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The Cusanus Game
by Wolfgang Jeschke
Tor, $16.99, 538 pp
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
This book was originally written in German and has been so very precisely translated into English; not all books make it here across the ocean in such a well-done translation.  Not that I’ve read it in German to make a comparison, but that the prose flows so well and no words are out of context or awkward.  If I hadn’t known it to be a translation, I could not have told it.  I mention this because I think our culture would do well to expose itself to more non-American literature; I’m not sure that British, Canadian, or even Australian counts.  The atmosphere and tone of the book is European, with scarcely a mention of America.  This was a pleasant difference from our ego-American-centric literature. 

The world has been significantly impacted by a nuclear disaster on a greater scale than Chernobyl.  The disaster was caused by an accident in France that laid waste to most of Europe; Britain isn’t even mentioned in the story.  The story takes place in Italy.  The climate has radically changed, many plants and animals are suddenly extinct; and mankind is looking at a bleak future.  Governments are forced to take draconian measures to control populations and the influx of refugees.  Technology has advanced proportionally to the disaster; the same effect as war.  Nanotechnology is rampant as scientists rush to find solutions to clean up the radiation to reclaim the land and abandoned cities, and to mitigate the effects of drastic climate changes.  But there are no controls and with this type of technology, no way to restrict it; much like trying to stuff that genie back in the bottle.  Nanotects are loose in the world and no one knows the ultimate result…or cares.

Some scientists start thinking of looking backward since the future looks so dismal.  With the discovery of a technique to travel back in time, a plan develops to travel to the past to collect seeds and samples of plants long extinct in order to restore the ecology.  Enter our heroine, Domenica, a botany student in Rome. She is recruited by a university to participate in a secret program.  Over a period of time, she and new friends are prepared for an unimaginable journey.  Domenica has a particular fascination with a famous clergyman from the 15th century and this is the period to which she is finally sent on assignment.  The backstory includes the effect on Domenica’s life when her beloved father was killed in a terrorist attack when she was twelve.  This haunts her and, at one point in her training, she was asked what one event would she change if she could – that was the moment she selected.

The book is not written for the high school education level; it has a very intelligent and complex plot and concept.  Which, of course, can translate to confusing.  Frequently, I confess myself to be a lazy reader in that I wish the author to tell me everything.  But then I find a book such as this; where I must think and evaluate to gain anything of value.  The chapters are interwoven through time but the author gives us no markers to know for certain.  I think this was deliberate as much of the story is about how time is fluid in the multiverse and effects can blur and change history.  And then the question is whether the inhabitants experience a change in their own history or does the world timeline branch off into a different reality leaving the old one to trudge along with no benefits.  One of the concepts the author introduces is the idea that the multiverse is self-repairing: if the change is a small divergence and ultimately events continue to the same end result, then the two universes eventually reintegrate and continue to the same end.  Or, if the change is significant, then a new universe joins the multiverse.  Which argues that the scientists’ efforts to use the past to fix their present only benefits the new universe.  This also applies to any effort to go back in the past to stop a disaster:  either the changes made are not significant and the disaster still occurs; or the change triggers another branching of the multiverse but in one of them, the disaster still occurs.

The most confusing aspect of the plot was the method of time travel.  Despite the intricate explanations, I was left with lots of questions about how and why it worked as it did.  And, finally, the author added the idea that some people, possibly a genetic quirk, were able to move through time without the assistance of that technology.  He also included the idea that we are connected through the multiverse to our doppelgangers; through dreams and visions.  But only some people, like our Domenica, are able to understand and appreciate the dreams and visions for what they are – shadowy experiences of our other selves.  The author has a clever device in that he repeats some events in the chapters to show the incremental changes in history.  The first time he did it, I thought it was an error in the translation and that a chapter was repeated but a comparison showed small changes in how the event unfolded – in some cases it was subtle, in others, more dramatic. 

There was not, perhaps unfortunately, a clear resolution in the story.  But that is in keeping with the concept of the story.  In one glimpse we see how the world would progress without restoring the ecology; and in others we see Domenica simultaneously saving and not saving her father.  It was a fascinating mental exercise and I can see it spawning spirited discussion in a university class.  I think I’ll get more out it with a second reading although the prospect is a daunting one for this lazy reader.  I do recommend it, and I hope it does well in our market.  ~~ Catherine Book

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