book reviews by Althea

The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead *****

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I read Whitehead’s ‘Zone One’ for post-apocalyptic book club, and liked it – someone at our meeting recommended ‘The Intuitionist’ to me – but all they would say is ‘Well, it’s about elevator repairmen. But I think you would like it.’

Admittedly, I didn’t immediately think that reading about elevator repair sounded like the most thrilling activity. You may not be instantly hooked by that description. You might even think it sounds dull. Well, you would be wrong!

‘The Intuitionist’ is set in an alternate-history late-1950s-early-1960’s, in a United States where elevator technology has changed the world by introducing verticality to urban centers. Moving far beyond mere functionality, elevators are a both a rich field of study and a lucrative business. There are business conventions. There are corporate rivalries (and espionage). There is a conflict between the two main ‘schools’ of elevator inspection theory (The Empiricists and the Intuitionists). And there is the mystical philosophy of Theoretical Elevators.

In this world, we are introduced to Lila Mae – an excellent elevator inspector, an Intuitionist, brilliant and passionate about her field, and a trailblazer – the first black woman to become an Inspector in an overwhelmingly white boys’ club.

A terrible accident occurs – and it looks like Lila Mae is going to be framed as the one culpable. To clear her name, she will have to both navigate a hostile world and delve deeper into the hidden secrets of the history of elevator inspection.

Colson Whitehead’s writing is just gorgeous, and the intricate combination of social commentary, philosophy and technology woven through the story means, I believe, that this book would appeal both to fans of steampunk and cyberpunk – it’s doing a lot of the same things, just in a different era. (What if William Gibson tackled the recent past, rather than the near future?)


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