Love and loss compel a brilliant scientist to defy the laws of physics.
It’s 1986, and Nedda Papas—a precocious 11-year-old who dreams of becoming an astronaut—sits in an Easter, Florida, classroom, watching the Challenger launch on television. Across town, Nedda’s father, Theo, tinkers with Crucible, a machine designed to manipulate time by controlling entropy. The technology has numerous practical applications, which is how the former NASA physicist–turned–college professor secured funding for his research, but in truth, the long-ago death of his infant son has Theo desperate to prolong Nedda’s childhood. Cape Canaveral is just 10 miles away, so when Challenger explodes, it sends shockwaves both literal and figurative through Easter. As Nedda grapples with the crew members’ demises, a catastrophic reaction sparks in Crucible’s core, immobilizing Theo and leaving Easter’s fate in the hands of Nedda and her mother, Betheen—a baker who, unbeknownst to Nedda, forsook a career in chemistry for her family. Swyler (The Book of Speculation, 2015) intersperses this storyline with scenes from Nedda’s future aboard the Chawla, a four-person interstellar vessel en route to a faraway planet when its life-support generator begins to fail. Keenly wrought characters and evocative prose complement a multifaceted plot that explores topics ranging from relativity and thermodynamics to parent-child relationships and the afterlife. Though Theo’s grief and ambition serve as a catalyst, it’s Nedda’s and Betheen’s passion, determination, and fortitude that drive the book to its heart-wrenching, awe-inspiring conclusion.
Grand in scope and graceful in execution, Swyler’s latest is at once a wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age tale and a profound work of horror-tinged science fiction.