William Eisner’s latest novel Athena, set in the 1960’s, is a taut, suspenseful story driven by one man’s unrelenting pursuit to build the world’s most powerful jet fight.
Eisner weaves an international spy thriller into this dynamic narrative, complete with Middle East intrigue, ruthless capitalists, spies, and forbidden love. Athena is much more than a thriller though. Eisner also moves us with the tragedy of modern technological man.
Athena is the goddess of knowledge, sprung full grown from the brow of Zeus. To the ancient Greeks knowledge was an active knowing that gave man the power to control nature, the elements, and animals. In the Greek worldview, knowledge resided in techne, or craft: the use of knowledge and learning to overcome the physical world. The chorus in Antigone sings a hymn to this faculty, unique to mankind: it gives him the power to navigate the seas and plough the earth; it gives him the resources to overcome the terrors of nature, and “with his arts master the beasts … from baffling maladies he has devised escapes.”
In the novel, John Cole is an aerospace electronic design engineer and former WWII fighter pilot. After the exhilaration of a flying career, he’s become mired in predictable corporate life, designing and selling breakthrough avionics in the bureaucratic swamp of a sprawling military-industrial complex. His failing marriage mirrors his dissolution.
Athena, although not a character, inhabits every sentence of the novel. She’s a haunting ideal that enters men’s lives as inspiration, the Greek explanation for that which arrives suddenly, transforming all that has been previously thought. Athena ignites Cole’s scientific mind with a flash of insight into the power of electronics, thereby giving him, and mankind, a god-like power to transform the world. Whether or not Athena’s gift will curse Cole or bless him is the crucial question of Eisner’s novel, and getting to the answer makes for rewarding reading.