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The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

This Orange prize short-listed novel has had some mixed reviews. To be honest, it’s a bit of a mixture itself, refusing to be easily genrified being: part fictionalised biography of mad physicist Nikola Tesla, part love story, part time-travel SF/fantasy, and part mainstream novel set in New York during WWII.

Although it’s not perfect, I loved all of it. When I was a teenager and at university, I read virtually nothing but science fiction and fantasy. I don’t read many mainstream SF novels these days, but my love of the genre has matured into a particular liking for speculative fiction set in the recent past through to near future, (I’m thinking Ishiguru’s Never let me go and The Time Traveller’s Wife here – both books I adored reading). Although I’m a physics-based scientist by training, I find I am able to escape into these sorts of novels – ignoring the impossibilities and improbabilities and enjoying the ride without quibbling over the science.

This escapism is only possible though when backed up by good research and quality writing, which luckily is in evidence here. Samantha Hunt has chosen well, for Nikola Tesla is the very epitomy of the mad scientist – a craftsman as a trained engineer, and a true innovator living mainly in his head, and full of quirks.

The novel is set in 1943 during the last weeks of Tesla’s life, when he was living in a hotel room in New York; broke and a recluse with pigeons as his only friends left. His mind is still full of plans for fantastic wireless electrical devices including a controversial death ray which just reinforced people’s view of him as a mad scientist. Earlier, he was never able to really capitalise on his development of AC systems which overtook Edison’s lesser DC ones. He let go of his ideas for radio too and Marconi leapt in to steal the limelight.

As a counterpart to his story, we meet Louisa, a chambermaid at the hotel. Louisa’s mother died in childbirth, but she is very close to her father, also an engineer and pigeon fancier. Her first encounter with Tesla is when he causes a power-cut in the hotel:

The door opens.
To see God would have surprised Louisa less. From inside the room just down the hallway, power, electricity, whirling motion, and glowing bright as the sun spill out into the dark. The porter and manager each raise a hand to cover their eyes. And there in the aura of this wonder is man most unlike other men. A slender frame, terrific height, silver hair that reaches down his forehead in a peak. Louisa notices the dark hollows of his cheeks and even the fine length of his fingers on the doorjamb. He is lovely. Louisa catches her breath. Her mouth hangs open at the hinge. He is stunning, like Dracula grown old, like cold black branches covered with snow in the winter.

So we compare and contrast the two men through Louisa – her father and his friend Azor who thinks he’s built a time-machine; and the scientist most likely get there first if only he wasn’t 86. I got swept up in the romance of the whole thing and would heartily recommend it. But if you like your science more cut and dried – you’ll miss out on the magic of this book. (9/10)

Another interesting review of this fascinating novel can be found on dovegreyreader‘s blog.

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