Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Not lost in space

The Infinite Tides

The traumatized astronaut is not a new theme in literature. In nonfiction, we have the example of Buzz Aldrin's Return to Earth, which deals with the alcoholism and depression of the second man on the moon, and Brian O'Leary's The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, which chronicles the less dramatic frustrations of a scientist-astronaut who never made it into space. Science-fiction author Barry N. Malzberg penned The Falling Astronauts, in which astronaut Richard Martin gets bundled up by his crewmates after his breakdown and hauled back to earth as a basket case. More famously, Arthur C. Clarke created some extremely stressed astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So ... been there and done that. Besides, the Space Age is old news and these days no one interrupts regularly scheduled programming to report on rocket launches or spacecraft landings. Therefore it might seem just a little surprising that a new author should choose a distressed astronaut as the protagonist of his first novel. What was Christian Kiefer thinking when he wrote The Infinite Tides?

The author shared some of his thought process during the SummerWords conference, which he and his English department colleagues at the American River College organized last month. (Yours truly attended and was most likely the only mathematician in the crowd.) At a session on researching one's story, Kiefer mocked the “write what you know” straitjacket, preferring instead the “write what you can find out” approach. Thus he plunged into astronautics and mathematics, dredging up the information that would give his high-flying protagonist substance and credibility.

Kiefer also talked with the Sacramento Bee, explaining the genesis of his novel to reporter Allen Pierleoni:
Part of it was listening to the news and beginning to feel I might be the only man in America who still had a job. Then sitting at Starbucks (grading papers), watching other men at other tables looking through the want ads, then drifting to the sports pages, then to the funnies, then finally to the front page. Basically using the hunt for a job as a way to fill the endless hours of their otherwise vacant days.
It's pertinent to note that people who have academic jobs teaching math and English—subjects deemed indispensable at college—have a security that is rare in the modern world. We are a privileged few. Who else is so lucky?

Astronauts, perhaps. The men and women of the space program comprise an elite corps of over-achievers. They have reached a literal apex of accomplishment as they leave the earth on their missions. What would happen to an astronaut if he were to find himself grounded, his life and career in ruins? That was the question that Kiefer asked himself and he explores the answers in The Infinite Tides.

Astronaut Keith Corcoran is a genius at math and engineering. His goal is to go into space. Corcoran's entire life is devoted to achieving his goal, even to the point of estranging his wife and daughter. Corcoran notices and regrets the increasing distance between himself and his family, but can't see a way to resolve it without jeopardizing his career. He's actually rather irritated with his wife, who once seemed so supportive, but he plunges ahead regardless.

When it all comes apart in tragedy and illness, Corcoran finds himself alone. Stripped of flight status and living alone in an empty house in a half-built suburban development, he has nothing but time—and nothing to fill it. Having lived all his life with a keen sense of his mathematical trajectory through spacetime, Corcoran struggles to reassess the axioms of his existence. Vectors are mathematical entities possessing both length and direction, telling you both where and what. They beautifully model things like velocities, expressing both where you are going and how fast you're going to get there. For Corcoran, they were real and gave shape to the way he moved through life. Vectors were both tools he used in his engineering work and dynamic forces that drew him through reality.

Tragically, his sense of mathematized reality was one that he had in common with his daughter Quinn, but which also estranged them. While Corcoran lived within the coordinate grid of spacetime, his daughter was not embedded in the same way. While Quinn perceived the same personalities and characteristics of numbers that her father saw, she was nevertheless a different person. She had the gift of being able to live among the mortals, to be popular and social. Instead of jumping at the opportunity to enroll in an elite school to hone her extraordinary gifts, Quinn preferred to stay in a regular high school and join the cheerleading squad. Thus she became a disappointment to her father, who had already mapped out the inevitable trajectory of her life and could not come to terms with her deliberate violation of deterministic fate.

The Infinite Tides is an engrossing book. I read the entire thing over a single weekend, rarely putting it down. Keith Corcoran is a fascinating character, often maddening, whose sense of place and purpose is wobbling out of control. When he starts interacting with the neighbor woman whose daughter reminds him slightly of Quinn, you expect certain things to occur, and some of them do—but never in quite the way you were anticipating. The surprises keep you off balance and make you all the more sympathetic to Corcoran's disorientation. You begin to wonder how the author can possibly bring the book to a satisfactory resolution.

