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.