Maxwell’s Demon, by Steven Hall. Pub 2021
This was a surprise find for me at the bookstore last month. I was looking for a copy of Hall’s Raw Shark Texts that I read a few years ago to send to a friend (my own copy was a Kindle version). When I went online to order it, I discovered that Stephen Hall had just (as in just a few months earlier) released his second novel. Given how much I loved the first, I had to read the second (and my own tsundoku rules do permit new books from favourite authors).
Like his first novel, this one is very complex and dense, and also a page-turner. Briefly, the story is about a writer who gets entangled in a mystery involving another, much more famous, writer. The famous writer is reclusive and, due to some contract dispute with their publisher, has not written a single word since their first famous novel. Or have they? The middling writer tracks down the reclusive famous writer in a small seaside Yorkshire town and while visiting, steals the manuscript for their second novel, called Maxwell’s Demon. There is then a bit of a chase, many mysteries are revealed, and everyone seems to live happily ever after in the end.
There are many side-bar threads about angels and demons, entropy, and the power of words and language in making reality real. Maxwell’s Demon refers to a theoretical physics problem that calls into question the 2nd law of thermodynamics (the entropy of a closed systems moves towards the maximum, also known as the irreversibility of natural processes or “the arrow of time“. Basically, time only moves in one direction (forward), systems move to be become maximally messy and thermally stable, and natural processes (including time), such as the melting of ice or the cooling of a cup of coffee, are both inevitable and irreversible). With Maxwell’s Demon, this law is broken seemingly by one thing – knowledge. In the focus on language, words and even letters are so powerful that control of them (and knowledge) can allow them to become real things (this idea came up in the previous novel).
The mysterious writer has a long-standing belief that electronic versions of words, including e-books, will lead to the apocalypse, due to the a) mutability of words in electronic space (how easy it is to accidentally – or not – replace words and change meanings in electronic documents without leaving a trace) and b) the power of words, letters, and language to become real. It is this belief that is the challenge at the heart of this novel.
Unfortunately, unlike in Raw Shark Texts, Hall does not quite make the necessary links between characters and other-world-like actions involving words and language. The reveals at the novel’s climax turn out to be ordinary (if elaborate) manipulation of the protagonist, and while understandable are less-than believable. The ending felt rushed and somewhat tidy given the contortions and convolutions that took us there. I could easily have stood another 50 pages of writing (which is very very good) to have had a more satisfying denouement.
I am glad that I read this one, as I do enjoy this unusual blend of science fiction and language mash-up. I guess I had too-high hopes for this one because, despite it being well written and intriguing, it was disappointing.
Fate: I’ll be sending this to to my friend, assuming I hear that they liked Raw Shark Texts. Otherwise, likely the charity shop.