Playing Word Games with Prometheus' Fire: Ellen Larson's The Measure of the Universe

Reviewed by Laura Blackwell

The Measure of the Universe cover

Bookstore workers will hate trying to figure out where to shelve Ellen Larson's The Measure of the Universe, which cleverly weaves mystery, romance, and wordplay into a twenty-first century tale of a crusty paleographer from Earth and an exuberantly verbal alien, who takes on a Prometheus-like role in Earth's history. Although such a mythic theme may seem ponderous, this slender novel is not. It treats its subject lightly, as a thought exercise, and the eager reader can breeze through.

To some, former professor Aisha Thanau might seem to be always searching backwards in time. Blind in a time when sight can be restored to almost anyone, she lives in a remote Greek village that eschews elevators for stairs, where she studies ancient languages that haven't been spoken in centuries. To her former student, American government hotshot R. H. Herman, Thanau looks hopelessly outdated, useful only by the greatest coincidence. To her visitor Titek, a fellow paleographer but an alien from another world, Earth and all its cultures appear primitive.

But between Thanau's self-built Sensystem, her innate skepticism, and her study of the past, she perceives the present very clearly . . . and understands the advanced society of Titek's people, the Negami, as well as any Earth native could in 2099. When she and Titek examine ancient writing together, she discovers that the origins of human language could impact even a distant galactic society. Tracing words back to thoughts could teach them what all sentients hold in common, across cultures and across millennia.

When Herman asks Thanau to spy on Titek under the pretext of study, she agrees, but with the intent of studying under the pretext of spying. The Negami, who do not wish to muddy Earth's development with their superior knowledge, are notoriously close-lipped about practically anything of interest. Desperate for the Negami's doubtlessly advanced technology, Herman drools at the prospects of even an alien toothbrush; Thanau, who might possibly regain her sight from the benefit of such technology, seeks only to learn with a colleague who speaks a language she does not.

Thanau meets her match in Titek. Equally intelligent, but as gentlemanly as she is curmudgeonly, Titek makes an enthusiastic student, a polite houseguest, and a fine colleague. Although Titek hails from the more advanced society, he often comes across as the innocent, at the mercy Herman's scheming and of Thanau's sharp mind and sharper tongue. Dead-set on using every word he can of Earth's dominant language, English, Titek gleefully (if accidentally) commits every Spoonerism and malapropism within reach. His endearingly unsuccessful forays into the language grow more, rather than less, ridiculous as he becomes more confident in his ability to communicate -- and despite his mistakes, communicate he does. The two paleographers have undeniable chemistry.

The impending romance ties in with the cloak-and-dagger intrigue, the mysteries of the ancient writing, and the larger cipher that is the Negami themselves. Larson explores this Promethean tale in a straightforward fashion blessedly free of obvious symbolism. The story falters only in the shallow characterization of Herman as the greedy-but-clueless government type and in an implausible touch of amateur spywork near the end of the novel. These minor flaws don't detract from an enjoyable read with a rewarding ending. Readers who wish to compare the book to the Greek myth may want to delve into the appendix, which examines other instances of the ever-changing Prometheus story.

The Measure of the Universe may take all of a day's train commute to read, but it makes for a pleasant ride. This little tale is more entertaining than much serious SF, but more intelligent than the usual light reading. It's the sort of book I'd like to leave in the guest room, so visitors can enjoy it and then share their opinions over breakfast.

 

Copyright © 2003 Laura Blackwell

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Laura Blackwell lives in the fantasy setting known as the San Francisco Bay Area, where she writes reviews and short fiction. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the Archives.