was the silence before dawn, when the birds do not sing, the stopped time after dreams in which men die with their eyes on the ceiling, throats aching with tears, arms leaden beside them on the cold sheets.
But Millet's willingness to recognise this beauty, even in destruction, extends - significantly - to her portrait of the scientists and their motivations, which is never less than sympathetic:
They worked because they wanted to see; they worked because they worshipped the structure deep within the universe, what was sweetly unknown and could only with great perseverance be drawn into the light. As others might feel tenderness for a child or a home, so they cherished and nurtured their science.
It was love that led them to the bomb.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is an indictment - but it is a sensitive, nuanced, and often moving one. It's just a pity that the novel is so frequently bogged down by Ann, Ben, and their run-of-the-mill relationship angst, and eventually derailed by the author's lack of interest in her plot device. 150 pages shorter and better thought-through, this could have been wonderful. In the end, it's fascinating but fatally flawed, and reading it felt like much more of a slog than it ought to have been.
Vicky: First, just to get it off my chest: you see that book cover up there? With the blue plastic gloves holding the little 'bomb'? I hate it. Yes. I really *hate* it. So much so that every time I picked up O Pure and Radiant Heart this week I had to avert my eyes. I hate the way the bomb is slick and shiny, like an unholy rugby-ball-sized chocolate raisin; I shudder at the colour contrast between the blue gloves and the pinkish coat; I dislike the way the title is arranged. Ugh.
But moving past external aesthetics, I feel largely ambivalent about the novel itself. For the length of its 453 trade-paperback sized pages, I was both impressed and unimpressed (in somewhat unequal measure). At times I was bored witless while, at others, I was happily engrossed; and my view of Millet's prose changed page by page - from brilliant to turgid and back again. My final impression was of a novel uneven in each of its creative aspects - plot and prose, theme and character - and of uncertain character. Because, in the first place and quite clearly, O Pure and Radiant Heart isn't sure what kind of book it wants to be: is it sf, unabashed? Or a contemporary philosophical novel? Or a polemic against modern society? Or a (rather long) CND leaflet advocating nuclear disarmament? It tries very hard to be all four things, but really only succeeds at the latter two. This is because, at its core, it is a didactic piece, with a message. That is, a single-minded and obviously liberal politico-moral agenda - pro-disarmament, anti-corporation and, most vitally, pro-secular. It is a left-wing angst novel for a post-9/11 world.
And, don't get me wrong, it touches me in all the right places so far as ethics go. I found myself reading the 'info-dumps' (which Nic mentions above) out to Esther, with a certain righteous horror; who wouldn't feel a sense of outrage at something like this:
'During the decades of the Cold War there could never be enough nuclear weapons, yet there were always too many. For any practical purpose up to and including global annihilation, there were simply far too many. At the height of this frenzy of production in 1960, before it refined its arsenal for accuracy instead of brute force, the US alone possessed twenty thousand megatons worth of bombs. This was the equivalent of 1.4million Hiroshimas.'
Millett certainly captures the senselessness of the nuclear question in such snippets. But I'm unsure that they a) have a place in fiction, or b) are fair to the reader. They serve to remove nuance from the text, to the extent that the reader is cudgeled into feeling a particular way about the fictional events of the novel. (Although there really is only one of way of reading the book anyway - nuclear weapons = bad.) And they stand to disturb the reader's suspension of disbelief: it is difficult to think about George W Bush's real world policy on nuclear programmes, while also accepting that three dead scientists have been raised from the grave and are leading a peace march on Washington, c. 2003. Finally, it threatens to turn the plot of the novel into a hobby horse, a deus ex machina just to carry Millet's gospel forward.
