Willis here gives us, in Le Guin’s words, a story about “the idea of science,” more than about science itself. It takes places in the German trenches on the Russian front during the First World War, and follows a handful of characters who try to survive by fixing a wireless, because that’s the only thing standing between them and the front. Muller stays sane by making up theories. Schwarzschild is corresponding with Einstein (who introduces the general theory of relativity the same year), but he’s not in good shape:
We are all of us – Muller, and the recuit who is trying to put together Eisner’s motocycle, and perhaps even the doctor with his steady bedside voice – afraid of the front. But our fear is not complete, because unspoken in it is our belief that the front is something separate from us, something we can keep away from by keeping the wireless or the motorcycle fixed, something we can survive by flattening our faces into the frozen earth, something we can escape altogether by being invalidated out.
But the front is not separate. It is inside Schwarzschild, and the symptoms I have been sending out, suppurative bullae and excoriated lesions, are not what is wrong with him at all. The lesions on his skin are only the barbed wire and shell holes and connecting trenches of a front that is somewhere farther in.
First Published in The Universe, Bantam Books, 1987. Collected in Impossible Things, Bantam Spectra Books, 1994. Read online here