Duchamp Versus Einstein by Christopher Hinz and Etan Illfeld


Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Genre(s): Historical Science Fiction, Historical Fantasy, Surrealist Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Angry Robot
Release date: 
October 8th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Novella (HM), Published in 2019

Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon

Execution: ⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐.5

‘Of all the Anomalous Tripartites she studied, none seemed as steeped in the anomalous as a species of fleshy bipedals living aboveground on the land masses of a world three-quarters aquatic. Although the bipedals sometimes comitted suicide, in general it was not a socially sanctioned activity as it was for the insectoids and the amphibians, where voluntary termination achieved high status. 

The bipedals had developed their own unique means for assuring high casualty rates. By banding together in large groups called “nations,” and fight brutal wars with others in the name of freedom, for the acquisition of resources or for the placation or worship of beloved deities, they existed in a near-constant state of strife. Their wars tended to enhance the power and wealth of the nations’ ruling classes, a concept to which the majority of those directly impacted by the combat remained blissfully unenlightened.’

One of the things I adore most about Angry Robot as a publisher is that they’re willing to give books that are just a bit off-beat a fair shake. They’ve got unicorns in space with Space Unicorn Blues, stuffed triceratops detectives in The Imaginary Corpse, and soldiers who travel at light speed by becoming light in Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. Angry Robot is the home of books that push the boundaries that might be a little further out than other traditional publishers are willing to go, and they often find some wonderful hidden gems by doing so.

Unfortunately, this also means that some of the books they take a chance on fall a bit flat. For me, Duchamp Versus Einstein fell into this category. This was especially disappointing as it was Angry Robot’s first foray into short fiction – I had been expecting a much stronger publisher debut in the new category. However, while looking into the two authors, I did notice that Etan Illfeld was the owner of Watkins Media, of which Angry Robot is an imprint. That struck me as a bit odd, and perhaps explains why this novelette was taken on to lead this new category. 

The novella opens with an intriguing prologue: the year is 2061, and following a devastating 3rd World War, historians have discovered a series of hitherto unknown letters from Marcel Duchamp. It introduces our third main character, as well – an alien, noncorporeal woman made up of pure unemotional information. Unfortunately, these future events are never discussed or touched on in the novella after the prologue. While I see the point the authors were trying to make here within the broader text – that war is an inevitable part of the human condition – it felt extraneous and a bit like an unused, dusty Chekhov’s gun. It felt like clumsy writing.

‘The desk was found within the sealed basement of a former New York City skyscraper, the site covered in five meters of atomic slag from the Manhattan Detonations. Noted World War III apocalyptic historian Trinitia Rodriguez, the granddaughter of a woman born in Socorro, New Mexico, was within minutes of the world’s first atomic detonation…’

Following this, another interesting plotline is started up. Duchamp is hanging out with separationist revolutionaries in New York, where they’re having a rollicking party on the bridge. Much like World War III, I assumed this would become plot relevant and potentially an interesting commentary on the political state of America at the time. Unfortunately, once more, this plotline fizzled out. It serves only as a backdrop to begin the odd main plot, with Duchamp seeing a strange, glowing, multicolored baby floating in the air. There are several more instances of this as the novella progresses, each one as disappointing as the first.

To paraphrase the lovely Alix E. Harrow’s thoughts on novellas and other short form fiction, authors looking to write a novella need to pick the one thing they really care about, care about it as hard as they possibly can, and tell absolutely everything else to fuck off. I’m not entirely sure what the authors of Duchamp Versus Einstein cared about in this book, as it felt like there were a lot of different things going on  – all of them competing for my attention. 

The actual premise of the book, a chess game between Duchamp and Einstein, comes about for somewhat ambiguous reasons. The novella seemed to care about how this chess game comes about more than it does about why it came about, and the game itself only goes on for a handful of pages. The alien character, called Stella or Estrella at various times, has somewhat unclear motivations and origins, which are explained just enough to seem a bit ridiculous and odd instead of being mysterious and engaging. There were several gratuitous sex scenes, which came off as more than a bit onanistic on the author’s part. I don’t necessarily mind sex scenes which don’t advance the plot, but I do mind it when they’re not even a good sex scene. While the ones included in Duchamp Versus Einstein were technically plot relevant, said relevancy felt shoehorned in as opposed to being a natural progression of ideas.

This book held promise, and kept me interested by introducing new ideas and premises as it progressed. It was short and a quick read. The prose was more than serviceable. However, every promise the novelette made to me as a reader ended up unfulfilled. I think this book needed to pruned back heavily, and perhaps would have been more appropriate as a short story instead of a novelette. 

Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!


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