Astral Weeks: An unexpected, and welcome, DeLillo discovery
In Don DeLillo’s latest novel, the weirdly exciting “Point Omega,” a character is “trying to read science fiction but nothing she’d read so far could begin to match ordinary life on this planet ... for sheer unimaginableness.” With another writer, you might coax an unsurprising aesthetic from this point of view: Ignore the attractions of extraterrestrials and dystopia — the way we live now is more than ample fodder for the fiction writer’s art.
The catch, of course, is that DeLillo has written science fiction and written it memorably. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an SF book that does quite the same thing as “Ratner’s Star” (1976), DeLillo’s early-career masterpiece. Part omnium gatherum, part comic novel, it’s a dense, entertaining, mind-bending boomerang of a book that luxuriates in the language of math and science while spinning an elegant, big-picture critique of those fields. Though daunting in structure and scale, it’s actually one of the more traditionally coherent of DeLillo’s books, with what amounts to a perfect resolution. All this, and it’s genuinely funny, too:
“As though to change the subject, Cyril explained his assignment at Field Experiment Number One. He was part of a committee formed to define the word ‘science.’ The committee had begun meeting regularly long before a site had even been chosen for the structure itself. It was thought a definition would be agreed upon about the time ground was being broken. But the debate continued to drag on and the definition at present ran some five hundred pages.”
“Ratner’s Star” is mentioned by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel in the introduction to their new anthology, “The Secret History of Science Fiction” (Tachyon: 382 pp., $14.95). Engaging with Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 Village Voice article “Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” in which Lethem imagined a world in which Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” won SF’s Hugo Award in 1973, the editors contend that the distinction between science fiction and mainstream (or mainstream literary) fiction has grown fuzzier over the last decade and, indeed, has always been sort of fuzzy. (I think that’s what they’re saying.)
I’m mildly interested in this sort of debate, and I was going to talk about “The Secret History of Science Fiction,” which is brimming with aces — from Margaret Atwood’s strange “Homelanding” to George Saunders’ chilling lab report “93990" to Carter Scholz’s antic, deeper-than-it-looks “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and maybe also to laud the altogether winning tone of Lethem’s “Chronic City” (stoner science-fiction-as-magical-realism?) as a new path in the genre battle. … But all I really want to do, at the moment, is embrace the unsuspecting editors in a massive, spine-crunching bear hug for including DeLillo’s story “Human Moments in World War III,” which first appeared in Esquire in 1983, and which I’d never read before.
If you’re like me, anything DeLillo writes is worthy of attention if not rapt exegesis, but once you get through the novels, what do you do? Read the plays, see them if you can; look for his blurbs (rarer than Pynchon’s) on other books; become obnoxiously insistent that the hard-to-find “Amazons,” which he cowrote under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell, is a pretty much relentless attack of the giggles, and, no, I can’t lend you my copy. Despite the advanced state of my DeLillo worship, I haven’t pursued his short fiction. There isn’t much of it, it’s uncollected, and despite DeLillo’s capacity for inhuman linguistic precision, his most indelible works are generally the ones that sprawl.
Or so I thought. “Human Moments in World War III” is not just vintage DeLillo (appearing in between 1982’s “The Names” and 1985’s “White Noise,” by any sane estimate two of the great novels of the 1980s), but a potent encapsulation of his powers. The nameless narrator and his partner, Vollmer, are in orbit high above the Earth, where some large but ill-defined war rages. The astronauts are seated back to back when manning the firing panel, “to keep us from seeing each other’s face.”
Their mission is to inspect “unmanned and possibly hostile satellites.” The vantage understandably “puts men into a philosophical temper,” but Vollmer is starting to get on the narrator’s nerves. “Vollmer has never said a stupid thing in my presence,” he notes. “It is just his voice is stupid, a grave and naked bass, a voice without inflection or breath.” The spaceship rapidly becomes an echo chamber, a place of doubt where “the only danger is conversation.” The scenario is at once mundane and out of this world.
In 14 pages, we get DeLillo’s trademark descriptive brio (Vollmer has “the easy face of a handyman in a panel truck that has an extension ladder fixed to the roof and a scuffed license plate, green and white, with the state motto beneath the digits”), effortless catch-22 profundity (“The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war”), and an ear for what others would take to be deadened language: “It is not a voice as such, Tomahawk. It is selective noise. We have some real firm telemetry on that.” (Selective noise, indeed.)
And we get a kind of distillation of DeLillo’s — of any writer’s talent: a helpless attraction to the sheer world-making possibility of words. In “Ratner’s Star,” a character practically has a career defining a single word; in “Human Moments in World War III,” the act of definition takes on its proper god-like status. From his “privileged vista,” the narrator identifies, with something close to ardor:
"[a] seaward bulge of stratocumulus. Sunglint and littoral drift. I see blooms of plankton in a blue of such Persian richness it seems an animal rapture, a color-change to express some form of intuitive delight. As the surface features unfurl, I list them aloud by name. It is the only game I play in space, reciting the earth-names, the nomenclature of contour and structure. Glacial scour, moraine debris. Shatter-coning at the edge of a multi-ring impact site. A resurgent caldera, a mass of castellated rimrock. Over the sand seas now. Parabolic dunes, star dunes, straight dunes with radial crests. The emptier the land, the more luminous and precise the names for its features. Vollmer says the thing science does best is name the features of the world.”
“Human Moments in World War III” lasts exactly as long as it needs to, a haunting meditation on nothing less than the world, a perspective enabled by the power of science fiction.
Park is the author of “Personal Days” and co-editor of “Read Hard: Five Years of Great Writing From the Believer.”
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