The worlds of science-fiction and fantasy are rife with doorways. From Narnia’s literal walk-in closet, to the rifts carved with Philip Pullman’s subtle knife and the beached portals in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower sequence, speculative universes are fantastically, worryingly porous. Again and again, seemingly stable geographies are revealed to be swiss-cheesed with routes through, to, and from the next existence over.
Thus, with magic doors comes the inevitable multiverse; reality beyond reality as far as the imagination can see. It’s hardly a novel premise and, if stripped down to its plot parts, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden, can be seen as borrowing wholesale from the long heritage of parallel worlds in science fiction. It would be easy to consider the blurb and generic cover art and think nothing new here.
And yet, and yet … The Doors of Eden proves to be original, challenging and genuinely awe-inspiring in both its visual grandeur and imaginative ambition.
In true, epic, save-the-universe style, a disparate group of individuals, each with their own agenda, must come together to, well … heal the world. We are first introduced to Lee and Mal, young women with a penchant for cryptozoology and monster-hunting. During their investigation into “The Birdman” of Dartmoor, the pair inadvertently cross into another world. It’s a landscape both alien and familiar, in which the other half of a world-straddling stone circle is evidence of crossover throughout the centuries. This is the first hint of the novel’s historical and dimensional scale, one in which all of human history, and that of numerous other earths, is mapped and connected.
Meanwhile, Julien Sabruer and Alison Matchell are a pair of intelligence agents working to protect an academic, Dr. Kay Amal Khan, against nationalist thugs. Dr. Khan’s ethnicity and identity as a trans woman makes her a prime target for such bigotry, and the book is unafraid to stage this conflict between progressive and regressive values at multiple levels of theme and plot. At the same time, a sinister businessman is slowly revealed to be pulling some very dangerous strings to do with a reality-shifting AI and an invading alien race. These forking narratives take time to coalesce, and for a good while the novel feels overstuffed with incident and plot trajectories. The result is a freewheeling, almost meandering tale in which the central problem, and the stakes, remain elusive for a patience-testing number of pages.
It is no spoiler, however, to say that the plot hinges on the titular doors and their consequence for the health of our entire reality. The loose coalition of heroes must explore other realms to find a solution before all of existence comes tumbling down. Again, on paper this may sound a distinctly pedestrian retread of familiar ground, but the outlandish oddity of Tchaikovsky’s multiverse ups the ante. Add in a race of dimension-hopping Neanderthals, a world of highly-evolved rats in the grip of a Malthusian population crisis, a vast ice-computer capable of hacking technology and minds, plus a culture of spacefaring trilobites, and suddenly Tchaikovsky’s many Earths become a much more thrilling proposition.
The high weirdness is exhilarating. It is revealed early that the realities impinging and collapsing upon each other are each different iterations of Earth. So far, so Michael Moorcock. However, whereas in your typical run-of-the-mill multiverse reality is splintered by decision-making or grand events, here the branches all stem from Earth’s evolutionary timeline. Each point of divergence that occurs sees biological, sociological, and climatological factors prompting the dominance of alternative sentient species and their civilisations. The main narrative is punctuated with “interludes” that relate the histories of these other Earths in compact, cosmic brilliance. In the first half of the novel I found myself rushing through the main chapters in anticipation of these interstitial sections.
None of this is to say that the rest of the novel isn’t engaging. It certainly is. The plot is cinematic, with some truly epic set-pieces. One scene in which an alien space ship and a London skyscraper compete for the same spatial existence within a singular reality is easy to envision as an IMAX spectacular. The same can be said of an otherworldly shoot-out in a subway tunnel featuring some very, very large rodents. Action aside, the story is also politically resonant, laugh-out-loud funny, and surprisingly moving in the most unlikely moments. The off-page death of one minor character is especially upsetting, largely due to a linguistic confusion between the word “valuables” and “family.” It is a lovely moment of brief tragedy in an otherwise unemotional story. Indeed, most of the pathos in the novel is earned by minor, non-human characters. Partly this is due to the author’s struggle to make his human relationships meaningful and partly because Tchaikovsky excels at making the other an attractive contrast to humdrum humanity.
The Doors of Eden is an unambiguous celebration of difference. The collective of interspecies heroes is suitably woke in its approach to saving the world and the many-worlds set-up promotes multiplicity and co-operation. As a character explains, in relation to saving the universe: “There will be other minds, all working. Only one needs to find the answer, but difference is strength. To save everything we need as much difference as possible” (p. 364).
Tchaikovsky is not shy about denouncing those who oppose such a progressive worldview. The central antagonist, Daniel Rove, is a businessman whose paltry desire, in the face of the complete collapse of all existence, is to preserve a piece of England. The political parallels are hardly subtle. In his little-England mentality and hail-fellow-well-met everyman persona, Rove is a blatant avatar for [insert jingoistic populist political figure]. And it is clear that his green and pleasant land will not be open to refugees from the realities that Rove is all too happy to sacrifice. Towards the end the political allegory starts to thicken a little too much, with Rove ranting that “we can’t just hold open the doors and let the monsters walk in and out as they wish […] The plan is to preserve our world—as it should be preserved. To save our institutions, customs and way of life” (p. 580-1).
