The good news is that Paul Melko's second novel, The Walls of the Universe, is not a sequel to his first, Singularity's Ring (2008). The bad news is that one almost wishes that it were.
My hardcover copy of Singularity's Ring has a blurb on the rear cover that proudly announces "The debut novel from an exciting new voice in science fiction!" After reading it, I found myself agreeing and eagerly looked forward to Melko's next. And now that I've read it, I've certainly enjoyed some of its elements: the retro-feel of the characters and ideas, the effective pacing and the transparency of the prose. On the whole, however, it comes across as a distinctly less "exciting," less ambitious work. It delivers as entertainment, but without ever trying to be truly mind-expanding.
Young Ohio farm boy John Rayburn, a high school senior, is approached by a boy who looks just like him and claims to be another version of himself from a parallel world. This second universe-hopping John, dubbed John Prime for convenience, seems to have stumbled on the ultimate gold-mine of venture capitalism: make notes about things that are commonplace in one world—the Rubik's Cube, the World Wide Web, pinball machines—and "invent" them in another in which they haven't been discovered. He himself, native of a universe a hundred worlds "over" from John's, was given the world-crossing device by yet another John, and doesn't know much about the technology except that it works. Prime tells John a convincing story, which he's able to back up with as much proof as might seem reasonable for something so wacky, and earns John's trust, going so far as to call him "brother." Soon John has agreed to try out the device himself, but only for a short exchange. The plan is to be back in Universe 7533 by Sunday and not miss a day of school. Things don't exactly work out that way.
After activating the transfer device John finds himself able to move forward to other works, but not back through the "walls of the Universe" to his home. Prime has duped and replaced him, leaving him stranded in an infinity of worlds in which nothing is ever quite right. Up to its final chapters, the rest of the novel focuses on two plot lines: John's efforts to find out more about the device so that he can return home, and Prime's attempts to make John's world into his home. Different versions of the cast are present in both narrative strands: John's love interest Casey, bully and cat-torturer Ted Carson, physics Associate Professor Frank Wilson, John's parents, and a smattering of others. The two plot threads eventually converge, and in the end another, more exotic group of world-travelers is introduced. They've been banished to the universe in which John has started a new life, and will stop at nothing to find a way to leave it and pursue their own nefarious agenda.
Melko quickly establishes his chosen style: short, easy sentences in short, easy paragraphs, quick cutting from scene to scene and an avoidance of any extended exposition or descriptive passages. The characters are relatively nuanced, and Melko does use the textual juxtaposition of different versions of the same character to good ironic effect. His many-worlds scenario provides an elegant comment on the nature of identity, illustrating by contrast how some character traits are intrinsic and others circumstantial. The interplay between John and Casey, in both worlds, is effective, and Casey comes close to overshadowing John's complexity, vividly rendered as she is. Melko's sense of narrative timing works well. His story is suspenseful, and the action doesn't disappoint.
The novels main weaknesses, if we acknowledge that it does not aspire to be visionary literature, are the lack of stylistic subtlety and the less-than-consistent extrapolation. Let me expand on these claims.
The problems with the writing are repetition and choppiness. As an example, when Prime is talking to John in the first chapter about his past, he says:
"Your first kiss was with Amy Walder when you were fourteen. She wanted to show you her underwear too, but you ran home to Mommy. I don't blame you. She's got cooties everywhere I go." (p. 14)
This is a cute way for Prime to get his point across. But the same effect is used again in the next chapter:
"You're not gonna, are you? I know Ted Carson. He's a little shit. In every universe." (p. 23)
This may seem like a very minor thing. I'm not looking to be pedantic, but instead to use it as an example of the novel's tendency to repeat its effects. Melko reiterates information we already know consistently throughout, as though the reader's attention span may not otherwise be up to following the action. It happens within chapters and even within paragraphs, specially when characters struggle to make decisions, as in:
How could he trick himself? John wondered. He couldn't. He couldn't do to another John what Prime had done to him. There was no duplicity in him. John wasn't a liar. He wasn't a smooth talker. He couldn't do what Prime had done to him, that is, talk him into using the device. John would have to do it some other way. And the only way he could think to do it was the hard way. (pp. 90-91)
One might argue that repetition is appropriate in a story concerning itself with an endless multiplicity of characters and worlds, but in the context of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get narrative it feels clunky.
