There is no easy way to describe Ratner’s Star, a cheerfully apocalyptic novel. Imagine Alice in Wonderland set at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. We are at some giddy point in the near future. Sweden is at war, so fourteen-year-old Billy Twillig of the Bronx has had to receive his Nobel Prize in mathematics at a rump ceremony in Connecticut. When we meet Billy, a cocky, sensible kid, he is airborne on a Sony 747 on his way to a sci-fi complex called Field Experiment Number One. Billy, an expert on zorgs (“A zorg is a kind of number. You can’t use zorgs for anything except in mathematics. Zorgs are useless”), has been summoned to decode a mathematical signal being beamed at Planet Earth by the presumed inhabitants of a distant body known to the scientists as Ratner’s Star.
So Billy’s Adventures in Scienceland begin. The celebrated scientists gathered at Field Experiment Number One turn out to be the oddest collection of benign yet sinister zanies this side of the Looking Glass. They live by logical systems that are coherent yet thoroughly mad. They converse in a jargon that sounds like but isn’t quite English. (DeLillo has an ear for specialized language, and the satirical possibilities therein, that most novelists should be willing to kill for.) Each scientist zealously pursues his own private, obsessive microspecialty. The most revered among them have retreated into infantile behavior and generalized despair.
DeLillo parodies brilliantly and ruthlessly the cult of science, its heartlessness, its private languages, its barren self-love. Midway through his research Billy is told to stop looking for the meaning of the star’s message, that it has become irrelevant to the project as a whole. The reader is advised to pay attention to the warning, though, like Billy, he’s bound to keep looking for meaning, albeit in a literary sense. The book is, in the end, as elegantly meaningless as a mathematical abstraction, though it is considerably more unnerving and far more entertaining.