“Ideological Sci-Fi”: A Conversation with Julius Taranto

“When to form political certainties, and when to take political action, are among the central questions the book explores.”

Julius Taranto may have left his job as a lawyer at Kellogg Hansen in January 2023, but as a full-time writer he remains fascinated by the court of public opinion. His debut novel, How I Won a Nobel Prize, explores The Rubin Institute, a fictional American university founded by an eccentric billionaire that welcomes pedophiles, racists, and other disgraced scholars fleeing cancellation. Written in the vein of As She Climbed Across the Table by Taranto’s mentor, Jonathan Lethem, and The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen, this funny, provocative academic satire asks what demands genius makes on one’s attention, and which values can be sacrificed to advance art and science.

This summer I caught up with Julius in Brooklyn, where he lives with his spouse, Allison (also a lawyer), and a dog named Sheep. We talked about how knowledge gained from science, politics, and personal experience finds its way into fiction; the relationship between truth and justice; the legacies of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick; and (this was a first for me) why recent developments in high-temperature superconductivity help us understand his novel. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kenneth Dillon (KD): At a critical point in your debut novel, How I Won a Nobel Prize, the protagonist Helen, a physicist, says this:

One thing you learned early and then tried to get over, if you chose to pursue physics, was that many physical laws are bursting with symbolism. Entropy, for instance, or gravity, or magnetism. These concepts are dying to become metaphors. You want them to be metaphysical laws, to say something deep about human relations. You had to get over this instinct to analogize at every turn because it was too hacky, too obvious.

Helen’s preoccupation with her research on high-temperature superconductivity (HTS) seems significant for two reasons. First, her success would revolutionize the way the world uses energy. Second, that prospect compels her to leave Cornell and follow her mentor, the Nobel laureate Perry Smoot, to the Rubin Institute, a safe haven for people forced out of business, government, and the academy for various sexual, racial, and other offenses.

For the most part, Helen takes her own advice. She doesn’t use physics as a metaphor for life; in fact, she rarely thinks about human relations at all. How does she keep her head down?


Julius Taranto (JT): Helen badly wants to focus on her research and be free of politics. She spends a lot of the story pretending that her thoughts are as far from politics as most people’s thoughts are far from quantum mechanics. Her attempt at political neutrality is doomed, of course, but I want the attempt to give her a naïve credibility. If Helen started out with powerful political certainties, it would be impossible for her—and for the reader—to receive all of the conflicting ideas coming at her. I hope her lack of political certainties might help readers to see familiar cultural problems with new eyes and to inhabit a state of political instability and moral suspense that is otherwise hard to come by in our public discourse.

I also hope people will be able to identify at least a little with Helen’s desire to be free of the political discourse. Certainly a lot of artists have a wish along the lines of, “Can we please get the public sphere to quiet down so that I can focus on something else I think is important?” And not only artists or scientists. Everyone has things they love, that are small and personal to them, from which they don’t want to be distracted. But at the same time, we’re obliged to live in the world. Helen would like nothing more than ideological peace and quiet, but the compromises she makes mean that there’s no chance she’ll get it.


KD: Helen makes what she calls “a moral offset” that I think is revealing. She compromises with Hew, her leftist partner, that if he agrees to go to the Institute, she’ll go vegan. Do they think those commitments cancel each other out?


JT: I hope that’s funny! Funny in part because it reflects a recognizable, common, yet obviously absurd way of thinking about ethical living. There is something ludicrous but very attractive about a morality measured in terms of fungible debits and credits. Hew has a reaction to going to the Institute that mirrors at least my own reaction to much more ordinary bourgeois guilt. His impulse is the same one we have when we know we’re selfish in some aspects of life, so we try to be generous in other, irrelevant areas of life—like enjoying an expensive restaurant but then giving money to fight malaria in Africa.

Helen goes along with Hew’s demand not because she’s endorsing or not endorsing his moral-accountant view of the world, but because she’s his partner. For her, veganism is a compromise to keep Hew around and to give him some sense of agency in their shared life, even as she drags him to the last place on earth he wants to go.


KD: Leopold Lens, a novelist who resembles Philip Roth in more ways than appearance, lays out a sort of caste system at the Rubin Institute.

On top: People like Helen who have come to the Rubin Institute of their own volition. They seem to Leo to have aquired the power to absolve others of wrongdoing because of their relative moral purity.

