Vast amounts of English language science fiction have been translated into many other languages throughout the world, but it's still too rare for stories written in other languages to be translated into English. Originally published in German, Wolfgang Jeschke's 2005 novel Das Cusanus-Spiel has recently been translated into English by Russ Benjamin and published as The Cusanus Game by Tor Books. Jeschke will not be a familiar name to most English-speaking fans, but he's been an important editor and occasional author in Germany for over thirty years.
Set in the middle of the twenty-first century, The Cusanus Game tells a story that takes place entirely in Europe but not, as one might assume from the book's publication history, in Germany. A generation before the story begins, a nuclear accident near the eastern border of France released enough radiation into the eastward winds to render nearly all of Germany and even much of Poland uninhabitable. Instead, the book opens in Rome, where an Italian student named Domenica Ligrina is finishing a botany degree and hoping to find a job. Italy was far enough south to escape mostly unscathed from the radiation that scourged central Europe, but it seems to have merely traded a quick and brutal death for something more gradual.
The unthinkable had very gradually become thinkable. The Caput Mundi, the center of the world, might one day have to be given up. An outrageous idea for many. And this time the armed hordes were coming from the south. They said it was the Moros, the blacks, the Africans, but it was the people from the Mezzogiorno, whose vineyards had been scorched and whose livestock had perished of thirst in the blazing heat as the breath of the desert wafted toward their fields. (p. 50)
It turns out that global warming has taken a toll that, if less dramatic than the nuclear poisoning of central Europe, has put the entire world under far more strain. Countless refugees have flooded into the relatively few nations that escaped rising temperatures and sea levels more or less intact, and in response fascist anti-immigrant movements have grown dramatically in popularity. Central Italy has become a battleground between fascist and refugee paramilitary groups while the government withdraws, trying to secure an ever-shrinking portion of the north. Rome is now a border city, and there's no reason to think that anarchy will stop its northward march. All the historic buildings remain, but everyone who can afford to leave has left. Even the Pope has relocated to Austria.
All this serves as the backdrop for Domenica's recruitment by the Instituto Pontificale della Rinascita della Creazione de Dio, a secretive Catholic organization trying to "restore God's creation" by, they say, preserving plant species from poisoned areas that would otherwise go extinct. Although Domenica isn't very religious, the job pays well, and she remains interested despite the misgivings of some of her friends, who fear she will be sent on missions into dangerously radioactive regions.
This is where many readers will run into trouble, because while it's obvious that Domenica will indeed take the job and get sent on a dangerous mission, she doesn't actually go on that mission for the first two thirds of the novel. Until then, the narrative is content to follow a slow, meandering course through ravaged, declining Europe. This isn't nearly as dull as it could have been, for Jeschke has a real gift for scenes that drive home the disorder of this future. Appropriate to his themes, these are mostly deaths, including a horse dying on barbed wire in Rome, a radiation-deformed friend of Domenica dying at the hands of a superstitious mob, and an astronaut who outlived humanity's ability to travel in space finally dying in Venice, leaving only a dimly intelligent AI wheelchair to mourn her. Jeschke also seems to have done his research, describing the streets and landmarks of Rome, Venice, Salzburg, and Amsterdam in lush detail. Indeed, there are so many Italian proper nouns in the opening sections that one might forgive an unwary reader from thinking the novel was originally written in Italian.
That said, it would have been nice if somewhere in all this worldbuilding Domenica got the chance to actually do something. Instead, she floats through the story serving merely as the window through which the reader can see the novel's detailed scenery, stopping only when she must instead serve as the target of infodumps. We are also told, not shown, that she falls in love with a coworker during the middle third of the novel, which rather robs of significance the carefully depicted process by which she falls back out of love. By the end of the novel she at least is trying to act on her own, but it's debatable whether she ever has any real influence on events. Worse, for all the time we spend with her, she remains something of a cipher. Occasionally, especially when she is interacting with her parents, she seems three dimensional, but on the issues central to the novel she feels as though she moves according to the needs of the author. For example, her one eccentricity is a profound interest in Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century priest and minor philosopher, and the only explanation given for her fascination is that for a few years she lived near his tomb in Rome. Yet there are a lot of people buried in Rome, many of them far more prominent. One suspects the reason she latches on to such an obscure figure so strongly despite not otherwise being interested in history, religion, or philosophy is that Nicholas of Cusa's role as an early proto-humanist turns out to be important for the plot.
It's tempting to say that the real main character of The Cusanus Game is not Domenica or her rather bland set of friends and coworkers but instead Europe itself. Mostly that's a polite way of saying there aren't any genuinely interesting characters, but whether Europe can survive in an increasingly difficult world is the novel's central question and foremost concern. It's perhaps best illustrated by a brief but pointed conversation Domenica has with a cab driver in Austria.
