Friday, May 31, 2013

Triangle in the sun

This is true: in the 19th century, astronomers saw canals on Mars. Peering through telescopes, they drew detailed maps of the elaborate intersecting lines they saw on the surface of the red planet. Had those lines represented physical canals, then the canals would have to be truly enormous, excavation projects far beyond the capacity of Earth technology. The world was transfixed by the idea of a far-superior Martian civilization.

Ken Kalfus sets his elegant new novel, Equilateral, at this moment. It is 1894, and astronomer Sanford Thayer is certain that Earth must communicate with the advanced people of Mars. His passion has convinced governments and private shareholders to invest in a huge project: the creation of an enormous equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert.

The triangle will be three hundred miles on each side. Each side is a deep trench, five miles wide, paved in black pitch. At the moment when Earth will be most visible to Mars, it will be filled with petroleum and set on fire. Surely Martian astronomers will see this shining beacon of geometric perfection, and will understand that Earthlings, too, are intelligent and civilized people.

Into this work of intelligence and civilization, the labor of hundreds of thousands of North Africans is pressed. They dig in the hot sun, while Thayer keeps his eyes on the skies.

Equilateral is a remarkably thoughtful novel that, in its short 200-page span, evokes questions about race, colonization, sex, and evolution. Above all else, it’s a compelling portrait of the way 19th century Europeans thought about themselves and others.

Add to all that some messy personal complications and some even messier political developments, and you end up with a tragedy of Grecian proportions, played out on a baking black triangular stage.

I’m still thinking about Equilateral, days after I finished it. Don’t miss this terrifically interesting book.

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