Nikola Tesla is best remembered for inventing engines that produced alternating current (AC) electricity. AC, developed by Tesla and sold by his partner George Westinghouse, was a superior alternative to Thomas Edison's direct current (DC). Edison, fearful that the comptetition would drive him out of business, staged a number of grisly experiments to "prove" that AC current was too dangerous for everyday use. Dogs, cats, horses, and eventually, heartbreakingly, a condemned rogue elephant named Topsy were all forced to stand on an electrified plate and "Westinghoused" to death. The sadistic PR campaign couldn't stop a better technology, however, and eventually AC current became the standard.
Tesla was also the first person to produce artifical lightning, and invented wireless radio. But like many briliiant scientists, Tesla was no business man. Without patents for his inventions, the financial spoils went to other, better-known people. (Every time a children's textbook refers to Edison and Marconi as the "inventors" of electricity and radio, Tesla must do another rotation in the grave.) Poor, dismissed as a crank, and mostly forgotten, Tesla lived out his final days as a long-term guest in Manhattan's swank New Yorker Hotel, caring for Central Park pigeons, and working on plans for many more strange and shocking inventions. Upon his death, those plans were confiscated by the US government, declared classified, and then "lost." Among his never-finished ideas was a means for harvesting the "free energy" given off by every living thing, which he hoped would provide a never ending, clean source of electric power. That, and a "death ray" that could destroy the universe. As you might imagine, those lost documents have been conspiracy theory fodder ever since. Who could make this stuff up?
Tesla's name has graced a late '90s hair metal band, and a high speed electric car. Lightning-producing Tesla coils have become a necessary staple in any film that features a mad scientist. David Bowie even played him in the movie The Prestige. But who was he really?
Of all the authors I admire, if I had to guess which one of them was going to write a fictionalized account of Nikola Tesla's life, Samatha Hunt would not have been at the top of that list. Her first novel, The Seas, was a strange and beautiful monologue by a troubled young girl in a remote, unnamed seaside town. She is convinced that she is a mermaid. In one scene, she believes that King Neptune has washed up on the beach and is talking to her. Beautifully written tragedy ensues. Sad and poetic and incredibly strange, that book made me feel like I'd been pummeled by a particularly cold and strong wave.
The Seas took place in a world that didn't need to be limited by the laws of physics or the constraints of actual history. The Invention of Everything Else, Hunt's second book, required extensive research. All the most fascinating and bizarre tidbits in the book are invariably the ones that are based in fact. Tesla dreamed of building a stationary ring around the earth, to be used for ultra-fast world travel. A woman published a book during Tesla's lifetime advancing a theory that he actually came from the planet Venus. In contrast, the purely fictional elements of the book seem, at times, too studied and too wooden, as though the effort of having to hew to reality was bogging down Hunt's prodigious imagination.
Tesla is, unfortunately, a relatively minor character in the book. Much of the action centers on Louisa, a chambermaid at the New Yorker Hotel. She is fascinated by strange old Mr. Tesla whose bill goes long unpaid and who never allows anyone to enter his room. Louisa's mother died in childbirth, her father still mourns. Her father's best friend Azor reappears after a several-year gap and reveals that he's been in Far Rockaway, building a time machine. Meanwhile, a handsome young man introduces himself to Louisa on the subway. He insists that they went to school together, but she doesn't remember him. He seems to know so much about her. Where did he come from?
Louisa reads from Tesla's journal while she's supposed to be cleaning, and it's from this journal that we hear most of his backstory. But not much in the way of scientific detail. "I suppose I could try to tell you again how it works, but you would be horribly bored by the telling, and even when I was done you still might not understand entirely. But that is all right, old friend. There is a much better way for you to understand what I invented. Plug in your phonograph. Plug in your toaster or reading lamp..."
Tesla does not strike me as the type who worried about boring his listeners. Most scientists I've known are more than happy to go into great excruciating detail about their research, whether you want them to or not. And many of them are able, through their obvious enthusiasm, to take a complex thing like electrical current and make it fascinating. Even if you don't really get how it works, you get why they love it. Did Hunt shy away from hard science because she was afraid she wouldn't render it well? Not sure. What she does render beautifully is Tesla's lonely inner world. The descriptions of his Serbian childhood are especially great. Early on, he recounts a story about his beloved older brother, Dane. Describing his twin feelings of overwhelming love and jealousy, he says, "The hole of what I had missed, the hole of not being my brother, after some time, dug down into my ear canals, through my nose and mouth. Envy and love choked me like a drill." That's the kind of original, Samantha Hunt observation I was hoping for when I picked up the book.
The descriptions of the evil Edison workshop are also wonderful. "I already recognized how Edison enjoyed pairing men who despised each other. Repulsion, frustration, disagreement, and anger were, Edison believed, the forge of good ideas. There was coughing, spitting, matches being lit to burn pipes, lunch pails tossed aside at the sudden burst of a good idea[...]and there was the sound of Mr. Edison taking credit for it all." Angry men with tools hurl invective at one another, and you feel like you need to duck.
Unfortunately, we don't get to keep Nikola Tesla as our sole protagonist. We're interrupted with Louisa, the chambermaid, and her love story; her father, Walter, trying to reclaim his past; and his friend Azor who may or may not be insane. There is a lot of running around and high drama about a time machine that may or may not actually work. I wished that Hunt had either jettisoned all the secondary story lines and stayed with the marvelous Tesla voice, OR she had expanded the relatively slim 250 pages a lot further, into a huge, 600-page multi-voiced romp, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay-style, so that each wacky subplot could be drawn out to its full and logical conculsion.
Of the two books Samantha Hunt has written thus far, this one isn't my favorite -- but that's not to say it isn't sweet and delightful and quite an accomplishment nonetheless. (It's only "less good" in relative terms, not absolute.) Hunt has said in interviews that she had never heard of Nikola Tesla before she embarked on this book. This is good and bad news. If you're already well-versed in the Tesla legend, there won't be anything in here that is especially new. Because it's fiction, it necessarily contains all kinds of conjecture -- if you're a stickler for accurate biography, Hunt's book might drive you crazy. If, however, you've never heard of Tesla either, The Invention Of Everything Else is a terrific place to start. There are even footnotes in the back of the book: Hunt uses quite a few direct quotes, and she cites all the sources. Most of those sources are wonderful books in their own right, which could lead you on your own time-travelling voyage of discovery.