Ratner’s Star

ISBN: 0679722920
ISBN 13: 9780679722922
By: Don DeLillo

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About this book

One of DeLillo's first novels, "Ratner's Star" follows Billy, the genius adolescent, who is recruited to live in obscurity, underground, as he tries to help a panel of estranged, demented, and yet lovable scientists communicate with beings from outer space. It is a mix of quirky humor, science, mathematical theories, as well as the complex emotional distance and sadness people feel. "Ratner's Star" demonstrates both the thematic and prosaic muscularity that typifies DeLillo's later and more recent works, like "The Names" (which is also available in Vintage Contemporaries).

Reader's Thoughts


Pet zvezdic za čudovito in kompleksno manipejsko satiro, ki pa nima usmiljenja do bralca :)


This is a really odd, somewhat incoherent and ultimately quite wonderful novel. I’d only previously read ‘White Noise’, ‘Underworld’ and some of the author’s later books and stories, so I was surprised to find a totally different style at work in ‘Ratner’s Star’, one more comparable to Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick. To begin with it very much has the feel of a quirky mid-70s comic sci fi novel, being concerned in a fairly druggy way with conspiracy theories, secret transmissions from little green men and the threat of global annihilation.The plot follows Billy Twillig, a teenage mathematics prodigy who is taken by the government to a remote facility to join a group of scientists attempting to decode a mysterious radio signal received from the star of the title. We are quickly introduced to a large cast of weird characters who pop up and disappear as Twillig is led closer to the secret of the signal and the true purpose of a small group of scientists who are working on something quite different in the deepest parts of the facility. The basic conceit of the plot is presumably based on the discovery of Pulsars (which also formed the basis of a very different but also very interesting novel by Stanislaw Lem) but it’s really an excuse for the author to get all kinds of eminent scientific ideologues in one big space and bash them all together. I guess this was a time when all kinds of mind-expanding ideas about the universe were being propagated and popularised, and the idea that science itself could and should also expand to cover every possible aspect of the conceivable universe is just one element of the author’s broad satire here:"The problem concerns the true nature of expansion," the man said. "Consider science itself. It used to be thought that the work of science would be completed in the very near future. This was, oh, the seventeenth century. It was just a matter of time before all knowledge was integrated and made available, all the inmost secrets pried open. This notion persisted for well over two hundred years. But the thing continues to expand. It grows and grows. It curls into itself and bends back and then thrusts outward in a new direction. It refuses to be contained. Every time we make a breakthrough we think this is it: the breakthrough. But the thing keeps pushing out. It breaks through the breakthrough."If the defining image of ‘White Noise’ was that of the inexplicable Most Photographed Barn in America, the centrepiece around which ‘Ratner’s Star’ revolves is the image of a once-great scientist digging a hole in the desert and subsiding solely on larvae. In trying to crack the code, the researchers end up delving deeper into their own subconscious, which in turn is rendered as literally digging into the earth below the facility: it’s as though the mind could be represented as a series of geological layers, with some unexpected ancestral truth lurking in the deepest caves. The overarching suggestion is, I guess, one inherited from science fiction as far back as Wells and Mary Shelley; that for all their supposed arch-rationalism and clearly defined logical principles, the great scientist is as liable as any of us (perhaps more liable!) to not only personal delusions but also mental collapse.All of this is quite hard to follow, not least because Delillo had clearly been brushing up on his advanced maths and astrophysics in the research of this novel. But that need not bother you – this isn’t the kind of book you read for well-adjusted, ‘relatable’ characters, nor for an aspect of social realism or escapism. You read it for the writing. And the writing is absolutely astonishing on quite a frequent basis. Because I read this on an ebook reader I kept a list of marked passages which I then transferred to a Pages document for safe keeping; many of them are too long to quote in full but I couldn’t bear the thought that I might lose the memory of them afterwards. Perhaps this is a feeling unique to ebooks where you never quite have the sense of being able to pluck a book off a shelf and flick back to the right page again? I don’t know. I was surprised to read that Delillo considers this his favourite of all his own works. It’s a difficult read, not only because the subject matter is somewhat arcane, but because it’s fairly tedious and occasionally boring from a dramatic point of view. Not much really seems to ‘happen’, which is another way of saying that although an awful lot of stuff does happen, much of it seems weirdly inconsequential or episodic. But in the end I didn’t think that really matters. For all its Joycean reveling in wordplay, this isn’t a book like ‘Ulysses’ which can be decoded into a realistic sequence of events muddled up in time. Perhaps that’s what marks this book out as postmodern rather than modernist: there is no one single thing which it can be said to be ‘about’, other than itself.One last thing: I was intrigued to note that David Foster Wallace kept a heavily annotated copy of this novel because it does bear a striking resemblance to that author’s own work (particularly ‘Infinite Jest’ with its similarly gifted protagonist, but also the general themes of obsession, depression, scientific materialism, etc). Both are comic novels in the broadest conceivable sense and both are very much of their own time in terms of technological, political and pop cultural references, but both have a certain amount in common stylistically too: there’s the same tendency towards snappy dialogue set against lengthy and insanely cleverly written passages of description where high and low vocab is constantly mingled to startling effect. This is not to suggest that Wallace was in any sense an imitator of Delillo, but one was certainly a big influence on the other, and it’d be an intriguing exercise to read both side-by-side.


