A family of frustrated science-lovers is caught up in a bizarre disaster in Erika Swyler’s ‘Light from Other Stars’

July 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 23, 2019

At the opening of Light from Other Stars, Erika Swyler’s 2019 new novel, the main character awakens to birdsong. But this seemingly commonplace occurrence is anything but; not only is Nedda Papas listening a recording of a species that’s been extinct since 1987, she is part of a four-person crew taking a one-way voyage aboard the starship Chawla to establish a colony on a far-flung planet. The mission is critical; without the colony, humanity will be unable to escape a homeworld that’s increasingly being devastated by climate change.

The book’s main action is staged in a very different setting: The (evidently fictitious) town of Easter some 32 years in the past. This community nestled on Florida’s space coast seems like a hamlet typical for its time and location, but the events Swyler chronicles are anything but.

That’s because on the morning of Jan. 28, 1987, a shockwave from the nearby Challenger explosion jostles a highly advanced but all-too-fragile experimental device that Nedda’s father has built in a lab at the local college. As Theo explains to his daughter, the prototype is designed to produce some incredible effects:

“Let’s say I have a bowl of marbles, half red, half white. Red on one side of the bowl, white on the other. Now, you come along and shake up the bowl. Do those marbles stay divided or do they get mixed up?” 

“They mix.” 

“Right. Entropy is you, shaking up the bowl, that progression of things. Entropy is how things move from order to disorder. It’s also one way of thinking about and measuring time.” 

“Oh.” 

“Are you with me?” 

She tugged the end of her braid. She didn’t want to say no, but she didn’t want to lie. 

“Try this. Think about how you get hot when you run. No. A better example — stove coils.” His arms stayed carefully away from his sides, hands touching only air. “The heat that comes off the coils is energy. It’s the same energy that powers the stove. Outlet to plug, through the wires, to the stove circuits, to the coils. The coils heat up, spending the energy. Once it’s heat, the energy is big, wide, and disorganized like the marbles you shook up. It’s hard, pretty much impossible, to put that energy back how it started. So entropy is moving from that electricity in the system to the heat that’s gone out into the air, off the stove coil.” He stopped. “Did I make it worse?” 

“No?” 

“Crucible arranges things. Specifically, it arranges energy. It can disorganize it faster to get a lot of heat from something all at once, instead of a little at a time. It can also organize things. If I can stop something, a system, from getting disorganized, if I can keep it perfect, it’s a little like stopping time in the system.” 

“Why?” 

“Okay, back to organization.” 

“No.” She cut him off before he could start in on marbles. “Why would you want to stop time?” 

“Ah. Better question.” He sat, letting her look down on his hair, the wiry curled mop, thick as his beard and streaked with white. It looked like steel wool. “You’re growing up too fast, Little Twitch. Maybe I want to keep you with me longer.” He smiled, but it was tight, square. “What if you could stop all the wear on things like bridges? Or make food that lasts twice as long before it goes rotten? A doctor could stop joints from breaking down.” 

For Theo Papas, both of these use cases are extremely practical; not only is the socially isolated scientist afraid of seeing his only child mature and grow apart from him, he’s afflicted by a chronic disease that has increasingly curtailed his ability to use his hands.

The mishap with Crucible, as Theo dubs his device, parallels the Challenger tragedy: In both instances, safety precautions were taken, including on the morning of the disaster, but they were inadequate. However, the impacts of the Crucible accident are both stranger and more far-reaching than the explosion that destroyed Challenger and killed its seven crew members.

At least two Easter residents are trapped in invisible bubbles and experience unnerving phenomena. The entire town’s weather, electronic devices and plants are all suffer bizarre effects. It’s only over the course of a few days that Nedda; her brilliant mother, Betheen, a frustrated chemistry prodigy who bakes remarkable cakes to distract from her existence as a disaffected housewife; and the other townsfolk begin to appreciate just how unusual Easter’s situation truly is.

‘Light from Other Stars’ by Erika Swyler.

Swyler has a knack for depicting sympathetic characters. From the smart but lonely Papas family to their counterparts, the three down-to-earth Pragers who are the neighbors they like the best, to other denizens of Easter, the author populates her book with interesting, nuanced individuals who all have relatable and appealing characteristics, even if they’re mainly defined by meanness, cowardice or incuriosity.

Light from Other Stars builds to a moving climax. Unfortunately, it suffers from a denouement that overindulges in magical thinking that I felt undercut both the emotional realism of the book and the meaningfulness of one character’s fate. Even so, it weaves a fascinating story that features a pair of intelligent, independent women. The book may appeal to readers who have little to no interest in science fiction.

I don’t know if I’ll seek out her well-reviewed 2015 debut novel, The Book of Speculation, but I will keep an eye out for forthcoming works from this writer.

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