This is another of my In Short columns, on the Connie Willis story “At the Rialto”. It was first published in Vector 280, Summer 2015.

I don’t understand quantum physics.

Let me be clear, I probably know as much about it as the average non-scientist who reads science fiction and likes to watch the occasional science documentary. I know about light being both wave and particle; I know about Schrödinger’s poor cat; I know about uncertainty and chaos and butterfly effects and so on. Philosophically, I even sort of get it. I just can’t visualise it as a way of comprehending the real world.

And that is what this story is all about: not understanding quantum physics.

“At the Rialto” by Connie Willis, first published in Omni in 1989, was one of a string of stories she wrote in which what happens to the characters in the story in some way mirrors the scientific idea behind the story. Other examples would be “Schwarzschild Radius”, or Bellwether, or in fantasy terms “Death on the Nile” in which tourists in Egypt find themselves behaving in ways that echo Egyptian mythology. “At the Rialto” is perhaps the most accomplished of them, but the way principles of quantum physics are played out within the story is disguised by the fact that it is presented as a Hollywood screwball comedy. In fact, that’s the point: quantum physics, she tells us, is best understood as a Hollywood screwball comedy.

Willis is probably the best writer of light comedy working in science fiction today (to be honest, there isn’t a great deal of competition), but she often uses the comedy as a way of approaching serious topics. Though her quest for the next laugh can tend to undermine the seriousness of the subject. However, it is rare that the comedy itself is the core of the story rather than its surface, which may be what makes “At the Rialto” so interesting.

The seriousness is there, mostly contained in quotations that punctuate the text and that are supposedly taken from addresses, schedules or presentations at the conference on quantum physics where the story takes place. But even these serious bits are handled in a light, off-hand way, as for instance in the opening lines of the story:

Seriousness of mind was a prerequisite for understanding Newtonian physics. I am not convinced it is not a handicap in understanding quantum theory. (287)

Really, the entire story is contained in those two sentences: it is, after all, a story about bringing non-seriousness of mind to understanding quantum theory. But we’ll come to that.

That quotation is taken from the keynote address by Dr. Gedanken (the name, a reference to Ernst Mach’s “gedankenexperiment”, usually translated as “thought experiment”, is surely too emphatic a nudge in the ribs even for a comedy such as this), the central figure in this whole story though he only puts in an actual appearance in the last few lines. Ruth, the central character, is anxious to meet him because he is putting together a new project on ways to understand quantum theory, but wherever she is, he is not. Like so many of Willis’s screwball comedy stories (as, for example, To Say Nothing of the Dog, or even, thinking about it, non-screwball stories like Blackout/All Clear), “At the Rialto” consists of people rushing around and failing to meet.

Other of these serious punctuation marks in the story include a straightforward account of Schrödinger’s Cat, the odd bit of technical language that neither we nor the author are meant to understand – “A discussion of the latest research in singlet-state correlations including nonlocal influences” (301) – and a clear statement of the wave/particle problem:

The major implication of wave/particle duality is that an electron has no precise location. It exists in a superposition of probably locations. Only when the experimenter observes the electron does it “collapse” into a location. (304)

But in the main these snippets come from Dr Gedanken, broad statements that are more designed to underline the plot than to explore the scientific idea: “We can only make advances in theory when we have a model we can visualize.” (298). The flesh built upon this skeleton of an idea does just that: finding a non-serious metaphor that will allow us to visualize the quantum universe.

The story begins with the arrival of Dr Ruth Baringer at the Rialto Hotel in Hollywood. She is there for a scientific conference. Why a scientific conference should be taking place in Hollywood is one of the running jokes in the story. There are, really, only two characters in the story, Ruth and David, but around them circulates a chorus of figures each of whom has one repeated refrain. Of these, Abey Fields constantly complains: “Why do we always have to go to these exotic places, like Hollywood?” (288), and suggests instead that they should hold the conference in Racine.

Another of this revolving company of stock parts is Tiffany, the air-headed receptionist: “I’m not actually a hotel clerk at all. I’m just working here to pay for my transcendental posture lessons. I’m really a model/actress.” (287) Sometimes Tiffany reappears as the waitress Stephanie, “I’m working here part-time to pay for my holistic hairstyling lessons” (299), or Natalie, or Kimberly. Whatever the name, they occupy the same indeterminate role, both wave and particle, or rather neither one thing nor the other, only capable of becoming fixed if you can temporarily convince them that you are connected to the movers and shapers of the film industry. Without that spur to her concentration, Tiffany or her avatars is a constant source of chaos.

The chaos starts when Tiffany cannot find Ruth’s booking, or the booking of Ruth’s room mate, confuses Ruth with Dr Gedanken, gives people the wrong room, and wonders whether Ruth doesn’t really want the Disneyland Hotel because “A lot of people get the two confused.” (287). Throughout the story, whenever people approach Tiffany for whatever reason, her immediate response is: “I don’t show a reservation for you” (288), as if they are Schrödinger’s hotel guests who both do and do not get to stay in the hotel.

Ruth ends up having to spend several hours sitting in the lobby with a number of her colleagues waiting until Tiffany goes off duty before they are able to get their rooms. Although there is one delegate, one particle, who manages to penetrate the wall and get a room (“Amazingly enough, Dr. Onofrio seemed to have gotten a key and was heading for the elevators” (289)), a small detail that we need to bear in mind later when we are told about the Josephson junction, which:

is designed so that electrons must obtain additional energy to surmount the energy barrier. It has been found, however, that some electrons simply tunnel, as Heinz Pagels put it, ‘right through the wall.’ (299)

There are several such small moments as this, which become corroborative detail when we look back later. Although this proves deceptive not long after when Dr. Onofrio sadly reports: “They gave me 1282, but the room numbers only go up to seventy-five.” (291) Such details don’t catch our attention at the time, however, rather we notice two things. The first is Ruth admitting that she doesn’t understand quantum theory and has “a sneaking suspicion nobody else did either” (289); though she then sets out the aspects of quantum theory that will be played out within the course of the story.

