The Making of Incarnation

Tom McCarthy

November 3, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Tom McCarthy's novel, The Making of Incarnation. McCarthy's work has been translated into over 20 languages and adapted for cinema, theater, and radio. His novel, C, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the European Literature Prize; his fourth, Satin Island, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Literature Prize by Yale University. He lives in Berlin.

Or, just: The Ten Commandments—the rest is self-evident, from the context. The title’s new; the format is more punchy. It runs, as it stands, like this:

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1. Physics—condensed, applied, particular, molecular, atomic, photonic, planetary, plasma, nuclear, nano-, astro-, geo- and etcetero—this shall be thy Lord and God. Physics has built your spaceship; it has raised it from the bondage of the earth and is propelling it to wheresoever you boldly are going. It is a jealous god: make graven images to other ones—particularly to the god of aesthetics, whose idol is the harlot of sensual perception—and it will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation, yea even to the end of thy franchise’s line.

2. Thou shalt not show thy astronauts perambulating over alien planets as though they were strolling through Central Park. Just look at Arnie (slide 1) wandering about the Martian landscape here: even a body as solid and muscular as his would weigh about a third of what it does on Earth. Ever wondered why Armstrong and Aldrin bounce around on those Moon-landing films? (If some smartass quips Because they’re faked then I shall commandeer his body and dispatch it to the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Antimatter Lab for instant condensation and annihilation!) On Jupiter, the scales tilt in the other direction: there, you’d weigh in at almost three times your terrestrial load. Each time you raised your thigh and knee to take a forward step, it’d be like (slide 2) training on a leg press pegged to max.

3. Thou shalt not let thy FX boys create giant, billowing explosions every time a starship fighter or space station is destroyed. That they’re being overpaid to cook up stuff that looks cool isn’t an excuse for contravening basic laws of possibility. For an explosion, or any form of combustion, you need oxygen— and there is no oxygen in space. Look at these (slide 3) flames in Starship Troopers: they’re even licking upwards (flag on that too; there’s no “up” or “down” in outer space) round the vessels’ hulls. And when the vessels deflagrate completely, we get huge booms—which, by dint of the aforementioned lack of oxygen or similar medium through which sound-waves might travel, is equally impossible. Kubrick, by contrast, gets it more or less right in 2001: A Space Odyssey: when Bowman (slide 4) blows Discovery One’s hatch to re-enter the ship, there’s an implosion, playing out in a vacuum, and in silence…

Ben Briar turns his face to the plane’s window. Outside, through the triple membrane, he can see the transatlantic predawn stretched round the earth’s curvature, a triple membrane too: haze, cloud, permafrost landmass. They must be somewhere above Newfoundland or Greenland. Troposphere and Arctic gauze, whisky on ice, his PowerPoint presentation. In Interstellar, on the scientist Mann’s ammonia-rich planet, frozen clouds furnish an upper ground that can be walked on—which is bullshit too: ice couldn’t hang suspended like that. He should add this; maybe in Commandment Number 9, the gravity one…

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4. Honour the laws of speed and distance. A radio signal from Earth would take twenty minutes to arrive at Mars, our next-door-neighbor planet. If you’re being a little more adventurous, and sending missions to the far end of the galaxy, you can extend that period to months, or even years. Instantaneous telecommunication, back-and-forth deploy-the-heat-shield/ how’s-the-wife/are-the-fish-biting repartee between Mission Control and Canis Major, is a major no-no. If an astronaut picks up a message while careening through Andromeda or Triangulum, it’s a safe bet that its sender died more than a century ago.

And on that note:

5. Thou shalt not have thy hero travel back in time. As Einstein showed us, time can warp and stretch, but neither he nor any other scientist with an ounce of credibility has ever claimed it can run backwards. The only property capable of moving across dimensions is (q.v. Commandment Number 9) gravity. Even if time travel were possible (and once again: it’s not), to effect it would require more than the sum total of all energy existing in the universe. Having journeyed to the past, you couldn’t do anything when you got there, and there wouldn’t even be a “there” to get to and do nothing at. The fantasy that you can go back to a 1930s high-school prom, screw your own grandmother, stop World War Two from taking place and change the outcome of the 1953 World Series is precisely that: a fantasy…

Is the grandmother bit too risqué? It isn’t Disney he’ll be dealing with in London. Degree Zero are hip’s ne plus ultra; or as hip as you can be with a turnover north of fifty mil a year. And judging from the specs, this project itself must be budgeted at roughly double that. It’s a grand space opera in the Star Wars mould, with princesses, kidnappers, pirates, smugglers; imperial federations gathering tribute from surrounding vassal-planets, rates for which are renegotiated every solar cycle at galactic councils in the recesses of whose auditoria, corridors and ambassadorial docking bays secret alliances are proffered, struck, betrayed…Briar’s got the treatment right here, wedged beneath his whisky glass. It’s written by one Norman Berul, and it’s crawling with cardinal errors. Take this scene, in which the lover of a dowry-bearing, peace-cementing bride-to-be signals his paramour (said betrothed—though not to him) by means of lasers flickering in the sky above her royal chamber, projected from his ship lying just outside the stratosphere of her intended’s (who is also his adoptive uncle’s) planet… Setting aside the fact that, if the pining bride can see it, so (presumably) can the cuckolded king and all his courtiers, servants, general subjects, right down to the space drunk pissing in the alleyway outside the planetary dive bar—even overlooking that fact, the scene is a non-starter, since…Briar sets the printout, water-marked by the glass-base’s condensation, down again and moves Commandment Number 7 up one place:

6. Know this: lasers cannot be seen in space. The laser-pointers stoners whip out when they’re tripping at Dead concerts—change Dead reference; these kids weren’t even born—at techno clubs are visible because the air in auditoria and warehouses is saturated with dust particles. Same in your bedroom: it’s because you never vacuum that you can amuse yourself by making your cat (slide 5) overbalance as he clutches at the red or green line he can see but not touch. You bastard. But in space—no dust, no cats, no line. That room’s been vacuumed: it’s all vacuum. Weapons-grade beams might blow holes through your spaceship’s hull, but you won’t see them. Even if you were a Jedi warrior, you wouldn’t see a laser beam, let alone be granted the reaction time to parry it with your own sabre. Light travels at the speed of…yes, light. A reflex that kicks in before the thing to which it is a reflex has been registered by the reflective agent isn’t a reflex but a temporal conundrum that (q.v. Commandment Number 5) is an abomination in the eyes of Physics.

