What if a transcendent alien intelligence made Marcel Duchamp and Albert Einstein play chess together? This is the premise of the pleasingly-named Duchamp Versus Einstein, a new novelette co-written by Christopher Hinz and Etan Ilfeld. The latter is the director of the company that owns Angry Robot, the book’s publisher.
The novelette is split into chapters which follow either titular protagonist through various episodes at different points in their lives, smartly and non-chronologically detailing their interactions with a starchild-like figure known as Stella.
The writing is neat, pithy, and clean. The characters themselves are written with sufficient nods to their real-world achievements and lives to spark recognition, but this doesn’t veer into triteness. The dialogue, in particular, crackles with wit and intelligence; I have no idea what a conversation with Einstein would have been like, but these approximations are entertaining and plausible nevertheless. The book is at its best as a series of hypothetical conversations between improbable people, and contains some of the more memorable dialogue I’ve read this year.
However, it’s weird. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The reader finds themselves on the final page with surprise, just as a plot feels almost within grasp. There is a good sense that something weighty and important is being said here, possibly about the nature of war and fate and human nature and so forth, but you never get a clear sense of what this is. This is a lesser evil than going too far the other way, and shoving your point in the reader’s face — and there are worse sensations than the lingering feeling that a book might just be too clever for you. But the reader might come away with more of a sense of closure were the book clearer about what it is trying to say.
It feels like there are two potential products here. A short story asking the whimsical question “what would a chess game between Einstein and Duchamp be like?” would make for a diverting twenty minutes. Likewise, a novel about an alien intelligence seeking to alter human history through interventions into the lives of people around the Manhattan Project would potentially make for a racy, thoughtful, and gripping read. This is something in between.
Duchamp Versus Einstein has a lot of merit. A meat-and-potatoes science fiction story it isn’t — but if you’re in the mood for a bit of whimsy, and are willing to suspend your expectations and pay attention, you may well be pleased you picked it up.
Formats: paperback, ebook