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Ken Kalfus’ “Equilateral,” deftly written and often more than strange, encourages the reader to pay close attention and to stop every once in a while to think, “Hey, now, wait just a damn minute. This is just insane.” It’s a book that’s fascinating to read in the same way that it’s fascinating to watch repeated replays of some awful, slow-motion catastrophe unfolding on television, cars sliding into a river off a broken bridge, for example, – but here bigger, much bigger.

Kalfus is something of a connoisseur of catastrophes. His first novel tells of events leading up to the birth of the Soviet Union and the second is set against the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Equilateral” tells of a catastrophe in 1894, this time fictional, on a grand and grandiose scale. It opens with a precise bit of geographical scene-setting describing the “vacant quarter,” part of the enormous Saharan desert that stretches from Egypt to Libya. We are at point A in the sandy middle of nowhere, eight days by caravan from the nearest port reachable by packet steamer. Point A, headquarters for the project of digging an equilateral triangle, points A B C, out of this wasteland is under the direction of Professor Sanford Thayer, still only in late middle-age, the most esteemed astronomer of his time. Thayer has a loyal engineer, Ballard and a loyal secretary/bookkeeper, Miss Keaton, who stick with him even as things go bad. He also has a loyal Bedouin servant girl who later becomes his concubine.

With these allies Thayer has had to fight decades of disrespect when no one believed his theories; he has had to overcome resistance to the insanely complicated, expensive public-private international financing of such a project, and he has had to persuade agreement among leading astronomers that the “evidence” of a network of straight canals on the surface of Mars testifies to a civilization vastly more advanced than ours in mathematics and engineering and not least in the requirements of civic order and control. In short, we squabbling Earthlings could learn how to better conduct civilized life by communicating with the far more advanced civilization of the Martians.

Thayer’s theories are worked out with a rigorous logic, but are based on entirely faulty premises. The first is that there exist canals on Mars and further that these are cultural artifacts, too long and precisely straight to be natural phenomena. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first noticed such “Canali” in 1877. Later refinements in telescopy and the ability to actually photograph Mars reveal Schiaparelli’s observations to have been illusions, mirages as it were; however many astronomers believed that they too saw these canals.

Thayer’s refinement is based on his belief in social Darwinism, post-Darwin, but pre-Mendel in its lack of understanding of how genetics define evolution. Thayer’s refinement of Schiaparelli postulates if there are canals they must exist for the transport of water. Therefore, only a highly evolved civilization could have the engineering skill to build in this way. Thayer believes we must send a signal of communication to these advanced beings. Thus, the equilateral triangle.

Thayer’s projected triangle, requiring the biggest earth-moving undertaking since the Suez Canal, is planned and plotted with each side to be exactly 306 miles and 1,663 yards in length, precisely 1/73 of the Earth’s circumference, each side having a trench 5 miles in width, and dug to a depth of 12 feet, then paved with asphalt, flooded with oil to be set on fire at a precise date of June 17, 1894, as a signal to the inhabitants of Mars, a “Flare from the Earth … across millions of miles of empty space will petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.” That’s the idea anyway…

But already by the end of the first paragraph we get this: “There (at point A) we find a sprawling encampment comprised of tents, brick and mud shelters, earth-moving machinery, wet eyed beasts of burden, and a swarm of dusky men mostly stripped to their waists. In the fever of the day the men scream recondite obscenities at the camels and the mules and especially, most viciously and most creatively, at each other.”

With this microburst of high style (“wet eyed beasts,” “recondite obscenities”) Kalfus introduces heroic enterprise as well as smug condescension toward the darker races that the Brits oversee at the end of the 19th century. The omniscient narrative voice of the first paragraph continues throughout, a mixture of Victorian optimism and Whiggish belief in scientific progress, while also assuming the attitude of a British bureaucrat/engineer articulating no nonsense information, seemingly straight-forward, imperturbably assured reportage of always overcoming increasingly serious obstacles and, at the same time, expressing a sly, mordantly ironic understanding the that the game is about to be up. We recognize the voice: weary, understated, mannered, often smug, smart, racist.

Thayer’s project represents one major instance of the far reach of the British Empire at the high point of its power. The Brits have seemingly conquered the world by the end of the 19th century by means of commerce and guns and brainy ingenuity in science and then even more by more guns and war ships guaranteeing even more open sea-lanes. If you set aside the pesky Americans in the West (1812), Napoleon to the East (1803-1814) and such matters as the Sepoy Rebellion in India (1857), then the 19th was a century of extraordinary prosperity and what has been labeled as unparalleled peace and progress, especially in the sciences.

Yet the feel from the beginning and throughout the novel is of things inexorably going awry. We are already nearing the end of empire, with colonialism barely in control, relying on brutal practices and a science with ever more costly experiments relying as much on public relations and the feeding of the popular press as on solid method.

“Equilateral” hurries to a quasi-apocalyptic conclusion with fiery explosions everywhere ignited by a Mahdist uprising. Somewhere torches are thrown. Multiple explosions ensue all along the oil-filled equilateral a couple of days ahead of the precisely calculated date of June 17, 1894, when Mars would have the best view. Of the million Arab fellahin that had been laboring on the project and are still shoveling sand in the last minutes with hand tools, thousands perish. Thayer and his Bedouin servant girl/concubine survive, fire-scoured of hair and clothes, clutching each other naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall and innocent of all knowledge. By the end of the book Thayer, famous for the acuity of his vision, is literally blind. Nevertheless, he sees the contrails of the rocket ships leaving Mars and to his mind carrying Martian ambassadors of good will. Furthermore, he is able to sell his vision to an eagerly awaiting public.

In important ways “Equilateral” is a cautionary tale about the intertwining tendency of both big science and big empire to display self-destructive grandiosity. What for most of the novel has looked like a freakishly expensive project of pure science with no immediate application, by the end turns out to be a fabulously expensive exercise in futile commercial speculation. The speculators, representatives of the Rockefeller trust, and Herr Krupp and Baron Rothschild, go about financing the building of a neoclassical customs house at the site of the previous point A to receive the expected Martian interplanetary travelers for expected commerce. When this speculation doesn’t pan out, there’s always money to be found for other projects. The capitalists just move on to something else.

One cannot come to a book like this in a posture of “innocent reading” (a term originating in the not-so-innocent ’60s.) Too much has happened and is happening. We are dealing here with an American artifact published in 2013 that in its frequent satirical moments harks back to the crack-pate science of Jonathan Swift’s Academy of Lagado. Kalfus has a sensibility similar to Don DeLillo and “Equilateral” could well stand next to “White Noise.” Both novels should be taught, starting in high schools, as lessons in humility.

FICTION

Equilateral

By Ken Kalfus

Bloomsbury

207 pages. $24.00.

Stefan Fleischer was an English professor at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now lives in Houston.