Math + fiction, how can you go wrong? This book starts out well as the main character is enlisted to decode an enigmatic radio transmission received from space. This takes place in a futuristic compound centered around Space Brain--a super computer that is mapping the universe. The protagonist, an insanely gifted child mathematician, encounters an odd assortment of scientists and academics and there are some interesting thoughts around the relation of math, science, and culture. From here, there seemed to be an over-abundance of intriguing directions that this book could take. Unfortunately it misses them all and ends up deep underground lost in an impossible project.

Dysmonia Kuiper

Ratner's Star is intellectual, creative, strange, funny, clever, and dense. It's exciting to encounter a work of fiction about a group of quirky and brilliant scientists living together on a compound, trying to decode a radio message sent from a distant star. But it is not at all like Carl Sagan's Contact. Rather, imagine Contact written by David Foster Wallace.I would recommend it, but only to specific people looking for a particular kind of read. Say, science lovers who are smart, patient, and looking for an active read (not a simple distraction).It took me three and a half months to finish this book! That's insane for me: I can read a 438-page novel in a day, and I often do. As I mentioned, Ratner's Star is dense -- it was also kind of boring in places, particularly to begin with. As "funny and clever" as I describe it overall, I didn't laugh out loud in response to it until I was more than halfway through. But there were some hilarious scenes. Also, this book took concentration. I couldn't read it for escapist purposes: it took too much brainpower. In many ways, it is one of those books I feel I need a smarter person to explain to me to make sure I didn't miss anything.Which brings me to the ending, which was intelligent and satisfying, although I can't claim to be 100% sure I completely understood it.


This book is a handful of scientific nonsensical babbling. It's my first contact with DeLillo's work, which I expected to be a somewhat interesting author. I suppose I was unhappy on my starter pick, because reading this was painful! You would expect the greatest scientists in the planet to be...well, smart. In this novel, though, the scientific mind is portrayed in such a weird and sophomoric way. I understand that the author is actually trying to mock the modern scientific method, yet everything sounds rather pathetic. Every character in here is arrogant, stubborn and a complete whacko. In theory, that's not a bad thing, since these traits can be a good definer for character's uniqueness. However in "Ratner's Star", the lack of charisma makes these characters quite unbearable. Don't worry, DeLillo, I'll still give you another chance.


