Equilateral by Ken Kalfus: A tale of folly, madness and Martians

Cover imageSet at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. The triangular trench is to be filled with petrol and lit on June 17th 1894 acting as a flare to attract Martian attention in the hope that they will make contact the following October when Mars and Earth are at their closest. His scheme has not only been funded by public subscription but is fully supported by European governments and dignitaries, all keen to make the Martians’ acquaintance. Despite the disasters that strike the project it limps on fuelled by determination and delusion. So sure is Thayer of the Martians’ imminent arrival that a luxurious set of buildings has been erected to house them, its design based on that of Balmoral.

Sound bonkers? Well, indeed it is but Ken Kalfus manages to carry it off in this subtly comic novel which is so convincing that I found myself wondering if anyone had ever conceived of such a ridiculous scheme given that it’s set in the age of exploration and abundant European self confidence. He takes some well-aimed kicks at colonialist arrogance: Thayer calls his maid Bint ignorant of the fact that it’s the Arabic word for girl rather than her name; European doctors fail to diagnose Thayer’s fever while Bint (whose name is Alya) quietly and effectively treats it with a local medicine; the Europeans seem oblivious to the political and religious dissension riddling the base having neglected to learn Arabic which eventually leads to disaster. Meanwhile the long-suffering Miss Keaton whose brain is at least the equal of Thayer’s is given no official credit for her contributions, written off as a spinster and forced to look on as Thayer’s attraction for Alya grows. It’s an unusual and original novel – one that I think will stay with me for some time.

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