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Imagine Fitzcarraldo in the Sahara: instead of Klaus Kinski trying to pull a steamboat over a hill, hellbent on establishing a world-class opera house in the Peruvian jungle, in this ingenious short novel, renowned astronomer Sanford Thayer plans to communicate with the apparently canal-happy inhabitants of Mars. Earthlings were all about canals at the time (1894) — the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and work on the Panama Canal began in 1881 — so Martian irrigation on a planet as arid as any desert on Earth suggests a technologically and most likely morally advanced race. It makes sense, therefore, to think that an alliance with our next-planet neighbors might help humanity.

Thinking along these lines, Thayer, his engineer Ballard, and their assistant Miss Keaton oversee the superimposition across the desert of an enormous equilateral triangle (each of its sides will be 306.928 miles long, “precisely 1/73rd of the Earth’s circumference” and five miles wide), which will be covered in oil and set aflame on the precise day the elegant burning symbol of terrestrial intelligence will be best viewed across 40 million miles. All it’ll take for our great white trio of intrepid potential communicators to initiate interplanetary talks is an engineering feat never before seen on Earth, bankrolled by royalty, with all the hot, heavy labor falling on the uncomprehending shoulders of approximately 900,000 racial inferiors (requiring 787,500 gallons of water a day). The drawback of temporary human suffering among a non-white underclass can’t outweigh the benefit of establishing far-flung yet possibly influential friends among superior aliens (no matter their “long flexible appendages”). 

Idealism über alles drives both “Fitzcarraldo” and Equilateral, compelling viewers/readers to root for these refined/freaked protagonists. In Kalfus’s novel, initiation of interplanetary communication via the elaborately arduous Equilateral method is such a beautiful idea, based on scientific observation and rational speculation, that I wished it were non-fiction. At best, historical novels achieve a documentarian effect. Readers suspend disbelief, perform a few google searches, and hope citations yield descriptions of a similar project long-buried by time. It’s fiction, alas, of course, but it suggests so many currently relevant non-fictional issues — about the environment, international politics, gender equality, race, technology/know-how, and the cost of progress when so many are suffering — that it seems more real than not.

“The construction of the water transport system on which life on the Red Planet depends would have required fierce determination. It would not have been put off by bourgeois mortality. Rebellions would have been subdued, perhaps with force. Vast wars would have roiled the globe’s surface. They would have included the mechanized butchery that has accompanied our own military strife, augmented by more advanced and more gruesome weaponry. So Mars will not judge us harshly. The planet’s history will show that conflict was ended only through the application of the universal laws of evolution and natural selection, when the superior and inferior specimens of the Martian race diverged into separate species, as is inevitable on Earth. A race of savants and a race of slaves, with breakable necks or not.” 
The SETI page on Wikipedia reveals that scientists have been trying to contact extraterrestrial intelligence ever since Tesla tried in 1896. These days, an estimated $20 million are spent on SETI-related endeavors worldwide. Just a few days ago NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover announced evidence of sediment on Mars indicating the former presence of rivers and streams. So far, the project that made this discovery has cost approximately $2.5 billion -- nearly as much as the GNP of a dozen African nations. Noncommittal dramatization of the long-suffering conflict between the higher callings of science and the necessity of altruism is one of this novel’s strengths, since the author, generally, seems absent as subject or judge. He’s paring his fingernails somewhere beyond the text, allowing his characters to live without authorial possession or interference. 

Characters live in part because Equilateral relies on Freytag’s pyramid, with rising drama/narrative drive created by the ever-nearing June 17 deadline for the project’s completion. We look forward to savoring ecstatic descriptions the moment the enormous triangle across the surface of the desert is set aflame. As the day approaches, obstacles are encountered as expected in a novel, and for the most part they’re inspired: discovery of an estimated 400-foot pyramid buried beneath the sand along the route of one of the Equilateral’s sides, a riveting assassination attempt while drifting above the desert in a hot-air balloon, and an uprising worthy of an epic staring Charlton Heston. Although this is more of a novel of ideas, interspersed with equal parts light character-based love story and diagram-addled, scientific-sounding talk, the novel’s more active scenes occur on such a dramatic scale that they seem to demand cinematic representation. 

But even if eventually adapted by Herzog himself, it’d be a shame that viewers wouldn’t be able to appreciate carefully composed sentences demonstrating ingenuity and restraint throughout. A scan of any given page reveals precise vocabulary and phrasing evocative of the era: “A productive race’s industry and respect for legitimate authority can be engendered no less than its good dentition.” Luckily, Kalfus never strays from this tone to wink at the 21st century reader. Despite this steadiness, there is a shifty quality at times thanks to a point of view that slips into the heads of more than a few characters. When closest to Thayer the tone seems like the most natural fit, since its semi-convoluted yet pleasurably flowing pomposities seem to match his psyche. 

Some readers may find it disorientating that this faux-historical record can access the thoughts of the three major characters, as well as minor players who appear for only a page or two, especially in a 207-page novel aerated with section/chapter breaks aplenty and geometric/astronomical diagrams. Associated generously, such shifting corresponds to the desert’s sands, the triangulated relationships among the primary players (including Bint, the “dusky” love interest/Arab servant girl), and the ambiguous patterns observed across the surface of Mars. 

Although set in the desert a quick 510-mile caravan ride from Alexandria, the novel’s world often felt like it could have emerged from the head of Donald Barthelme, that is, if his sometimes semi-cloying metafictional whimsies were exchanged for Kalfus’s clever suggestion of sociopolitical, existential, and planetary significance. 

Further, the novel’s world announces a contemporary American author’s successful colonization of Mars. From now on whenever the Red Planet crosses my radar, Equilateral will also come to mind. I’ll think about what lies beyond vast clear skies; grand ambitions carefully planned; imperfect if not entirely thwarted glories; unspoken and unreturned longing; and everything else related to the urge to connect with others, extraterrestrial or not. 

Equilateral is ultimately a glowing display of terrestrial intelligence, the sort of thing Kafka may have had in mind when he wrote that a book must be an ax to cleave the frozen sea within us. In this case, the overriding and gorgeously open symbol of an equilateral triangle (“the basis for all human art and construction”) etched across the desert is the ax Kalfus wields on ambition, longing, exploitation, astronomical wonder, and distances between those closest at hand sometimes so difficult to bridge with moving, meaningful words.


[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/equilateral.html]

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