The subject of Ken Kalfus’ startlingly original third novel—a bizarre 19th-century attempt to communicate with the planet Mars from the Egyptian desert—couldn’t be more remote from his first two, the death throes of Czarist Russia and the uneasy world of post-9/11 New York City. That he’s able to carry it off with such gusto is a tribute to both his versatility and the considerable breadth of his imagination.

As the summer solstice approaches in 1895, fever-stricken British astronomer Professor Sanford Thayer desperately urges his chief engineer Wilson Ballard to galvanize a workforce of 900,000 sullen and occasionally mutinous Arab fellahin. Their task is to complete the excavation of a vast equilateral triangle, 306 miles and 1,663 feet on each side (precisely 1/73 of the Earth’s circumference at that latitude in the western Egyptian desert). At the moment Earth reaches its farthest point from the sun on June 17, Thayer’s plan is to ignite the oil-filled trench, hoping to send a signal to what he believes is the far more advanced Martian civilization and begin a dialogue between the two planets.

For such a brief novel, Equilateral overflows with intrigue and action, featuring duplicitous despots and feckless politicians, bands of marauding desert warriors and a nearly wordless love story between the obsessed astronomer and the young Arab girl who attends to him in his desert outpost. Though Kalfus often paints in broad strokes, he succeeds in investing characters like Thayer and his devoted private secretary Adele Keaton, among others, with a depth that engages us fully in their bizarrely inspiring quest.

Kalfus nicely balances a fast-paced plot with consideration of the big themes that lurk under the surface of the story: the notion of progress, the arrogance of empire, the audacity of science and the tension between pure research and the demands of commerce. There’s an equally impressive equilibrium between the undeniable daffiness of this imaginary project and the serious invitation to ponder a question that occurs to many of us when we gaze into the clear night sky: Is there anyone out there?

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