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.
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—
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—
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—
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" .) 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—
But the sense of possibility lingers. Novels that seek to create what I'm going to call luminous worlds—
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—