Where do I begin with this book?  The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke is truly a mind bending novel.  That’s a good start as any.

The Cusanus Game follows Domenica Ligrina a recently graduated botanist who is contacted by an institute affiliated with the Vatican to do a little time travel.  The novel takes place in the near future after the world has been devastated by nuclear / bio-hazard fallout and is a near wasteland. We have mutants (the Back pack for example is one the most interesting character creations in this novel).  Continents are shifting drastically and climate change has left most of the earth devoid of plant life (from what I could gather).  The political structure of the Earth is in utter turmoil  and bands of thieves and freedom fighters are a constant scourge on the liberty of people.  However, science is alive and well (and very well funded apparently via the Catholic Church, which now resides in Germany).  Domenica is hired by this institue to travel to the 15th century to gather seeds and plant life that has been eradicated in the present in order to help revitalize the flora of the mid 21st century.  That’s the plot.

Now the tough part is trying to convey what the rest of the 500+ pages are about.

Niolaus Cusanus, a cardinal in the mid 14oo’s created a game (called Ludo Globi, the game of spheres) to parallel his philosophy about relationships with God.  Think of the skee-ball, you have bocce like ball and a “wooden board displaying concentric circles.  the areas enclosed by the circles were marked the numeral 1 to 9 from the outside to inside; the circle in the center bore no number.” (Jeschke, 90)  Like skee-ball you take the ball and toss it into the circles, the difference here is the ball itself is slightly hollowed out making the arch of the ball when thrown indeterminable.  You can never tell where the path of the ball will take it and your aim is not going to be true, as it were.  This is how you relationship with God is, you may aim for the center and want to follow him directly  100% but you may end up hitting a nine.  That’s okay as long as you keep throwing the ball you’ll never stray to far and God is always there in the center waiting for the times you make that perfect throw.  Domenica is fascinated by the life and mathematical / philosophical writings of the man and just happens to be transported to his time and relative place.  I’m not being glib, it works with the geography of the story which was difficult for me to follow not knowing many of the places being written about.

Now the science – I’m gonna try to explain it; it really is a great idea

In this future the most perfect form of Star Treks holo-decks are a reality.  There are also Solitons, waves that while at a constant speed retains it’s shape (hey it’s real physics look it up).  Now, in this future while they don’t fully understand how this works, the scientist have figured out how to utilize it for traveling through time.  Solitons will pass through an area and transport people to the past and then when the wave flows back in can return the person to the present from which they came.  Time, here, is viewed not linear but as pictures laid upon one-another so the Solitons are simply moving from one “plane” to another.  This is where the “holo-deck” comes in.  In order to travel in time safely, one must visually know where they are going; so the scientists create a visual replica of the area and time to which the travelers wish to travel too.  When the travelers arrive they begin to ask detailed questions such as, was there a tree cut down last year, what was there before that house etc.  Think of it this way; if you pictured the house you grew up in 30 years ago, the street, the trees everything and once you traveled there you begin to research what was there 40 or 50 years ago; what color was the house then (if in fact it was even there and if not what was there in its place).  You record the details as precise as possible, then in the present they re-create this in the “holo-deck” and then your able to travel 10 -20 years before what you were able to earlier and you continue to that till you’re in the 1400’s.  Pretty cool idea and it’s discussed in precious scientific detail throughout the entire book.  It’s amazing and exhausting all at the same time.

The Ludo Globi is analogous to time travel.  You can try to aim but you never really know where you going to end up; and there brings us to the paradoxes of time travel.  Can one change the past; yes and no it seems.  Being that time is “planes” of existence than as one changes the past new realities are created.  Furthermore there are fixed points (as Doctor Who calls them) that the universe will make sure stay in place.  That’s where the Octopuses come in.  This was one of the coolest ideas in the book and yet another example of something far more interesting than the other characters we were following.  The Octopus’s are the Splinter Cell, the Seal Team Six as it were of the time travelers.  Assassins that go in and right drastic wrongs (at least the ones they can alter), known as Octopus’s due to their camouflage nano-tech outfits; blending them in perfectly; there actions seemingly done by ghosts. But like many things in a novel with this many ideas, they are too are only given a moment in the spot light.

oh and then there are angels and talking rats.

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Early on we meet Cusanus and he’s told about a trial of witch and her subsequent burning at the stake.  She defended her innocence and wrote Cusanus letters.  Cusanus states he wished he had been able to interview her due to certain information contained in the letters.  Several pages later this entire chapter is repeated, I thought it was a editors mistake, when just a few sentences are changed.  In this repeated chapter the witch has yet to be disposed of and Cusanus makes the decision to go to her.  You know this witch is Domenica, (based on both knowing what the plot of the book is from the book jacket and that she is caught with herbs and Domenica is a botanist) but Domenica has not traveled through time yet so its plot builder at this point.

There are elements from the prologue and moments throughout the book on the political freedom fighters that while were interesting at the time; I don’t think went anywhere.  Well okay they added a thorough history to a plot element of changing the future of a bombing but it felt too much for too little ??

Then there is the ending; The world or even galaxy (if I read it right) is an organism that will right itself as a body creates anti-bodies to protect itself.  Domenica and several other characters are explained to be anti-bodies for the world.  They do not need the holo-decks or Solitons to travel they only need to imagine where they want to go.  These anti-bodies can also take whatever shape they desire hence the talking rat and angel.  There are questions raised of free will; are they simply tossed around by the organism that is the world to fix things or do they make up there own minds (kinda like the ending of Quantum Leap)??

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I loved the scope of this novel, the sheer vastness of ideas.  The science and philosophy that is discussed would have a book club all its own and I loved that.  It’s a book that I would love to discuss with others.  The ideas are certainly ones that need to be read more than once; more than twice even but the novel … once is enough.

Yet the book gets a solid 4 stars because of the endevour alone   jeschke-cusanus-game