The only book ever to pass the intrusive toffee test for scientific literature.
Michael Lewis’s debut novel The Orthogonal Galaxy is, structurally rather than functionally, a pair of jeans. Without giving away the plot, imagine a story that runs along two strongly differentiated threads, one hard sci-fi and one crime and punishment drama, so up until about page 260 the reader can’t see any reason why these two things should be in the same book, why do this, stop it, then the threads abruptly merge together to form the trunk of the trousers and suddenly you know you’ve got a good book in your hands and can really start to enjoy it, for the remaining 130 or so pages. I thought I was smart but I couldn’t see any way to reconcile the clearly unconnected stories until the line where the writer did it for me. Up to that point, I would have said take the court-room drama out as it was the less interesting half (speed readers might skip through it) and I didn’t care if the guy went to jail but after that integration point I could see that thread was essential after all. Patience is important in reading good books, understood, but I still think the courtroom leg could have been streamlined down even if it couldn’t be connected any earlier. Maybe start that thread later? I’m not objecting to carefully planned literary tricks but the glowing question mark did seem to hang in the air for a very long time.
The book is very serious, leaning into materials engineering, and I think I only laughed twice but that didn’t matter. I’m saying this for context because I wanted to share my favourite line with you: “The name’s Guntherd Schenthtzen but folks around here find it easier to remember my prison number, 689214”. Super.
Two pretty original science fiction concepts have been introduced in this novel, so I recommend the author sends copies to the major science fiction archives to get some historical recognition for publishing them first. The author contends that less that 5% of the Universe is observable, so why can’t we see the dark matter (the other component is energy)? He then answers his own question with an idea that’s so simple and rational that it may just be right (it would be a spoiler to tell you). To cap it off, the story introduces a new way for a craft to exceed the speed of light (can’t spoil that for you either). In all cases, throughout the book, new technology is accompanied by a full, hard-sci explanation, which you need to pay attention to understand.
It was more or less at this point that my step sister, a modern girl who objects strongly to the sight of anyone being quiet, reading, concentrating or thinking, approached from behind and put a wet toffee in my hair. The reason I’m telling you about this, the relative importance of the event, is that I was so stuck into the book and thinking about the technical explanations that I didn’t notice this had happened. Enthralled? Arguably. Concentrating hard? Certainly. I wonder how many books there are in the world that can absorb your attention so completely that you lose track of your surroundings. Perhaps only a couple of thousand, yet there are a couple of million titles on Amazon alone. Remember that this is a debut author here. I’m not into revenge but she doesn’t like bookworms and she doesn’t like me and I know there’s no likelihood she’ll read about books online so, as I got it out with scissors, it seems only appropriate to apologise for my step sister because she isn’t a noticeable asset to the community and her careers advisor at college suggested that, given her appearance and the total sum of her experiences, skills and qualifications, she could consider a bright and well paid future in the City of London, as there’s always room at the top in executive prostitution.
Back to the book. I have to say that in a raft of average characterisations, not exceptional or unexceptional, the standout personality that steals the show is ‘Blade’. This character has hidden depths, he’s likeable, where he’s from and how he’s got to here is believable and steals the reader’s attention and sympathies straight off the page. Having new ideas about physics is brilliant of course, well done author, but if you wanted to make this into a film, a popular entertainment, this single character would be what the film’s remembered for. This is Orthogonal Galaxy’s king-post, as Ripley is to Alien, except Blade’s use of language is more vibrant.
If you talk about the feeling, the spiritual essence of the book that you’re left with when the words are long forgotten, the story should grow warmer with hindsight. When you’re in the process of reading the book and bogged down in the up-quarks and down-quarks, 26,000 mps div r Pi, composite atomic particles, legal jargon and all the rest, it feels like foot-slogging your way up a steep old mountain. Occasionally there’s a glint of gold to keep you going but I can imagine it’s an ask for someone who isn’t a regular hard-sci-fi devotee to tag along with the subatomic particle physics (which I personally gravitate to, oh yeah) in conjunction with wondering where the legal thread is going. When you’ve finished reading it though, after the rush and enjoyment of the last hundred or so pages when it all comes together and you finally understand what’s happened, the journey feels ultimately worthwhile. You’ll remember the two main ideas and the passion for exploration, you’ll remember Blade and you might even remember my rant about the toffee. You might even look up what orthogonal means, which was a new word for me. What I’ll remember is to wait a few months and check for the sequel because this series is warming up.