Leo sees himself in the second tier, which includes those who have committed so-called aesthetic offenses, indiscretions that no doubt looked bad, but did not escalate to the point of harassment or assault.

Then there are people who, like Perry, have done something seriously wrong, acknowledged it, and went as gracefully as possible into exile at the Institute.

Finally, we have those who could have fit into the third tier but still cannot let go of the anger and indignation they feel at having been caught and punished.

How did you choose which of these would get the most attention? It’s interesting that we don’t get a speaking character from that final group.


JT: Probably the main reason that I didn’t feature such an openly aggrieved character is I’m not sure what the character would have said that hasn’t already been loudly said in public. We’ve seen it so many times: the accused or even convicted person who insists, “This is wrong! You hacks, you cowards! I didn’t do anything wrong!” So rather than reengaging with these questions about who is or is not reprehensible—questions we are all very familiar with litigating—I wanted the novel to take the public’s judgment as a premise and move past it, into subtler questions where public judgment is harder and maybe less relevant. The more overtly aggrieved a character was, the more he wanted to replead his case, the more the book would have needed to steer into the dispute and its familiar rhetoric. Many of the men Helen meets at the Institute are in fact aggrieved and resentful—the whole premise of the Institute is resentment—but because they downplay their sense of injury, I hope the ways they talk about exile and morality will be interesting and new, even for readers who are dialed into the culture wars.

Maybe another reason I didn’t feature an explicitly aggrieved character—sort of the least interesting reason—were the limitations of a comedic novel. I wanted to keep the book moving. The more characters that I introduced, the more time I would have to spend doing justice to those characters and giving them nonincidental roles in Helen’s and Hew’s lives. It was important to me that the book be swift and fun, so that the reader feels like they’re in a good story and not simply being dropped into political and philosophical debates.

KD: Saul Bellow appears as a character, talking with Lens about kind versus honest writing. What do you want other novelists to get out of that exchange?


JT: The relationship between Bellow and Lens mirrors Helen’s relationship with her advisor. Like Perry, Bellow won a Nobel Prize and is obviously brilliant in some ways, while at the same time some of his attitudes have aged like a fine milk. That complex history is part of the way Helen relates to Lens and situates him in the culture. I drew some of Lens’s history from what I understand of Philip Roth, who admired Bellow and wanted his approval and also really wanted to win a Nobel Prize. Lens, like all writers, has an origin and influences, and writers (like everyone) are constantly borrowing and adapting and improving on the work of imperfect predecessors.

As for the exchange about whether novelists should prioritize being kind or inoffensive, this reflects an issue that lots of writers struggle with: How do you let your writing affect real people in your life? We know that writing from fear, or from a desire to be applauded or at least socially benign, will hamstring the representation of messy truth and lead to a lot of meticulous pablum. But at the same time, a big part of doing justice to characters is to treat them with sympathy and kindness. It seems strange that writers would be exempt from extending that habit beyond the page to actual human beings.


KD: Lens calls Cynthia Ozick “one of the only living masters, queen and heir to the glittering world of literature.” What does her work mean to you?


JT: I would normally caution against attributing the views of any particular character to me, the author. But this one I will own. Ozick is a master and a very important writer to me. Her fiction has a dense magic that I wish I could imitate, and her essays are as exciting and surprising as other people’s best fiction. One thing about her that I especially connect with is her uneasy relationship to her own polemical instincts, which she knows can work to the benefit of her essays but need to be undercut in her fiction. She has written a bunch about that problem. I have a polemical side too, which used to have a natural outlet in my legal practice. But I also know that getting past rhetoric is how we get closer to the truth in fiction, so my instincts are always tussling in the way I think hers are.

In a 1983 essay of hers, called “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” she points to something profound and connected about law and politics, on the one hand, and literature, on the other. I don’t know why people don’t talk about her more in our endless discussion about literature’s purpose and relationship to politics. What Ozick suggests, going toe-to-toe with Plato—and in my view winning—is that law and politics deal with justice in large numbers, while literature helps people do justice to each other as individuals. The idea is that literature is about justice even when it’s not about broader questions of morality or politics. Isn’t that brilliant?


