After two collections of short stories and two novels (including the National Book Award-nominated A Disorder Peculiar to the Country), Ken Kalfus's Equilateral takes on science fiction, but with a distinctly 21st-century twist: think Jules Verne meets Ray Bradbury meets China Miéville.

In the Great Sand Sea of western Egypt in the 1890s, a sprawling encampment occupies thousands of square miles, as hundreds of thousands of fellahin excavate "exceedingly wide roadways into which a lining of pitch is being laid." This is Professor Sanford Thayer's empire, where his "famously acute vision" is to be realized--a "pure, uncompromised expression of human intelligence." His creation, a massive equilateral triangle, will be set afire when the "fierce, unquenchable ember" of the planet Mars is at its closest point to the earth, so the Earth can attain fiery contact with the Martians.

Despite the thousands involved in this project, the actual cast of characters in Equilateral is small--four--and the book itself slight, compact in a good way. A somewhat sly omniscient narrator seems positioned in the audience, watching and commenting as if this were a stage play. Besides Thayer, there are Miss Keaton, his tireless, devoted assistant; Bint, a Bedouin servant girl; and Wilson Ballard, the chief engineer and slave taskmaster. In a desert setting "as empty and cold as interplanetary space," Kalfus slowly unfolds a subtle morality play about the cost of scientific arrogance, intellectual hubris and imperiousness toward others--and the period illustrations contribute greatly to the book's echoes of a 19th-century scientific treatise. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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