My reactions to this novel can be put rather succinctly. If David Foster Wallace is indeed a fan of Don Delillo, this is the novel he has stolen from most. If Don Delillo is indeed a fan of Thomas Pynchon, this is the novel that Pynchon most directly inspired. But regardless of its influences or the work it later inspired, because those things are speculatory, it is certainly true that this novel, Delillo's fourth, is his first great novel. The novel centers around child math prodigy Billy Terwilliger. At fourteen years old, Billy has already won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with "zorgs" (as near as I can figure, Delillo made this term up) and now lives a life of quiet seclusion at a mathematics academy for genius teenagers. He is called, somewhat against his will, to a remote laboratory (named Field Experiment Number One) to decipher a string of code believed to have come from a newly discovered planet coined Ratner's Star. This is a wildly funny novel with sequences of surrealistic absurdity and populated with bizarre characters. There's Henrik Endor, who, before Billy, failed to break the code and now lives in a hole, spending his days digging and feeding on larvae. There's Orang Mohole, the acknowledged kingpin of alternate physics, who subsists on strange green pills and vicarious threesomes. There's Shazar Lazarus Ratner, a renowned astronomer turned mystic so diseased that he now lives in a plastic bubble so that oxygen cannot kill him. There's Elux Troxl, the entrepeneur, who, alongside his oddly-perverted sidekick Grbk, deals in leased computer time, chain letters, and bat guano. There's Cheops Feeley, who annually awards a prize to the mathematician whose new ideas holds the highest "madness content." There's also Chester Greylag Dent, ninety-two-years old and ending his days in a secret submarine somewhere off the shore of Europe.It's hard saying what purpose this novel is intended to serve, what point Delillo is trying to make. But it seems obvious that there is something to be said here about the stupidity of science, the differences between thinking analytically, thinking logically, and thinking superstitiously. And, despite its humor, there is an overwhelming sense of attempting to understand the complex emotional distance and sadness people feel when they truly are more brilliant than the people around them.This is as close to a five star novel as I have read in a while. Distinctly Delillo, it shows definite strides in the direction of becoming the novelist he will eventually become.

