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Equilateral, by Ken Kalfus, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99/$24, 224 pages

In the remote Egyptian desert towards the end of the 19th century, almost a million Arab peasants are digging a giant equilateral triangle. It is swelteringly hot and back-breaking work: each side of the triangle must be 306 miles long, five miles wide, and deep enough to be filled with petroleum.

The brain behind the project is the astronomer Sanford Thayer, an arrogant Englishman with a stiff upper lip. Once the triangle is finished it will be set alight, acting as a beacon from Earth to Mars. Thayer has picked a triangle, he explains, because the shape is “the basis for all human art and construction”. “The first communication from the leading men of our planet, across the chasm of space, to the most intelligent inhabitants of another,” says Thayer, will reap unparalleled benefits for mankind.

Naturally, the project runs into trouble. There is political and religious dissent. The Arabs are treated like slaves by their British colonial masters. Not only is their land being invaded, but they are digging the triangle without having been told its purpose. Before long, they threaten to rebel.

Ken Kalfus came relatively late to literature, publishing his first book at the age of 44. His second, the 9/11 satire A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, was a finalist for America’s National Book Award in 2006. Equilateral, his third novel, is certainly worth the wait.

Inspired by the real-life Victorian astronomers who believed they had discovered intelligent life on Mars, Equilateral skilfully blurs real-life events with fantasy. Scientific mapping of the red planet began around 1840. These attempts were crude, artful rather than scientific. Things picked up in 1878, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced a detailed map of Mars showing broad canali, channels that some astronomers claimed were in fact artificially made canals constructed by an advanced civilisation capable of surviving drought.

Such facts (which turned out to be fiction) are frequently mentioned in the book. The triangle, costing “sixteen million pounds sterling, twice as much as Suez”, has been largely funded by the state and big banks, but it has also relied on money collected from schoolchildren around the world, “their ha’pennies, sous . . . inserted into the slots of thousands of little tin boxes emblazoned with Giovanni Schiaparelli’s most revealing map.”

Nothing is quite as it seems in the world you enter in this book. As the equilateral nears completion, the narrative darkens. We learn that the enterprise has never really been about the advancement of science and mankind when a delegation of businessmen and politicians comes out to the desert, waiting to cash in on its “monopoly on trade with Mars”.

Some of Equilateral’s best passages follow Thayer’s subsequent decline into delirium. Broken-spirited and bedridden with fever, he sleeps for most of the day, “dreaming of a basic language that he may share with his visitors. He murmurs of diameters and ellipses, of octagons and parabolas, of trapezoids and dodecahedrons.”

As Thayer supervises the development of the triangle, he is navigating a romantic one of his own – involving his Arab serving girl, Bint, and his British assistant, Miss Keaton. For a book that is just over 200 pages, the metaphor is pushed a little too far.

But elsewhere, Kalfus continues the tradition of richness-in-restraint that runs through his other works of fiction. Clusters of stars are “bobbing space anemones”. “Flickering, living shadows play among the dunes.” From a black pool of spilled oil, “fumes refract the starshine”.

Equilateral is, ultimately, a satire about the ill-effects of empire, exploitation and greed rather than mankind’s attempt to make contact with Mars. We should still look to the edge of the universe, Kalfus seems to be saying, but remember always to keep one eye focused here on Earth.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.