clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The author of When We Cease to Understand the World explains himself

“We need fiction like we need water.”

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The Vox Book Club is linking to to support local and independent booksellers.

Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is one of the weirdest and most beautiful books I’ve read in a while. It deals with the horror of trying to understand the world, and how as the scientific concepts we use to try to describe reality edge closer and closer to reality, they move further away from the mundane world that we see and live in with our small human senses.

We think that we live in a world where space and time function in predictable and rational ways. But physics tells us that the universe is full of black holes that exist at both sides of time, and that on a quantum level, mass exists not as a concrete fact but as a possibility. How, When We Cease to Understand the World seems to ask, do we just live in a world that functions like this?

These are rich, heady questions, and they’re hard to parse out with any degree of nuance. So I met Labatut live on Zoom to talk them through, and then some. In our full (captioned) conversation above, you can learn why Labatut considers himself an “epiphany junkie,” the limitations he sees in science, and why he hates the novel.

A few weeks later, I sat down with Unexplainable host Noam Hassenfeld to further discuss Labutut’s book and the aftershocks of the revelation, asking “What’s real?” Listen to the conversation in the player below or wherever you get podcasts.

To keep up with what’s next for the Vox Book Club, sign up for our newsletter, where we’re getting ready to talk about our April book, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.