David Contreras

Man, woman or child:Do not be alarmed. Ratner’s Star is complete bullshit. Your assessment within the first few pages will prove to be correct. This is a powerful study on the the excesses, the triumphs and failures of the human mind. Bruce Allen from the Chicago Tribune sums it up best. Ratner’s Star is a prodigious satire on those pioneers who journey beyond the frontiers of knowledge and end up more ignorant than they were when they set forth.Billy, our Nobel Prize winning mathematical genius, is but a mere pup catapulted into an arena of world renown crazies and fellow mathematicians on a scary hyper-genius level. A radio signal is captured from the outer reaches of space (presumed to be shot off from or around Ratner’s Star, which may or may not be binary, which may or may not even be real). Billy's impossible role is to decode the message itself among other mental hybrids. What we know about Billy, what we need to know, is that Billy is essentially a non-character just like every other person or thing he meets in the story; he didn't speak out loud until he was three years old, etc. doesn’t matter in the end. Billy is an outsider, and takes over as a proxy for the reader's inquisitive mind. And what he witnesses on every page is fevered with eccentrics that blur the line between genius and insanity. They are contained and straight-jacketed by their own ploys to outdo one another; is it no wonder that the title of the book is in the possessive case? Mathematics made sense, bi-level coding, the mysteries of the Space Brain, Field Experiment Number One, the strange elusive semblance of the self when staring up at the mirroring black sky. This is the lost chapter of Infinite Jest written two decades before Infinite Jest with all the hilarity and absurdity, all of its special effects and technical wizardry kept intact. “Consider the fact that, relative to their respective diameters, the average distance between stars is roughly the same as the average distance between atomic particles in interstellar space. Is this mere ‘coincidence’?” One of many questions not offered to us as a challenge, but as a matter of reverence to the very real existing unknown out there. Even our current powers of scientific deduction will look at such a profound question with another question; every answer once began as a theory inside someone's head; everything is susceptible to a transformation, whether remarkable or deranged; ”Why sad?” Bill said. “The birth of a baby equals the death of a fetus. This experience recreates itself throughout our lives.” Billy asks a relatively mundane question like where the bathroom is, and is given a two page expose on seemingly unrelated topics, breaking news hits that Ratner’s Star is in fact a binary star, oh, wait, it isn't, then several paragraphs later the mutant responds, “Upstairs and to the left.” Little Billy Twillig stepped aboard a Sony 747 bound for a distant land. This much is known for certain are the opening lines to the book. DeLillo does his part keeping us in the know that we’re under the derangement of bullshit. Even when there is no resounding purpose other than to bludgeon you over the head with the fact that what you’re reading is characterless and pointless. This is the slick meditation of a mathematical know-it-all recounting Pi just to show you that he can. The book as a whole does not exist. Readers decide if it has to. But "We’re talking around it. We’re making sounds to comfort ourselves. We’re trying to peel skin off a rock. But this, according to Mainwaring, quoting Mohole, is simply what we do to keep from going mad.”Just when the book becomes fascinating, when we delve deeper into the mystery of the message sent to them from space, a character goes on a psycho babble rampage, and they dismiss the importance of said mystery outright. They're right, though. There exists no mystery in plot here. You are to be entertained by the wild imaginative things people say and then move on. The Post-Modern jibber-jabber exists to tell you that the Post-Modern jibber-jabber exists. Its purpose is to enlighten you on how to unravel your very own ego via a Socratic mantra. The important thing is the language, not the machine. In this way, DeLillo has created a means of bombarding you with so much bullshit, it elevates you to a level of understanding with our own destructive genius. "Our knowledge of the world. The world itself. Each, the other and both. They’re one and the same, after all. It’s been said that philosophy teaches us to talk with an appearance of truth about all things and to make ourselves admired by the less learned. There’s one branch of philosophy this definition doesn’t cover. Bi-Levelism. Bi-Levelism teaches us to talk with an appearance of truth and falsity about all things to make ourselves admired by the more learned.”The secret task of logic may be the rediscovery of play. There’s no doubt that DeLillo is a genius. He’s a threat to the general popcorn-munching Pepsi-guzzling populace. Often times Ratner's Star jumps around incoherently just to show us the inevitable failure within us all. And because of this, if Ratner’s Star wasn’t continuously jarring in its cold brilliance, it would have easily gotten one regular old nameless star. "Alternate physics, if it teaches us anything,” Speidell said, “it teaches us that once you go across the line, once you’re over the line and left without your classical sources, your rational explanations, the whole of your scientific ethos, once this happens you have to pause. You have to pause as we may have to pause someday in the future. You’re over the line, sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep going or hurl yourself into the uncharted void. This is nonsense. You pause. You reflect.DeLillo leaves the reflecting up to the reader. But just as the Mainwaring whispered: ”Things are interesting up to a point. Then they aren’t interesting anymore.” The inevitable screw loose in our perfected armor, DeLillo proposes that we are the smartest creatures in the universe, that is, until we meet someone or something that is smarter. He also proposes, at least to me, that we have no evidence to deny the fact that a rainbow-colored space whale lives in the center of the universe. Where he fails, though, is that he prematurely assumes that our patience is ready for this haul of bullshit and hilarity and profundity as well. (view spoiler)[As to the mystery of the space message? If you actually reach the end of the book, it's assumed that it was sent from Earth many millions (?) of years ago. If so, this is probably the most eye-opening part of the book, because would not then Billy and his freak show friends be the future of ourselves? Could it be that the people who sent that message out into space was us to begin with, as in you and I? If so, doesn't Ratner's Star, the book, its language, actually become the code or cipher itself? Are we all internalizing DeLillo's words and propelling them out into space? Is the rainbow-colored space whale that sits and waits in the center of the universe just hungry for our interpretations and inner reflections? Is there an even greater kind of intelligence that thrives on chaos and seemingly random ideas? What if that rainbow-colored space whale is actually turquoise? What if you and me are actually right? (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>

