The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeschke

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 15 October 2013.

17332205The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeschke, is a book with almost too many ideas in it. It was as though Jeschke had made not of all the possible questions that time travel brings up and put them all in one book. There are the practical and technological questions of time travel. There are the psychological questions about coping with time travel and alternate realities. Above all, however, are the philosophical questions. Chiefly, I think this book is about whether or not one should meddle with a reality’s timeline. Small fish make big ripples, after all.

The first chapters in The Cusanus Game not only set the stage for the rest of the book, but also give the reader some time to adjust to the fluid nature of time and place Jeschke describes. We meet our protagonist, Domenica Ligrina, in a dying Rome in a dying Europe. Climate change is bringing the Sahara north, along with thousands of immigrants. A nuclear accident has rendered most of Germany and Poland uninhabitable for centuries. Domenica receives a mysterious job offer from the Vatican, on of the few functioning European organizations left. Somehow, the job will involve her botanical knowledge–but no one involved with the project will give her any details. Meanwhile, Jeschke also gives us repeated moments from the past and the future that play out slightly differently as Domenica gets deeper and deeper into the project.

It becomes clear, eventually, that the Vatican’s Rinascinta project is sending people into the past to collect specimens of extinct plants or to recover lost knowledge in order to rebuild Europe and its biomes. Before Domenica is sent into the past, there are long conversations about the physics involved and the nature of time paradoxes and time dilation. It would be boring if it weren’t so fascinating (at least to me). This is an idea book, more than it is an action book. There is action–and lots of it–but it doesn’t arrive until the last third of the book when Domenica is finally cut loose into the past.

As I read the book, it became clear that there are other entities involved in time travel. The kind of time travel used in this book is inherited (if I can use that) from the future. Once time travel was invented, it existed in all times; it was just a matter of working out the math. The physicists on the Rinascinta project spend more time working out various models of their multiverse rather than trying to discover who or what actually invented time travel. They do know that an apparently Burmese mathematician named Hla Thilawuntha did a lot of the ground work, but then he disappeared*. I appreciate that Jeschke left this ambiguous. Addressing it directly would have turned the book into a pro- or anti-deist tale, rather than the meditation on intervention and responsibility I read it as.

There is one other thing I should note. This book is translated from German and the translator left many traces of the text’s linguistic origin. There are passive sentences all over the place and strange word order in many sentences. In German, the word order makes sense. To English readers, parts of this book will make you pause while you try and work out what a sentence is supposed to mean. After a while, I got used to it. For the first half of the book, it drove me nuts. Other than the hiccoughs in the translation**, I really enjoyed this book. I was challenged by the intellectual puzzles and had a lot of fun just thinking about the implications of the systems and questions Jeschke devised.


* This character, among other mysterious figures in the book, made me postulate my own version of the Law of Conservation of Characters. (Roger Ebert has his own version, by the way.) If an unknown or otherwise unidentified character appears part way through a story who shares some physical similarities with a character that’s already been introduce, it is the same character.

** I am well aware of the problems translators face. They have to chose between fidelity to the original and making it intelligible and enjoyable to readers in a different language. However, I prefer translators that are faithful to the meaning of the original above the grammar of the original.