KD: Scientists are trained to be skeptical, and Helen takes that part of the work home with her. She’s not bothered by the Rubin Institute, her buggy code, or the possibility that she may never solve HTS, but when she feels uncertain about who she is or how she should treat people, she’s paralyzed. I’m thinking of one scene when she measures the meaning of her life against the vastness of the universe, comparing herself to dust.


JT: Right. Part of what I hope readers admire about Helen is her noble sense of purpose when it comes to her work. She’s confident that even if high-temperature superconductivity may never be solved, it’s time well spent to try. But she also has large blind spots, and her sense of purpose doesn’t extend to everything in her life.

In the scene you’re talking about, Helen is on her way to maybe do something that she shouldn’t do. It involves temptation and interpersonal relations, which are not her strong suit. She starts thinking about the smallness of human existence in a vast universe. But of course, if you have to say, “The sun’s going to burn out, so how could my behavior really matter,” that seems like an indicator that you may be overjustifying behavior that is selfish or wrong. People may have to enter the cosmic perspective once in a while to be honest about the nature of reality. But we also have to take our meaning from humanity and find it worthwhile to be around other people and be good to each other.

But speaking of solving high-temperature superconductivity: Have you seen any of the recent superconductor news? In the last couple of months, there’s been this spasm in the high temperature superconductor world. A research group in Korea claimed to have found the first superconductor that works at room temperature and ambient pressure, a substance called LK-99. An Irish physicist modeled the substance, and for a minute it looked like the real thing. But as more physicists actually tested it, it turned out to be a flop—a room-temp superconductor hasn’t saved the world quite yet.


KD: So nice of the HTS community to make some noise when your book is coming out.


JT: My PR team is deep undercover.


KD: How did you land on this particular problem in the first place?


JT: One of my close friends from high school is now a physicist, and to call him a consultant on the book would understate his value. His core area is quantum computing, but he’s that kind of extremely casual genius with wide scientific knowledge to whom the concerns of a novelist are also somehow legible.

I started writing this book in fall 2020. I knew Helen would be chasing something very difficult and unsolved, as a basic science question, but also something with major, concrete implications for the world. That fall, my friend and I would talk on the phone for a couple of hours; he would describe problems; I would ask questions, do some reading, and call him back; and over time he intuited what I was going for. Once he started describing high-temperature superconductivity, I knew it was the one.


KD: I get why the impact of solving HTS would be big, but what would make it happen fast?


JT: If you can figure out how to inexpensively manufacture a room temperature superconductor, market forces would drive the world to start replacing wires and components that waste a ton of energy. What superconducting means is the transfer of energy with zero or minimal loss—all the electrons that go in come out and can be used. Many uses of electricity could get vastly more efficient. And as I understand it, a bunch of other technological innovations become much more plausible if you have room-temp superconductors, both because of superconductivity itself and because of the special magnetic properties of superconductors.


KD: What does the rise and fall of LK-99 tell us about the stakes of Helen’s research?


JT: Ideally this unexpected news cycle—watching LK-99 go from zero to sixty and back to zero in less than a month—helps give readers a bit more context for why Helen’s work is worthwhile and exciting. Maybe it will also help people connect to the real drama of scientific creativity and discovery. This is a field with wild, utopian hopes, and a lot of dashed hopes, too.

But culture doesn’t play by those rules—and our own morality doesn’t either, especially when the underlying argument is that we should have always known better.

KD: Thinking about the Institute’s relationship with truth in that way makes me wonder, perhaps against my better judgment, if there’s something of Winston Smith in Helen or Hew. In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist says, “Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.” Which is it at the Institute?


JT: Many universities, both “woke” and “anti-woke,” would claim to pursue truth above all. Certainly the Rubin Institute would. But the hard questions in our world are not whether you get to say the truth once you know it. Everyone gets to say two plus two equals four. The hard questions are about truths that are less objective, how best to pursue truths we don’t know yet, and how to pass the truth and the tradition of truth-seeking along to students.

