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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Cusanus Game

Wolfgang Jeschke

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To purchase The Cusanus Game

Title: The Cusanus Game
Author: Wolfgang Jeschke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 538 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Cusanus Game - US
The Cusanus Game - UK
The Cusanus Game - Canada
The Cusanus Game - India
Le jeu de Cuse - France
Das Cusanus-Spiel - Deutschland
  • German title: Das Cusanus-Spiel
  • Translated by Ross Benjamin

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious, but ultimately a bit too loose and baggy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 22/9/2013 Gary K. Wolfe
Publishers Weekly . 26/8/2013 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jeschke weaves a complex intellectual tale that touches upon a variety of sci-fi themes, from alternate timelines to environmental collapse to a tragic Mars expedition that failed. (...) (A) gripping, intelligent and provocative adventure." - Gary K. Wolfe, Chicago Tribune

  • "Jeschke’s epic is a mind-expanding SF thriller that will grab readers and shake them up." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cusanus Game is an odd mix of tremendously ambitious and very laid back science fiction. Much of it is set in the middle of the twenty-first century, narrated by Domenica Ligrina, a botany student in Rome. The world has changed: a 2028 nuclear accident in France has irradiated parts of Germany (and made for quite a few mutants), and Europe has consolidated evermore centrally as global warming has rendered much of southern Europe (and the rest of the world) arid. Even the Vatican has decamped for Salzburg, with Austria -- having left the European Union and revived much of the old Hapsburg empire -- one of the few areas still doing well.
       Rome is now on the edge of civilization -- and heading downward it seems -- but Domenica gets an offer that promises a better future, a position at the Istituto Pontificale della Rinascita della Creazione di Dio:

"It's an ecumenical project and serves exclusively scientific, technical purposes. It's about the salvation of God's Creation, the salvation of the future, yes" -- he spread his arms in an all-embracing gesture -- "about the preservation of the universe."
       It takes a while until Domenica is actually taken on, and even then she long remains unclear about exactly what will be expected from her. She is brought to Venice, where she undergoes some training -- and gets to observe how they're trying to revive the city, especially through the extensive use of nanotechnology. She meets -- in what is more or less purely an aside, but is, like much else here, expertly done -- the last survivor of the failed mission to Mars. Eventually, when her training is complete, she'll head to Amsterdam -- getting a first-hand look on the way there at the devastation caused by the nuclear accident decades earlier -- before heading off on her real mission.
       Readers have a better sense of where this -- and Domenica -- are headed, since interspersed with her narrative are chapters set in the fifteenth century, following Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus; among the things he's made aware of is a woman who was, or is about to be, burnt as a witch -- recognizable, soon enough, as Domenica. Yes, The Cusanus Game is a time-travel novel (too).
       From early on there are hints of multiversality, too: doubles glimpsed, strangers who seem to know you but whom you don't recognize, even whole episodes that begin the same way but then diverge -- most significantly, early on, a second telling of Cusanus learning about the supposed witch, a section that at first seems to be a printer's mistake, the same story repeated verbatim, but then does veer off slightly (significant because it makes the difference between whether or not Domenica has already been burnt at the stake or not). At one point there's a timeline suggesting an alternate course of much more history, set into motion by the Cusan Acceleratio -- a speeding-up of the mechanical age, with many technological advances made earlier than in our history, beginning with a fifteenth-century combustion engine, transatlantic air travel by 1795, and then nuclear power (initially, however, without the corresponding understanding of radiation).
       There's also the personal tragedy that haunts Domenica: her father was killed in a terrorist attack on a train when she was a girl, in 2039. And, yes, eventually she'll get the opportunity to possibly influence that outcome again -- though of course here as elsewhere there is the question of whether fate(s) can be changed .....
       Jeschke sweeps in a great deal here, from interesting ideas about the large-scale deployment of nanotechnology to the time travel to entirely otherworldly conceptions such as 'Highgate':
regarded as the strangest world in the old galaxy. Scientists who had traveled there from afar regarded it as the world in the universe on which signs could be discovered that time had fulfilled itself and was preparing to change direction.
       The Cusanus Game is, in part speculative science fiction, but Jeschke is more interested in philosophical questions and implications. That's suggested by his choice of Cusanus as a significant figure -- and Cusanus' ludo globi for the title, the game being one of spheres whose center of gravity is slightly off, making any throw unpredictable. With epigraphs by Cusanus ("Time is an unfolding God") and Dance of the Photons-author (and quantum physicist) Anton Zeilinger ("The world is everything that is the case and also everything that can be the case"), and then chapter-epigraphs from Giordano Bruno, David Deutsch, David Bohm, John Wheeler, along with Borges, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, among others, Jeschke constantly reminds readers of the serious philosophical implications of his imagined world(s).
       Unusually, however, The Cusanus Game is also surprisingly laid back in how it unfolds. Jeschke takes his sweet time, and it's not time spent on exposition as one generally finds in much more detail- (and action-)oriented American science fiction. Much information is conveyed only incidentally, and almost all of it fairly casually, including much of the scientific/technical detail. Much of the novel -- both the historical and technical detail -- can feel under-explained, but Jeschke gets around to most of it eventually; certainly The Cusanus Game requires a different kind of reading-patience, since everything isn't immediately spelled out (but the letters do eventually come together).
       A lot happens to Domenica, but Jeschke also doesn't build-up his story to a climactic show-down in the fifteenth century (for example); in that case, there's a bit of drama and tension, but Jeschke only takes it so far. In keeping with the multifariousness of time he posits, much is also revealed or at least suggested, long before it 'happens' (in a manner of speaking ...). It makes for unusual pacing, but for the most part it works. Still, a few tangents -- though they are relevant --, flights of fancy to the farthest reaches, take things perhaps a bit too far, even for a book of this size and scope. And, of course, one problem with the multiverse of infinite timelines is that every (story-)variation exists somewhere, and it's only a matter of which one choose to highlight .....
       Ultimately, The Cusanus Game feels a bit too laid-back, throwing in too much -- especially those many philosophical ideas -- that isn't quite sufficiently explored and lingering too long on the everyday. No doubt, that was in part Jeschke's intention and point, but he doesn't quite pull it off: at over five hundred pages, the book requires a bit more to truly seem worthwhile. Still, it's an interesting example of thoughtful science fiction, and a largely welcome change of pace -- a solid, somewhat drawn-out and far-flung read that can't quite sustain its tremendous ambition.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2013

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The Cusanus Game: Reviews: Nicolas of Cusa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Wolfgang Jeschke was born in 1936.

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© 2013 the complete review

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