With publication of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, Rachel Cantor joins the ranks of authors who are able to turn philosophical concepts into whiz-bang plots, and make them funny as well. Throw in some family dysfunction, time travel, a librarian ingénue, and the possible destruction of the world, and you’ve got an adventure story replete with nerdy delights.
A quick overview of the references shows the range of influences at work: Pythagoras, Roger Bacon, Heraclitus, Mao, St. Augustine. Now for the funny: fast food chains swearing allegiance to (and preparing food according to the ideals of) said philosophers and warring on the streets for market-share and mind-share. Marco Polo makes calls to Neetsa Pizza (Pythagorean, naturally) customer service. There’s the trip to 13th century Spain to track down Abraham Abulafia, of Jewish mystic fame and Messianic aspirations, which is complicated by a talking watch. There’s a young prophet whose penchant for karate kicks is just as important as his visions.
Then there’s the sci-fi: the Brazen Head, a digital oracle dispensing information (and gathering it as well); Su and Susheela, who are not quite human and whose adventures are a screen sensation; ID-tagged houses (and the scrambling thereof). There’s also a hefty dose of mysticism, of both the Baconian and Talmudic varieties — and herein lies our quest, for there are some secrets that the world is just not ready for.
Our unlikely hero Leonard is a hapless Everyman who, I have no doubt, will be excellently played by Martin Freeman when the movie inevitably comes out. He’s been a dedicated Neetsa Peetsa call center employee for years, and really does just want to be good at listening to people. Doesn’t get out much, does Leonard. His devotion to his nephew Felix and his sister Carol’s doting frustration with the both of them produce some of my favorite moments in the book. Everything would be just fine for them, really, if Leonard’s dead grandfather didn’t insist on incorporeally possessing various technologies and people, trying to get messages to Leonard about the end of the world.
I would have been happy to spend the entire book exploring the warring fast-food-philosophy chains and watching Leonard spar with the Latter-Day Baconians, monitor Felix’s karate kicks, and guess at what Carol’s revolutionary “book club” was up to, but Cantor has bigger plans for her plot. The first two “bosses” (this would make an excellent video game, by the way) are nothing compared to the final battle, which sends Leonard, Felix, and Sally — the aforementioned librarian love interest — back in time to Rome to prevent a meeting between a Messiah and a Pope. Easy peasy, right? Riiiiiight. Ye olde times are a challenge not just because Leonard hasn’t had much practice interacting with people, but because it turns out that digital watches are likely to get you hung for blasphemy.
Not only is Cantor a quirky, imaginative, and smart writer, she’s also managed to be funny without resorting to irony. This book could lean heavily on the tongue-in-cheek, but instead it takes everything at face value. There’s a childish sense of wonder shared by Leonard and Felix (who is, to be fair, a child) that pervades the novel and asks us to set aside sarcasm for a while and enjoy the hijinks as they appear, to take the surface interpretation and run with it. There is absurdity and slapstick, shenanigans and puns a plenty, more than enough to go around. It’s a refreshing break from the near-constant “wink wink, nudge nudge” of pop-culture.
If you pay much attention to publishers, you might be as surprised as I was to see that Melville House is putting this book out. Known much more for their rescuing of overlooked classics with the Neversink Library and the gorgeous Art of the Novella series, A Highly Unlikely Scenario represents their second foray into the world of contemporary science fiction. But with a first foray like the Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Mysteries of New Venice series, which are very smart and very weird steampunk, and a follow-up like this, I feel safe in predicting that we can expect more great things from them.
Maybe you are as steeped in the ancient and philosophical as Rachel Cantor has proven herself. Or maybe you can’t place the Desert of Lop on a map, or remember the Pythagorean theorem from junior high geometry. Either way, there’s a lot to enjoy in the romp that is A Highly Unlikely Scenario. If you’ve read and enjoyed China Mieville, Nick Harkaway, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Ernest Cline, you’ll want to take this out for a spin. And if you need more convincing, you can listen to the author read an excerpt over at Poets & Writers. I’ll be over here, dreaming of Neetsa Peetsa pies and plotting ways to make my various book groups better proponents of the Revolution.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario is available now from Melville House.
Jenn Northington is an independent bookseller, the events director for WORD bookstores, and comes from a long line of nerds.