What distinguishes the Rubin Institute from the mainstream is its commitment to the proposition that faculty-student social (and sexual) relations are flatly irrelevant to the mission of education and the pursuit of truth. Mainstream universities obviously don’t agree with that. The policies at mainstream universities reflect a belief that it’s quite complicated to create an environment in which diverse faculty and diverse students are maximally empowered to seek truth. Even indexing on truth-seeking alone, the argument goes, we have to address questions of fairness—where one person’s pursuit of truth interferes with another person’s. Refusing to pay attention to fairness, social dynamics, and the power people can have over each other in a university environment could mean sacrificing the long term for the short term. One argument against a place like the Institute is that in the short term, sure, its faculty may have maximum liberty to pursue truth and excellence, but in the long term, letting students get screwed, so to speak, will discourage and limit the truth-speaking and -seeking capacity of society.


KD: There are several satirized forms of the university in play here. The most obvious might be Rubin as an analogue for pseudo-intellectual shams like the University of Austin, PragerU, and the new Peterson Academy. Then there’s Perry’s sentimental memory of Oxford as a clubhouse where serious white men like him once did serious things. But are you also targeting the median American university that’s strapped for cash and pushed to prioritize alleged market-friendly programs over the liberal arts and sciences?


JT: I’m not sure the book targets or satirizes any real universities that exist today—it’s more that the book takes some of the concerns that animate academia and culture today and turns them up to eleven in all directions. It’s like ideological sci-fi. The book posits a world in which mainstream universities have been extremely merciless about getting rid of controversial people. And it posits a surprisingly well-financed reaction to that trend in the form of a university, the Rubin Institute, that defines itself in opposition to mainstream values. That thought experiment follows the same dynamic, the same attempt at product differentiation, that we see in media and all kinds of competitive markets.

So the Rubin Institute is an Ayn Rand pipe dream, an answer to the common complaint that universities (and, by extension, society more generally) should not subject extraordinary people to ordinary standards of behavior. I suspect that one reason people find that vision so enticing is that it’s easy to imagine that some version of it once existed. That’s how Perry, Helen’s mentor, describes the Institute—he says it’s like Oxford in the good old days. I am not an expert on higher education or its history, and I don’t know whether Oxford was ever really as laissez-faire as Perry imagines. It’s easy to see why one would naturally worry a little less about coercive professors when all the students are spoiled for opportunity, regardless of their university performance. But most contemporary universities seem to find it impossible to maintain an extremely hands-off approach with democratized, less clubby student bodies. The Rubin Institute is trying to square the circle, trying to recruit a diverse student body and telling them that all you have to do to get into our elite club—to get all the funding and privilege that we can shovel at you—is agree to our laissez-faire rules. It’s a bribe to the culture, and mainstream society is furious that the bribe is working.

KD: There’s an interesting point of contention between Helen and Hew over the consequences of their actions. Hew doesn’t think Helen reacts strongly enough to social issues, meanwhile Helen accuses Hew of equating saying something with doing something.


JT: When to form political certainties, and when to take political action, are among the central questions the book explores. To what extent, and in what ways, are we obliged to act when we see things we disagree with or find unjust in the public sphere? When can we be indifferent or uncommitted or uncertain? When are we obliged to get off the fence? I do not think there are useful broad answers to those questions—they’re always personally and situationally specific, which is one reason to explore them in the form of a novel.

Those questions foment a deep debate in Helen and Hew’s relationship. Hew often wants her to get out and protest with him, for instance, but she thinks that would be a waste of her time and in some sense a betrayal of her personality. She has a quite consequentialist view of what matters. She likes pursuing a concrete goal: new scientific knowledge with massive potential to measurably improve the world. She has a hard time seeing the point in standing somewhere with a sign. But this is infuriating to Hew, who believes that even progress that is less concrete than science—which is to say all social progress—is nonetheless worth some effort and commitment, and that expression is a form of useful action.


KD: At one point Hew says this:

I would just really like someone to tell me what’s going on. What are the rules now? I feel sure there was a time when I could tell you with some confidence whether I had ever done anything very seriously wrong. Something gravely immoral. Now I don’t know. I’m just waiting to be accused of something. My only certainty is that I do not currently understand my past the way I will eventually understand it. Have women been unhappy with me? Have I had bad sex, said careless things? Yes. With you, even. With you most of all. But have I done something reprehensible? How would I know it if I did? Perhaps I just now committed a serious offense and neither of us knows it. We’re a couple. I didn’t ask for affirmative consent. But should I have? Should I have asked for express consent the first time we ever slept together? I don’t think I did it then either—but we didn’t miscommunicate, did we?

What is he really asking?


