Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review of Summer Soltice by Charles L . Harness

    "Two to one that you will report to his majesty that the Earth is shaped like a disc. Even odds for a cylinder. Three to one against a square. Ten to one against a sphere." He pushed the bag of staters back to Eratosthenes. "Just give me a hint," he whispered. "And keep your purse."

Knowledge regarding the true shape of Earth literally worth its weight in gold, Charles L. Harness’ 1984 Summer Solstice is a look at the underlying views of how such a variety of shapes could come to mind to begin with.

Summer Solstice is the story of Eratosthenes, a geometer tasked by Ptolemy II with determining the shape of the Earth: cylinder, disc, sphere, square?  The street odds against each interesting, rabbis, astrologers, philosophers, even sailors have their own opinion as to the reality of the earth beneath their feet, depending on their belief of perspective.  Eratosthenes’s situation more than precarious, a female slave awaits to poison him should his choice go wrong.  But complicating matters much further is the unscheduled arrival of Khor, an avian-esque alien on Earth, his ship in desperate need of repair. 

Set in Alexandria after the Greeks had taken Egypt, the city is lent a cosmopolitan feel by the Chaldeans, Carthagians, Greeks, Africans, Arabs, Jews, Egyptians, and all other manner of cultures and races walking its streets.  Moving among and through each on the road to reaching a decision as to the true shape of the world, Harness has his finger on the sophisticated matrix of culture that once existed in the city.

What Harness does not have his finger on is subtle storytelling.  Summer Solstice brazenly drops an alien into historical Greece with barely a ripple.  Perhaps some oblique commentary that a scientist is better equipped to handle such “realities”, the combination of cultures and the introduction of extra-terrestrials are given short shrift.  The mathematical agenda is pushed heavily, and for this undoubtedly mathematicians and fellow geometers will enjoy the story.  It’s only a bit bothersome that the humanist side takes such a big hit, particularly how it could inform a storyline begging to be made plausible.  It is thus that Summer Solstice would seem to be better served fleshed out into a novel so that the characters have more flavor, and the introduction of foreign elements more space to breathe.  Moreover, perhaps a less stereotypical reason for the alien being on Earth could exist, not to mention the fairy tale denouement.

Where the novella strikes gold is in its presentation of the thinking of the time.  Discussing with an astrologer the meaning of knowing the shape of the Earth, he receives the following perspective: “I see Gaea, the Earth goddess. You would strip her naked. You would say, her size and shape are thus and so. I see Cronos, the god of time. You would have lovely naked Gaea turning, turning, turning under the lascivious scrutiny of Cronos. Apollo stands still in the skies, and leers." And talking with other people, the rabbi, the Egyptians, etc., he gets a variety of other views.  Speaking with the Greek pharaoh, he gets perhaps the most interesting: "The gods gave us a flat world, my young friend. Adjust your numbers to fit the facts, not the other way around."

In the end, Summer Solstice is a novella of wonderful ideas but of poor story and character.  Perhaps a statement that could be made of much of science fictional, Harness manages to captures it in a nutshell.  The main storyline centered on the historical perspective of the shape of the Earth and the underlying logic (religious, philosophical, geometrical, and otherwise), the esoterica is not juxtaposed particularly effectively, everything packed into the story haphazardly.  The reader’s eyes are left to jump right, left, up, and down absorbing the “scholarly” discussion, rather than being presented the info in a smooth flow of discourse or exposition.  The closest media parallel I can think of is the film Agora. Given a choice, I’d rather watch the film.

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