And yet he does. In fact, the final pages of The Infinite Tides bring Corcoran's story to a cusp, where many different things become possible. There is no pat happy ending, but rather a blossoming of choices. The man who lived in a mathematical framework that had become a deterministic cage begins to grasp the key that his daughter had found.

A divergent coda

Having traversed the trajectory of my review, I find myself left with notes and observations that did not fit into the flow. I offer them here as a collection of tangent vectors.

The Infinite Tides is a stunning accomplishment and I exhort people to read it and watch for future works by Christian Kiefer. The man has staying power. What's more, his capacity for assimilation of background research is prodigious. He admits to being relatively innocent of mathematical knowledge, yet he absorbed what he needed and magisterially portrayed the life of a brilliantly obsessive-compulsive mathematician.

I suspect that people who disdain math might occasionally recoil from Keith Corcoran, who tries even a mathematician's patience as he relentlessly invokes “equations” (one of the book's most frequently appearing words) and their solutions. Everything to him is a math problem, but that idée fixe is the protagonist's defining characteristic, the leitmotif of his life.

There is one bobble in the discussion of Hilbert's hotel, a warm scene where father and daughter are sharing a joyous discovery about the paradoxical nature of infinity. Suppose you have a hotel with infinitely many rooms: Room 1, Room 2, Room 3, and so on, going forever. Suppose the hotel has no vacancies, infinitely many guests being in residence. Suppose infinitely many new people show up, all wanting rooms. What is one to do? Quinn suggests a solution to her father:

“They ask every other guest to move down one room.... If n is a room with a guest the n moves to n plus one and then—”

Her father quickly understands. Unfortunately, Quinn should have said that n moves to 2n, not to n + 1. If the occupant of Room 1 moves to Room 2, and the occupant of Room 2 moves to Room 4, and the occupant of Room 3 moves to Room 6, etcetera, then all of the original guests end up in even-numbered rooms, leaving the infinitely many odd-numbered rooms vacant to accommodate the infinitely many new arrivals.

I doubt the matter will cause much distress among Kiefer's readers, but the mathematically inclined may wrinkle their brows.

My other reservation relates to astronomy. For an astronaut, Corcoran is remarkably ignorant of elementary astronomy when he converses with his Ukrainian neighbor. When Peter explains that he likes to look at Messier objects, Corcoran says, “I don't know what that means.” But Messier objects are an Astronomy 101 topic, a catalog of celestial objects that could be mistaken for comets when viewed through a telescope. The Andromeda galaxy is M31 in the Messier catalog. Even more unlikely is Corcoran's ignorance of the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. One expects astronauts to know such configurations for purposes of stellar navigation if the computers fritz out and the sextant has to be dragged out. (This was actually a consideration during the Apollo 13 mission and a factor in the crippled spacecraft's safe return to earth.)

Perhaps Corcoran was exempt from such lessons since he was an engineer-astronaut instead of a pilot-astronaut, but it struck me as unlikely.

I mentioned 2001 in the opening paragraphs of this article. It appears that Kiefer included a related joke to amuse close readers of his novel. At one point, a man named Campbell says to Corcoran, “I'm a busy man. I have the whole day scheduled to sit here on my bony ass and listen to Frank Poole bullshit about the good old days. Let's get out of here before that old windbag shows up.”

No wonder HAL 9000 killed Frank Poole when he went outside the Discovery to repair the AE-35 communications gyro.


Kathie said...

Re non-mathematicians employing math in their literature: esteemed Azorean-American author Katherine Vaz invoked all sorts of mathematical terms -- without seeming to understand the meanings of at least some of them, but apparently enthralled by the words themselves -- in one of her magical-realist short stories in "Fado & Other Stories," and it drove me crazy.

Zeno said...

Yes, Vaz wrote "Math Bending unto Angels," which is a bewildering hash sprinkled with mathematical terms and symbols.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Write what you know" is one of the reasons people keep insisting Shakespeare couldn't have written his own stuff. It's like they can't imagine researching law or sailing...

(Move to room n + 1 works, of course, it just means people have to keep moving over and over again. The mathematically inclined who don't mind inconveniencing people may not notice!)