Adam Sanders

Not really a review. Just joined goodreads and want to take some notes on some of the parts of books I read. Especially someone like Delillo.This is interesting so far. I can really see some of the other themes that Delillo explored in later books "Underworld" and "The Names". Really amusing so far have been the one guys 500 page dissertation on the "meaning" of Science. Also the part where Billy asked Una to see her tits. Page 43 2 chapters in.Page 94:"The only good thing about the trip, from Billy's viewpoint, was the part where he approached the helicoptor with ducked head and un-natural scuttling steps. Although he wasn't wearing a hat he put his right hand to his head as he proceeded importantly to the aircraft. Despite his bent-over shoulder-first approach, he didn't feel foolish. He liked getting on the helicoptor; it was, after all, an executive helicoptor and he felt as he imagined six-figure executives probably when they duck under the blades and fly off to lavish spas for rubdowns and hard bargaining."Paragraphs like the above are one of the reasons I really like Delillo.Definitely liking Billy T.'s character. He reacts like a normal kid would to the madness that is surrounding him up to this point at least. Really laughing at the Mutuka (white "aborigine" former scientist speaking to the group) part.Page 105:"Three people got up and walked out. He (Billy) didn't know whether they were leaving out of boredom or because Mutuka had claimed the aborigine was capable of traveling into outer space. Both circumstances were equally believable."..."Our Visitor himself may or may not posses a third eye. Such are the secrets of the bush.Ten people walked out."Page 228, 251, 266...Page 272:"That distinctive quality of parade music, a summons to come running, to gather together in public and allow whatever loyalty imbues marchers and band members to quicken likewise the communal spirit and reduce all colors to one; that special emotion, as the music drops into time and distance, is swept pathetically away, to be replaced by faint wonder at the depths of regret that often follow such fleeting revelry."After Softly arrives and that passage describes Billy's thoughts or emotions when he mentions logik.Page 275-276:"They were alone in the samll garden. The afternoon had lost some of its rabid glare. A smell of mown clover rose from the earth. It summoned a special presentness, that particular time-sense in which animal faculties conspire to rouse the spirit, the ordering force of memory, and Billy was stirred to relive some elemental moments separately blessed within the flow of past events. They could be counted, the times in which he'd guided a length of string through the hole he'd nail-scraped in a chestnut, the lumps of clay he'd thumbed and gouged into some amorphous model, the cherry pits he'd buried and people he'd learned to believe. They could be counted, the times in which he'd flexed his toes in sense wet sand, the bites of ice cream he'd chunked out of dixie cups with a flat wooden spoon, the caves he'd made in in his mashed potatoes, the pages he'd detached from his composition notebook, tearing down along the row of wire rings, and the white flakes that bounced down out of the air as a result, also distinct and countable. They could be named and listed, the places he'd hidden from danger, the nights he thought would never end."

Galen Weitkamp

A: Ratner’s Star is an off-kilter novel by Don DeLillo, both humorous and something else.What is Ratner’s Star? B: An off-kilter novel by Don DeLillo, both humorous and___I didn’t catch that last bit.A: Never mind. Actually Ratner’s Star is the title of a novel by Don DeLillo. Within the novel Ratner’s star is a star, or perhaps a binary star system including a brown dwarf. It could be a stellated twilligon with an n-bottomed hole. No. Wait. That last is Mohole’s description of the universe. However, the Ratner system may itself be a mohole. Whatever Ratner’s star is, it is also the source of a one hundred and one bit message, although the message may have come from elsewhere and was directed toward us as it boomeranged around the mohole. B: What’s it say? What’s it say?A: Fourteen year old, world renown math whiz Billy Terwilliger, the creator of the abstract theory of mathematical Zorgs, is sent to Field Experiment One to discover the meaning of the message. Field Experiment One is an institute (architecturally it occupies, I think, the space between two cycloidal bowls) housing a zoo of pathologically inane geniuses, all focused (or not) in one way or another on the message from Ratner’s Star.What is Ratner’s Star?B: The title of a novel by Don DeLillo. A: In the metalanguage perhaps; but in the language of the novel itself?B: It is either a star, a binary star system or a mohole. What’s a mohole?A: In the words of Mr. Bolin, “What we’re really doing is imposing our own conceptual limitations on a subject that defies inclusion within the borders of our present knowledge. We’re talking around it. We’re making sounds to comfort ourselves. We’re trying to peel the skin off a rock. But this, acording to Mainwaring quoting Mohole, is simply what we do to keep from going mad.”If you intend to read Don DeLillo’s book entitled Ratner’s Star, prepare for a quick descent into ___ oh that’s what that something else was ___ madness.What should you prepare for?B: A quick descent into madness.A: No. You should prepare to recognize the subject from the negative space of all the talk around it.B: Keep believing it.