That is not to say that the plot, and the idea behind it, doesn't have great potential. I agree with Nic that the scientists - Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard - are very well drawn. Szilard, in particular, is a delicious portrait of genius combined with oblivious selfishness. And funny too. His dead pan dialogue cracked me up. Both Fermi and Oppenheimer have the right mix of incredulity and pathos. And the idea of the three of them being displaced into our time is admittedly fascinating. Millet explores it best in the early part of the book, after the scientists first arrive and are forced to adapt to 21st century reality; their grief for the less crowded, less pollutedand less noisy world they have lost is beautifully expressed. As Oppenheimer moves through Los Alamos during his first few weeks, he is horrified by the changes that have taken root there:
'The mesa had been a place of elegant and windswept isolation, a place where it was possible to be alone and feel the presence of God. He had waited it to revert to wilderness one day. When the soldiers, the engineers, and the scientists had all left he had wanted it turned back to open space, abandoned ranches and yellow grass and sage scrub or a small, bucoclic town. He had wanted it to be a palce that history had moved through once fleetingly, with no trace of the past blowing through the high silver branches of its solitary trees.
But the wide streets were treeless now. In place of trees were telephone poles.'
Thus he sees the inexorable horror of the Bomb reflected in humanity's less-terrifying crimes against nature - the ubiquity of cars and the expanse of roads to accommodate them; the commodification of daily life; the commericialisation of agriculture and domestic production; and the rise of the individual.
But any meaningful discourse on such change looses momentum in the latter half of the novel when Millet shifts her sights from the general malaise of modern society to the specific evils of fundamentalist Christianity and the arms industry. At this point Oppenheimer et al become little more than puppets in a left-wing parable - as their message of peace is usurped by the fundamentalists and transformed into a doctrine of Rapture, the scientists' individuality fades away. As Nic notes, Oppenheimer's quiet transformation from Jewish secularist to acquiescent Messiah seems wholly out of character - one of Millet's many sacrifices to her message. Clearly, she had to line up her targets and knock them down, no matter the damage to the subtleties of her novel.
Finally, and like Nic, I was thoroughly disappointed (and frustrated) by Ann and Ben, who seem to exist only to smooth the scientists' re-entry into the world. Ann's solipsism is distracting, pretentious and, at times, downright silly:
'She sets herself tasks of thinking when she left on a walk, small tasks such as: What counts as mundane? If mundane just means "Of, pertaining to or typical of this world" how is it that over the years the mundane has become allied with the trivial?
The word mundane derives clearly from the Latin mundus, the world. Why is the world - which after all is all we have - so much maligned? Why does familiarity breed contempt?'
Half a dozen similar musings later and Ann is beginning to remind me of Alice Black from Gail Jones' Dreams of Speaking, the most ridiculous novel I've ever read. I want to give her a good shake. I want to shout: what does any of this drivel actually mean?? Ben is more tolerable, particularly as time wears on and he grows impatient with his wife's obsession with the scientists, but he does have that wearisome propensity to coddle and moon over her. In the end, I was left uncertain why and how they were changed by their extroadinary experiences over the course of the novel; I was unsure why they were 'chosen' in the first place.
So: O Pure and Radiant Heart, a propaganda vehicle cobbled together out of interesting ideas, a pretty turn of prose and sticky tape. I can see why it was shortlisted for the Clarke - I don't think it's entirely without credit, and it does manage to provoke (or manipulate) the reader into a response. I mean, it isn't in the critically unredeemable category with Stableford's Streaking and is well worth reading in parts. I can't say fairer than that.
Nic : The award ceremony is tomorrow (and I'll be there!); time to talk outcomes. If I had to rank the shortlist, it would go something like this:
End of the World Blues
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
I'd be very happy to see any of the top three win. Will likely spontaneously combust if, by some freak accident, Streaking takes it.
Vicky: And if I had to rank the shortlist, it would look pretty much the same except for the top two spots:
End of the World Blues
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
Although I don't really want to rank Streaking at all...
Who do I think will win? Like Nic I'd be happy with any of the top three but I have my money Gradisil, possibly with Hav as the outsider. :-)