In 1959, the American physicist Hugh Everett III visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Two years earlier, Everett had presented the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics in his Ph.D. thesis, postulating that the observation of the event caused the universe to split into two. Bohr was one of the giants of quantum mechanics and Everett wanted to persuade him that wave functions didn’t, in fact, collapse. This is the idea that underpins Nicholas Binge’s debut novel, Professor Everywhere.
Each world that Binge’s protagonists encounter is a variation on our Earth, although the societies and the path of human evolution are different in each one. In one version, for example, everyone has a partner from whom they never physically separate. Yet each world also has what are called “constants.” In particular, the same boy is found in every world. Who is this boy and what is his relationship to the novel’s other characters? This is the apparent mystery that drives both Binge’s book and his primary antagonist, Professor Crannus.
We first hear of Crannus at thirdhand, at an undergraduate party where a boy is attempting to flirt with Binge’s protagonist, Chloe. He tells her about a professor, Crannus, who has a reputation as the ultimate eccentric academic: he locks himself in his office; he doesn’t give lectures; and, according to Chloe’s subsequent research, he hasn’t published any papers or written any books. Yet he’s also reputedly an Einstein of anthropology, someone who has the ear of the political elite. How could such a professor work in a university, one might ask, especially given the higher education authorities’ emphasis on measuring academic performance? In all, he’s a mystery. And yet, Chloe now learns, he’s looking for an intern.
Chloe Chan is an undergraduate at the University of Warwick in the mid-2000s, having left her native Hong Kong to escape the perceived false culture and lack of freedoms after a love affair went wrong. She had been full of ideals involving an academic utopia where students did nothing but learn, professors were brilliant, and everyone lived for the advancement of knowledge for its own sake. When she arrived in the UK, she was hoping to experience the England of Shelley and of Coleridge; the autumn of Keats. Instead, Chloe found drunken freshers and skipped classes, bored lecturers and tired postgraduates, and a grey and disappointing England.
The novel is presented as her memoir. Is Chloe a romantic idealist, or an unreliable narrator, or both? Her memoir is certainly a subjective telling of events. Who, after all, can summon up their teenage self’s emotions accurately, especially thirteen years later? Her memoir is certainly a subjective telling of events, and Binge is heavy-handed in describing Chloe’s romantic dreams of academia. He describes her longing for cliches such as the “woody scent of desks” and of intellectuals debating around a roaring fireplace. A student from Hong Kong surely shouldn’t be so naïve in 2007. Who, on the other hand, can summon up their teenage self’s emotions accurately, especially thirteen years later?
Regardless, after an unsatisfactory encounter with one of her bored lecturers, Chloe decides to get the bottom of the Crannus mystery by applying for the job as his intern. She heads off through the oddly maze-like campus, looking for the Professor’s office. In a particularly fortuitous piece of plotting, Chloe ends up having the strangest interview ever and Crannus gives her the job. It is at this point that Professor Everywhere transforms into a science fiction novel: Crannus, it turns out, can introduce Chloe to other worlds. Despite being a notoriously closed book, Crannus confides in Chloe, suggesting he needs her to trust him. He describes how, in classic academic terms, he became restricted and frustrated by knowing more and more about less and less. After meeting Richard Feynman in the 1970s, and learning about the concept of Schrödinger’s Cat, Crannus decided to explore the fabric of reality.
Of course, Professor Crannus has a tragedy in his past: you don’t become a dimension-hopping antagonistic recluse without a backstory. However, it isn’t just the Professor who is involved in all this world-hopping; the government also has dirty hands. The novel’s climax, the “Pimlico Incident,” is in this high-stakes context a genuinely shocking moment in the story and is made more so because of some of the characters involved. The memoir is written in such a way that Chloe is describing events as if they are common knowledge to the reader. She assumes we are familiar with the story, if not the detail. Indeed, on the opening page Chloe points the reader to another fictional memoir of the events, and tells us that there are many documentaries available to watch. Chloe’s addition to this story is, in her own words, “an objective clarification of the facts” and to, perhaps, explain “the Pimlico incident.” This gives overall heft to the hints that Binge drops in leading up to his denouement—and he doesn’t skimp on the toll these events have taken on the characters.
Indeed, the memoir which the novel purports to be focuses as much on relationships as conspiracies. Professor Everywhere isn’t simply about many-worlds theory or linguistic history or manipulating the reader, then: after all, that doesn’t make for an entertaining or interesting novel; it has to have interesting or empathetic characters too. Early on in the story, for example, there are some worrying elements about Chloe that seem to make her a bit of a manic pixie dream girl—she seems a little too perfect; naïve yet sexual, for example. However, Binge also gives her some depth; she is saddened and angry by what Hong Kong is becoming, for instance, which has nothing to do with the plot but nevertheless lends it ballast. She also makes some poor choices, standing by Crannus when she really should know better. Endearingly, she gets, in her own words “literary when nervous,” quoting Flaubert; meanwhile, Professor Crannus frequently quotes Shakespeare to underpin his arguments.
