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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Inventor Tesla's Life an Electrifying Story : TESLA: A Biographical Novel of the World's Greatest Inventor by Tad Wise , Turner Publishing Inc., $21.95, 320 pages


Compulsive, narcissistic, brilliant and episodically mad, Nikola Tesla arrived in New York in 1884 at the age of 28, ready to electrify the world. Certainly a great inventor, Tesla, like many of his contemporaries, was psychologically enmeshed in the mystique of electricity.

Having figured out that alternating current (AC) is more efficient than the direct current (DC) Thomas Alva Edison favored, Tesla convinced George Westinghouse of the advantages of his approach. Westinghouse went AC when he built the first major hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls. Tesla continued to dream of and patent things electric. He was an impresario of electricity, as his high-frequency "Tesla Coil" (made famous by the Frankenstein films) attests.

Tesla's family included his father, a member of the clergy, and a brilliant brother six years his senior, who died in an accident at the age of 11. That tragedy, says Tad Wise, author of the fictional biography "Tesla," shaped Tesla's life. Blaming himself for his brother's death, Tesla eventually left home for the university, left his church for home-brewed mysticism, and left Serbia for the United States.

His American career spanned six decades, mostly spent in New York. Wise's descriptions of that city, especially in the gilded age, are the best parts of this very uneven book. Soon after his arrival, Tesla managed to meet, and briefly work for, Edison. He went on to have business deals with Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, and to befriend Samuel Clemens.

Tesla prospered, at first in the economic free-for-all at the end of the 19th Century. During his roller-coaster career he was a victim of both chance and his stubborn, idiosyncratic and enigmatic character. He made and lost fortunes, lived and dined in hotels from the Waldorf Astoria to nameless flea traps, all the while retaining a clique of devoted and wealthy friends.

He also collected enemies. His list begins with Edison and includes Guglielmo Marconi, who thought he could send messages through the air without wires and, of course, succeeded. Wise blames these foes, as well as society, for refusing to credit Tesla for the invention of, among other things, the science of robotics and X-rays.

What Tesla did not actually invent, according to Wise, he predicted. His prophesies include sonar, anti-missile systems, television and CNN. These were excellent forecasts, but not unique to Tesla. Another prophet at the time was H.G. Wells.

Tesla was a giant, literally--he loomed well over six feet--and figuratively--he dreamed of domesticating the electrical power of the universe. In his private life he remained celibate, loathe to so much as touch another human being. He had no love life, although he liked to have beautiful women around him. This much is fact.

Wise, however, decided to tell Tesla's story as fiction, gaining a free hand to embroider the only non-technical part of Tesla's life of any interest--his eccentricities and hallucinations. Wise provides psychological explanations for some and a paranormal gloss for others.

The lines between what is documented and what are from Wise's imagination are hard to draw. That's the trouble with fictionalized biography. Wise the novelist never stands back from his against-the-wall defense of his strange hero. Although Tesla's manic genius left no room for self-doubt, Wise the novelist could have been more critical.

For the record, Tesla did not discover X-rays. Like others who were experimenting with electricity, he accidentally took an X-ray picture, but was unaware of what he had done. As for the Nobel Prize of 1915, which was said to have originally been destined to be split between Edison and Tesla but went instead to William H. and William L. Bragg, there is nothing mysterious about it. Rumors are common in Nobel-land. Had Wise wanted to find out whether the Nobel Prize Committee had ever considered the American inventors, he simply could have consulted the minutes of those meetings.

What Wise has failed to do, as biographer or novelist, is explain how Nikola Tesla reflected the spirit of his age. His genius for electrical inventions, for instance, was a perfect fit for a continent in the throes of urbanization. And Tesla's approach, bizarre to the point of demented, could be tolerated in the age of rampant individualism.

In the book's epilogue, Wise lists materials that have become available to researchers; he recuses himself from exploring them, however, on the grounds that this is not the novelist's job. Instead, he berates "scientists and historians" for having shirked their duty.

Frankly, this fictional biography would have been a fine venue for a survey of those new materials. Without it, Wise adds only a weak "gee whiz" to what is already known about this strange and brilliant figure.

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