The Amount to Carry

Like most writers fascinated by science fiction, Carter Scholz cannot resist exploring “what ifs.” In the title story of The Amount to Carry he ponders “what if” the composer Charles Ives, the poet Wallace Stevens, and the writer Franz Kafka—all who made a living selling insurance—were to meet at a convention of underwriters? What would they talk about? In “Mengele’s Jew,” he thinks “what if” Shrodinger’s paradox about whether a cat is dead or alive in a closed box is proposed to exiled Nazi killer Dr. Josef Mengele by the famed physicist Werner Heisenberg? How could Mengele resist trying to solve the problem by equating the cat to Jews in a gas chamber?

Even the most realistic story in the collection, “The Eve of the Last Apollo,” which deals with an aging astronaut suffering letdown after having walked on the moon, considers “what if” one of those moon explorers had been a poet? And stories which bridge the gap between realism and fantasy, such as “Blumfield, an Elderly Bachelor,” ask, “what if” a man who lives only with his furniture somehow developed an intimate relationship with his bed, his table, his chairs?

The beauty of “what if” stories is that when they work—as they do so brilliantly in the stories of Italo Calvino and Jorge Borges—they explore complex and paradoxical mysteries more powerfully than nonfiction. The danger of them—as with some of Scholz’s stories, such as “Travels,” in which Marco Polo talks with a computer, and “The Nine Billion Names of God,” in which a computer generates a story identical to one previously written by Arthur C. Clarke—they are just clever, inconsequential games.

Although Carter Scholz is no Calvino or Borges, most of these stories are imaginative explorations of powerful “what ifs,” not mere sci-fi self-indulgences.