I've been seeing great things about Ted Kosmatka's very recently released Flicker Men. Great things! Both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal gave it starred reviews and fellow blogger My Bookish Ways calls it a "...creepy masterpiece of a novel..." (seriously, Kristin has fantastic taste and her word really does carry a lot of weight for me). Considering the fact that this one was already in my reading plans, the above praise just means that I need to get to it SOON!
Before we jump into the excerpt and the giveaway, here's the book's description from Goodreads to get you started:
Out of a job and struggling with depression and alcohol abuse after a breakdown, the brilliant quantum physicist Eric Angus is given a second chance after he’s hired on a probationary basis by an old friend who runs Hansen, a prestigious Boston-area research lab. Unable to find inspiration for a project, Eric stumbles upon old equipment used for Feynman’s double-slit experiment and decides to re-create the test in order to see the results for himself.
Eric probes deeper into Feynman’s theory, with the help of fellow scientists Satish and Mi Chang. After extensive tests on frogs, dogs, chimps, working their way up every phylum, class, and order in the animal kingdom, Eric and his team establish a link between conscious observation and an evolutionary trait that is distinctly human: the soul. Mass chaos ensues after they publish the results of their experiment and Eric is bombarded by reporters angling for exclusive interviews and wanting to debate the varying implications. Questions arise when certain people appear to be “soulless,” and after Satish mysteriously disappears, Eric risks everything to answer them.
Sounds awesome, right?! Hopefully it's piqued your interest accordingly, 'cause I'm just going to cut straight to the excerpt:
(Excerpt from chapter 3)
There are days I don’t drink at all. On those days, I pick up my father’s .357 and look in the mirror. I convince myself what it will cost me, today, if I take the first sip. It will cost me what it cost him.
But there are also days I do drink. Those are the days I wake up sick. I walk into the bathroom and puke into the toilet, needing a drink so bad my hands are shaking. The bile comes up—a heaving, muscular convulsion as I pour myself into the porcelain basin. My stomach empties in long spasms while my skull throbs, and my legs tremble, and the need grows into a ravening monster.
When I can stand, I look in the bathroom mirror and splash water on my face. I say nothing to myself. There is nothing I would believe.
It is vodka on these mornings. Vodka because vodka has no smell.
I pour it into an old coffee thermos.
A sip to calm the shakes. A few sips to get me moving.
It is a balancing act. Not too much, or it could be noticed. Not too little, or the shakes remain. Like a chemical reaction, I seek equilibrium. Enough to get by, to get level, as I walk through the front entrance of the lab.
I take the stairs up to my office. If Satvik knows, he says nothing. Satvik studied circuits. He bred them, in little ones and zeroes, in a Mather’s Field-gated Array. The array’s internal logic was malleable, and he allowed selective pressure to direct chip design. Like evolution in a box. The most efficient circuits were identified by automated program and worked as a template for subsequent iteration. Genetic algorithms manipulated the best codes for the task. “Nothing is ideal,” he said. “There’s lots of modeling.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea how it all worked.
Satvik was a genius who had been a farmer in India until he came to America at the age of twenty. He earned an electrical engineering degree from MIT. He’d chosen electrical engineering because he liked the math. After that, Harvard and patents and job offers. All described to me in his matter-of-fact tone, like of course it had happened that way, anybody could do it. “There is no smart,” he said. “There is only trying hard.”
And he seemed to believe it.
Myself, I wasn’t so sure.
Other researchers would come by to see the field-gated arrays set up around his workstation like some self-organizing digital art. The word elegant came up again and again—highest praise from those for whom mathematics was a first language. He stood crouching over his work, concentrating for hours. And that was part of it. His ability to focus. To just sit there and do the work.
“I am a simple farmer,” he liked to say when someone complimented his research. “I like to challenge the dirt.”
Satvik had endless expressions. When relaxed, he let himself lapse into broken English. Sometimes, after spending the morning with him, I’d fall into the pattern of his speech, talking his broken English back at him, an efficient pidgin that I came to respect for its streamlined efficiency and ability to convey nuance.
“I went to dentist yesterday,” Satvik told me. “She says I have good teeth. I tell her, ‘Forty-two years old, and it is my first time at dentist.’ And she could not believe.”
“You’ve never been to the dentist?” I said.
“How is that possible?”
“Until I am in twelfth grade in my village back home, I did not know there was a special doctor for teeth. Since then, I never went because I had no need. The dentist says I have good teeth, no cavities, but I have stain on my back molars on the left side where I chew tobacco.”
“You chew.” I tried to picture Satvik hawking a plug like a baseball player, but the image wouldn’t come.
“I am ashamed. None of my brothers chew tobacco. Out of my family, I am the only one. I started years ago on the farm. Now I try to stop.” Satvik spread his hands in exasperation. “But I cannot. I told my wife I stopped two months ago, but I started again, and I have not told her.” His eyes grew sad. “I am a bad person.”
Satvik’s brow furrowed. “You are laughing,” he said. “Why are you laughing?”
Hansen was a gravity well in the tech industry—a constantly expanding force of nature, always buying out other labs, buying equipment, absorbing the competition
Hansen labs only hired the best, without regard to national origin. It was the kind of place where you’d walk into the coffee room and find a Nigerian speaking German to an Iranian. Speaking German because they both spoke it better than English, the other language they had in common. Hansen was always hungry for talent.
The Boston lab was just one of Hansen’s locations, but we had the largest storage facility, which meant that much of the surplus lab equipment ended up shipped to us. We opened boxes. We sorted through supplies. If we needed anything for our research, we signed for it, and it was ours. It was the antithesis of most corporate bureaucracy, where red tape was the order of the day.
