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May, 2009 : Review:

Thought Love

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

The Invention of Everything Else
by Samantha Hunt
Harvill Secker (UK), 2008
ISBN 978-184-655-1925, 12.99, 358pp

At this moment, a strikingly high proportion of films, commercial art, popular music, video and computer games, and nongenre fiction are overtly SF or contain elements of it. This widespread normalization of what is essentially a style of estrangement and dislocation has stimulated the development of science fictional habits of mind, so that we no longer treat SF as purely a genre engine producing formulaic effects, but rather as a kind of awareness we might call science fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press 2008, p. 2)

About a third of the way through The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt's entrancing second novel, which has now been shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, there is an account of a dinner. At this dinner, which takes place in New York in 1893, and which is hosted by Thomas Commerford Martin, a science writer, Nikola Tesla is seated with the editor of Century Magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson, and his wife, Katharine. In order that the tablemates get to know one another, Katharine insists they each tell a story. Robert goes first: he describes how, when he was twelve, he followed Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, and remembers "knowing, even though I was young, that something very large and uncertain had shaken history. It helped to keep walking as if that could undo this ripple that I knew we'd be reeling from for the next hundred years" (124). Tesla goes last, and tells another story about death, about the accident that killed his elder brother, Dane; but like Robert, he links death with wonder, recalling how seeing his brother riding was "like seeing the mechanism of thought at work—too beautiful to be visible" (129). Katherine's story is longest, and describes a death of wonder directly. She, too, returns to her childhood, recalling a night during a summer holiday when "the moon was as dark, as red, as the inside meat of a cherry" (127), beyond what can be explained by a harvest moon. "At first," she says, "the unknowing disturbed me", but then she found there was something exciting about "the idea that there was something unknowable in our world [...] The possibility for wonder, for marvel and stupefaction, felt, perhaps, like the greatest freedom I had known so far in my life." But, she says, she was sad to learn the explanation—dust from an eruption in Mexico—because "all the other possibilities fall away" (127). As she tells the story, even Tesla (who is the narrator) feels the loss. Yet as they leave the party, the three of them have an encounter that denies their wonder-less tales:

At that moment a man emerges from the shadows. He is dressed in a beavertooth-tailed day coat and pedals past, astride a contraption based on balance and velocity. The device seems the property of dreamland. Katharine, with jaw loosened, points out the strange machine to be certain she's not imagining it.

"Well, I had heard, but I had not yet seen," Robert utters before his thoughts trail off, replaced by wonder.

My brain begins to spin. The appearance of this contraption works its effects instantly. This is where I live. Dane tucks himself back inside my coat. He sent it. We've got work to do, he says, and very little time. (132-3)

The sequence is emblematic of the novel as a whole. There may or may not be truthfully science fictional events during the course of The Invention of Everything Else, but the perspectives of its various characters all, to a greater or lesser extent, frame and test their experiences for science fictionality. An obvious parallel can be drawn with Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (2003); although the books are different in many ways (not least of which, length), they share an interest in how the future grows out of the past, in the tension between what we now know and what, for the characters, remains unknown and shapeable, raised to a greater intensity than is usual in historical fiction. Most notably, perhaps, both position a scientist—Newton for Stephenson and Tesla for Hunt—as a magus-figure. Where Stephenson references Arthur C. Clarke, however, Hunt quotes Aleister Crowley in asking that we "please remember that Magick is Science" (242), which perhaps points to a key difference in the two authors' outlook. And while Stephenson keeps us at a distance from Newton, Hunt invites us to experience Tesla's consciousness.

Accepting that re-creating the minds of historical figures in fiction is always a presumptuous move, Hunt does what she sets out to do rather well. Her Tesla is an old man, long past his most exciting days, bitter at the perceived theft by Marconi of his invention, living in the Hotel New Yorker—which is "like the sticky tongue of a frog jutting out high above Manhattan, collecting the city particle by wandering particle" (2). His is a fidgety narration, switching between lecturing us, recalling his past, and describing his present. He experiences the world with a kind of heightened awareness that may tip over into insanity. Storms and statues talk to him; he finds birds easier to relate to than humans and has a tender relationship with one pigeon in particular, which he thinks of as "something like a wife, inasmuch as any inventor could ever have a wife, inasmuch as a bird who can fly could ever love a man who can't" (7); at other times, he imagines machines as his beloved. Narrated by such a voice, the stranger-than-fiction events of Tesla's life—the bug-powered engine he built as a child, the staggering number of patents, the radio-controlled boats, the wireless electricity, the death ray plans, the mistaken announcement of his Nobel victory—seem merely normal, what would be expected.