Rove’s monsters include the various interdimensional visitors but also, one suspects, the human characters whose lifestyles are, to him, equally alien. These include Mal and Lee, who are in a lesbian relationship, and Dr. Khan who is a trans-woman. Tchaikovsky is good at alluding to the institutional prejudice that plagues these characters—particularly in the awkward but well-meaning interactions between Dr. Khan and the very British Julian—but it is refreshing that none of these characters is significantly defined by their sexuality or gender. Dr. Khan’s gender identity is of note to Rove, who of course insists on referring to her as a man, while being of complete irrelevance to the various cultures of alternative Earths who simply value her intellectual brilliance.
Dr. Khan is a world expert on the theory of “Cryptic Informational Transformation Space”—the idea that hyperdimensional space can be used to circumvent digital security. It is her research into the field that has alerted her to the increasing instability of the universe—and the possibility of saving it. It’s heady stuff, and in the hands of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson or Ted Chiang these high-theoretical concepts would become the fulcrum of the novel, worked out in algebraic elegance. Tchaikovsky, however, is either uninterested, unwilling, or unable to develop his theoretical architecture to any degree. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends entirely on your own tastes in science fiction. I wasn’t bothered by the flippancy, but at times I did find it unintentionally amusing.
Phrases like Cryptic Informational Transformation Space are tossed around lightly. Dr. Khan reveals that her research has given her “very cogent and succinct proof that the various key parameters of the universe […] are not only real but are going south (p. 204). Yet we are entirely un-privy to the nature of this evidence. Maths and theoretical physics are consistently wielded as plot tools, without any real detail beyond “we have done the calculations” or references to certain characters having advanced scientific capabilities. Though this isn’t a problem—The Doors of Eden is far more concerned with reaches of imagination than it is with scientific minutiae—it does run the risk of the novel falling uncomfortably between “hard” and “soft” science fiction. At one point a character references Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic and, at times the novel’s scientists could just as easily answer any or all questions with “a wizard did it.”
Tchaikovsky it seems, is as trivially interested in the mechanics that underpin his multiverse as he is in the people who inhabit it. Once more I am drawn back to the brilliance of those interludes. They are the parts of the book that sing. The author studied psychology and zoology at university and the expertise shows. Each brief sketch of an alien Earth strikes a balance between scientific speculation and poetic insight to rival the greatest speculative world-building. In just a few pages Tchaikovsky renders the rise and fall of great civilisations that are at once recognisable yet wholly bizarre.
One early timeline is dominated by Trilobites who have freed themselves from the limitations of size and mortality. After millions of years of uninterrupted progress they have grown vast and taken to space as self-contained, solitary space-ships.
“And if you saw a really big one … just imagine. Through the dust clouds and debris of some far star system, there is an articulated body a hundred kilometres from blunt prow to trailing segmented tail. Its stony carapace is pocked with impact craters and dust abrasion, in places grown into outlandish horns and curving spines longer than skyscrapers […] And within the vaulted chambers of its body, within the hundred-metre-thick shell, there is a mind vaster than you can imagine.” (p. 42)
It appears obvious that these interludes are where the author’s heart is. It’s the “just imagine” at the beginning of that excerpt that gives it away; a childish wonder at the mystery and majesty of monsters. It’s a feeling I shared every time.
There are other examples too. One timeline gives rise to race of hedonistic big cats, who are able to manipulate a bacterium that prompts all other species to act with complete subservience. Another bears witness to the “orthocones,” a race of gigantic squid who spend their lives in deep conversations that span hundreds of leagues of ocean. Neither of these creatures play any larger part in the story, whereas others do. But regardless of their impact on the plot, these interstitial sections had the greatest impact on me. They are also where Tchaikovsky’s prose takes flight. Of the giant squids’ end, he writes: “They have gone beyond us to a realm of contemplation that we, the ape-children with our blooded stone axes, are not fit for” (p.75).
This juxtaposition of grand alien culture and brute humanity occurs throughout. We are depicted as a small-minded species, provincial on an interdimensional scale. It’s a comparison that manifests in the writing style as well. At one point a character on the move laments that “there weren’t any interdimensional portals this time, so they took a minicab, making Alison feel she’d been consigned to some kind of death by bathos” (p. 250). Later, a human character, looks out over an alien landscape and describes how “the world was like a patchwork quilt made from the corduroy offcuts of a geography teacher’s wardrobe” (p. 483).
As witty as these passages are, they also illustrate the paradoxical success and weakness of The Doors of Eden: that all the standard fundamentals of story, all human action and perspective, no matter how well executed, are inevitably dwarfed by the grandeur of the world(s) in which they occur.