:: Article

It’s Scientific!

By Anna Aslanyan.


The Coincidence Engine, Sam Leith, Bloomsbury 2011

Is future predictable? It depends on whether you belong to the determinist school of thought or come from a probabilistic background. If everything is predetermined and can’t be changed no matter how hard you try, then the best strategy is to lie back and accept the inevitable. But the human mind is a restless computer, given to estimating the likelihood of certain events, as if our knowing the result could, indeed, predict the result. Sam Leith doesn’t claim to have the definitive answer to the question of predictability – or even probability – of things happening, but his novel is no less engaging for that.

The eponymous engine is, allegedly, the brainchild of Nicholas Banacharsky, a reclusive mathematician hunted by a secret agency aptly named DEI, or the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable. Their racket is ‘Unknown Unknowns’: “We deal with things we don’t know we don’t know about. Once we know we don’t know about them we hand them over to the CIA, who […] generally continue not to know about them.” The DEI is headed by an enigmatic Red Queen, whose appearance on page one welcomes the reader to Wonderland where anything can happen – in full accordance with the laws of science. Hordes of silver Pontiacs simultaneously descend on a highway. Two namesakes fall back in love with their wives on the same day. Most improbably, the odds in blackjack tilt against the house at one of Las Vegas’ joints. These and other, even more dramatic events are hardly noticed by Alex, a PhD student from Cambridge who is driving across America to propose to his girlfriend (he is as certain about his feelings towards her as only a true determinist can be, being only a small cog in the coincidence engine). His journey from Atlanta to Vegas is punctuated by strange encounters, gas station meals and ubiquitous road songs. “‘Things fall apart,’ David Byrne announced to the car. ‘It’s scientific!'”

In his previous book, Sod’s Law: Why Life Always Falls Butter Side Down, Leith also looked into the low-probability end of the universe or, more precisely, into misfortune. Now he paints the wider picture, spinning the story with skill and gusto. His characters are alive, each with their own quirks and kinks that make you laugh and sigh in turns. The adventures of Davidoff and Sherman, case-hardened agents chasing Alex (who is still oblivious to the aberrations around him, immersed in his thoughts), read as a hilarious parody of the traditional spy novel. A resolute Isla Holderness, who tracks down Banacharsky in the Pyrenees, is trying to decide if the mad scientist is really mad, pondering over his indecipherable questions, such as “What is a metre?” Bree, another employee of Red Queen, keeps munching on jumbo-sized snacks while having absurdist conversations with her apsychotic, or imagination-free, colleague. Leith’s jokes range from the flippant – “The Ranchers didn’t seem to be imparting the jollity their name promised” – to the philosophical – “whatever fun they were having […] was deprived of sunlight and water by the enormous shadow of the fun they should have been having.” Blurbs comparing him to Evelyn Waugh and Douglas Adams make you raise an eyebrow at first, but a dozen pages into the book you are ready to agree with them: this is the best of English humour projected onto the age of iPods, cheap flights and margaritas served in foot-long pink plastic cups.

The story is so masterfully woven you forgive the author one of its final twists, too Hollywood to be taken seriously – after all, those who don’t enjoy this kind of thing guess it well before it’s revealed, while those who do… well, simply enjoy it. Minor plot details are gripping, too: you are drawn into the game between Alex and his friend, where they communicate with each other via clever word puzzles. And when reading Banacharsky’s missives, you cannot help wondering, “What is a metre?”

Is the coincidence engine really working? And if so, what is left to our free will? When this last question was put to the author at a recent reading, he promptly referred the audience to page 160 of the book, bringing the house down with laughter. The novel’s beauty is in the way it manages to be funny without overstepping the line that separates comedy from good prose. And the scientific line is played just right, with enough irony to entertain and, at the same time, make you sceptical about everything, including the predictability of the future. The probable and the improbable are not necessarily the two sides of the same coin – the coin may only have one side. To give you an example of how this theory can be put in practice, consider the odds of The Coincidence Engine being a roaring success. It is too early to say whether it’s bound to become a bestseller, but if (or, as a determinist would say, when) it does, it will be no coincidence.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 8th, 2011.