fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Boolean Gate by Walter Jon WilliamsThe Boolean Gate by Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams’ The Boolean Gate is a story about the famous friendship between Sam Clemens / Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla. Clemens was fascinated with Tesla’s scientific experiments and spent a lot of time in Tesla’s lab. Williams’ version of this relationship suggests that Clemens discovered that Tesla’s genius had some supernatural help. When Clemens realizes what’s going on, he has to make a decision that may affect the future of the human race.

The Boolean Gate is a fast-moving novella (I read it in just a couple of hours) filled with lots of interesting facts about Sam Clemens, Nikola Tesla, and New York City at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th, century. We learn all about the guilt Clemens feels about the death of his son, daughter, and wife. We see him offering his humorous quotes to waiting reporters each morning. He tells us about his financial difficulties and how he got into and out of bankruptcy. We learn about Tesla’s wardrobe, celibacy, dining and exercise habits, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, relationships with investors, and some of his projects including his Teleautomaton and the tower at Wardenclyffe. We spend some time with other famous people of the era, too — J.P. Morgan, Robert and Katharine Johnson, Andrew and Lucy Carnegie, Charles Schwab.

Williams brings the high society of turn-of-the-century New York City to life. I enjoyed visiting Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where Oscar the maître d’ is responsible for such well-known treats as Waldorf Salad, Eggs Benedict, and Thousand Island dressing.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of name dropping in The Boolean Gate. Much of it is basic information I already knew about these famous figures and, though there are many personal and historical facts presented, few if any aren’t easily found within a few minutes at Wikipedia. In other words, Williams’ research is rather shallow. But that’s okay for this little novella.

What Williams does best in The Boolean Gate is to play with Telsa’s belief that he could use his scientific discoveries to communicate with aliens. In fact (according to Wikipedia), Tesla really did believe he had intercepted messages from outer space. Walters puts a fun science fiction spin on this and asks Mark Twain to make some ethical decisions and to, perhaps, save the world. Or, maybe he didn’t save the world. Maybe he set us back instead. I guess we’ll never know….

The Boolean Gate is a fast and amusing alternate history with exciting characters set in an elegant New York City venue. Recommended for a couple of hours of pleasant entertainment.

The Boolean Gate by Walter Jon Williams — October 31, 2012.  Mark Twain was one of the greatest minds of his time, torn between the brilliant persona he had forged for himself and a life of wrenching tragedy. Nicola Tesla was an unworldly genius capable of insights that defied the wildest imaginations. Their secret history is rife with friendship and betrayal, human tragedy and unearthly danger. Drawn by his curiosity, Samuel Clemens escapes the grinding toil of being Mark Twain by cultivating what seems an innocent friendship with the greatest scientist of the age. As he grows closer to the powerfully eccentric Tesla, he begins to sense another, stranger intelligence that may be coming into being. The inventions of Nicola Tesla–alternating current, wireless communications, death rays, robot weapons — become puzzle pieces that take shape under Mark Twain’s eyes. Has Tesla somehow opened the gateway to a profoundly alien intelligence, or is it Tesla himself that will bring the world to Armageddon? And with every tragedy in his family — buffeted by the deaths of his wife, daughter, brother, and son — Samuel Clemens is moved to ask the most important question of all: Why is the world worth saving?


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.