The second book in a series which vividly dramatises some of the key moments in scientific discovery, The Sensorium of God focuses on the lives and discoveries of Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. Its major theme, like its predecessor, is the difficult relationship between science and religion, and Clark skilfully navigates the melting pot of England in the Age of Enlightenment, just as he successfully captured Kepler and Galileo’s struggles in the first novel of the series, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth. The first book traced the conflict between the Catholic church and astronomical discoveries suggesting that the Earth was not at the centre of any heavenly system, and this second work builds on those discoveries, as Halley attempts to solve the riddle of planetary motion and encourages his fellow scientists to do the same. As with the first book, The Sensorium of God presents the debate of how the scientists’ views were compatible, or otherwise, with the philosophical and theological views at the time.
Both Newton and Hooke are portrayed as reclusive geniuses, who are unfortunately locked in animosity – as indeed are several other famous names we encounter throughout the book, such as Leibniz and Flamsteed. Ongoing conflict is the main hold of the novel, whether it is between characters, or between the collective scientists and the establishment, or even the conflict within themselves.
The Sensorium of God is certainly a challenging and complicated novel. As the author himself says, at this time both religion and politics were in a state of explosive flux, and this novel, with an apocalyptic theme interwoven throughout, conjures up a truly unsettling atmosphere. Its protagonists command at once sympathy, confusion and abhorrence. While Kepler and Galileo both seemed to be fairly harmless, each of the protagonists in The Sensorium of God has a certain aspect which makes the reader a little wary. In particular Newton’s temporary insanity is brought vividly to life, although perhaps even more disconcerting is his own attitude towards his behaviour once it has passed.
The structure of the work is ingeniously presented in three parts (named as Action, Distance and Force), mirroring the science which the novel is based upon. The wandering focus from character to character can be distracting, but ultimately serves the necessary purpose of allowing the reader to understand each individual from their own points of view. Tension is continuously built upon throughout the novel, Clark cleverly using a discreet character of his own creation – a government official – to tie all the threads together and weave an extra element of threat into the plot, which comes to a successful conclusion at the height of the reader’s anxiety for the characters.
This novel is well worth a read, whether you have read The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth first or not. It doesn’t lack for drive or plot, and yet is much more sophisticated than a great many other books on the market. To conclude, it reminds us that scientific discoveries we now rely upon were not crystal clear in their beginnings, and were the product of troubled souls and minds who lived in troubled times.
Due to be released in March 2013, the third book in the series is titled The Day Without Yesterday, and will concentrate on Einstein.