• Ken Kalfus
  • Bloomsbury
  • 224 pp.

An ambitious 19th-century astronomer tries to summon life from the stars in the author’s third novel.

Some books are difficult to summarize. This one is not: make a triangle with three equal sides. That’s an equilateral triangle, and that’s Ken Kalfus’s third novel, Equilateral.

Or is it? Equilateral cleverly takes the idiom “there’s more to it than meets the eye” and turns it inside out, examining what can happen when there’s rather less to something than what an eyewitness reports.

The eyewitness is Professor Sanford Thayer, a 19th-century British astronomer, and the “something” he sees is quite incredible: canals on Mars. Convinced, then, that there is not only life on Mars, but that it consists of beings so highly evolved they can build canals visible from Earth, Thayer proposes an extraordinary project: build something equally vast on the face of the earth for the Martians to see, a kind of interplanetary semaphore. 

Thayer — and the world — settle on a perfectly equilateral triangle, each side a trench precisely 306 miles, 1,663 yards long, to be scratched into the bleak (and quite Mars-like) Western Desert of Egypt. And: the trenches will be five miles across. And: the project will require 900,000 workers. And: when complete, the trenches will be paved with pitch and then flooded to a depth of 12 inches with petroleum. And, finally: “sometime before dawn on June 17, 1894, at the moment of Earth’s most favorable position in the Martian sky,” the petroleum will be lit, “launching a Flare from Earth’s darkened limb that across millions of miles of empty space will petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.” 

In other words, this is a completely ridiculous novel. Except that it isn’t, for two important reasons: one, Kalfus keeps a straight, even prim face through this entire, brief book, and two, he’s based his novel on historical fact. Or, rather, fact that turned out to be fiction.

Victorian scientists did believe Mars had canals. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing channels on the Martian surface in 1877. But the Italian word he used, canali, was clumsily translated into English as “canals,” which was all the suggestion many other scientists needed. Chief among them was Percival Lowell, an American who corroborated and greatly elaborated on Schiaparelli’s findings for years, culminating in the 1906 book Mars and Its Canals. Lowell was no crank; he was widely respected, and the observatory he built (on Mars Hill) in Arizona, is still an important astronomical research institution today. Indeed, if Schiaparelli or Lowell had had access to a telescope as powerful as the one the Lowell Observatory now possesses, neither would have been fooled by what were later determined to be optical illusions.

Kalfus isn’t a crank, either. He not only has Martian history on his side but also Earth’s. The novel is set in 1894, just 25 years after the opening of the Suez Canal, whose own construction sounded as preposterous then as Kalfus’ triangle does now: conscript hundreds of thousands of men to spend 10 years digging a trench 102 miles through the desert. (Not only that, what would happen when you broke through? Some engineers were sure linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas would drain one or the other body of water.)

And so builds the magic of Kalfus’ book. Indeed, as it progresses, it’s hard not to regard the novel with something akin to the awe with which the characters regard their project. Professor Thayer amasses sufficient men and money to tackle the task, and Kalfus focuses on the project’s final weeks, as workers race to complete the Equilateral before the red planet’s rendezvous with Earth. Helping Thayer are his longtime assistant, Miss Adele Keaton, and a local woman, Bint. Keaton tends to Thayer’s business needs and Bint his personal needs — some very personal — but the result is not as tidy a triangle as the one being built in the desert. Keaton is too smart, for one, and Thayer too distracted by his grand endeavor. Kalfus has underdrawn Bint, presumably by design, but the entanglements of the three are not what drive this book: the Equilateral does. Will it be completed in time? What happens if the workers revolt? What if they encounter an undiscovered pyramid while digging? What if the money runs out? 

And if they do finish: will Mars respond? Send emissaries? (If they do, Earth will be ready — Kalfus wryly depicts his characters constructing a vast Customs House in anticipation of receiving, and taxing, interplanetary visitors.)

Equilateral shouldn’t work — a Victorian parable told in the 21st century, a satire of modern manias that eschews technology for dirt — any more than a gargantuan triangle, dug in a desert, might successfully summon life from the stars. But it does work, and so well that when I finished the book I briefly forgot it was a novel: I really have to see that triangle, I thought, before realizing that, having read the book, I already had. 

Liam Callanan chairs the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is not visible from space, although these rather strange endeavors are. He’s the author of The Cloud Atlas and All Saints; for more, visit liamcallanan.com.

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