Danté’s Equation

A friend of my loaned me Danté’s Equation, by Jane Jensen, with very high praise. It’s a big book, and perhaps I should have saved it for my upcoming (but still ill-defined) transatlantic adventures, but after the genteel, well-mannered, and rather slow prose of my last read (not reviewed here yet), I was ready for someone to let loose and just tell a good story. I was not disappointed.

The book centers around a group of five people, each of whom represents life out of balance in different ways, along the different axes defined in the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Superficially it’s a science fiction story, enough so that the characters are each uprooted and transplanted to a universe that matches their own imbalances – essentially they are plunged into a world every bit as messed up as they are. With such a mirror to look into, the characters are given the opportunity to change — or not. Behind it all is a genius physicist and mystic who disappeared while in Auschwitz. It seems he came up with a pretty dang amazing theory, and now, sixty years later, rumors are starting to get around that there exists a manuscript that could hold the key to a new sort of super-weapon.

The “scientific” idea that underpins the whole thing (and is echoed in the mysticism) is elegant and nicely described, but when it needs to interact with modern physics, that interface is a bit shaky, and sometimes just incorrect. It’s fiction, so that’s all right, but don’t take any science morsels you pick up here and try to apply them elsewhere. Remember, kids — stay away from mini black holes!

It took me a while to get started with the story; the first few chapters suffer from similitis (inflamation of the simile gland) and some rather lengthy As-You-Know-Bobs (discussions between people who really should both know this stuff already, staged so the writer can explain them to us). Early on I was tripped up by chunks like “He always left home before the crack of dawn so he could watch the sunlight warm the stones. There was a cold bite in the air this morning. His black wool coat and hat absorbed it like a sponge.” I’m not sure I want my coat to absorb the cold like a sponge, but if (as is likely, grammar aside) the author meant that it was the sunlight that is being absorbed, then sponge really isn’t a very useful image. There were many places in the early going I hesitated, tripping up on phrases where the author was just trying too hard.

The story never completely gets over the similitis, but after a while one gets the feeling that the author is no longer trying to come up with particularly choice similes, and is content to let her natural language tell the story. Once she reaches this stage, her easy voice does quite well, and I spent two very late nights watching the intertwined lives of the characters… um… intertwine. The narration is in third person, but Jensen does a good job changing the voice of the narration to match character who’s point of view we are sharing at that moment. It’s really quite fun to understand the characters through their vocabulary and the way they interpret the world.

In the framework of the “People ending up in the place they are (literally) most in tune with” rule, there is a monster coincidence – two people ending up in the same place out of an infinite continuum of possibilities. “Ah Ha!” I thought when Coincidence Guy A was explaining the rule to Coincidence Guy B, “That they are having this conversation at all is a refutation of that rule! When they work that out, it’s going to be cool!” They never worked it out; no one ever blinked an eye at the staggering impossibility of it. I even came up with a good explanation that would have made a very interesting plot point.

You know, when I write these reviews, I spend a lot more time on the problems of a story than what was good. Maybe this is because that’s how I treat my own writing now, always looking for things to improve. So, I’ll just leave you with this: This story has interesting people who grow and change, people who find balance and maybe (just maybe) a little peace. In the end you are rooting for these people, even the jerks, and when they do change it is believable (well, mostly…) and rewarding. And that’s what makes a good story, no?

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

5 thoughts on “Danté’s Equation

  1. I hate to disappoint you, but the episode “About Last Thursday…” is the the story of the Day Well Wasted. It’s long and didn’t turn out to be terribly exciting; I’m not sure anyone bothered to read the whole thing.

  2. “As-You-KNow-Bobs” is a great description for something a lot of science fiction suffers from.

    My last bought with reading science fiction was an unintended disaster. There is an author who in an academic historian first and a fiction writer second. His name is Caleb Carr, and he has written two awesome historical novels based on 1900s New York city. I really like him, but he is not prolific. When I was in the library this summer I looked him up to see if he had written anything lately. He had. Oddly, he had decided to try his hand at the future, and had written a science fiction novel. It was awful. With a capital A. Be careful about crossing genres. It suffered from a lot of as-you-know-bobs but that wasn’t the problem. The whole book was thhe prblem.

  3. I got the phrase “As You Know Bob” from the Turkey City Lexicon, a vocabulary guide for SF Writer’s workshops. Although the lexicon is SF-oriented, I think writers of any genre can find it useful and interesting.

    I was looking back at the three sentences from the story that I quoted in the review, and with a little bit of forensics, I see that the grammatical error is the sort that is the result of using a word processor. It’s pretty obvious that the sentence about the air being cold was inserted, and the pronoun in the following sentence was not repaired. Had the story been written the old-fashioned way, in discrete drafts, it is less likely that the error would have occurred. The simile would still have been pretty lame, though.

    Overall, I got the feeling that the book was not professionally proof-read. Czechoslovakia in 2005?

  4. Gosh, Jer, have you picked up any of the mass market crap at the supermarket lately? Oh, that’s right, you’re not currently near a supermarket with American mass market paperbacks. Dearie, they suck a rat’s ass, and it’s hard to believe any of them were professionally edited.

    Jesse, I read the Caleb Carr novels and liked them a good bit. Thanks for the heads up on the sucky SF.

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