Duchamp Versus Einstein by Christopher Hinz & Etan Ilfeld

Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s archived letters, Duchamp versus Einstein is a science fiction novelette spanning some of the most monumental events of the 20th century, and bringing together two of the most transformative figures of the era in art and science for a surreal chess match that could reshape history.

I love stories that are born from outlandish ideas. The speculative fiction genre is full of them, and a lot of them are really, really good.

I also love stories that play with the idea of perceived opposites. Think of magic versus technology in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, or nature versus science in Gladstone & El-Mohtar’s This is How You Lose the Time War.

And then you have this book. Duchamp Versus Einstein. Art versus science. Two massive historical icons of the 20th century facing each other in a chess match that could apparently change the world. The premise of this book couldn’t be further up my alley. I was ready to read it and love it and throw it at all of my friends and enemies like some sort of literary Molotov cocktail.

But if I’m honest, it fell a little flat for me.

A large part of this was because I bounced off both the writing style and the execution of the premise. This is a book about two very clever and creative people, and it really, really wants you to know that. Both dialogue and description are so needlessly wordy as to be off-putting. Instead of telling you that “X raised their voice”, it will say that “X’s vocal instrument rose to blustery heights” (and I’m paraphrasing an actual quote from the book here). It read too much like validation-seeking for my tastes, and unfortunately this kind of thing is pretty prevalent throughout the novelette.

Circling back to the premise, an alien being from a post-World-War-III future has chosen to travel back in time to observe the human race, and the reasons behind this are never really explained or explored. She visits both Duchamp and Einstein, encourages them to play chess, and then… maybe has sex with them?

Some of you might be reading that and think that it sounds awesome, and I really encourage those of you who do to check this one out — maybe you’ll really enjoy it! But for me, personally, I found it odd and overly complicated. So many potential plot-lines are thrown up into the air and then abandoned that I found it difficult to determine which I should be following.

I think my biggest problem with this book is that it never stops to ask or answer “why?”. Why is there an alien? Why is she time-travelling? Why does she go by Stella at one point and then Estrella at another? Why are both of these names taken from cheap brands of lager? Why is there a floating light-baby appearing every 10 pages? Why was World War III mentioned in the first place if we’re just going to ignore it after the prologue?

The alien’s motivations are about as clear as a cement window, and given that they are the driving force of this story, this makes for a very frustrating read.

However, when the time comes for the actual chess match to take place, the authors do have some genuinely insightful things to say — with some clever parallels between the game and the human condition. While I thought the scene maybe a little too short, it was by far the most enjoyable of the book.

If you’re a fan of books with plenty of historical Easter eggs, don’t have problem with overzealous interpretations of intelligent characters, and like the idea of a time-travelling alien forcing two people to play chess… This might be the perfect book for you. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t for me.

We received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thank you to Angry Robot for the review copy!

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