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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fifth Dimension

Martin Vopěnka

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To purchase The Fifth Dimension

Title: The Fifth Dimension
Author: Martin Vopenka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 331 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Fifth Dimension - US
The Fifth Dimension - UK
The Fifth Dimension - Canada
  • Czech title: Pátý rozměr
  • Translated by Hana Sklenková

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing premise that could have been taken further

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Fifth Dimension is narrated by Jakub Dohnal, one-time physics student turned entrepreneur, flying high in the post-Communist Czech Republic with a prospering building firm and a wife and two small kids, until a few bad business decisions and some bad luck pretty much put him out of business. Eventually he finds himself looking for a job -- and chances across an ad: for some reason an American research project, run by something called the Free Year Agency, is looking for a Czech participant.
       The project, Jakub eventually learns, involves spending: "almost a year -- or preferably a whole year -- somewhere completely alone and without the possibility of communicating with anyone". What's enticing about the offer is the $200,000 payday -- enough to "live quite nicely for eight years", Jakub calculates, making it a tempting trade-off for spending a year away from his family. He winds up being the chosen one, and he winds up accepting the job -- somewhat to the chagrin and disappointment of left-behind wife Alena.
       The terms of the contract are strict: absolute secrecy, and no outside contact. An he has to stay for the duration -- there's a panic button that would get him whisked back home any time he presses it, but that terminates the experiment prematurely. That, or any other breach, is a complete breach of the contract, and Jakub doesn't get his money. He's also not allowed to bring much along -- just a single book (so not a novel, he foolishly figures ...); he eventually selects Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps (W.W.Norton). (Jakub admits to having lost his maths- and physics-facility since his student-days, but one still might have expected him to take along a more technically challenging (i.e. keep-busy) book than Thorne's interesting but layman-audience-oriented one.)
       Jakub is taken far, far away, his new domicile a bunker high in the Argentine mountains: "My cabin, my spaceship", he muses. Comfortable enough and well stocked, but at a high altitude that takes some getting used to -- and far from pretty much any sort of civilization (or anything else).
       Jakub doesn't really know what he's doing there. (Among the amusing ideas that cross his mind: maybe the purpose is: "to throw me to some alien civilization as bait".) He isn't assigned to do much, except take regular physical measurements of what shape he is in. But he can do pretty much what he wants -- which isn't much, given the limitations of the place, and what he has at his disposal. No internet, no store of DVDs. Just the one book, pulling him into black holes .....
       Vopěnka doesn't leave his protagonist entirely alone with his thoughts. A local strays by, representatives of the Free Year Agency drop in to check up on him occasionally (one of them taking a very personal interest in the test-subject), and there's even a climbing-expedition -- Czech mountaineers, no less ! -- that crosses his path. And he comes to suspect murder, which makes for an added bit of tension.
       Then there's also what he imagines -- or sees ? -- is happening back home, as he tries to stay connected with what's happening in his family's life -- and gets a rather unsettling picture of some of what his wife is up to with the man who sent him off to Argentina.
       The mystery surrounding the project make for quite the existential crisis for Jakub to wallow in, when he wants:

I mean, why am I really here ? What am I investigating ? What are you investigating on me here ? What's it all for ? And for whom ? What the hell is going on ?
       All your basic what-is-the-meaning-of-life questions are neatly to be found in Jakub's mysterious situation.
       Of course, as the title already suggests, there's more to all this as well. Adding a twist, in part inspired by his reading, Jakub goes that extra mile -- or that additional dimension, positing a 'fifth dimension'. Indeed, he gets pretty enthused by this concept:
I'm touching the truth. I have formulated the truth about everything, and by doing so I have absorbed it all in my head. If the fifth dimension exists, then by thinking about it alone, I have broken my way in. This very night.
       Heady stuff. And, yes, unsurprisingly The Fifth Dimension is very much a philosophical novel, exploring concepts of reality, experience, and human consciousness. "Is it all a dream ?" Jakub is also led to wonder, and in his relative isolation his mind games might increasingly seem like games his mind is playing on him. But he pushes himself on -- as every now and then he also remembers:
     I mustn't give up. According to the contract, if I did, I would lose everything. I'm here for the money.
       So is the happy outcome a family reunion and a fat pile of cash ? Or is it perfected self-awareness in a higher (physical ? spiritual ?) reality ?
       Vopěnka does a pretty decent job of moving his story along at a decent trot -- not always easy when a character has so very few conventional distractions. But on the whole he doesn't seem to embrace the story's full potential -- teasing out a great deal, but leaving it at that; a few more steps in all the directions (from murder mystery to the various relationships that form to, especially, the mystery-organization, the Free Year Agency) would have been welcome.
       An intriguing philosophical novel that doesn't go quite far enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2015

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The Fifth Dimension: Reviews: Martin Vopěnka: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Martin Martin Vopěnka was born in 1963.

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