Science vs. Fiction: Jonathan Lethem on "The Arrest"

Janna Levin and Jonathan Lethem talk about the science of fiction and the fiction of science. Lethem weaves conceptual and scientific notions into his masterful novels, including his latest, The Arrest, which tells of the arrival of a monstrous, technologically advanced, espresso-machine supercar into a charming, placid, small town in coastal Maine. While the vision came to him quite suddenly, he explained that the idea stems from apocalyptic notions as a child of the 60s and 70s. Levin’s new book, Black Hole Survival Guide (with artwork by Lia Halloran), is a fun romp through an ill-fated exploration of black holes. The pocket-size book invites readers into the very real science of this ultimate universal force.

Is there a distinction we should draw between dystopian and apocalyptic? Or between Sci Fi and speculative fiction? Tune in while the authors converse from their own murky environments in the ether. Get ready for some troubling yet curious visuals while Lethem and Levin discuss their respective new books, their Dystopian Top 5 and beyond.


As a preview...their DYSTOPIAN TOP 5:

From Lethem:

  • Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1959 TV Series)

The whole show (including the credits and music) is at the center of my dystopian sensibility, so I’m just listing it rather than singling out one episode. Though certainly it is eight or ten episodes that actually matter to me: “The After Hours”, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”, “Walking Distance”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Invaders”, “Good Enough at Last.” These are akin to paranoid mid-century short SF stories by American writers like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick, but the Twilight Zone was my entrée, and emblematic of that mood.

  • Nicholas Roeg’s & David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth/Station to Station

Again, I’m running stuff together here: Walter Tevis’s terse novel, Nicholas Roeg’s psychedelic film, Bowie’s image in the film and the stills of him on the cover of his most ominous and dystopian recordings, all of which hit me like a ton of bricks. This was, for me much more than A Clockwork Orange, dystopian brought up to the countercultural edge of the dissipated, druggy ‘70’s.

  • George Orwell's 1984

So basic and background an influence on me that I can’t see around its edges. Orwell’s fundamental assertion is that the future is an allegory of the past, if we are allowed to read it. It was written by an Englishman but it seems to me to describe The Great American Amnesiac totally.

  • Anna Kavan’s Ice

One of the first, and one of the harshest, eco-fictions. As with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the world ends in ice, not fire. Still feels like where we’re headed.

  • Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub

The ultimate surrealist cold war phatasmagoria, Lem’s book features a paranoiac environment known as “The Building”—a gigantic Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is obsessed with the existence of an unseen hidden enemy, called “The Anti-Building.” Within that frame come satires of science and academia, postmodernism and religion.

From Levin:

  • Arecibo

Arecibo is a much beloved 1000-ft radio telescope nestled in a sinkhole in the mountains of Puerto Rico. For six decades this generous instrument sent and received messages from space. When a 900-ton observation deck collapsed this month, tearing struts from the mountainside and landing in the dish, that big beautiful telescope was destroyed and along with it some of our interstellar ambitions.

  • Stanley Kubric's A Space Odyssey (2001)

Really I’m a sucker for any sort of monolith. Kubric’s monolith of course assumes pride of place as archetypal. Admittedly, the recent shenanigans in Utah undermined the fearsomeness of the oddly haunting shape. I heard that the guys who disassembled the thing apparently shouted epithets at the obelisk as they carted it offsite in a wheelbarrow.

  • Space Debris

Sometimes I imagine Sputnik incinerating in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is a respectable demise for a spacecraft. There is so much space debris out there that NASA has a division to track potential conjunctions, a euphemism for collisions. Occasionally defunct cold-war satellites threaten modern instruments. Worst is the debris from satellites intentionally destroyed by their countries of origin in a demonstration of military might.

  • Static

Static in video or audio transmissions is just haunting. Probably my low-level anxiety around static originates from the first time I heard the crackling recording of Orson Wells' War of the Worlds. In some kind of ironic twist, we’re all presently communicating with advanced technology that’s delivering low-fidelity experiences. The pixelation of our video calls isn’t due to static, but has that vintage veneer.

  • Death by Black Hole (like in Lethem's She Climbed Across the Table)

There are many ways to explore death by black hole, and all of them are extravagantly interesting. Jonathan Lethem invented a manner of suicide by black hole that I hadn’t considered. Trap one in your laboratory and despite all safety warnings and best scientific practices, climb right in. ♦

If you want books fast for the holidays, try your usual online venues or, even better, your local bookstore—it might be on a slower timescale, but we’d be honored to send you a signed copy!

Jonathan Lethem is the bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Feral Detective, The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Arrest is his twelfth novel. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's and many other periodicals. He was born in New York and attended Bennington College, and currently teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California. His most recent book is The Arrest.

Janna Levin is the Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works and Editor-in-Chief of the Broadcast. She is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. Janna won a PEN prize for a first work of fiction. Her most recent book is Black Hole Survival Guide.