It was good to pick up a science fiction novel after a series of mystery/thrillers, a refreshing change of pace. The premise of this is that the multiverse is real and that it is possible to travel to different versions of earth — but only if the “you” of the destination world is dead.
This is a familiar enough premise, treated in a fairly similar way in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth series. And it’s a premise with a familiar drawback, which is the scale problem encountered in Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld: once you have more space than humans would ever need, what do you do with it? In my review of the Baxter/Pratchett series, I wrote:
The Ringworld, as it turned out, was so big that it couldn’t really be explored. To see all of it, you’d need to travel so fast that you wouldn’t really be able to experience it. Travel slowly enough to explore properly, however, and you end up only seeing a tiny part of it before you die of old age. There was so much room that there was almost no room for conflict.
Micaiah Johnson gets around the issue by creating a claustrophobic world of a far-future walled city and its surrounding wasteland. We don’t get much sense of a global civilisation, and nor do we get any sense of what is happening on all the other earths. There are hints that some have destroyed themselves (allowing their mineral wealth to be extracted), but other than that there’s no clear idea of what the traversers, the travelers between worlds, are really up to. Extracting data, yes, but to what purpose? *Waves hands*
Cara is a girl from the wasteland, who has been recruited by a corporation to be a world walker, and she can go to many worlds because, thanks to her precarious lives, she is dead in most of them. If she can last for four more years, she can become a citizen, but four more years might be a tall order, given the risks she takes and the dangers she faces every time she travels.
I like the premise that traveling between worlds causes physical trauma, that it comes with a cost. But in the end, apart from one particular mission, Johnson isn’t really interested in the other earths, and Cara’s daily 9-to-5 job sinks into the background as the politics and personal relationships of the world she lives in come to the fore.
All of which is fine, but I ended up feeling vaguely dissatisfied because there was a lack of detail in the world, and the lack of a sense of place bothered me. There was a sense that there was a past history of conflict, but that things had settled down into this status quo, with the rich city (arcology?) surrounded by a poisoned land. This started to feel uncomfortably like Ayn Rand, and the technical elite in the city didn’t feel like a club you’d want to be in, while the Mad Max style wastes weren’t attractive either. A dystopia then? Except it was more like family drama and office politics.
And then there is the style, which like The Hunger Games is all in the simple present tense, apart from a few flashbacks, which are narrated in the past tense. I don’t mind the use of the simple present to create a sense of excitement and immediacy, but this technique loses its effectiveness quite quickly, and then it becomes 300-odd pages narrated in the present tense for no particular reason. Life in this world seems brutal and nasty, and our protagonist narrator is a survivor, but the parallel worlds trope is underexploited and the background is painted in broad, faint strokes.
Cara’s relationship with her mentor Jean and her watcher Dell are interesting, though the former is also underdeveloped. You do root for the spiky relationship between Cara and Dell, exacerbated by the uncomfortable lapses in Cara’s memory that constantly threaten it.
Science fiction seems to be a bit lacklustre at the moment. There are some good things out there, like The Murderbot series, Arkady Martine’s Empire series and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work, but on the whole the good stuff is overwhelmed by the mediocre. I’ve been struggling through Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction collection since January and really struggling to finish it. This never used to happen in the Gardner Dozois heyday.
Yes, this was my 8th post in 8 days.