Lara Bell

Totally tedious. Made me regret that I can't stop reading a book once I start it. Put me to sleep after 3 pages every night. It's that kind of pretentious, look how smart I am, off-kilter writing that a college math freshman would probably spooge over. The beginning is fun and sucked me in enough that I waded through to the end for the somewhat predictable payoff. I guess if you like math give it a try...


While everyone else at the beach had their noses in Twilight fan fiction, I was reading this.I don't know if this deserves 2 stars or 3. Parts of it are better than others. I love many of DeLillo's novels, and enjoyed much of this one too, but there were definitely parts that I read just to get through them.It's a story about a 14-year-old mathematical prodigy who's pulled into a project to decode a message received from space. Like other works by the author, Ratner's Star has some great dialogue and some very odd (and oddly self-aware) characters. And this one has a bunch of theoretical math in it too, which was quite fascinating (and not a common element in most fiction I've read). One of the things that I like about DeLillo is that his stories and characters are always a bit out there. Perhaps in this story they're a little too much so for my taste at times.I'm glad I read it, but I don't know if I'd recommend it to others who don't already love his work.


I'm struggling. Disjointed, disharmonious and downright devilish. Still, I can't imagine ever finishing this. DeLillo is just not getting through to me here.


Whacky story where a young boy wins a nobel prize in mathematics and is then recruited to solve the messages seeming originate from Ratner's star.Bizarre characters and scientific geek language abounds.

Mat Sletten

Ratner's Star gets 3 stars. This was a tricky book to judge because I'm a Delillo acolyte, but haven't read much outside his perfect middle period. So I read something about how proud he is of Ratner's Star and the plot sounded good, and I was in the mood for a difficult book, which is how reading this was framed to me. It is not a difficult read. It is, however, split into 2 fairly distinct sections. The first part of the book is not unlike Underworld's sections detailing Matty's experience developing nuclear weapons. I found this part very boring and not so much fun to read. It has great detail and characters, but it felt really familiar. The second part of the book was basically smaller sections that wove together various character goings-on. I think the attempt to show the interconnectedness of science, math, etc with the characters was well done, but not as groundbreaking as it might have seamed in the late 70's. The lack of depth in many of the characters or rather, the skimming across so many came across as portraiture rather than characterization. it was a frustrating read because I kept waiting for it to turn the corner, and it didn't for me. In any case, 4 stars for the second part, 2 stars for the first part, hence 3 stars.


They walked across a level expanse of grass. Softly, forced to move in mechanical tick-tock fashion because of permanently dislocated hips, lifted a tin of small cigars out of his side pocket and lit one up. He seemed to haul himself over the ground, hitching with every step, his stomach working as hard as his legs to produce some locomotion. Fields. Number fields. Algebraic number fields. Star fields. Electrical fields. Metrical fields. Field equations. Unified field theory. The grass had recently been cut and possessed that nearly toxic freshness of nature in recuperation, a savor of arrow poison more seductive than the wildest lime. The two moving figures were about a hundred yards from the building, which was hard to look at in this midpoint hour, having been designed to play with light, to magnify and angle it in veering octaves so that the whole structure resembled a burst of solar art.

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