Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Divining Light - Ted Kosmatka

I am a little short on time this week so I haven't yet finished the novel I intended to review. To fill the gap I browsed though the pile of unread fiction I have gathered from the web over the past couple of years and came across Divining Light by Ted Kosmatka. Kosmatka has recently published his first novel titled The Games. It is a book I considered reading but didn't find the time for. The rest of his oeuvre consists of short fiction of which I have only read one piece. A story called The N-Word which was published in the John Joseph Adams anthology Seeds of Change (2008). I probably picked up this story after it was nominated for the 2009 Nebula for best novelette, which eventually went to Eugie Foster's Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast. That must have been quite a story to beat Kosmatka's piece. Depressing as it is, I liked Divining Light a lot.

At the opening of the story we meet Eric Argus, a scientist working in quantum mechanics who went through a severe crisis after thinking over some of the implications of his research. He has turned to the bottle and has not produced any publishable work since. His work was of such high quality however, that his is offered a new chance. Eric is convinced he will fail but in the quiet, academic environment he finds himself in, he starts experimenting none the less. Encouraged by some of his colleagues he hits upon an application of quantum mechanics that has even more disturbing implications than his previous work.

Divining Light is a hard science fiction story. Don't bother reading it if you don't as least have a faint interest in physics. Most of it will either go right over your head or bore you to tears. Quantum mechanics, for me at least, always had something very counter-intuitive about it. It makes me have to pay close attention when reading science fiction that involves this branch of physics. The story is centered around a classic experiment known as Feynman's double slit experiment or Young's experiment. It is taught in classrooms all over the word to demonstrate that light can display both characteristics of wave phenomena and particles. The interesting thing about this experiment is that is was first performed in the 1790s, more than a century before the theoretical framework of physics caught up with this phenomenon. In the story the experiment is done with an electron beam rather than light but the effect is the same. The story contains references to such things as Wheeler's delayed choice experiment, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Schrödinger's cat and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. In short, it is quite heavy on physics.

There is no denying Divining Light is a story that leans heavily on ideas. Nevertheless, at the core of it, is a very human struggle. When the implications of his research become clear to Eric, he feels he has opened Pandora's box. You can't unlearn things and Eric deals poorly with his new found knowledge. Kosmatka slowly reveals what is bothering Eric while he explains the experiment to his colleagues. It is indeed an idea that seems to defy logic. So radical that it would be deeply upsetting to many people if it was proven correct. Eric struggle is excruciatingly painful at times. Kosmatka manages to show very well how Eric has tied himself into a knot. You can't help but agree with the character who wonders why the brilliant ones are always so screwed up.

Divining Light is not a story that makes the reader feel happy. At some point in the story Kosmatka leaves science and starts to speculate of course, I got the impression he stretches the science pretty far beyond what is currently being discussed in physics, but even keeping that in mind, he says some pretty disturbing things. One particular application of Eric's research that is mentioned in a bit more detail in the story doesn't speak well for humanity in particular. I don't doubt someone would be tempted to try it though. The author manages to connect the science and the effects on the human psyche very well. I haven't read many stories that manage this. In a way it reminded my of Ted Chiang's brilliant Division by Zero. It is clearly one of those stories that stayed on the to read stack too long. I guess I will have to read The Games now.

Story Details
Title: Divining Light
Author: Ted Kosmatka
Originally appeared in: Asimov's 2008
Pages: 29
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2008

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