Equilateral, by Ken Kalfus

15793638I usually write my book reviews as soon as I finish the last page, before details fade and I lose the sense of the book. I couldn’t do that with Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral. I’m still not entirely sure I know what happened in this book. On the one hand, it’s another White Man’s Folly story of a man who undertakes a massive engineering project in Egypt’s Great Sand Sea. On the other, it might also be about a man whose project is the first line of dialogue with the people of Mars.

In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli observed a number of channels in the surface of Mars. His Italian canali was translated as canals and suddenly the astronomical (and popular) press was full of speculation about who built these massive canals. This historical event fired the imagination of (fictional) Sanford Thayer. Thayer and the world’s astronomers map out the Martian canals and supposed patches of vegetation each time the great planet gets close enough for terrestrial telescopes. In the 1880s, Thayer begins to raise funds and support for an attempt to communicate with whoever (whatever) is on Mars by carving a gigantic equilateral triangle into the surface of the Egyptian desert—and then lighting the thing on fire.

Equilaterial begins in 1893. The triangle has been delayed time and again. Thayer himself lies ill from a disease the camp physicians can’t identify. The project is only moving forward because Thayer’s faithful secretary, Miss Keaton, is preventing the chief engineer from taking short cuts. Everything depends on the triangle being completed in time for ignition on June 17, when Mars and Earth are in optimal alignment. As if this weren’t enough to be getting on with, the Mahdist War has been making things dicey in southern Egypt.

Schiaparelli’s 1877 map of Mars

In between bouts of fever, Thayer makes observations with a telescope and charts the changes in the canali, shadows that might indicate farming, and strange lights in the Martian atmosphere. In our history, the mistranslation was fixed after a few decades. We know now that the Martian atmosphere is too thin to support life and that the channels are the result of natural forces, rather than something-created. That’s not—or might not—be what’s happening in Equilateral. It’s unclear whether Thayer is hallucinating because of his disease and spreading a kind of hysteria among the world’s astronomers or if there really are Martians in this alternate history. “Time and again Thayer has been the first man to see planetary features and starry phenomena that were later confirmed by his colleagues” (181*). Either Thayer is extraordinarily lucky, or no astronomer wants to say they can’t see what Thayer can see.

The narrative toes this line between possibilities all the way through to the end. I still don’t know which reality I’m supposed to accept.

What I can say, unequivocally, is that Equilateral is a magnificent portrait of Western hubris. In my opening paragraph, I called this book a White Man’s Folly tale. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Man Who Would Be King or the construction of the Suez Canal or the Anglo-Indian railroad, Sanford Thayer, Miss Keaton, and the engineer believe in the absolute rightness of not only their project, but their entire way of life. Theirs is the right way to think and act. Everyone else is a lazy savage, though the narrative undercuts this prejudice time and again:

“We’ll hang just two, in fact. The others will be spared, allowed to return to their spades invigorated by fear. And edified, having been introduced to the concept of Christian mercy[,” said the engineer.]

“Fear…” Thayer mutters, “Is that our greatest motivating force? Is there no ideal, no greater purpose, that may appeal to the men?”

“Fear works surprisingly well. That’s been my experience, from Aswan to the Punjab.” (89-90)

Who’s really the savage here?

Though the book is well under 300 pages, I’ve been left with a lot to ponder. If there really are Martians (or extraterrestrial life), should we contact them? How? At what cost? Will foreigners stop taking indigenous people for granted? What did I just read?

* Quotes are from the 2013 kindle edition by Bloomsbury USA.