The actual plot of Hunt's novel seems, at least initially, rather less important than the atmosphere it creates, perhaps just an excuse to link a series of vignettes. It's worth being patient, however. In addition to Tesla's narrative, there are cooler and more logical third-person chapters following Louisa Dewell, a confident young woman (the only reason she has not fallen in love, we are told, is that she has chosen not to) working as a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker, and living with her father Walter, who is another man fascinated by the possibilities of science; his reaction to Orson Welles' broadcast of The War of the Worlds is to set off to see the aliens himself. (He is not even disappointed when it turns out to be a hoax: "it didn't matter to Walter if it wasn't true right then, because someday, he told Louisa, it would be true, maybe even someday very soon" [29].) After we meet Walter and Louisa, three other men enter Louisa's life in quick succession: one, Arthur Vaughn, a young man about her own age, who she first encounters on the way to work, and who claims to remember her from school although she has no memory of him; two, Azor Carter, an old friend of her father's who has been missing for two years and who reappears without warning, in possession of a contraption that he claims is a time machine, and which Louisa is willing to believe is a time machine because "it is too wonderful to be anything else" (156); and three, Tesla himself, who discovers her snooping around his room, but who gradually takes her into his confidence.

Each strand can be read as part of an argument with a sentiment boiled down by Tesla, late in the book, as an abrupt insistence to Louisa that "Love destroys. Thought creates" (211). Tesla's work of invention, of course, is a form of love, next to which his obvious crush on Katharine looks deeply immature. But it's Azor who really puts the cat among the pigeons. (Were this an Edisonade, Azor, or possibly Arthur, would be the hero; but part of the point of the novel is to dramatize how Tesla's generosity, his desire to give to the world, has been screwed over by an Edisonian desire to control invention, so that would never do.) Walter sees Azor's time machine as an opportunity to see his beloved wife, Freddie, who died during Louisa's birth, once more, and to thereby switch off the inescapable time machine represented by his memories. Meanwhile, on their first meeting, Azor erroneously greets Arthur as Louisa's husband, giving every impression of being a man who's lost track of where he is in time, which throws Louisa—who likes Arthur but has, after all, only just met him—for a loop. Love resolved by thought; love derailed by thought. Hunt uses the language of the one to describe the other quite frequently. In Louisa's thread, an initial feeling that "someone has dismissed the laws of gravity" (154-5) gives way, later in the book, to other evocations of freedom and flight, each more sustained, presented as a true instance of a fantastic event, for longer than the last. Each time, the narrative suggests that escape from cluttered reality is possible, and each time it ultimately retreats.

But the sense of possibility lingers. Novels that seek to create what I'm going to call luminous worlds—worlds that romanticize their estrangement—walk a tricky line, perhaps; what for one reader is scouringly beautiful can for another be trite and precious. There's no doubt Hunt glosses her chosen period—her New York is a place of vibrant renewal, with no scars or underbelly to speak of—and more than once chooses effect over strict historical verisimilitude. A list of "notes" at the back of the book, which highlights documented quotes that have been incorporated into the text, is conspicuously incomplete about the ways in which the novel plays with historical fact. (The instance that jumped out at me was Tesla's glossing of his radio-controlled boats, in 1898, as "robots"; it's the right word for the effect Hunt wants the scene to have on her readers, but Capek's R.U.R., which originated the application of the word to machines, was not first performed until 1921.) But for me, at least, The Invention of Everything Else walks its tightrope to its end, and usually finds the words to link wonder to our lived experience. It finally understands time travel, and every other miracle, including love, as something that must be grounded in reality; but it asks us whether we would believe in miracles if they happened, so the mechanism of time travel is never explained, and indeed it's never completely clear whether or not time travel has taken place.

After a demonstration that electricity can flow through her body, Tesla leaves Louisa amazed, sure that she has just witnessed magic. But no, he says:

"[...] this is not magic, just science, pure engineering." He catches her eye directly. "Magic, religion, the occult—all of it—they are all excuses to not believe that wonders are possible here on Earth. I don't want to be magic. I want people to understand that things they never even dreamed of are possible. Automobiles that run on water. Surgery that never even punctures the skin. Wireless transmission of intelligence and energy. I want to be believed, Louisa," he says and, closing the switch, turns off the electricity, plunging the room back into darkness. "Do you believe me?" he asks. (251-2)

If you can believe Tesla—believe in Tesla—I think you can still believe in The Invention of Everything Else. I choose to believe.

Copyright © 2009, Niall Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

About Niall Harrison

Niall Harrison is editor of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and reviews editor at Strange Horizons. He has also reviewed for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation and Interzone. He blogs at Torque Control.


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