Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Contacting Mars from the Egyptian Desert

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Contacting Mars from the Egyptian Desert

Article excerpt

In the novel "Equilateral," Ken Kalfus imagines a 19th-century effort by scientists to signal Martian astronomers of human existence on Earth by digging a gigantic triangle in the desert.

Equilateral. By Ken Kalfus. Illustrated. 207 pages. Bloomsbury. $24.

Set in the scorching heat of the Egyptian desert at the end of the 19th century, Ken Kalfus's new novel follows a fictional British astronomer's attempt to make contact with Mars. Hundreds of thousands of men are digging the gigantic equilateral triangle with which Sanford Thayer intends to send a signal to his fellow astronomers on the red planet.

Once finished, each side will consist of a paved trench more than 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, long and exactly one seventy-third of Earth's circumference. The trenches, five miles wide, are deep enough to be filled with a layer of petroleum that will flow from 309 taps connected to a pipeline. The huge black triangle set against the white desert sand will prove the existence of terrestrial intelligence to the Martians, Thayer argues, because the equal-sided triangle is part of the two planets"'shared knowledge of trigonometry." The equilateral triangle is, he believes, the "basis for all human art and construction."

Thayer and his crew are in a race against time. As Earth and Mars move closer to each other in their orbital dance -- half a million miles each day -- a deadline is approaching. According to Thayer's calculations, the giant triangle needs to be finished by June 17, 1894, when Earth will be at its most advantageously visible from Mars. That night Thayer and his team will light the petroleum, creating a huge flare that will "petition for man's membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations." Thayer is utterly convinced that his audacious enterprise will attract the attention and admiration of his distant, alien colleagues.

In "Equilateral," Mr. Kalfus, who was a National Book Award finalist for his previous novel, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," takes as his starting point the true story of late-19th- century astronomers who believed they had discovered elaborate artificial canal systems on Mars. Among them was the American Percival Lowell, who insisted that he had seen irrigation channels and seasonal color changes like the greening of fields. This was enough to convince him that the red planet was inhabited by intelligent beings.

Mr. Kalfus cleverly moves from these historical facts to Thayer's brazen invented project, using them as steppingstones to tell the story of a spectacularly bold, obsessive and outrageously arrogant man. Thayer believes in the progress of science and mankind. Inspired by Darwin's "Origin of Species," he expects planets to evolve just as plants and animals do. Since Mars is an older planet than Earth, Thayer says, he hopes to learn from the Martians how to "assemble the social, spiritual and material resources necessary to survive a dehydrating planet. …

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