Martin Vopěnka is a Czech author living in Prague, with 12 novels (in Czech, two of them translated into English) and 2 travelogues under his belt. He also writes polemic articles (his description!) for MF Dnes, a daily Czech newspaper. This book was originally published in 2009 by Kniha Zlín under the title of Pátý rozměr, and was translated into English for this edition by Hana Slenkova, a budding writer born the Czech Republic and now living in Plymouth.
The Fifth Dimension is a story of an experiment, even if we're never told what exactly is being researched. The protagonist of the story, Jakub (or Jacob, as the Americans call him), is a Czech who started a construction company when the end of Communism allowed for private enterprise, and who got bankrupted in a downturn of the economy. He now keeps himself afloat with jobs which don't fulfil him, and dreams of a chance to make a big score to secure the future for himself and his beloved wife and family.
That chance comes with a vague advert by a mysterious, American agency, who is looking for candidates for an experiment. He (and us, who witness the story through his eyes and via his internal monologues) are never told what exactly is being researched, or what the experiment entails. All he learns, before he signs on the line, is that it requires him to be away from and out of contact with his family for a year (this later goes down to 10 months), and that this will earn him 200k Dollars – a substantial sum, even in today's Czech Republic.
Jakub then finds himself, after some training, in a exceedingly remote part of South America (most likely Argentina), at high altitude, in a one-person facility/bunker that provides for his basic needs and allows him to take the physiological measurements of himself which are part of the deal. He has no means of communication (save for an 'abort experiment' button, pressing which means he loses his fee), and is allowed to take only one book (he takes a large tome on Astrophysics, as this is what he studied). And then the lonely 10 months, with only himself and his barren surroundings for company commence...
The book is split into 4 parts, which are distinct phases to what's happening (nope, not telling); the first one is told in 2 strands, both chronological. One follows his history – bankruptcy,selection,training and preparation, and departure. The other one focuses on his arrival at the bunker (via helicopter), and his reaction to being left there on his own.
Both are told by introspection/stream of consciousness, interspersed with exchanges, reporting verbatim, and information dumps.
There are rather a lot of rumination on family life, on the love for his spouse and his children, and I wondered about the relevance of this. Never mind the obsession with reporting his sex life.
The other thing I wondered about were the languages in use – in his family this must be Czech, with the Agency I suspect it partially is also Czech, but then English (but he never really specifies this, which surprised me). And then maybe Spanish? Or not?
Jakub develops (or has?) apparently psychic abilities, which allow him to know what's going on with his family in Prague, if they're sick, what they're doing, and hears their exchanges with others if he 'tunes in'. Or, at least he thinks so, as we re not given much relevant data to corroborate the claims. He also never examines this in the light of the new cosmological theory he develops, which struck me as exceedingly self-blind (and again, I cannot tell if that's the author or the character!).
The book detours into physics, as Jakub explains to himself/us what he's learning from his book, what this means to him, and the new theories he develops from it. These are layman level explanations of general (astro-)physical points, which are in themselves quite interesting. And I wondered if the author feels a need to spread his background (which in maths and physics)?
Vopěnka, via Jakub, tries to renounce religion, but keeps getting stuck in its language and concepts – I wonder if he does not have (or fears) the alternative?
Overall I found the repetitive, self-reflecting stream of consciousness that makes up the book rather wearing, occasionally tiring, and not very engaging. One of my main problems with the book is that I did not identify with the protagonist, his motivations, or his concerns; that I did not root for him, did not understand his drivers and hang-ups, his compassion. He remained alien, foreign to me, and failed to engage or interest me, despite seeing through is eyes, hearing his thoughts, and thus virtually walking in his shoes for 335 (long) pages.
I found the book to be interesting in its setting, as well as its background in the Czech Republic (which is one of the reasons I picked it up for) and as a translated work of SF, but, as indicated above, the execution did not grab me.
It's unusual, both in topic and origin, so I would suggest that the reader makes up his own mind – you might find something different to me!
More Martin Vopěnka
Title: The Fifth Dimension
Author: Martin Vopěnka
Translater: Hana Sklenkova
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Barbican Press
Publisher URL: http://www.barbicanpress.com
Publication Date: Oct 2015
Review Date: 091010
Topic: Speculative Fiction
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.