Book Review: A Highly Unlikely Scenario by Cantor (3 Stars)

A Highly Unlikely Scenario or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

3 out of 5 stars

Read in February 2014

Suggested reading for the Kansas City Public Library Adult Winter Reading Program “Stop Me If You’ve Read This One”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.

Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.

My Thoughts:

I read this new novel with every intention of joining the local real-life book discussion group.  I try to participate in at least one or two book discussion groups during the annual adult winter reading program at the Kansas City Public Library.  The day after I received the book from the book group leader, my daughter called to inform me that her debut performance of her graduate college opera season was the night before the discussion group met.  Not a problem if the Kansas City Public Library happened to be a suburb of Dallas.  I contacted the book discussion leader to apologize for inconveniencing her and to let her know I would not be able to join the group that Saturday.

Since I had the book in my hands, I went ahead and read it.  It didn’t take long.  It’s a short novel.  It may look like it took me eleven days to read it, but in actuality probably no more than a day:

I liked the book, but didn’t fall head over heels in love with it.  I’ll go into more details below as I attempt to answer the reading group questions provided at the back of the book by the publisher.

Reading Group Guide Questions:

1. Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario has all the hallmarks of a traditional work of science fiction — time travel, a futuristic world, artificial intelligence. When you were reading A highly Unlikely Scenario, did you feel like you were reading science fiction?

Well, yes, of course I felt like I was reading science fiction.  Next to fantasy, it’s the genre I read the most.  I tend to see science fiction mirages even when I’m reading mundane mysteries.

Was there anything in the text that you were surprised to find in a science fiction novel?

Not particularly.  I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, especially when reading science fiction.  Serendipitous surprises are welcomed and enjoyed.

2. Food is everywhere in this book.  Leonard, the novel’s protagonist, is “a good egg” (page 15) who works in the complaints department of Neetsa Pizza — a fast-food company that sells “pizza shaped according to Pythagorean principles” (page 9).  His sister, Carol, makes “revolutionary stew” with “ingredients [that] remind us of our agrarian past (pages 37-38). And the novel is populated by groups that identify themselves through food: “Survivalists wearing camouflage and offering samples of dried chipmunk; Heraclitan Grill flamethrowers in their characteristic fireproof togs; also, royal pages from the monarchists’ Food Court, [and] barbecuties from the Whiggery Piggery (page 91).” What is the significance of food in Cantor’s novel?

Food metaphors abounded throughout Cantor’s novel.  At first, I wasn’t really paying attention to all the bizarre eatery establishments and their equally strange menu items.  Eventually, I caught on that there was more than meets the eye (or the stomach) to all those wacky fast food places.

Is food really at the center of the novel, or does Cantor use food as a vehicle for talking about ideas that are more central to the text?

I never really felt that the food had anything to do with what Cantor was trying to convey to her readers.  Back to the metaphors … she was telegraphing a message or two.

3. What does it say about the world in which the novel is set that the legacies of many of history’s most important mystics, theologians and thinkers have been appropriated by a ‘parastatal corporation’ (page 79) like Neetsa Pizza that uses their ideas as advertising tools?

This is where the group would have been vital to the discussion.  I’m drawing a complete blank on this question.  The first thing that comes to mind for me is cynicism, but I’m not sure that fits with the world that Cantor has drawn for us.

Do you think a statement is being made about the place of spirituality and mysticism in our world? what do you think that statement might be?

I’m sure she made a statement, I’m just not sure what that statement was intended to be.  Again, I really wish I could have attended the real-life book discussion as I would have basked in the wisdom of other, greater minds than my own.

4. The Brazen Head (which is based on stories of real automatons capable of answering any question) often seems like a more animated, opinionated version of Wikipedia. And it, like Wikipedia, proves in the end it have real people behind it, capable of making mistakes and having particular agendas.  What do you think of sources that appear to be authoritative?

Sources that appear to be authoritative?  That’s what bibliographies are for. I check those and then check multiple sources if I really want to get a consensus on the ‘facts’ of an issue.  And not just ‘facts’ that support my own ‘feel good’ position.  I love to play Devil’s Advocate, even with myself.

Have you ever contributed to Wikipedia, and did that change your perception of it?

Once upon a time I thought I wanted to contribute to Wikipedia.  I’ve since decided it’s too much work and I’d rather spend that time reading.

5. As the plot progresses, Leonard discovers that Felix, his nephew, has many special powers, including the ability to freeze time and read the writing in the never-before-deciphered Voynich manuscript.  How did Felix’s special powers change the nature of the relationship between Leonard and himself? And between himself and Sally?

Leonard’s life changed completely.  He became even more attached and protective of Felix.  Sadly, I’ve forgotten Felix’s relationship with Sally.  I know Sally became jealous of Felix’s ability to read the dancing script found in the Voynich manuscript.

6. Isaac the Blind’s main aim in the book is to prevent mystical knowledge — such as the kind that Marco Polo and Roger Bacon learn about during their respective journeys — from getting into the wrong hands. Do you think that the circulation of knowledge can or should be restricted?

I am not an advocate of censorship.  The more you know, the better prepared you are.  Knowledge is a tool.  Don’t blame the tool for what the person using the tool does with it.

Is there any knowledge that would be dangerous in the wrong hands?

So the government would have you believe.  They know what’s best for us so we should trust them with the keys to our privacy and never fear that they might abuse that power.

Not if I can help it.

7. One of the most important recurring images from the novel is that of the orchard.  The orchard first appears on page 37, when Felix describes a dream he has had, where four men go into an orchard. What they see in there kills one, makes the second crazy, and turns the third into “a destabilizing force of chaos.” Only the fourth man, described as the rabbi, in unaffected. When Leonard and Sally encounter him in Rome, the Spanish mystic Abulafia claims to be “the rabbi who saw what was there and went home again” (page 230). Do you believe him?

Yes I believe him.

What do you think they see in the orchard?

I could wax theological and say they saw God.  Or perhaps be philosophical and say they saw the meaning of life, the universe and everything (42 anyone?).  To be completely honest, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what would kill someone, make someone crazy and turn a third person to evil or entropy leaving only one person out of four sane enough to go home

8. How do you feel about the choice Sally makes in the end, passing up the chance to study with Abulafia for love, family, and becoming a leader in her own time?

First, I don’t believe Sally was given a choice.  I think Leonard used his special talent on her and manipulated her mind so that she would return with him and Felix.

Would you make the same choice?

If I was as driven as Sally seemed to be, I don’t think I would have chosen to return home.  She seemed obsessed to me.