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The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith

01/06/2011. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy The Coincidence Engine in the USA - or Buy The Coincidence Engine in the UK

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pub: Bloomsbury. 271 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 12.99. ISBN: 978-1-4088-0234-2).

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The coincidence engine of the title is a machine or a device or maybe just an idea that affects probability to create the most extraordinary coincidences and accidents. At the centre of a string of such bizarre occurrences is Alex Smart, driving across America to meet his girl-friend, and has no idea what’s going on. In pursuit are two mercenaries working for a global arms manufacturer and two agents working for the Directorate of the Extremely Improbable. At least, they think that’s who they work for. It’s a wonderfully convoluted and confusing trip, full of outrageous coincidences delivered with a dry humour and incidents narrated as ironic commentary on American culture.

The story wanders as it goes, changing tense and point-of–view in a way that I first found jarring but eventually accepted as part of the style. The occasional omnipotent point of view or comments by the narrator give the impression that someone, somewhere has a clue what the ultimate outcome will be. We find out lots of back story about some of the characters, notably Alex and Bree, one of the government agents. Throughout the book, I wondered about the relevance of many of these anecdotes and of various other minor characters who pop in and out of the narrative. There’s a crazy mathematician who came up with the concept of the coincidence engine, another mathematician who treks through France looking for him, a professor who wrote about it and at the heart of the Directorate is Red Queen, who may or may not have any idea what is really happening.

Part of the fun of the book is seeing the coincidences, the back stories and side stories, wondering where and how they will cross and what the outcome will be. In some ways it doesn’t matter, which is just as well. Many of the loose ends remain relatively loose, but there is still an overall concept that ties them all together. There are plenty of different elements that combine in this novel: humour, conspiracies, secret government agencies, personal tales of alcoholism and broken families, esoteric maths and philosophy and crosswords. It’s almost as though Sam Leith collected together a couple of dozen random ideas and then set about to fit them somehow together. He’s done a remarkably good job of it.

Gareth D. Jones

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This book has 129 votes in the sci-fi charts

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