... 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?