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The Cusanus Game    by Wolfgang Jeschke order for
Cusanus Game
by Wolfgang Jeschke
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I found The Cusanus Game, written by German SF grand master Wolfgang Jeschke and translated to English by Ross Benjamin) reminiscent in many ways of Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the very best SF novels ever. Both are complex, thought provoking and dystopian though Jeschke's world is not yet as thoroughly ruined as Miller's was.

In the Cusanus Game, a nuclear disaster devastates Northern Europe, global warming runs riot, deserts bloom, plants mutate and many species are extinct. Jeschke paints a meticulous picture of the era's people, politics, struggles and conflicts that is so real that it makes the reader fearful of what's ahead for us all. For example, fascist Praetorians use holoshows for propaganda and genetically modified killer dogs to track down and kill illegal immigrants. And nanos in field experiments go haywire.

The story's heroine is a naive young biologist, Domenica Ligrina. We watch her complete her studies and begin a job search in a Rome besieged by both an encroaching desert and Moros (refugees from the south). She applies to the Rinascita Project and is accepted after extensive interviews. Domenica has long been fascinated by a historical figure, Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus, a Middle Ages priest with a strong interest in science.

Domenica finally learns what her new job entails. She sums it up thus (ignoring the complex quantum physics behind it): 'We surf into the Middle Ages, pick a few flowers and collect seeds from plants that no longer exist in the present, wait for the next wave in the opposite direction, and surf back. Show's over.' What she doesn't understand initially is that the wait for that next wave can be a long one. Understanding is limited and the time travelers are ultimately 'dogs that have learned to ride the subway.' However the 'continued existence of life on earth' depends on their work.

The story moves back and forth in time and through different time streams, as we see the same people and events evolve in varying ways (Domenica's fate in particular changes in these, as do her interactions with Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus). It becomes clear that Domenica has the rare talent of being able to interact with doppelgangers in parallel universes, an unsettling experience. And she's not the only one - mysterious figures move through the time streams, in particular the angel and Don Fernando (who takes the form of a rat).

There is an enormous amount of food for thought here. Just like A Canticle for Leibowitz, this master work merits more than one read to properly ingest its ideas. I particularly liked its concept of the multiverse as a living, evolving entity. If you're a serious SF fan, The Cusanus Game is an absolute must read.

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