... gripping ... Labatut, a Chilean novelist born in 1980 in the Netherlands, casts the flickering light of Gothic fiction on 20th-century science. In five free-floating vignettes, he illuminates the kinship of knowledge and destruction, brilliance and madness ... Labatut’s imagination may run lurid, but his prose is masterfully paced and vividly rendered in Adrian Nathan West’s magnetic translation ... With his slippery hybrid of fact and fiction, Labatut slyly applies the uncertainty principle to the human pursuit of knowledge itself. Abstraction and imagination, measurement and story coexist in a multidimensional reality containing infinite destinies and interpretations. At its furthest reaches, reason and scientific inquiry lead into the unknowable.
... ingenious, intricate and deeply disturbing ... One of the most impressive aspects of the book is the wonderfully intricate web of associations that it weaves ... Labatut has written a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present.
... as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide, a poison whose origin story takes up much of the opening chapter—the first of many looping forays into the wonders and horrors unleashed by science in the past few centuries ... As the layers of patterns and affinities accumulated, I realized that I was no longer compulsively Googling, instead allowing the stories to flow ... There is liberation in the vision of fiction’s capabilities that emerges here—the sheer cunning with which Labatut embellishes and augments reality, as well as the profound pathos he finds in the stories of these men. But there is also something questionable, even nightmarish, about it. If fiction and fact are indistinguishable in any meaningful way, how are we to find language for those things we know to be true? In the era of fake news, more and more people feel entitled to 'make our own reality,' as Karl Rove put it. In the current American political climate, even scientific fact—the very material with which Labatut spins his web—is subject to grossly counter-rational denial. Is it responsible for a fiction writer, or a writer of history, to pay so little attention to the line between the two?
This fleet, darkly dazzling survey of modern innovations in chemistry illustrates the unbreakable bond between horror and beauty, life-saving and life-destroying ... Given a fine, exacting translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, these pieces possess an insidiously persuasive power, even if one senses the dice have been loaded in the portrayals that make all the scientists madmen and monomaniacs prone to febrile ravings. The famous elegance of quantum field theory, likewise, receives no discussion here. Instead, this book—as haunting as it is erudite—stubbornly insists on connecting the wonders of scientific advancement to the atrocities of history, creating a morality play with no obvious moral but much to keep the reader awake at night.
Reading like an episodic digest, Chilean writer Labatut’s stylish English-language debut offers an embellished, heretical, and thoroughly engrossing account of the personalities and creative madness that gave rise to some of the 20th century’s greatest scientific discoveries ... Hard to pin down and all the more enjoyable for it, this unique work is one to be savored.
Each section of the novel centers on one of the scientists in question, and in the early going Labatut comes off as more of a scientific historian than a novelist; the first chapter, on Haber, reads like a biographical sketch. But by the time we get to Erwin Schrödinger, Labatut’s writing becomes more interior and complex as the physicist scrabbles for footing within the scientific community and Indian religious tradition, then descends into an obsession with an underage girl he meets at a sanatorium. Just as quantum physics threw the bedrock principles of the universe into question, the novel shifts further from fact, closing with a fully fictional coda. In structure and content, the novel is highly mannered, but Labatut’s high-concept approach makes room for an emotional impact; you can feel the center stop holding as scientific triumphs become Pyrrhic victories ... A somber counterweight to the usual lore about scientific genius.