The Sensorium of God, by Stuart Clark

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.

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Imperium, by Robert Harris

The first of three books tracing the career of the Late Republican Roman lawyer and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, Imperium covers the years up to Cicero’s campaign in the consular elections. The first part of the book deals with the major trial of Gaius Verres, a corrupt official who has spent his governorship of Sicily extracting every last coin out of the province, and committing various atrocities including the heinous offence of executing innocent Roman citizens without trial. Cicero, at this stage a brilliant advocate in the courts but politically still a nobody, takes the challenge of prosecuting Verres. Faced with hostility by the aristocratic faction in the senate and by the network of bribes dished out by Verres, it seems an impossible task, but one which could bear great rewards…

This review comes after a re-listen to the audio-book, so I shall begin by saying that Bill Wallis does a superb job of reading, managing to make the dry passages (after all, much of the book deals with Roman law) interesting, using a good variety of tones and voices.

The plot itself owes nothing to Robert Harris, but to the incredible world that was Late Republican Rome. Harris’ genius lies in taking the plethora of documents detailing that world (the great bulk actually being Cicero’s own work) and transforming it into a narrative to satisfy the casual reader and scholar alike.

Imperium follows in the footsteps of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius books, taking the same form. Whereas I, Claudius purports to be a lost document written by the Emperor Claudius, telling the tale of the early empire, Imperium (along with the next two books in the series) takes the form of a memoir of Cicero’s life written by his former slave, Tiro. It is a masterstroke of Harris to choose this format, for no other person could have known as much about Cicero, and it gives him the ideal way of depicting the statesman, for while Cicero’s way with words is deservedly legendary, Tiro has a much more compelling voice for the modern reader. The choice also allows Harris to comment on the totally different state of Rome during the time of Tiro’s writing – under the Emperor Augustus. Tiro’s infrequent comments about life today gives the reader tantalising clues about what is to come, reminding them that the brilliant rise of Cicero must surely be followed by the total collapse of the Republic, unlikely though it may seem at the time. Another benefit of this novel is that it introduces us to well-known Roman figures without unduly shining the spot-light on them from the beginning, instead focusing rightly on the important figures of the day. Thus we first meet the impoverished Julius Caesar at a minor election, and his character only gathers importance towards the end of the novel.

In short – Harris’ Ciceronian books are pure genius, and surely the best Roman fiction on the market today, reacquainting historical novels with the fact they so desperately need. In this book, the gaps in history are filled by Harris’ logic and his sense for a clever plot. It is not for nothing that this book is recommended to one another by classical scholars, but is also accessible to a wider readership, for everything the reader needs to know about Cicero’s world is expertly explained in the book.