Most mornings I spent with Satvik. We’d stand side by side at his lab bench, talking and keeping busy. I helped him with his gate arrays. He talked of his daughter while he worked. Lunch I spent on basketball.
Sometimes after basketball, as a distraction, I’d drop by Point Machine’s lab in the North building to see what he was up to. He worked with organics, searching for chemical alternatives that wouldn’t cause birth defects in amphibians. He tested water samples for cadmium, mercury, arsenic.
Point Machine was a kind of shaman. He studied the gene expression patterns of amphioxus; he read the future in deformities. The kind of research my mother would have liked—equal parts alarm and conspiracy.
“Unless something is done,” he said, “most amphibians will go extinct.” He had aquariums filled with salamanders and frogs—frogs with too many legs, with tails, with no arms. Monsters. They hopped or swam or dragged themselves along, Chernobyl nightmares in long glass jars.
Next to his lab was the office of a woman named Joy. Like me, she was new to the lab, but it wasn’t clear when she’d started, exactly. The others only seemed to know her first name. Sometimes Joy would hear us talking, and she’d swing by, delicate hand sliding along the wall—tall and beautiful and blind. Did acoustical research of some kind. She had long hair and high cheekbones—eyes so clear and blue and perfect that I didn’t even realize at first.
“It’s okay,” she said to one researcher’s stammering apology. “I get that a lot.” She never wore dark glasses, never used a white cane. “Detached retinas,” she explained. “I was three. It’s nothing to me.”
“How do you find your room?” It was Satvik who asked it. Blunt Satvik.
“Who needs eyes when you have ears and memory? The blind are good at counting steps. Besides, you shouldn’t trust your eyes.” She smiled. “Nothing is what it seems.”
In the afternoons, back in the main building, I tried to work.
Alone in my office, I stared at the marker board. The great empty expanse of it. I picked up the marker, closed my eyes. Nothing is what it seems.
I wrote from memory, the formula spooling out of my left hand with practiced ease. A series of letters and numbers, like the archaic runes of some forgotten sorcery—a shape I could see in my head. The work from QSR. I stopped. When I looked at what I’d written, I threw the marker against the wall. The stack of notes on my desk shifted and fell to the floor.
Jeremy came by later that night.
He stood in the doorway, cup of coffee in his hand. He saw the papers scattered across the floor, the formula scrawled across the marker board.
“Math is merely metaphor,” his voice drifted from the doorway. “Isn’t that what you always used to say?”
“Ah, the self-assuredness of youth. So rich in simple declarations.” “You have nothing to declare?”
“I’ve lost the stomach.”
He patted his own stomach. “What you’ve lost, I’ve gained, eh?”
That raised a smile from me. He wasn’t a pound overweight; he simply no longer looked like he was starving. “Isn’t that just like us,” I said, “giving ourselves primacy. Maybe we’re the metaphor.”
He held out his coffee cup in mock salute. “You always were the smart one.”
“The crazy one, you mean.”
He shook his head. “No, Stuart was the crazy one. But you were the one to watch. We all knew it. Before you came along, I’d never seen a student get into an argument with a professor.”
“That was forever ago.”
“But you won the argument.”
“Funny, but I don’t remember it like that.”
“Oh, you won, all right, if you think about it.” He sipped his coffee. “It just took you a few years.”
Jeremy walked farther into the room, careful not to step on the papers. “Do you still talk to Stuart?”
“Not for a long time.”
“Too bad,” he said. “You partnered on some interesting work.”
Which was one way to put it. It was also Jeremy’s way of bringing up his reason for dropping in. Work. “I got a visit from one of the review board members today,” he said. “He asked about your progress.”
“It’s been a few weeks. The board is just staying on top of things, curious how you’re adjusting.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I’d look in on you, so here I am. Looking in.” He gestured toward the formula on the marker board. “It’s good to see you working on something.”
“It’s not work,” I said.
“These things take time.”
Honesty welled up. There was no point in lying. To myself or him. A
rising bubble in my chest, and just like that, it burst: “Time is what I’m wasting here,” I said. “Your time. This lab’s time.”
“It’s fine, Eric,” he said. “It’ll come.”
“I don’t think it will.”
“We have researchers on staff who don’t have a third of your citings. You belong here. The first few weeks can be the toughest.”
“It’s not like before. I’m not like before.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“No, I’ve accomplished nothing.” I gestured at the board. “One unfinished formula in three weeks.”
His expression shifted. “Just this?” He studied the dozen symbols laid out in a line. “Are you making progress?”
“I don’t know how to finish it,” I said. “I can’t find the solution. It’s a dead end.”
“There’s nothing else? No other research that you’re pursuing?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
He turned toward me. That sad look back again.
“I shouldn’t be here,” I told him. “I’m wasting your money.”
“No.” I shook my head again.
He was quiet for a long while, staring at the formula like so many tea leaves. When he spoke, his voice was soft. “R&D is a tax write-off. You should at least stay and finish out your contract.”
I looked down at the mess I’d made—the papers scattered across the floor.
He continued, “That gives you another three months of salary before you face review. We can carry you that long. After that, we can write you up a letter of recommendation. There are other labs. Maybe you’ll land somewhere else.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, though we both knew it wasn’t true. It was the nature of last chances. Nothing came after.
He turned to go. “I’m sorry, Eric.”
It's taking everything I have not to drop everything and dive right into this as I put this post together. Alas it'll have to wait just a little bit.
Big, big thanks to Wunderkind PR for setting up the excerpt and giveaway.
If you like what you've read, throw your name in the hat for the giveaway copy by filling out the Rafflecopter below before Monday, August 17. Open US only and no PO boxes please.