The Cusanus Game

Cusanus GameThe Cusanus Game was not my first encounter with Jeschke. I had read his “Loitering at Death’s Door” in James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction Volume 6: Around the World. Unfortunately, that was at a time I had given up making notes on my reading as a time wasting compulsion. And now I don’t remember what it was about. Thus the compulsion has been resumed.

I do like to read the occasional non-Anglophone bit of science fiction.

It’s not a guilt thing. It’s a novelty thing.

I’m curious as to what people with different histories and living in a different part of the world will due with the themes and motifs of science fiction.

So, I’d heard of Jeschke and wanted to read some more German science fiction. (No, I have not read Perry Rhodan. If life were longer, perhaps I would.)

ReviewThe Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

The greatness of this book lies in its novel mechanics of time travel, its structure, its setpieces, its mixture of alternate history and time travel, its poignancy and paradoxes, and the fate of a heroine whose voice is so appealing.

The titular game, named after a real 15th century ecclesiastical Nicolaus Cusanus who plays an important part in the story, is the organizing metaphor for the novel’s structure and the suggestive counterpoint for the journey of Domenica, a botanist who narrates most of the book. It’s a game where modified balls are thrown at a target, no game or moment in time is ever the same, and indirection is a strategy, patience a necessity.

And so it is with the opening of this book, a prologue that starts out like some tale of time travelers confronting medieval primitives, but it’s really just Europeans coming out from behind the walls (figurative and literal) they’ve built to keep hordes of refugees, fleeing climate change, from moving into northern Europe. And it’s not like there’s as much room as there used to be on the continent. A large swath of Germany has been rendered uninhabitable by plutonium poisoning.

Patience is needed for the first 100 or so pages as Domenica is introduced, her voice leisurely giving us a travelogue of a violent Rome of the mid-21st century, a city plagued, by other things, feral talking dogs, weapons of war abandoned. And then the pace picks up as Domenica is recruited into a secret Vatican project to travel back in time to get genetic samples of extinct flora. Foreshadowing obvious and not so obvious is rife as early sections have Cusanus ominously speaking of a strange woman about to be burned as a witch.

Jeschke’s time travelers are memorably compared to “dogs on a subway”. They have little idea how their time travel system works or who built it or why, indeed little beyond some basic features they can exploit. Jeschke cleverly uses not only standard scenes of dialogue to explain things but epigraphs from cosmologists and artificial intelligence researchers like Albert Einstein and John Wheeler and David Deutsch and Cusanus himself to rationalize by suggestive speculation.

The plot, like the balls of Cusanus’ game, veers all around. Poignancy and suspense can quickly change to farce. Long travelogue sections suddenly become quick cut scenes of impending doom as Domenica goes on missions into time with both professional and personal ends. Why time travel dooms romance among its practioneers is laid out.

Some set pieces aren’t strictly necessary. A frail old woman tells how she alone survived years of isolation in space after a doomed Mars mission. Wheelchair bound veterans battle youths in Amsterdam street riots. But I enjoyed them as well as Jeschke’s extended extrapolations of virtual reality and nanotechnology.

In the middle of the book, is a chapter called “The Cusan Acceleratio”and previously published as a short. It’s a quite detailed timeline of an alternate history and integral to the book. It’s also understandable to see why Jeschke says it was the most difficult section to write.

Not so integral to the plot are the several almost identical scenes with Cusanus. I understand the purpose: to show how alterations in timelines affect Cusanus. However, I think they could have been shortened, and that was the book’s only flaw for me besides some predictable German phobias about nuclear power.

The ending is powerful and unexpected. The narrative stops in quite an unpredictable place.

Unrewarded Patience and Uncertain Goals: Spoilers and Criticism

“There are various interpretations of this game. Cusanus himself attributed several qualities to it. One of the most important is that it entertains the players, puts them in a cheerful mood, and teaches them to sustain defeats lightheartedly and good humoredly. … The deeper level is of a symbolic nature: In the center of the field, in the tenth, innermost circle, which bears no number, is Christ. … On our life’s path we inevitably go astray, even if we aim steadfastly to reach our goal, to reach God. But if we strive toward it with patience, we can nonetheless come quite close to our goal.”

So explains Catholic psychologist Falcotti to Domenica as he recruits her to the Vatican’s secret project.

The question of goals and patience is central to this novel.

The reader needs patience in the pacing of Domenica Ligrina’s story. It is almost a 100 pages before she is recruited. It is over 400 before she makes her first real journey in time — at least from her conscious, linear perspective. Patience is tested as she waits for her fellow time traveler Frans to return from an assignment reconnoitering the architecture of the past — necessary to produce virtual reality simulations precisely indexed to a relatively short period of time. It is a patience that is not really rewarded. Frans comes back, but it has been months for Domenica, years of subjective time for him. Like the balls of Cusanus’ game, they are not identical. Time has gouged them in different ways, different enough to make them unable to travel the same paths through space and time however much a version of Frans, his romance with Domenica still to come in his timeline, helps rescue her from burning has as a witch in Cologne.

