High on life 

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To my best understanding of what I've retained from my high school physics class, there's nothing wrong with the science of the flying ship in Azhar Abidi's Passarola Rising. Although it seems to me that the copper vacuum spheres would have to be rather enormous to displace enough air to "float" Bartolomeu Lourenço's wooden sailing ship, the Passarola (the name is Portuguese for a large bird). But no matter. Though the fanciful novel is set in 18th-century Europe and Brazil -- the era of Enlightenment über-geeks who had to contend with the anti-science religious wackos from the Inquisition -- Abidi spares us the scientific soliloquies we might expect from Bartolomeu-as-narrator. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of Bartolomeu's pleasure-loving seminary dropout of a brother, Alexandre.

This is, first and foremost, an adventure story; the latest in what seems to be a renewed popularity for adventure writing, a trend that, by my reckoning, got underway in 2002 with McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. The Lourenço brothers in their flying ship (historical figures, though the adventures are fictional) escape the soldiers of the Inquisition. They flee to Paris where they hang out with Voltaire and King Louis XV. They rescue an imperiled Polish king. They map the globe and fly to the North Pole.

But below -- make that above -- the adventure story, and above the ain't-it-cool science fiction, floating in the spare air miles above the earth, Passarola Rising is also a melancholy reflection on what matters in a life: adventure or acquisitions, challenge or comfort, passion or position? Bartolomeu is a stalwart adventurer, but Alexandre, ever the dabbler, always wants that which he has presently left behind. Reflecting back on his life, he says, "I feel that my hankering for respectability, for settling down like mud, was in fact nothing but cowardice that kept me from living a full life." Such are the ballasts that bind us to the earth.

Passarola Rising by Azhar Abidi. $21.95. Viking. 244 pages.

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