I mean, an electron is a particle except it acts like a wave. In fact, a neutron acts like two waves and interferes with itself (or each other), and you can’t really measure any of this stuff properly because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and that isn’t the worst of it. When you set up a Josephson junction to figure out what rules the electrons obey, they sneak past the barrier to the other side, and they don’t seem to care much about the limits of the speed of light either. (289)

When you figure out what the story is doing, you almost feel as if that paragraph should come with tick boxes so you can check off which aspects of quantum theory have just been played out within the confines of the Rialto hotel.

More pertinently, we latch on to the name David, who will become the positive to Ruth’s negative, because everyone asks her if she has seen him yet. At the previous conference in St Louis, it seems that the two were “practically inseparable. Moonlight riverboat rides and all” (289), and for all that Ruth tries to turn the conversation back to the details of the conference schedule, everyone else assumes that the romance will continue exactly as before. And because the act of observation is what fixes things in place, so this assumption will become reality.

When Ruth finally gets to her room –

My clothes, which had been permanent press all the way from MIT, underwent a complete wave function collapse the moment I opened my suitcase, and came out looking like Schrödinger’s almost-dead cat (291)

– she is late for the opening ceremonies: “Dr. Halvard Onofrio … will speak on the topic, ‘Doubts Surrounding the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.’ Ballroom.” (288) She slips into the back of the ballroom, takes the first available chair, and inevitably finds herself sitting next to David. This will become a recurring feature of the story. Also inevitably, and also a recurring feature, what is going on in the ballroom turns out not to be Dr. Onofrio’s opening remarks, or indeed anything to do with the quantum physics conference at all, but some sort of spiritualist meeting. When they fail to discover where the actual conference is taking place – “I’m sorry. I don’t show a reservation for them.” (293) – she and David head out to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, looking at the handprints and footprints in the concrete where “You keep thinking you’ve found a pattern.” (293)

David tries to persuade her to go and see a movie, but she flees back to the conference for a seminar on chaos theory, though, of course

The Clara Bow Room, where it was supposed to be, was empty. A meeting of vegetarians was next door in the Fatty Arbuckle Room, and all the other conference rooms were locked. (295)

Next day, however (after another incident in which she grabs the only seat in a crowded room and finds herself sitting next to David again) she is told that the seminar did take place and that “The Clara Bow Room was packed.” (297)

By now the way that quantum physics serves as a metaphor for events in the hotel, or perhaps the way events in the hotel serve as a metaphor for quantum physics, is becoming explicit. A typically frustrating conversation at cross purposes with Tiffany is described as “high-entropied” (298), and banging any piece of machinery is described as readjusting “its fractal basin boundaries.” (299) More specifically, when Ruth slips out to a diner for breakfast, hoping to avoid David, only to find herself unhappily in a place offering “papaya stuffed with salmon-berries and nasturtium/radicchio salad with a balsamic vinaigrette” (299-300), he materialises at her table: “‘How did you get here?’ I asked. ‘Tunneling,’ he said.” (300) In other words, he has explicitly become an electron slipping through the barrier of a Josephson junction; even though he was supposedly elsewhere with other members of the conference, he appears as though there were no intervening space. They represent, we learn just a page later, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, which Ruth glosses thus:

If an experimenter measured one of a pair of electrons that had originally collided, it changed the cross-correlation of the other instantaneously, even if the electrons were light-years apart. It was as if they were eternally linked by that one collision, sharing the same square forever, even if they were on opposite sides of the universe. (301-2)

Or, as she then spells it out because we are in the later stages of the story now and the theme is being made more explicit:

I thought of David … It didn’t matter where the electron went after the collision. Even if it went in the opposite direction from Hollywood and Vine, even if it stood a menu in the window to hide it, the other electron would still come and rescue it from the radicchio and buy it a donut. (302)

From this point on, of course, all is predictable: “At the Rialto” follows the strictures of the screwball comedy and must have the same sort of happy ending. The girl who has spent the whole time pushing the boy away from her, intent on her own independent intellectual pursuits, suddenly realises the answer to everything and so chases after the boy. So, as the conference disintegrates around her (as in St. Louis, the delegates spend their time seeing the sights rather than in conference), so she realises that the conference itself is meaningless, but the location of the conference means everything. She rushes to Grauman’s Chinese, takes the first seat, and is inevitably sitting beside David. Of course, the absent Dr. Gedanken and Ruth’s missing room mate are there also, so she can reveal to them all that the paradigm for quantum theory is Hollywood. “‘And the Rialto,’ David said. ‘Especially the Rialto.’” (307) The lights go down, the curtains open, the film starts, and the story ends.

It’s a good comedy, slick, clever, so intricately constructed that even the smallest detail adds weight to the whole. It’s the sort of story that Willis does best, and this is one of her very best. It was one of her numerous Nebula Award winners, a story that foregrounds the way we perceive science, indeed it is that extremely rare thing, a story that is funny about science. But in the end one question remains: “At the Rialto” is undoubtedly an excellent fiction about science; but does that make it science fiction?


Quotations taken from ‘At the Rialto’ by Connie Willis in Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years edited by Pamela Sargent, San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1995, pp287-307.