Singer Distance

Tin House. Oct. 2022. 288p. ISBN 9781953534439. $27.95. F
DEBUT Following the story collection Warnings from the Future, Pushcart Prize winner Chatagnier sets his debut novel in an alternative past, with Earth discovering in the early 20th century that Mars is inhabited. Communication with the Martians begins with monumental-scale writing in the desert, set afire, and the exchange of similar luminescent writing from the surface of Mars. These exchanges progress, all in mathematics, until the latest Martian math problems confound Earth. Cut to 1960, the novel’s present day, when a hapless band of MIT grad students go to the desert to illustrate a proof, a solution to one of the Martian problems, by one of their brilliant members, Crystal. The group of five, led by Crystal’s boyfriend Rick, use a van and agricultural equipment to draw the message to the Martians. They all become instant celebrities when the Martians respond with yet another math challenge. Rick and Crystal are in love but are then separated for 13 years, during which Rick discovers what Crystal has been hiding, leading to a different direction in communication with the Martians.
VERDICT A compelling bildungsroman, set in a fictional past, that examines the interplay of obsession and personal relationships and reads like Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia meets Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow in its intersection of alternate space history, alien life, and singing.
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