Monday, 5 March 2012

"The Coincidence Engine," by Sam Leith

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I've wanted to read this book for a while, having first heard of it via a review (I think in "SFX") that compared the central idea of a coincidence engine to Douglas Adams' Infinite Improbability Drive.  I love Douglas Adams' writing - although my husband and I disagree over whether the radio series of "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is better than the books (no prizes for guessing which way I lean) - so this comparison was enough to make me want to track down Sam Leith's novel. 

Alex Smart, a Cambridge postgraduate, is on an impulsive trip to America to surprise his girlfriend and propose to her.  He is being followed by Sherman and Davidoff, employed by MIC Industrial Futures, who believe that Alex is in possession of a coincidence engine that was created by an eccentric, reclusive mathematician Alex Banacharski.  He is also being pursued by Bree and Jones, agents of the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable (DEI), who are under the direction of Red Queen.  Sherman and Davidoff have no scruples about hurting or killing Alex to get the coincidence engine, but Bree and Jones want to get there first and protect Alex.

The DEI is a great creation, and Red Queen - who interestingly I believe remains ungendered through the whole narrative (if I'm wrong and I missed a gendered pronoun, please let me know) - is in very tenuous control of the operation.  The DEI is a large scale operation, and Red Queen lays out their remit:
Our job is to assess threats to national security that we don't know exist, using methods that we don't know work.  This produces results that we generally can't recognise as results, and when we can recognise them as results, we don't know how to interpret them.
The DEI deals in "unknown unknowns," a phrase which echoes a speech of former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who, in the world Sam Leith creates, has reinstated the DEI.  Its work is such a paradox that it is in danger of disappearing up its own USB port.  The office of the DEI under New York has a large staff of unconventional spooky employees such as tea-leaf readers and psychics, and it tunes into information from the mass media (which, brilliantly, doesn't mean what you think it does in the world of the DEI). 

If the DEI is a bit like a large scale "X-Files," then Bree and Jones are Sam Leith's off-kilter Scully and Mulder to the Skinner of Red Queen.  Bree is an overweight, recovering alcoholic with a predilection for Jolly Rancher candy; Jones is apsychotic (he has no imagination and no understanding of consequences), a chain smoker and has an eidetic memory (he remembers exactly everything that has ever happened to him).  Jones makes a nice opposite to the character of Alex: while Alex feels that he is always doing what is expected of him, Jones has no concept of expectations. In comparison with Jones, Fox Mulder is a well-adjusted and balanced individual.  Bree and Jones make a unique couple; I found the character of Jones particularly fascinating and sometimes poignant, and his eccentricities are balanced by the sympathetic and vulnerable character of Bree who is easier to relate to. 

Aside from comparing the coincidence engine with the Infinite Improbability Drive, Sam Leith also has an occasional Adams turn of phrase (a man has injuries consistent with "the rough prognosis for an eight-year-old child with rickets spending a half-hour in an industrial tumble dryer").  In its moments of darker absurdity I also thought of "Catch 22," which I have hazy memories of reading years ago. I enjoyed the flashes of absurd humour in the novel, and the coincidence engine is a wonderful out for an author to get away with any kind of unlikely plot twist (but that would never happen?  Well, yes, that's kind of the point). The novel is an interesting blend of mathematics and physics with a touch of philosophy and a dollop of humour, but I have to confess that at times my puny brain found it hard to get around some of its ideas - although it was no less entertaining for that.

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