Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: In this or any other universe – books dealing with realities other than our own.
So, some time back I’d asked a friend about the likelihood of something happening, and rather than reply with a deserved emphatic “no”, he’d said “not in this, or any other universe.” That turn of phrase has stuck with me as the definitive way to say no. That in a multiverse of infinite possibilities, that one just does not exist.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of a multiverse as a collection of universes, the concept has been around for quite a while, from the Many Worlds Interpretation in quantum mechanics, to alt-history novels where the Nazis won World War Two, to the most recent cinematic offerings from Marvel studios, but they all play on the idea that for any event that happens one way, there’s another universe where that event went differently.
There have been quite a few takes on this over the years, but in this column I’ll be looking specifically at books where the protagonist can hop from one reality to the next, so if you’re interested in seeing different ways of finding out how else things could have turned out, you might be interested in one or more of the following titles.
So if you like
1970’s fantasy novels with court intrigue.
You might like
Nine Princes In Amber, by Roger Zelazny
A man with no memory wakes up to discover that someone has been trying to keep him stuck in a hospital. So… why?
“Good morning. You’re in trouble.”
People must always be curious as to trouble, because after the three seconds it took me to cross the room, his words were:
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” I said, “that you’re about to suffer a lawsuit for holding me incommunicado, and another one for malpractice, for your indiscriminate use of narcotics. I’m already suffering withdrawal symptoms and might do something violent….”
“You’re breaking several regulations,” he said.
“So we’ll let a court decide who’s liable,” I replied. “I want my clothes and my personal effects. I’m checking out.”
“Mr. Corey, you’re being most difficult…”
“I didn’t check me in here,” I said, “but I damn well have a right to check me out. And now’s the time. So let’s get about it.”
“Very well,” he sighed, and his tiny, sandy mustaches sagged as low as they could. He opened a drawer, put his hand inside, and I was wary.
I knocked it down before he had the safety catch off: a .32 automatic, very neat; Colt. I snapped the catch myself when I retrieved it from the desk top; and I pointed it and said: “You will answer my questions. Obviously you consider me dangerous. You may be right.”
Nine Princes In Amber is the first of the Chronicles of Amber: five books about the royal family of Amber, who are facing threats from without and within after a power vacuum was created when their king went missing. Apart from being tougher than even the most fit human, members of the royal family can walk between realities to find whatever they might be looking for, which makes the Amber books one of those rare fantasy novels that explores alternate reality travel.
Since the plot starts with a man with no memory, anything said about it would be a spoiler, but the reader will quickly get a sense of why the royals of Amber might be interested in this guy. I can say that the Chronicles of Amber are a pretty quick read, and have been one of my favorite series since I’d read them when I was 12.
Or if you like:
Max Barry’s The 22 Murders of Madison May.
A bit of romance and dystopia in your science fiction.
Knowing how it could have turned out.
Business plans for alternate reality travel.
You might like
The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson
If you can only travel to alternate realities where you’ve died, what does that say about your long term prospects for survival?
EVEN WORTHLESS THINGS can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand lesson of my life.
I’m at the base of a mountain, looking over a landscape I was never meant to see. On this Earth—number 197—I died at three months old. The file only lists respiratory complications as cause of death, but the address on the certificate is the same one-room shack where I spent most of my life, so I can picture the sheet-metal roof, the concrete floor, and the mattress my mother and I shared on so many different Earths.
Behind me, information is downloading from a stationary port into a mobile one. When it’s done, I’ll take the mobile back to Earth Zero, our primary Earth, the one the others think of as real. The information I gather is divided up into light data—population, temperature fluctuations, general news—and dark data—what is affecting their stocks that might affect ours, or, if it’s a future world, a full listing of where every stock will close on a given day. The existence of the dark data is a big secret, though I don’t know why anyone would care. Insider trading doesn’t even sound like a crime—not a real one, one with blood.
“You’re wanted back. There’s a file on your desk.”
“I already have my pulls for the week.”
“Not a pull. A new file.”
I put my hand against my chest, expecting to feel a divot, some missing chunk of flesh.
If I have a new world, it means that particular Earth’s me isn’t using it anymore. I’m dead again, somewhere else, and I didn’t feel a thing.
Another me is gone. As I walk into the valley, I’m a little more valuable walking down the mountain than I was walking up.
The Space Between Worlds starts with the premise that travelers can only survive entering worlds where they no longer exist, and then extrapolates the consequences of that while providing some interesting plot twists and fresh takes on the concept. For example, most travelers come from backgrounds where their alternate selves never lived until adulthood, and there is a whole industry dedicated to observing how things went in one reality to apply those lessons in another. The protagonist came out of poverty to travel for one of those companies, and realizes that there is a lot more going on after a trip goes wrong. That turns in to a bit of a plot twist, as resolving that takes about a quarter of the book, leaving the back half as uncharted territory for her to deal with the consequences of what she’d found out. If you’re a fan of alternate reality fiction, then this is a must read.
Or if you like
Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds.
Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter.
You might like
The 22 Murders of Madison May, by Max Barry
A reporter investigating a homicide becomes part of the story when she discovers the murderer is moving through alternate realities to kill the same woman again and again.
“He’s running!” she yelped into her phone.
When she reached the platform, she found Hugo standing motionless, staring across the tracks. He glanced back at her.
“I’m on the phone with the police,” she lied. “Stay where you are.”
He ignored her. She followed his gaze across the tracks and saw the man in the long gray shirt looking back at them. He was young, early twenties, longish brown hair. She recognized him: Earlier today, she’d been looking at his Facebook profile picture. It was Clayton Hors.
Hugo took a step toward the edge of the platform, as if he were about to leap down to the tracks. Clay didn’t move. Hugo hesitated. He glanced at his watch, then at Felicity. The air began to stir with the advance of a train. “I need your help.” His voice was low but firm, like he was speaking to a child, or a skittish animal. Not as rough as she’d expected from the woodsman exterior. “I need you to hold something for me.”
She backed up a step. She wasn’t going to do that.
“There’s a cavity beneath the platform. You’ll be safe. Just don’t drop it.”
He held something out to her: a dull egg the color of old metal. And she wasn’t going to take it, of course, but her hands instinctively came up to repel him, and she was momentarily distracted, thinking, What is that, some kind of weapon? and he seized her wrist.
“Hold it,” Hugo said. He pressed the egg into her palm. Then he shoved her off the platform.
While I dislike the fact that any description of the book’s plot will spoil the first few chapters of the book (since things really start going when the reporter gets pulled in to crossing in to alternate realities) that information is available on the book jacket, and the whole “murderer repeating his crimes in alternate realities pitch” sold me on this, so I can’t feel too bad about it.
Having said that, I don’t want to say much more about the plot, as at this point you’re either intrigued by the very well executed concept or not. While I felt some of the pacing could have been tightened up , the digressions in to how things went differently in each world were necessary, so that’s a minor quibble in a story that was well written with some interesting twists.
While The 22 Murders of Madison May is not as intense as Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, there is some overlap in the subject matter, and Barry’s writing style and attention to detail is similar to Crouch’s, so I think it’s safe to say that if you like one, you’ll probably like the other.
What really shined here for me was Barry’s take on how the alternate reality travel worked, addressing such questions as “how do I get home” or “how do I avoid traveling in to a universe where different physics makes life impossible?” It’s that fresh take on an old idea that elevated it beyond a solid story of trying to stop a serial killer, and put it in the Alternate Universe References section of my bookcase.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.