Asimov's: August 2008
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette
Seldom do I finish a story and find myself stunned, staring off into space trying to wrap my head around what I just read.
That’s just what happened with Ted Kosmatka’s superb story “Divining Light.” Kosmatka begins simply enough, with a once famous scientist receiving a research grant as a mercy from an old friend who had the means to help him out. Eric, the scientist, tells James, the friend, that he can no longer do what he once could and that he couldn’t promise he wouldn’t have another breakdown. The position in the Hansen Labs is a four month mercy.
Through the opening pages readers are introduced to some of the other researchers, a hint of their experiments, and how Eric passes the time. Kosmatka’s prose is hypnotic and even though there is very little expectation that Eric will do anything of note in his four months at the lab, Kosmatka is luring readers in, suckering them into believing that “Divining Light” is just a simple, quiet story of a guy who no longer has the capacity to do serious research passing time in a research lab and drawing a healthy salary on the basis of an old friendship. That’s the sucker’s bet.
Eric’s discovery of equipment in the lab with which he could reproduce a long-proven experiment finally piques his interest and he sets out to do just that experiment. He does not wish to disprove it. Eric had used the theory in his own work in the past. He just wishes to see it with his own eyes, to do the science himself.
This is the turning point of “Divining Light” and though Ted Kosmatka is still lulling readers with his quiet and easy prose, he is setting them up for a conclusion with profound implications for…well…if I said what the conclusion implied, some of the surprise would be spoiled. Let’s not do that.
“Divining Light” is a beautifully written and thoughtfully constructed story. The conclusion is such that many readers may well sit back and wonder if what Kosmatka posits might actually be true, if it could be real. This is the best sort of science fiction.