"Where are you from, ma'am?"
Again he twisted his neck to look at me.
"Europe," I said assertively.
. . . "Europe," the taxi driver snorted. "Are you pulling my leg, ma'am? Euroland has burned down." (p. 279)
Europe is sick in the physical sense, with a landscape marred by fallout and a climate distorted by global warming, but there is a corresponding psychological malaise: the European identity, the great achievement of the end of the twentieth century, is dying as much as the land itself. Without it, Europeans are reverting to older patterns: nationalism, isolationism, and fascism. The novel makes it clear that efforts to ameliorate the physical problems, such as an enormous dam constructed at Gibraltar to fix the sea level of the Mediterranean or an effort to raise Venice from underwater using nanotechnology, are too little, too late. Both the nuclear disaster and global warming can't be fixed in a generation or even a century.
At least, not once they've already happened. From almost the beginning of the novel it's obvious to the reader, if not to Domenica, that the Institute hopes to restore extinct plant species by traveling back in time and retrieving seeds. It turns out there are waves in spacetime, which the novel's physicists call "solitons," moving back and forth between past and future. With no small difficulty, a human can "ride" such a wave into the past and then ride a different one back to that person's present. History is not constant, so while in the past, time travelers can change it. Europe can, perhaps, be healed.
But as vividly as the novel portrays fragmentation as a disease afflicting Europe, it also acknowledges unity is not by itself a solution, devoting a comparatively brief set of scenes to sketching an alternative future in which a unified Europe turns in on itself. A non-European character sums up the result:
They live in fear, for they regard their land as an island in chaos. And they are afraid that this island could go under; beset by storm surges, it could be swept away. That's why they have surrounded themselves with a wall of weapons, which extends from the icy Norwegian Sea across Eastern Europe to here and from here westward to the great sea, which follows the Biscay dam, the Wales-Ireland dam, and then the curve of the North Sea and from there stretches back up to the Norwegian Sea. This island Europe is a world unto itself, which has nothing to do with the world we know. Behind that wall live more old people than in the whole rest of the world combined. And for many of those old people, time doesn't pass anymore. They have decided that time has to stand still, and they believe they can stop the flow of time. (p. 113)
Uniting Europe, it seems, is not enough to achieve a desirable outcome, but charting a course through the myriad possible futures is not easy. Instead of deploying the usual example of butterflies in China, a character at the Institute describes the problem by referring to the ball game invented by Nicholas of Cusa in his 1463 book De Ludo Globi, which gives the novel its title. To Nicholas, and to characters in this novel, the difficulty of rolling a ball to a specific place demonstrates the contingency of events and the unpredictability of outcomes. But it turns out the changes made by time travelers are bounded in surprising ways, because a remarkable quality of the novel's solitons is that sometimes attempts to ride them fail, and moreover, humans intending to change certain events always fail. No one who wants to prevent the nuclear disaster that ravaged Europe can ever travel on a soliton, for example, nor can anyone who wants to stop the September 11th attacks in the United States. This behavior is subject to different interpretations. The Church sees the hand of God at work, pursuing a divine plan that humans can't understand. Atheist characters speculate there is a far future civilization sending the waves back, and that this civilization is protecting the events responsible for its own creation.
From these explanations it will be clear that despite being written in German The Cusanus Game parallels ideas familiar from English-language science fiction. God as the author of time travelers' actions was explored by Ted Chiang in his 2007 novelette "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," and the idea of a far future civilization protecting itself by restricting time travel immediately recalls the Eschaton of Charles Stross's 2003 novel Singularity Sky. The Cusanus Game plays nimbly with these ideas, and although so many stories about time travel have been written that it's impossible to say with certainty whether any angle on it is new, the interpretation for soliton behavior eventually advanced by the most knowledgeable characters is not one I have ever encountered previously. It's not entirely convincing, but it's certainly thought-provoking.
The Cusanus Game provides a lot to chew on, but unfortunately the whole is rather less than the sum of its parts. Some will find the portrayal of a declining Europe alone to be worth the price of admission, and the meditations on cosmology and spacetime are often interesting, but it's all dragged down by the glacial motion of the plot, the uneven pacing, and characters that don't seem nearly as real as the world around them. It's a shame, because Jeschke seems like a voice worth hearing. In an era when we can read at least a little science fiction from all over the world, a German author who is still squarely in the western tradition may not seem like much of a departure, but consider that The Cusanus Game is a novel that in many ways is about Europe and yet almost never mentions England or the United Kingdom. American and British writers are capable of writing such a book, but for understandable reasons they usually don't, so a continental viewpoint is a useful counterbalance. Hopefully, as more books get translated, English-speaking readers will be able to find this perspective in a novel easier to recommend.
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