JT: This monologue comes before they move to the Institute. Hew and Helen are still at Cornell; their relationship is going well; and the waves of a #MeToo-like movement are crashing around them.

Hew’s truth in that moment, as a straight guy who’s been dating for a while, is terribly unstable. He can’t dismiss what women are saying; he takes it seriously; and he also doesn’t know how his past behavior will look under this (to him) emerging value system. So he’s undergoing a conversion, in which he sheds an old way of seeing the world—a way of seeing things that he now realizes missed a lot of the meaning in his relationships and actions. But he doesn’t know where he will end up. He hasn’t given new meaning to all his memories yet. It’s terrifying to feel that others may judge us, and that we may one day judge ourselves, under standards we don’t understand. Protecting us from that fear and unfairness is why, for instance, the Constitution forbids retroactive application of new criminal laws. But culture doesn’t play by those rules—and our own morality doesn’t either, especially when the underlying argument is that we should have always known better. Hew’s expressing the fear that he may have lived in a way that he and others will see as sinful and wrong. He’s also seeking comfort by asking Helen to settle at least the worries he has about their relationship—whether she has ever felt coerced by him.


KD: When do you feel it’s necessary to explicitly lay out a character’s reasoning like that?


JT: I hope I’m motivated most by the realities of the character and scene, and that when people speak their truths they are doing so for reasons that make sense in the context of the moment. I did feel, in this book, that I had to let characters speak at some length and directly state how they think. Helen, as a narrator, is limited in her understanding of the people in her life—in part because she disagrees with or has been wronged by many of them, and in part because she has real blind spots when it comes to stuff that is not her work. But it was important that the novel try to do justice to characters even when Helen herself can’t. Hew, in the scene where he reflects on his response to #MeToo, is reaching out to connect with his partner and also trying to think via dialogue with her. There are circumstances that force us to realize and articulate our truths, but often we don’t do it until we absolutely have to.


KD: It’s interesting that you attribute the feeling to circumstance. By way of explaining himself after a major conflict with Helen, Perry says:

I needed a romantic connection in which I remained a scholar, an educator … I am not a pederast; it is not about youth qua youth. It is about the flow of knowledge from one person to another, that thrilling awakening—discovering the world and one’s place in it. Of course it is about power, too, control and submission, master and apprentice.

I don’t see circumstance pushing that information.


JT: In this scene, Helen has recently learned that Perry wronged her, which pushes him to try to make amends and explain himself. There is something generous about his feeling of obligation to her, and his desire to answer questions that he rightly suspects Helen has—and that I hope the reader has. Even and maybe especially with criminal and deviant minds, we want to know: “What was this guy thinking? Is there some truth about him that I can understand?” Perry knows Helen will have those questions, because his actions have profoundly altered her life. His true affection for and moral obligation to his mentee spurs a desire to confess his truth as he understands it, even though he suspects that Helen will find his truth to be ugly.


KD: Theories and ideas are fragile in even the most gifted writers’ hands. Where do they belong in your fiction?


JT: Ideas really motivate me as a reader—specifically the extent to which a novelist can connect ideas and thinking with decisions, emotions, and interactions among characters. The ability to describe thought, to directly receive another voice, seems to me like one of the most important comparative advantages of fiction versus other art forms. With fiction, you get to be inside a head or multiple heads. You also get time; you read at your own speed, unlike movies and TV. You get to pause to think about whether the sentence you’ve just read is true. You get to wade into complex ideas and their implications. You’re not pushed forward on someone else’s clock, which for me is something to savor and sometimes the best way to try ideas that don’t submit to simple judgment.


KD: Only some ideas are awarded the Nobel Prize. What is its value?


JT: The Nobel Prize is a metaphor and a MacGuffin. This book is filled with really difficult problems—both scientific and social—and the prize in the book and in life is to make clear, meaningful progress on something intractable. That’s damn rare, so when it happens we give people some money and a medal. Of course the path to a Nobel-worthy contribution to society is a lot clearer for scientists like Helen than it is for, say, artists. I’m a novelist, so I take art’s value very seriously, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as important as discovering a principle of quantum mechanics that will save us from climate change. I hope readers will feel it’s noble of Helen to chase that kind of achievement—not the Nobel Prize itself, but the contribution that would be worthy of it. icon

Featured image photograph by Elena Seibert, courtesy of Julius Taranto.