Which brings us to a further narrative thread. What appears to be a standard romance is central to the novel. Chloe begins a friendship with fellow student Sarah. This starts as a “will they won’t they?” scenario before falling headlong into “they definitely are.” The relationship between them becomes a little too perfect as they share a growing love, Sarah is always around at just the right time and their relationship is free from any form of conflict. And as Chloe becomes more embroiled in the plot, Sarah nevertheless more and more represents a necessary steadying hand. But perfection rarely lasts. Sarah goes missing. Chloe visits Sarah’s room and while looking for a clue as to where her girlfriend has gone, she comes across a journal in which she learns the truth. Sarah has been keeping an eye on her for the Professor. Binge’s handling of this passage is excellent, describing Chloe’s visceral reaction to her betrayal and how it leads to her discovering the truth about Professor Crannus’s intentions with regard to that “constant” boy.
Crannus is using his journeys to other worlds as a way to understand why this boy exists in each one, although Binge doesn’t dwell on the mechanics of crossing dimensions, only the theories behind it. Instead, it is the potential of these multiple versions of Earth that is intriguing here. For instance, the first world that Chloe visits is described to the reader by how it smells, so different to anything Chloe has encountered before. During another early adventure to a different Earth, Chloe is horrifically tortured by another version of Crannus, showing incidentally that Binge is capable of upping the ante with dispassionate horror when required, as he does again in the novel’s climax. Elsewhere, it turns out that while Crannus prefers to remain aloof in our world, he is something of a diplomat in others: he has built relationships with various leaders. He appears to be courting other worlds in order to further his pursuit of the “constant” boy.
Binge’s writing also shows touches of light humour that balance the tragedy of the story. He suggests, as an example, that there is a universal battle between logic and the bureaucracy of HR departments. There are moments of lovely poetry too: “the University library opened itself out to me like a forest” being particularly resonant. Mostly, however, he writes with expertise and knowledge of academic life, as you would expect. The motivations he gives Crannus are all too real, certainly in an academic sense. It is all about becoming over-specialised and pigeonholed; about becoming known as “difficult” because you want to do your own research over and above teaching. He becomes a man driven by logic and passion and has no ethics as a result. But Crannus isn’t one-dimensional. He has some insecurities and is uncomfortable about sharing them with Chloe. The best thing about him as a character is his intolerance for verbosity and the stating of the obvious, which creates some humour.
Chloe, too, can be prolix: despite this being a memoir, Chloe is writing academically. She peppers her prose with explanatory notes and citations to papers, books, and film. Some of these are fictional references specifically mentioning characters in the story. Others are references to real academic journals. Some notes and clarifications are true (many of the linguistic notes and psychological explanations, for example) while some are fake, but attributed to real people. An example is the allusion that Neil Gaiman wrote a fictional version of the events in Chan’s memoir, with Binge making up a fake short story collection. This is where Binge’s story works well, using the notes to hint at plot developments—an early reference brings up investigations into the Pimlico Incident, before we know it is something that is worthy of investigation, or even what it is. In order to involve the reader, Binge has added various kinds of misdirection and illusion to his story, as well as hinting as to what is to follow.
For example, comparative linguistics and etymology are key to Binge’s story and there are many paragraphs where Binge uses Chloe to explain the etymology of a word, which slows the narrative pace, even though these explanations are intended to introduce the next element of the story. But on other occasions, Crannus pokes at Chloe’s linguistic knowledge as he explains quantum mechanics to her (and therefore to the reader). It seems that Binge is not expecting the reader to know about either topic; consequently these passages are often unsubtle and some may find them patronising.
Still, there are no simple answers in Professor Everywhere; indeed Binge gives this observation to the reader on a plate: “It’s such a pathetically human endeavour—to need answers to things that are so impossibly complicated that there are no answers.” Which is the key to whether or not you will enjoy Professor Everywhere. Multiple universe stories tend to reflect the very human battle we have with choice: What if we made the wrong choice? What if we went left instead of right? What is reality? Binge wants us to ask these perennial questions. He mixes our real reality with his characters’ reality, while constantly alluding to the chaotic nature of quantum mechanics. If you’re open to accepting that there are no answers, you will probably enjoy it. Just don’t expect a happy ending.