Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Autumn in Carthage

by Christopher Zenos
CreateSpace     2014
319 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

A strange novel of time travel, madness, and love. Nathan Price is a professor at the University of Chicago. A friend named Jamie has disappeared, and no one has heard from him. Strangely Nathan finds his name in a letter from the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Connected with that is the mention of a small town in Wisconsin named Carthage. Nathan, with an available sabbatical, decides to go to Carthage and see if he can root out the mystery and find Jamie. In Carthage, however, nothing is as it seems and the mystery, the time travel, the madness and the love all converge to change his life forever.

Autumn in Carthage takes some getting used to. It is a book you haven't read before. It wavers between the trite and the profound. Sometimes the reader just feels lost in the words and the imagery, but there is enough plot that the reader just keeps reading, trying to figure it all out. Sometimes the reader feels that there is too much going on with too many characters, back stories, and mental illness, but again, the reader just keeps reading, trying to figure it all out.

The fun part of the book for me was knowing exactly where Nathan was in Chicago, since my son and his family spent 6 years a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago campus. I also know northern Wisconsin well, so it was fun to read about it, although I've never been to Carthage, and I would guess that most Wisconsinites haven't been there either.

It's worth a try for readers who like mysteries, time travel, and love stories. 

One last word: Christopher Zenos is a pseudonym. He has written for several blogs explaining himself and his book. I took his explanation from Sheila Deeth's blog.

"Autumn in Carthage emerged from two sets of interests. First, since I’m a hopeless romantic, it is very much a love story. Well, more than one, in point of fact. Both the male and female protagonists are people with enormous burdens, broken by life. The entire plot revolves around their journey to each other, and the sanctuary they have the potential to build together.

Second, this book was written at the intersection of “hard” SciFi and historical romance. So…what does that mean? Well, it takes both an analytic and a descriptive approach to humanity’s trajectory. The descriptive part came easily. I’ve always been a history buff—playing truant from work to sink into online material on the emergence of social structure in Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, the Late Bronze Age Collapse due to the arrival of the Sea Peoples, or the exploits of the Hapsburg tercios. Much of the action, then, occurs against the backdrop of Colonial America and King William’s War, itself part of the worldwide struggle against the Sun King. The conflict strongly influenced the emergence of the colonies that were to become America, as well as that of French Canada. On a larger scale, it was a time of cataclysmic change, when the old religious and civic orders were giving way to a more “rational” one, and unprecedented links were being forged between Europe and the civilizations of Asia and Africa. The Salem Witch Trials—the microcosm within which the historical action occurs—unfolded within that macrocosm, a fact that is often overlooked. 

But while these descriptive parts coalesce into subplots, the analytic theme pervades the narrative. Simply put, the book is a vehicle to explore the social nature of time. And this is where “hard” SciFi comes in—specifically, the classic works of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. I remember the first time I read Dune—the original, the classic, not the shallower works that followed. There’s this crucial scene early in the novel where young Paul Atreides, the future Mentat Emperor, lost in the unforgiving deserts of Arrakis, first glimpses time itself—the probabilistic course of human events—and understands his role in its evolution. The conception of history as a structured-but-stochastic process that could be predicted and shaped fascinated me. And, of course, like every other nerdy kid on the planet, I’d read and reread Asimov’s Foundation series. This book is partly about fleshing out the vision of time nascent in his notion of “psychohistory,” or the mathematics of human social process.

In the years since Herbert and Asimov wrote, we social scientists have learnt much about how history flows and is structured by human institutions, how temporal nodes emerge and are utilized by informed actors, and what an authentic mathematics of social evolution could look like. Hence the intertwining in this novel of historical events—thirteenth century eastern Europe, Germany during the Holocaust, seventeenth century Salem—with chaos theory and computational social science.

To summarize, then, the book falls squarely within the boundaries of genre fiction—but of the more cerebral kind. At the same time, it is rawly human, plumbing the murky depths of human experience to layer emotional flesh over the cognitive bones. It is about flawed individuals making difficult choices under immense pressures—and the outcomes, both beautiful and terrible, of those decisions. Above all, it narrates one man’s physical and spiritual journey through a difficult lifescape toward serenity. It is that human dimension, ultimately, that I hope readers will respond to. "

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