As for the lack of extrapolative rigor: All of the worlds and timelines that Melko shows us are consequent on his premise, and the character's motivations make sense in every situation—so what do I mean? The novel invokes certain intriguing ideas but doesn't explore their significance, using them as flashy currency to buy more plot rather than as worthwhile conceptual elements. An immediate question that isn't addressed, for example, is why, given an infinite array of universes in which every permutation of physical law and possible action is expressed, John doesn't encounter worlds that are more mind-boggling. This seems like wasted potential. For that matter, the circumstances that allow life on Earth being as particular as they are, what is the explanation for John hopping from one version of the Earth that is habitable to the next? There is also the problem of spatial location; given that the distribution of matter would change for each universe, why is it always Earth? It may be argued that there is a tradition in SF, which Melko's novel is honoring, which places worlds of greater similarity somehow "closer" to one's native universe, and that readers will have no difficulty accepting this implied logic. If that's the case, though, then John's leap into Universe 7535, only a few across from his own but vastly different (North America has not even been settled by Europeans and predatory pack animals unlike any we've seen roam wild) seems to reflect dramatic convenience more than consistent variation.
There is an implicit tendency in the novel to think of the multi-verses as a finite set, and this is bothersome. In one of the latter chapters, a stranded traveler reflects that "These barbaric universes are so far behind the main line. The philosophies here aren't like we expect." (p. 283). How can there be a "main line" in an infinite aggregate? A statistical distribution, perhaps, but founded on what principle?
By one of the character's admissions, "... there are Universes that are off-limits to us." (p. 347). Two pages later, though, the same character declares the following:
"George Washington? Executed as a traitor usually [...] Napoleon? Unified Europe five times out of twelve. Christ, a minor prophet for Mithras one in twenty times. [...] South wins the Civil War one percent of the time." (p. 349)
How are these likelihoods and percentages possible, when the character has admitted there are some worlds beyond his access? And how can finite percentages be calculated for an infinite set? Again, a common-sense response may be that the calculations are simply based on mapped universes, but I raise these points as examples of where greater attention to detail might have aided the conceptual suspension of disbelief.
One of Melko's more curious notions is that of "singletons," people who are not endlessly repeated but rather exist only in one of all universes (again, how this could be determined even in principle is not explained, but let's take it face value). This idea helps to crystallize the novel's theme of relative worth; an endless deck of universes highlights the absurdity of attachment to materially "precious" objects or wealth. As Grace, one of John's friends in his new universe, points out,
"There's no value in material goods," Grace said, "if material is infinite. The only good is personal happiness." (p. 297)
Applying this same concept to people (and therefore treating them as things) leads to the villain's claim that not being a "singleton" is sufficient justification for murder, one of their many moral undoings. Interestingly, Singularity's Ring presented a compelling vision of individuality subsuming into a collective form of consciousness as a positive adaptation; those excluded from the gestalt pods were also referred to as "singletons." If we realize that John and his counterpart Prime have to work together to overcome the novel's main crises (even those they themselves have caused), we can establish at least an implicit thematic continuity between both works, which argue that individuals who collaborate as part of a greater unit benefit from the experience while still retaining their unique characteristics.
Melko unabashedly tells a story of Adventure in which guile, as well as faith in the power of science, save the day. In fact, this becomes one of the novel's more charming motifs, alluding to the innocence of SF stories from the Golden Age in which an engineer with soldering tools, given enough patience and determination, could unravel the secrets of an alien civilization. Consider,
"One more mystery of the device fell before the word of science.
"'Science!' he cried, and as he was in the lab, not a single person looked up in surprise." (p. 185)
In the context of Melko's tone and narrative strategy this sentiment plays as endearing rather than naïve or sarcastic; it seems borne out of admiration rather than cynicism. There are also several references to science-fiction stories, highlighting that this story is a knowing tribute to prior works. It's also an irredeemably optimistic tale, but considering the scarcity of such among modern-day SF novels, that's not entirely unwelcome.
Gary K. Wolfe, reviewing this novel in the January 2009 issue of Locus, writes that it is "as compelling as it is unchallenging, and exactly the sort of thing you can hand to a non-SF reader with confidence." Readers may indeed find that a story can be compelling without being challenging, though for me personally one tends to go with the other. Melko's narrative does keep the pages turning, but the experience is not satisfying on an aesthetic level. I would hesitate to recommend this to an SF novice because of the craft issues I've pointed out. If I were looking to pass on a novel to a non-SF reader that deals with a young person who has an interest in physics and comes across a device that allows jumps (in this case in time), I would recommend Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine (2007). It is better-written and, come to think of it, also has a machine that only works in the forward direction. For an SF-savvy reader, though, looking for old-fashioned, adolescent derring-do (and those qualifications may define a smaller subset of readers than I would have hoped for in the case of Melko's second novel), The Walls of the Universe will provide a worthwhile trip.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a BS in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine and Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix , and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.