“Ratner’s Star” is mentioned by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel in the introduction to their new anthology, “The Secret History of Science Fiction” (Tachyon: 382 pp., $14.95). Engaging with Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 Village Voice article “Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” in which Lethem imagined a world in which Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” won SF’s Hugo Award in 1973, the editors contend that the distinction between science fiction and mainstream (or mainstream literary) fiction has grown fuzzier over the last decade and, indeed, has always been sort of fuzzy. (I think that’s what they’re saying.)
I’m mildly interested in this sort of debate, and I was going to talk about “The Secret History of Science Fiction,” which is brimming with aces — from Margaret Atwood’s strange “Homelanding” to George Saunders’ chilling lab report “93990” to Carter Scholz’s antic, deeper-than-it-looks “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and maybe also to laud the altogether winning tone of Lethem’s “Chronic City” (stoner science-fiction-as-magical-realism?) as a new path in the genre battle. … But all I really want to do, at the moment, is embrace the unsuspecting editors in a massive, spine-crunching bear hug for including DeLillo’s story “Human Moments in World War III,” which first appeared in Esquire in 1983, and which I’d never read before. . . .
“Human Moments in World War III” is not just vintage DeLillo (appearing in between 1982’s “The Names” and 1985’s “White Noise,” by any sane estimate two of the great novels of the 1980s), but a potent encapsulation of his powers. The nameless narrator and his partner, Vollmer, are in orbit high above the Earth, where some large but ill-defined war rages. The astronauts are seated back to back when manning the firing panel, “to keep us from seeing each other’s face.”
Their mission is to inspect “unmanned and possibly hostile satellites.” The vantage understandably “puts men into a philosophical temper,” but Vollmer is starting to get on the narrator’s nerves. “Vollmer has never said a stupid thing in my presence,” he notes. “It is just his voice is stupid, a grave and naked bass, a voice without inflection or breath.” The spaceship rapidly becomes an echo chamber, a place of doubt where “the only danger is conversation.” The scenario is at once mundane and out of this world.