No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

#56: The Electric Telepath -- Jan Mark

"Telepathy," said Elijah. "What is the still small voice if not telepathy -- the exchange of feeling -- not thought," he added. God forbid that they should believe that anything so profane as a thought had crossed their minds. (p. 92)

The Electric Telepath is set in 1894. Elijah Briggs has grown up in a small English town under the benevolent rule of the Congregation of Mount Horeb, a strict but kindly Christian sect. His father is an Elder of the Horebites, and much of Elijah's time is spent spreading the word to the inhabitants of the Trident, a demographically mixed area of the town. Elijah asks them to listen for the still small voice but he's never heard it himself, and his ambitions are scientific rather than religious. He's inspired by Faraday, Maxwell and Lodge, and he's determined to replicate and build upon their work. Unfortunately, the Horebites value faith and feeling over science and thought: Rationalism is the enemy of faith ...

When Elijah's secret project is discovered, he manages to persuade the Elders that it's a work of faith, designed to transmit holy thoughts via electromagnetic waves. Like many lies, this one grows grander and more complex very quickly, and Elijah finds himself praying for the failure of his experiment.

The Electric Telepath has a simple plot: more complicated, and more intriguing, are the character interactions, with minor characters (the bellicose Aubreys, Lily Roper who Elijah's helplessly attracted to, the widow Mrs Gilstrap) as richly drawn as Elijah and his family. I wasn't quite convinced by the finale: it seemed rushed. And I didn't enjoy this nearly as much as Mark's previous novel, Useful Idiots. Overall, though, it's an unsensational, unjudgemental examination of the tension between religion and science, with a wealth of affectionate observation.

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