Ethan Chatagnier, Singer Distance (Tin House), 288pp. Hardback, $36.95.

Ethan Chatagnier’s debut novel begins with a van driving on Route 66 across the American Southwest in December of 1960. Five MIT grad students, all “PhD candidates in pure mathematics,” are headed to a spot just outside of Flagstaff in order to dig a 32-character formula into the dirt and fill it with glowing blue fluid. Rick Hayworth, the narrator, is a former farmboy with father issues who works the engineering angle for this secret trenchwork; his girlfriend, Crystal Singer, is the genius who has discovered a marvelous new equation for an alien audience.

Singer Distance is a fascinating story set in a slightly alternate reality. In 1894, a Dutch astronomer (“Flavius Horn”) carves three parallel lines, each a hundred miles long, into the Tunisian desert, then fills them with oil and lights them on fire—just as the planet Mars is in opposition to the Earth. Two years later, during the next favorable opposition, the Earth receives a response: “four perfectly parallel lines,” cut into the red surface of Mars and viewable through terrestrial telescopes. Over the next few decades, the two neighboring planets correspond visually. The more advanced Martians introduce their own mathematical script, the “Curious Language,” inviting Earthlings to solve problems that increase in complexity with each correct answer.

At the same time, in actual history, Guglielmo Marconi was conducting his famous experiments in radio technology. But Chatagnier’s Martians have no interest in audio communication; they are silent teachers who stick with the interplanetary chalkboard. When they pose an especially tricky math problem in 1922, no one on Earth has the solution. After each wrong guess, the face of Mars simply remains blank. Finally, in 1933 a German physicist visiting the United States solves the riddle by working with a team to imprint his new theory of general relativity into the ground in Arizona. The Martians respond approvingly to this successful answer by offering a newer, even more complex problem in their Curious Language, and Albert Einstein is rewarded with a position in Princeton. But this 1933 problem stymies even the best on Earth. Twenty-seven years later, in 1960, it remains unsolved. Despite the advances of the burgeoning Space Race—despite Sputnik, Vostok, and Mercury—the Martians have seemingly ceased communications in the absence of higher mathematical intelligence.

Until, that is, the brilliant Crystal Singer comes along. When her equation is confirmed by the Martians (who quickly reply with an even tougher problem), Crystal becomes an overnight celebrity, the planet’s youthful successor to Einstein. Terrified by her newfound fame, she simply disappears. Some think she’s been abducted by aliens. Others suspect she’s holed up in a remote bunker, at work on the next great solution that the world’s greatest minds can barely begin to understand.

But Singer Distance is Rick’s story. He begins in awe of his girlfriend’s extraordinary mind. No dunce himself, he nevertheless knows that he can’t keep up with her, and he’s happy to do the dishes while she explores new equations. When she disappears, he’s devastated. He receives the occasional letter, but with no phone number and no permanent address Crystal becomes practically unreachable. Like so many of her mathematical peers, Rick is left behind.

Paced by a passionate intellectual curiosity, it generates intensity and suspense without ever really relying on math.

One remarkable feature of this wonderful novel is its cinematic atmosphere. It covers wide Western vistas and uncovers family drama; it follows an elusive lover whose motives are uncertain. Paced by a passionate intellectual curiosity, like the films Contact and Arrival, it generates intensity and suspense without ever really relying on math. (Those who struggle to calculate the tip on a dinner bill will have no problem following the plot.) Those films are very obvious touchstones; Singer Distance includes a character based on Carl Sagan, and, as Chatagnier has acknowledged, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis for Arrival) was a major influence—though a better comparison might be to a novel like Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. The relationship between Rick and Crystal is like that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Crystal is moving ahead, the master of music that only she and the gods can understand, and Rick is struggling to keep up with her, desperately, perhaps foolishly, wishing that she would just look back at him.

Singer Distance also quite deftly handles its sci-fi hypothetical. Chatagnier’s Martians remain aloof and mysterious; they seem uninterested in contact. With its first half set in 1960 and its second half set in 1973, the novel taps into the urgency of the Space Race while easily acknowledging the technological limitations that would keep the Martians at a distance. (The first Mars rover didn’t land until 1997.) If the Martians don’t want to visit via spaceship or broadcast a radio signal, there’s little the terrestrial astrophysicists of the 1960s can do to cajole them. Obviously Chatagnier’s fictional world is different from our own—here’s proof that intelligent life exists on another planet! Yet without a more obvious concerted effort on the Martians’ part, human beings are still, practically, alone in the solar system.

Singer Distance is a compelling read, and Rick Hayworth is an engaging narrator. (It’s hard to believe that he’s a mathematics professor!) His desperate grasping after a lost love neatly parallels the brilliant mathematician’s passionate drive to understand the secrets of the universe. The ending of the book is a little schmaltzy—think Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Field of Dreams—but nonetheless satisfying. It could easily be the basis of a fine film adaptation.

And Chatagnier has the makings of a fine Western novelist, perhaps in the mold of a writer like Claire Vaye Watkins. Based in Fresno, he has already published many short stories (and a short story collection), including a 2016 tale in Witness, the literary magazine run published by UNLV. His infectious imagination is sure to appeal to many readers.

Blog at