Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer has written a novel about the solitude of an individual. He shows us the magnitude of our individual planet in the vast chaotic reach of space by way of creating an individual person, stripping him of family, job, connection, and possessions, and stranding him in the vast impersonal landscape of suburbia. Keith Corcoran, astronaut, is this man. Earth is this planet. Both are one of many, many, uncountable replications of themselves, yet both are stunningly, inconceivably alone. We are all alone, and Kiefer warns us there are no emotional epiphanies to save us from this.

What matters, when all you have is your *self*, and that self is so vulnerable, so fragile? In The Infinite Tides, an entire personal history can be wiped out by a lost bit of mail. A man can be laid low by a single blood vessel, a planet by a stray meteor, a great love by a collision with a tree. Nothing is safe, and the dangers intrude without regard or warning: termites, migraines, car accidents, meteors -- you can't control anything, and you can't even react. You just have to take whatever comes, even if it annihilates everything. There is no fate -- there is only math, and math is more ruthless than fate, and more final.

What saves the book from being basically a prose poem for a nihilist, is that redemption does come. Not from a glowing unicorn friend that takes Corcoran to Disneyland on a glitter rainbow (an ending I suggested to Kiefer on Twitter when I was part way through the book) or a wonderful carefree puppy that teaches him how to embrace life, or anything stupid like that. (Corcoran was ripe for the magical effects of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for example. Fortunately one did not appear -- just a cynical housewife on the cul de sac, ready to yank his pecker but not forthcoming with life lessons.) Instead, redemption comes from the only place it can come: math. The same thing that brings the desolation, and the horror, and the isolation, brings the hope.

As we are small, and as iterations of us extend across the universe, there is a beauty and satisfaction, for Corcoran, in the infinity of fractals. The tiny speck at a central chamber of the nauticus' spiral, weak and fragile as it might seem, is actually the same chamber as the biggest one, a massive hypothetical chamber that takes up half the universe, and even a hypothetical chamber beyond that, that takes up double another universe.

The concept of fractal iterations is one that haunts Corcoran from his own youth, to his parenting of his daughter, to the pivotal moment of the book which happens quite early in its pages -- he's at the end of a robotic arm that he's built for the International Space Station, and the arm is used to move things from one end of the station to the other, and he swings wide, away from the vehicle, and extends out into space. But when he's out there, swinging loose, it's not "Oh, I should have spent more time with my family" or "Oh, I miss love" that strikes him -- it's the vastness of it, the visible infinity of it, the real, brutal beauty. That's what matters. Fractals don't stop in either direction, do they? Can something be terrifying and comforting at the same time?

In the tiniest is the most enormous. One leaf on the pythagorean tree is the entire tree, because it is of the same number. Really it's the ONLY way to address the solitude of the space between your ears, or the magnitude of the universe -- to draw a mathematical equation that says they're the same thing.

Kiefer's writing is perfect. His language is tight, but swells in all the right places. He uses words you'll want to look up, but places them so gently that you won't have to. His idea is big, but his character is what the story is all about -- this lost and grounded astronaut. Maybe being where he's been, and having lost what he's lost, Corcoran is the loneliest human on earth. Or maybe only the one who has been outside the earth and has seen it from afar is suited to see how we are all connected. Don't miss this quiet masterpiece.


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