Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: The Invention of Everything Else

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

I love Nikola Tesla. I really do. I love all the legends surrounding him, I love the folklore, and I love the way he's been adopted as a hero by the steampunk community. But I always try to remind people that the historical Tesla's story had arguably more tragedy and failure than success. He claimed to have built things that never actually materialized and he ended his life in poverty, alone in a hotel room with only pigeons for company. This novel focuses on this end time of Tesla's life. It starts off inside his head which is quite disconcerting at first, since he is, after all, talking to pigeons. But ultimately the book celebrates this completely unique individual for the reach of his vision. It's a novel that recreates the feeling that technology could make anything possible.

First of all, I should make clear that this is not a "steampunk" novel. It's not written to be a genre piece, and this isn't an alternate history. But it is quite fictional, though the historical Tesla is at the center of the book. Portions of the novel take place from Tesla's point of view at the end of his life, and portions are his autobiographical account of his life. So it does cover most of the important moments in Tesla's life, from his POV. But there's a secondary POV character: Louisa, a housemaid at the New Yorker who becomes interested in the hotel's strangest resident. The novel is quite a bit about her life and her family and much of it is only thematically linked to Tesla's story. Partway through the novel the reader is introduced to her father's best friend, a man who says he has invented a time machine. Much of the suspense of the book involves trying to decide if this is, in fact, a book where time travel exists or if this man is just delusional.

That question of what is possible is central to the book. It's interesting viewing the world from the point of view of 1943. Louisa expresses the thought at one point that if airplanes can transport people all over the world within a day and television can beam pictures into a person's home, then why shouldn't science eventually make time travel possible? I think from our modern point of view this kind of thinking can be seen as quaint, but if you truly imagine the huge leaps that took place within a generation it's understandable how anything must have seemed possible.

Ultimately I didn't get exactly what I wanted from this novel. It left several things unresolved to an extent that bothers me. But certainly the Tesla portions are superb, and highly recommended to fellow Tesla fans. I guess I find that part of the story so satisfying because I've always been so fascinated by the image of Tesla as an old man locked in his hotel room talking to his pigeons over the triumphant mad scientist version of him. And this book does succeed in both conveying the tragedy of Tesla's story and overcoming that tragedy to celebrate the man and his extraordinary accomplishments.

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