Martian dreams

Ken Kalfus’s latest novel, Equilateral, is a story of discovery and scientific renewal, and one man’s ambition. Set during the tumultuous Victorian era, Kalfus dexterously weaves fact and fiction into the tale.

Shortly after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s declaration that the surface of Mars bore water channels, the English language press promptly dubbed them canals. If Mars had canals, came the reasoning, it was also probably subject to alien sentient life. With that idea in mind, the novel’s protagonist, Professor Sanford Thayer conceptualises a radical and ambitious plan to get the Martians’ attention.

An equilateral triangle carved into the harsh sands of the Egyptian desert, with each side a trench 306 miles long. The trenches would then be filled with pitch and petroleum, and set ablaze during Earth and Mars’ closest position. The perfection of such a geometric figure, Thayer reasons, would be enough to capture the imagination and attention of those inhabiting the red planet.

That the Martians exist is never doubted by either Thayer or his weary colleagues. The pressures of completing the triangle before the approaching astronomical event are immense. Thayer is susceptible to fever, the project faces numerous challenges — workers go on strike, they refuse to understand or take pride in what they’re doing, and the desert itself is a harsh taskmaster. Water tankers go missing, funds go low.

None of this affects Thayer’s zeal. In the harsh glare of the sun, he imagines the Martians and their supposedly advanced technology, their evolved nature that may be more benevolent and evolved than that of the average human, and their scientific temperament that is no doubt far more developed than Earth’s own musings.

He is also interested in his serving girl, simply called ‘Bint’ through most of the story. The girl herself is mysterious, and rarely speaks. Her servitude is peculiar, as is her ability to appreciate what Thayer’s trying to do almost as much as Thayer himself. To add to the romance triangle is his secretary, Miss Keaton, who’s also interested in him, it seems.
 The novel also presents various states of the mind as Thayer endeavours to justify his ambitious project and his use of the equilateral triangle. His attempt to present Earth as a planet of intelligent creatures and his obsession with geometry perhaps signify his devotion to his science. He also has the unwavering habit of reducing the whimsical to the factual, as a result of which the religion and the faith of his workers in their god is baffling to him.

And also as an indication of his inability or disinterest in understanding the mindset of a foreign country, Thayer tends to dismiss the customs and beliefs of his workers. It does not occur to him that not every thought is tied to triangles and the mysteries of mathematical precision.Equilateral skilfully blends science and science fiction into the story.

It is, however, rather difficult to sympathise with the characters, despite their brilliance and their apparent commitment to their goals. Part of the reason may be the superfluous characterisation and the heavy, laboured tone of the narrative. Thayer’s ‘romance’ with the serving girl is at best strange. The book is also sprinkled with geometric diagrams, and while they are helpful to the text, the text itself does not make for easy reading. Mathematical references and astronomical factoids, despite their relevance to the story, can get slightly bewildering to the average reader.

The belief that a Martian civilisation can aide or solve the issues threatening a human civilisation is the crux of Thayer’s arguments when he attempts to gather funding for his stupendous project. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that other forces are in play as well, forces that define the nature of human folly. Greed and the faintly sneering superiority of the European mind as against the unfathomable East.

The lust for power and money and trade that is evident towards the end. The naïve belief that a superior race must necessarily be compassionate and helpful to a lesser developed race. Equilateral presents all these and more. Eventually, Thayer himself is pushed out of the project. Ambition, it seems, has a way of working itself towards other individuals, particularly those in a position of power.

Overall, Equilateral, with its 200-odd pages, presents the fickleness of the human mind and the innate ability to reduce a large scale project into something more dependent on monetary gains. The use of wry humour and subtle satire only adds to the scope of the narrative. The novel does not feel too short, it could, nevertheless, have used a less arduous writing style, and a bit more characterisation.  Attempting to decode the general bulk of the text with its numerous mathematics and dramatic declarations may prove to be a ponderous task.

EquilateralKen KalfusBloomsbury2014, pp 207Rs 350

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