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Monday, January 01, 2007

Loving Little Egypt

Who will believe me when I say that I had no idea that Nicola Tesla was going to turn up as a character in this novel? The book is Loving Little Egypt, and the author is Thomas McMahon. I hadn't heard of McMahon, and can't remember now what led me to this delightful and original work. The main setting is rural Nova Scotia circa 1920, and the main character is a young, nearly-blind physics prodigy named Mourly Vold. The story recounts his efforts to get the telephone company to repair dangerous breaches of security that he has discovered while hacking into the system. Other "real" people who appear in the novel, Ragtime-style, include Einstein, Edison, Helen Keller, William Randolph Hearst, and Alexander Graham Bell. Written in 1987, the book seems eerily prescient about other kinds of communications networks, and of the potential for mischief therein. In this sense it reminded me of a more recent book, another favorite - Transmission, by Hari Kunzru.

McMahon was a scientist and inventor himself; he was a Harvard professor, both of biology and of applied mechanics. Equally at home, apparently, in the worlds of science and art, he published four novels - one posthumously. He died - unexpectedly - when only 56 in 1999. This excellent article by Amanda Schaffer is worth reading for more background on a writer who deserves to be much better known.

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