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7. These things matter. One hundred and fifty years ago President (slide 6) Lincoln helped charter the National Academy of Sciences. Why? Because he grasped that an understanding of science by the populace was of prime importance to modernity and progress, to the republic, to democracy itself. The other road, the path of ignorance and superstition, leads straight back to Salem. And maybe, just maybe, Lincoln also intuited the role that speculation, entertainment, the imagination would play in the new republic’s future. After all, didn’t its creation both demand and entail one giant imaginative leap? Physics, for all its evidence-based leanings, is a creative journey too, a plunge into the far-flungest—farthest-flung—farthest-flung reaches of imagination. We fold space inside out in an attempt to picture how the universe is shaped. We tease parallel worlds from the peepholes of boxes that have cats inside (we’re bastards too). We smash particles together at insane speeds just for the thrill of seeing what will happen. And all these activities cost (slide 7) money, and (slide 8) more money, and (slide 9) more money. We scientists burn our way through so much money as to make your own extravaganzas’ price tags look like collection-box spare change. Where does our money come from? Government. And what shapes Government’s budgetary policy? Public opinion. If Joe Public ain’t excited by the prospect of discovering the Higgs boson and unlocking multiverses, Congress don’t send us the tax dollars to discover and unlock them.

8. That’s where you guys come in: you are our interface. Through you, we seed the public with a love of science. And we’re your interface as well: to credibility, to disbelief-suspension, to all that Aristotle-101 shit. If the set-up in your flick doesn’t look plausible, your viewers aren’t transported, or enchanted, or even willing to part with their own cash to see your movie in the first place. Which is bad—for you, for us, for everyone. We’re your safeguard against that eventuality, just as you’re ours against our own supply-chain cut-off. It’s symbiotic: hummingbird and bee balm, gut and good bacteria, pilot fish and shark. Which, to bring things back round to our own point in the multiverse, our current fragile patch of spacetime, is why you’ve invited me here to your lovely and impressive studios—and why I, as Two Cultures Consultancy’s Senior Partner, have accepted said invitation. Which brings us…

Briar lifts his glass again, takes a sip, then eases back into his seat, lumbar-support pads rising to meet contours of his spine and ribs. NASA never used to fly him first class. Fifty-eight, he’s a boy in a toyshop in this setting—has to suppress an urge to press each button, plug some lead or other into every socket, find skin surfaces on which to smear each of his courtesy toiletry-pouch unctions. He part-lowers his laptop’s lid and activates his pod’s free-standing entertainment console. Comedy. The Big Bang Theory: why not? Here’s the Aspergic Sheldon in his living room, debating with his neuroscientist girlfriend Amy rules pertaining to dilemmas thrown up by some hypothetical Dungeons and Dragons game-turn. Amy is, as always, cold and logical. Sheldon, by contrast, plays it camp and passionate: he’s genuinely hurt that she can’t see the in-play permutation his way, paces agitatedly about the set, holding back tears. Behind him, there’s a whiteboard, covered with the algebraic shorthand Sheldon and his pals are always scrawling. Briar hits pause on his armrest-set and, squinting, peers at the image closely, scrutinizing the notation.

It’s a Feynman diagram, with straight, arrow-bearing black lines and wiggly, plain blue ones modelling the procession of fermions and photons through an interaction sequence. Someone’s done their homework: all the vertexes have one arrow line travelling in to meet the sine line and another travelling out again, slanted at forty-five degrees. Positrons are labelled e+, electrons e-, photons with a gamma, Y. Briar thrusts out his lower lip and nods approvingly, tilting his drink at the screen as he raises glass to mouth once more.

Just as the liquid hits his tongue, though, the satisfaction it’s about to consecrate is rudely snatched away, evaporated from his very palate, by the sight of . . . What’s this? At the whiteboard’s bottom right we’ve got a kaon, composed of both up and strange antiquarks (u, : fine), breaking down into three pions (π+, π+ and π-: fine too), with two intermediate steps that involve a W boson (blue W+: good) and a gluon (green g: all good)—but the gluon, whose procession should be indicated by a spiral, is instead being represented by a zig-zag that in turn spawns branches to which arrows have been added willy-nilly, like so many sprouting leaves…which, as any Caltech nerd would know, is totally ridiculous. It makes a mockery of the diagram, the characters, the scene, the show’s whole universe. To go that far, do all the research, then…

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Briar swallows, but it’s tasteless. He raises his laptop’s lid again:

9. Black holes. Don’t get me started on black holes… —but finds that he can’t concentrate. He throws the remnants of his whisky, watery by now, ice caps all C02ed, down his throat’s hatch and pings for service, orders up a new one. Zigzags. When the stewardess has left he flips his laptop lid shut, stows the thing away and scrolls on through his in-flight entertain system’s menu settling eventually on the cartoon channel.


From The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. Copyright © 2021 by Tom McCarthy. Excerpted with permission from Knopf Doubleday. All rights reserved.

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