"Radiance" is an ingenious and at times a brilliant novel, brilliant in almost the same forbidding manner as the laser death-ray space weapon its principal characters hope to build (or at least to get funded). Friendliness, however, is not high on its list of virtues. It offers two protagonists, and you'd pay not to be seated next to either one at dinner. They are Leo Highet and Philip Quine, successive directors of a nuclear-weapons lab in suburban California that bears a striking resemblance to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Within the culture of weapons physics depicted so scathingly in this first novel by Carter Scholz (an experimental composer, author of short fiction and occasional Salon contributor), Highet and Quine are rivals and ideological opponents. Quine, the focus of the beginning and closing sections of "Radiance," is a cautious reformer, allegedly eager to wean the lab off WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), who begins a love affair with a young anti-nuclear activist.
Highet, who takes up less space in Scholz's text but more in the reader's imagination, is a grandiose dreamer who compares himself to Leonardo da Vinci and argues that freeing the atom's power is part of the great work of consciousness: "We open a crack through which light blazes, waking the life in every mote." But both are desperate, heartsick, middle-aged men beset by allergies, poison oak, chaos, greed, corruption, traffic jams, blood, mucus and encroaching mortality. And that's not even counting the deep geostrategic game in which both are enmeshed, a game that might, if we're lucky, involve nothing worse than a trillion dollar fleecing of the American taxpayer.
If we're not lucky, Highet and Quine's game involves the free-market retailing of nuclear secrets to every two-cent troglodyte dictator on the globe and a specter of nuclear Armageddon that, as one character observes, ought to make us nostalgic for the Cold War days of two-player mutually assured destruction. Indeed, if you're looking for grim prescience, Scholz's book is loaded with it: Late in the novel a rotund right-wing radio commentator tells his audience, sometime around 1995, that "the demise of the Soviet Union dunt mean we're home scot free, we have Korea out there we have Iran out there we have Iraq out there we better be prepared to take these turkeys out." (Of course, a flaw of sorts is exposed here, if you want to look at it that way: Scholz doesn't even contemplate a reader who might agree with this view.)
In fiction workshops writers are taught never to be judgmental of their characters. Scholz violates this rule enthusiastically, scourging Highet and Quine with the vindictive wrath of the Old Testament God, and if that isn't likely to get "Radiance" onto Oprah's list it imbues this dense and difficult novel with a kind of fervent clarity. These men who have mastered the secrets of the nucleus (or say they have) can't operate CD players or fax machines or fix clogged sinks.
Nothing in their offices ever works, they are under siege by CNN and the General Accounting Office, they are somehow beholden to a Mephistophelian "aerospace consultant" with rotten teeth who seems to be the real power in this shadowy realm. Their lives slide by in a paranoid, self-destructive fury; if there are no literal plagues of boils or locusts in "Radiance" that's only a matter, as someone in this book might say, of data not yet conforming to theory.
Scholz may remind readers of Thomas Pynchon at some moments and J.G. Ballard at others. "Radiance" is not science fiction but an argument that science has become fiction; not an account of an imaginary apocalypse but a claim that apocalypse was already to be seen in the sprawl and the pollution and the death wish of California technocracy in the early Clinton years. If the plot of "Radiance" is a tangled knot of deception, self-deception and conspiracy leading only to exhaustion and despair, it's Scholz's extraordinary language -- his ear for befuddled dialogue and scientific obfuscation, his resonant, haunted landscapes -- that crack the book open and allow its light to blaze forth.
Our next pick: A man searches for the truth about his mother's suicide in the ravishing but dark children's books she wrote