But the major question of the book is goals. The center of this book, the location the characters want to end up at, is uncertain. Mostly because we really don’t know who the operating characters, whose goals are being served.

For one, why does time travel exist? It is clearly a technology from the future but is it alien or human? For what does the tool exist? Is it even a creation of anything like a sentient race? Or is it an emergent property of the universe? The Vatican wishes to use it to bring genetic diversity back into God’s creation. Off stage, rumors say America is desperately trying to reverse Sept. 11th. The terrorist bombing that killed Domenica’s father on a train when she was a little girl seemingly can’t be altered. It and the plutonium blighting of Germany are fixed.

As the novel progresses, we get more sections, not narrated by Domenica, that show other time travelers, one a talking rat, one a man “called the angel” by those he meets at various points in time, another a man with an intelligent wolf. They point to other goals far different than restoring Europe’s flora.

We get glimpses of Highgate, a zone where these travelers meet and where solitons, the gravity waves Domenica and her colleagues ride back and forth in time, reverse course. It is here where the Cusanus Accelero is discovered, an “improbable case of an oscillation”. The Accelero is an alternate history elaborately worked out by Jeschke starting with Cusanus being allowed to form the Accademia Romana by the pope in 146.0 The development of science and technology is accelerated. Some environmental disasters similar to Domenica’s timeline still occur, but the world is also spared some wars. The timeline ends in 1945 with Charles De Gaulle declaring Europe an “impregnable fortress” that will carry on Western culture.

Is that a good thing? On the whole, it seems yes. But is somehow improving the lot of historic humanity the goal of shadowy time travelers from the future? Are they pruning possibilities out of the tree of all spacetime, trying to create an “optimally edited universe”?

Domenica ultimately fails in her botanical mission though she escapes being burned a witch. There is a suggestion that her encounter with Cusanus starts the Accelero. She proves to have an unusual ability to travel through spacetime and between timelines with no enabling instrumentality of virtual reality.

She is allowed to go back in time on a mission to save her father by preventing him from boarding a train which will be horribly destroyed in a tunnel by a terrorist bomb. In the penultimate chapter, “Forking Roads”, the pacing is quick, the cuts between scenes frequent.

In the middle of the book Domenica  meets Heloise Abret, the only survivor of a six person crew that went to Mars in 2022. She ascribes her toughness at surviving years in space alone to always remembering the center of her world, the home she was returning to.

But, as her lover Frans bitterly notes, humans are the only animal that deliberately sets out to fool itself. After encountering her father on the day he died and saving him, Domenica comes to find her rescued father is not the man she remembers, her future with him not as she hoped, the girl she was not the girl of her memories. She is like one of Cusanus’ balls that arcs close to its target but never reaches it — if the target is personal happiness, the purpose of events a recognizably humane outcome.

But what if the universe and the possibilities of past and future are not being groomed for human ends? Domenica ponders that such a notion “… seemed to me more like the brutal stroke of a bullwhip to keep yoked animals on course.”

As the memories and sensations of her doppelgangers from other timelines increasingly seep into her mind, Domenica sadly, towards the end, tells an old friend “I got a little bit lost … between times, worlds.”

Domenica’s voice is introduced by a man shouting at her across a militarized border in her beloved, vibrant, crowded Rome. She ends up untethered in spacetime, not really connected to anyone anymore. We last hear her voice as she talks to another time traveler, another messenger for the multiverse, in a scene of “smoking ash seams, the sediments of innumerable failed possibilities”. “Why should we work on behalf of this …  monster?”

As she wonders what she will feel if her bubble of spacetime foam in the universe, her branch of the multiverse is trimmed, she thinks of her old friends and lovers. “Have I become for them a hazy apparition, so that I encounter them only in their daydreams — in the languor of midday or at night when their senses are enveloped in sleep?”

Domenica’s journey ends not at some center of family and friends or worlds saved but in fear and solitude.

It’s a novel that is, as John Clute has remarked of Jeschke that he is “ironic in tone”, and, the more I think of this novel, the more I agree.

Jeschke’s Inspirations

There are a lot of time travel novels out there, and many more short stories, but I was still a bit surprised I completely misidentified Jeschke’s acknowledged inspirations: Jack Finney’s Time and Againthe Strugatski Brothers Hard to Be a God, and (as yet untranslated into English) Dieter Kuhn’s Das Konigsprojekt.  I would have guessed the Up the Line from Robert Silverberg and Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats.  The Silverberg novel is farcical and there is some elements of farce here at the climax as Domenica struggles to keep her father from boarding a train where he will die in a terrorist attack. There is an element of meeting alternate selves that figured so much in the Pohl novel though it is not a time travel work. As Domenica or one of her doppelgangers from another timeline resort to seduction to keep her philandering father from that train, there is even the incest danger that provided so much comedy at the climax of the film Back to the Future, arguably the time travel story most humans are familiar with.

But Jeschke’s novel does have a romances and, as I understand the Strugatskis’ novel does, there is the idea of using time travel to somehow better society.


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