Ken Kalfus, author of the new novel "Equilateral," has woven a tale that is both fantastical and believable. He's done it not just with an expansive imagination and sharp writing skills, but a convincing aptitude in the disciplines of astronomy, trigonometry and history.
A determined and well-connected English astronomer, Professor Sanford Thayer, and a resourceful engineer, Wilson Ballard, are digging a vast equilateral triangle in the middle of the Egyptian desert. Each length of the triangle is 300 miles long and five miles wide. They plan to pave it, fill it with petroleum, and set it alight on June 17, 1894, in an effort to contact Mars.
The project employs 900,000 workers from Egypt and beyond, and the world lines up to help fund it: Banks and governments back it with capital and credit, and schoolchildren collect pennies and sous door-to-door across Europe. It's the most ambitious, audacious construction project in history.
Why? Because Thayer believes, and much of the world agrees, that Mars is home to a marvelously advanced civilization.
Because Darwin's writings — which hold that life began in the oceans and reached its apex on drier land — have been accepted as fact (it is the late 19th century, after all), water-starved Mars must be the most sophisticated planet in our system (wet Venus is the least). An inter-planetary relationship with
In demonstrating that Earth's terraqueous state is but a phase of planetary evolution, Mars permits us a vision of our own future, existential and moral. Our planet too is destined to lose its oceans and great lakes. Earth's orbit runs closer to the sun, so our sphere will become even hotter and drier than Mars. The deserts will spread like an infection, until water becomes as precious for us as it is for our neighbors.... After proving his capabilities in excavating the Equilateral, man will be ready to learn from Mars how to assemble the social, spiritual and material resources necessary to survive a dehydrating planet... Contact and communication with Mars must be the next step in human evolution.
Here is an appropriate point to note Kalfus' language in "Equilateral," which is often dense. It takes a certain sort of surrender to get into it. But once you find a rhythm, you're into it, and "Equilateral," at 200-ish pages, can be a one-sitting affair, if you have an open afternoon.
Shades of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster bleed into his descriptions of the dusty, malaria-ridden Egyptian landscape and its denizens, as here, in a description of an obstacle to the dig:
As Thayer fears, work has stopped at mile 270. Hundreds of fellahin idly mill in the heat. Some have laid out prayer mats, while others congregate near the water tanker as if it were a seaside refreshment stand. Their spades are sunk in the dirt like a line of pickets. The crates of dynamite brought by the blast crew molder in their wagons. The rock in question, an outcropping hardly fifty feet high, remains unmolested.
All seems tidy for Thayer and his grand plan until, of course, things become untidy — spectacularly so. And not just with the dig; Thayer's emotional life is a triangle of a mess, too (cue the loyal clerk, Miss Keaton, and the Bedouin consort, Bint).
Like so many grand thinkers in history (and fiction) who can't tend to the quotidian, Thayer proves far less adept at terrestrial communication than he is sharing signals with Mars.
"Equilateral," which erupts in a satisfying climax before slinking into an eerie coda, isn't for everyone. But for "the open-minded reader" as Kalfus optimistically addresses his audience, it holds subtle rewards.