Over the last 30 years, revered Academy Award–winning actor, director, activist, gentleman, and author Sidney Poitier has examined his life at different periods. Out of these introspections have come three bestselling memoirs: This Life (Knopf, 1980); The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (HarperCollins, 2000); and Life Beyond Measure: Letters to my Great-Granddaughter (HarperOne, 2008).
This month Spiegel & Grau is publishing a new Sidney Poitier title: Montaro Caine. Given his literary history, readers might expect that any new Poitier book will be another volume of memoir.
Montaro Caine, however, has a subtitle: A Novel. And Montaro Caine is not only a novel; it’s a work of science fiction, with the central mystery focusing on a coinlike object, found inside the hand of a newborn baby 26 years before the story begins.
The name of the novel’s main character is Montaro Caine. Son of a university math professor, Caine is CEO of the Fitzer Chemical Corporation, a multinational mining company. As the book opens, Fitzer is suffering from image issues resulting from several tragic mine collapses, and there are ugly internal politics and takeover rumors at the company. As Caine wrestles with these pressures, a man and woman appear at his office with a mysterious coin, composed of a metal unknown on Earth. Caine immediately recognizes it as the companion to the strange coin found previously in the baby’s hand, which he analyzed as a graduate student in a lab at MIT.
Caine hopes that the discovery of the coin will save his company, but various scientists, collectors, financiers, and thugs are also determined to possess it. The adventure moves from New York to Europe to the Caribbean and beyond, and the book brims with rich details of corporate intrigue, science, medicine, and travel.
“Nobody believes I wrote it. They have no idea how it came about!” Poitier chuckles over the telephone, speaking from his California home. “In the motion picture business, I explored the scripts of movies and people who wrote them. I was trying my hand at writing movie scripts, but that didn’t work out. I wanted to write a novel because I’ve examined my life, and I’m a reader. So I decided to take a crack at it.” As to the genre of the novel, Poitier affirms, “Oh, yes, I consider it to be science fiction.”
He explains that the book took several years to write in between film projects, and that there were several versions of the manuscript. The initial inspiration came from an account he read of a mining accident out West where a large group of trapped miners had died in an underground explosion. “I’ve done four books and Montaro Caine was the most interesting because I had to create the characters. I created Montaro Caine, the doctors, the heavyweight lawyers.... I had to name my people and give them conflicts, because it cried out to be put on paper. I became so fascinated by writing—there’s something that grabs hold of me. Me and the stuff that comes into my head, we are companions.”
In truth, Poitier’s previous books provide plenty of clues that writing a science fiction novel is not really a stretch for him. In This Life, Poitier shows skills as a mesmerizing, detail-oriented storyteller; he describes his mother’s visit to a soothsayer soon after his own premature birth, vividly capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. In a chapter in The Measure of a Man called “Stargazing,” he explores and explains his fascination with the stars, the galaxy, and the cosmos, and describes his friendship with the late visionary scientist Carl Sagan. And in Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter, he notes that though he’d intended to write a book about the mysteries of life, his great-granddaughter’s birth made him even more reflective. The book includes chapters on science, war, and the environment.
“I love reaching for fantastic possibilities,” he admits. “That’s not from being an actor; it’s from my entire life. From when I was five years old on Cat Island [in the Bahamas], I had relationships with bees and wasps and birds and all kinds of tiny creatures. Some of them were my companions.”
Largely because of that innate curiosity, Poitier was fascinated by Carl Sagan, whom the actor greatly admires. “He was kind enough to invite me to his Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.... At the Propulsion Lab they invited tons of really heavyweight scientists—you know, they’re still in the process of trying to decipher all the objects and dust and rocks [brought back from space missions]. Whatever was within that stuff, it was stunning.... We must learn more about the universe so that we’ll know how to look for our origins.”
According to Spiegel & Grau publisher and senior v-p Cindy Spiegel, the manuscript for Montaro Caine came via submission from Poitier’s agent, Mort Janklow. “It was very bold,” she says. “I was thrilled to get it. I decided to publish it because I’m a big fan—and I found it to be a very moving accomplishment and message. It’s wildly original and doesn’t conform to any category of genre that’s familiar to us. The originality was impressive. And his wild imagination! Who ever thought he would take us to all these places?”
In Montaro Caine, the only person who knows the exact meaning of the strange events in the novel, and the wisdom of the mysterious coin, is a reclusive healer living on a remote hilltop on a Caribbean island. Ultimately, the value of the coin has more to do with its hold on the people who come into contact with it than its assumed monetary worth.
Montaro Caine reflects Poitier’s openness to the mysteries of the universe as well as those here on Earth. In some ways, then, it contains the same message that Poitier delivered in his previous books, but in a science fiction wrapper.
“We are seven billion on this planet, and we are sailing toward self-destruction,” Poitier says. He adds, “We have the wherewithal to be much more understanding, yet what we do is we raise our children with no sense of respect for mother Earth, no sense of amazement. Because we don’t go looking for the wonders. We do not accept that we are frail creatures. We do not reach for the better self, we kill each other off at rapid speed. I’m hoping that we find a respect for the planet.”
This, then, was Sidney Poitier’s goal in writing his first novel: “I hope readers come away understanding that the universe is a limitless entity,” he says. “We must find ways to salvage the yet-unborn who are coming our way—our children and great-grandchildren. I would like very much for us to do something by reaching out to avoid self-destruction. If we are going to be useful to the planet, we gotta start now.”