Nikola Tesla is one of those historical figures who seems to have been born to play a mad scientist. Besides his well-known cameo appearance in The Prestige by Christopher Priest, he has appeared in countless steampunk works, such as the Five Fists of Science and War of the Worlds: Goliath. He was a scientist, an inventor, a visionary and on top of all that he was just enough on the wrong side of the thin line between genius and insanity to make him interesting. My beautiful and wonderful wife, knowing how much I admired the Serbian pioneer, picked up Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney as a gift, which I was happy to sit down and read almost immediately. No, its not fiction, but Tesla was an inspiration to many early science fiction writers, like Hugo Gernsback (founder of Amazing Stories*) that I think everyone who calls themselves a “geek” or “nerd” should learn about Telsa to gain a better understanding of their favorite genre..
So Tesla: Man Out of Time is a pretty straight forward biography. We learn about Tesla’s early life growing up among the Serbian minority of Croatia, immigrating to America for work. his battles with Edison over AC/DC and his research into such fields as radio, radar and lasers. We also learn about Tesla the man and how he became more neurotic with age, his growing (and bizarre) fascination with pigeons and how his poor business decisions coupled with an extravagant lifestyle also led him to him almost dying in poverty. Surprisingly, Tesla’s visions of the future were far more intriguing than his practical inventions. For example, he constantly sought funding to create a wireless network that he predicted would allow people all over the globe to access information with devices they could easily fit in their pockets. Hmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?
The subtitle of Cheney’s book is “Man Out of Time” and that is a major theme of the biography. Cheney presents Tesla as someone who never fit into the time period he belonged to. He was at heart a Victorian and thus had trouble accepting the increasing independence of women or that atomic energy was a worthwhile theory of study. Yet many of his theories would not be proven to be correct or else at least confirm he was on the right path until the late 20th century or early 21st century when technology caught up enough to finally be able to test him. Whether Tesla would enjoy our present day remains to be seen. On social issues he may find our world hard to accept as he held anti-Semitic views and was sympathetic to fascism, which was rather disappointing to learn.
I thought Cheney did a good job overall in presenting this information. From her perspective it was difficult to write a biography on Tesla since the scientist rarely wrote anything down and embellished many of his ideas and discoveries. Much of what he did write down was sent back to Yugoslavia near the end of his life and those became lost to the West after the Cold War began. On top of that, there is alleged tampering by the United States government with Tesla’s files supposedly while searching for confirmation of Tesla’s “death ray” and misconceptions created by admirers who saw Tesla as some sort of divine figure or else a Venusian in disguise. Personally I though Cheney took some of these bizarre claims about Tesla a little too seriously (including one where he may or may not have confirmed the existence of ghosts) that I began to wonder whether the author believed it herself.
From a technical point of view Tesla: Man Out of Time was well written although the author often jumped around so much on a page it was like watching an episode of Family Guy. Chapter 1, however, is not written in this style. Instead it is written as a third person narrative featuring a sort of day in the life of Tesla as gets dinner and shows off his new inventions to friends, such as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. Honestly I really enjoyed this chapter and almost wished the whole book was written like this. A historical fiction of Tesla’s life would be something I would pay money to read.
Then there was Cheney’s choice to refer to science fiction writers, like the aforementioned Hugo, as “science writers”. It is an odd choice of words in my opinion. The term “science fiction” was first used in 1851, which predates the birth of Tesla, and the term was used at the time Cheney published her book in 1981. So why not use it? Was it because serious authors looked down so much on “sci-fi” they couldn’t even write it down? Admittedly this is sort of a nitpick, but one that was still a head scratcher for me.
So is Tesla: Man Out of Time worth reading? Sure, I finished it and learned a lot of interesting stuff about Nikola Tesla. Notwithstanding Cheney’s non-sequitur writing style and odd choice words, I think I can recommend it. That being said, with such an increased interest in the works of Tesla in the 21st century, you may want to take a look at some more recent books on Tesla’s life.
Ed. Note: Nikola Tesla and Hugo Gernsback regularly corresponded and spent time together; Gernsback published a series of autobiographical articles by Tesla in The Electrical Experimenter magazine and introduced that series thusly: ““Nikola Tesla, in the opinion of authorities, today is conceded to be the greatest inventor of all times.”