Equilateral by Ken Kalfus

Ken Kalfus’ latest offering, very loosely based on Victorian scientific speculation, follows a nineteenth-century English astronomer’s attempt to build a giant equilateral triangle filled with petroleum in the Egyptian desert. The burning triangle is designed to send a signal to an ancient civilisation on Mars that intelligent life exists on Earth. Once contact is established, Earth can tap the secrets of the Martians, utilising their intelligence to teach Earth to deal with drought.

The English gentleman abroad, Sanford Thayer, is a visionary straight out of H.G. Wells. The odds here are epic, and the tone is shamelessly appealing: interplanetary contact laced with Darwin, universal progress, Victorian-era geometry, and a love triangle with a talented lady-astronomer/secretary and an Arab servant girl.

But Kalfus ensures this is a doomed tale of ambitious genius. One million Arabs labour tirelessly under Thayer’s blinkered instruction, and there is talk of a strike. When the public hangings for the rabble rousers begin, Thayer’s maniacal vision becomes a little less romantic. And the lofty platitudes of ‘universal progress for all mankind’ start to ring hollow as the influence of the Mars Concession, the consortium backing the project, begins to override the scheme.

Kalfus has fashioned a social commentary masquerading as sci-fi: the zany, engaging ambition of Victorian utopianism is inseparable from the horrors of colonialism and capitalism. As the petroleum is lit, the Arabs hang, the Rockefellers and Rothschilds descend on the desert, and Thayer’s horrified secretary protests that the original vision was different. Kalfus shows us that this lesson doesn’t have to be a dull one.

Chris Dite