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Monday, February 9, 2009

“The Walls of the Universe” by Paul Melko (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

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INTRODUCTION: Several years ago I started reading Paul Melko’s short fiction which impressed me, so I was looking forward with great expectation to his debut novel “Singularity’s Ring” last year. While Robert reviewed it HERE and liked it a lot, I had mixed feelings, thinking that while it was a promising debut, the novel failed to capitalize on the superb novella that it's based on. Basically, I thought “Singularity’s Ring” used the concept of “pod” people as a plot device in a fairly conventional adventure sf while eschewing the implications of the pod both for the individuals comprising it and the society at large.

Nevertheless, I still wanted to read Mr. Melko's next book, “The Walls of the Universe”, which is based on another novella that I have read and enjoyed before. “The Walls of the Universe” is a big leap forward for the author being a much more enjoyable and interesting adventure than his debut—a golden-age sf tale of the Multiverse, filled with derring-do action as well as a very unsentimental coming-of-age storyline...

SETTING: The Multiverse contains many Universes, some similar to ours, some quite different. There are devices that can punch through the “walls of the universe” and take someone upstream or downstream, though at least for now it's unclear what those terms mean except as numbers on the specific device our heroes use. The universe-hopping gadget may be fixed in a university lab of our time, so it does not contain very advanced tech, though there are hints of people possessing such.

Most of the action takes place on two universes similar with our own, around Toledo, Ohio, where John (Original) Rayburn, a high school senior with a love of physics, a crush on the beautiful cheerleader Casey Nicholson, and a problem with all-around jerk Ted Carson, meets himself, or more precisely John Prime Rayburn. Prime makes John an offer to try the universe-hopping device and see the Multiverse in all its glory, but neglects to mention one small detail: the transporter has a problem and can only go upstream to higher numbered universes with Prime coming from 7433, while John exists in 7533...

FORMAT/INFO:The Walls of the Universe” stands at 384 pages divided over forty numbered chapters with a short epilogue. The narration is in the third person present time via the POVs of John and John Prime. The ending nicely wraps up the main threads of the novel, but the larger issues of who built the device, who the advanced people that are hinted throughout the novel are, and by and large the ‘general picture’ are left open, so a hinted sequel has a lot of room to expand this wonderful story. February 3, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Walls of the Universe” via
Tor Books. Cover art provided by Jon Foster.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:The Walls of the Universe" reads like a golden-age sf adventure tale with a plucky young protagonist—though there are two versions of him that star in the book—but it's also a thoroughly modern novel in outlook, sensibilities and tone...

John—“farm-boy”—as the well-traveled Prime mocks him to persuade John to see the Multiverse and incidentally spare Prime the necessity of killing him, is a very believable example of a talented teen with a passion for physics, but also for sports. He’s also not shy when it comes to beating the crap out of the jerk Ted Carson, but is afraid to ask the beautiful cheerleader Casey on a date :)

Prime was once like that as well, a year and 100 universes ago, but now he is a ruthless, determined youngster with an overriding goal: Settle with “his” family in a universe that's almost identical to his lost one, get rich by exploiting ideas across the visited universes that are new to #7533, and win over Casey whose charms he has sampled in several other universe.

For now, Prime stops short of killing “himself” when John accepts the dare, believing that he will be back in 12 hours, since the tall but believable tales of Prime mentioned that the device needs that much time to “recharge”. Of course, when John discovers the painful truth he is devastated.

But plucky youngsters do not give up easily and John starts an odyssey across the Multiverse—upstream for now—to find a way back home and along the way he discovers quite a few things about himself, makes lots of new friends, gets “new” parents, finds a much more sophisticated Casey, and has quite a few adventures. Meanwhile, Prime's plans start encountering hitch after hitch, including a baby girl, a hasty shotgun marriage and much more. But he is still the ruthless universe traveler, and to his surprise he finds a soul-mate in the seemingly shy and unsophisticated Casey of “farm boy's” universe...

The story flows very well in “The Walls of the Universe” and I kept turning page after page to find out what happened next. The dialogue is fun and snappy and the two main characters, John and Prime, are very well drawn, both strikingly similar and quite different at the same time. The recurring characters, most notably Casey but also Ted Carson and John's parents, are also very well constructed in their Multiverse iterations.

This is actually one of the main strengths of the novel. The task of writing the same characters in similar but different universes, while making them different and still believable, could have easily gone astray, yet Mr. Melko’s skillful handling kept suspending my disbelief time and again.

The main weaknesses of the novel are the villains who are kind of cookie cutter and cartoonish—they are menacing, powerful and well-versed in nasty doings, but are easily confounded by plucky youngsters. Then there’s the nature of the universe traveling device which is straight out of a science fiction B-movie and is seemingly not that advanced technologically. Also, the larger issues are ignored for most of the novel, with John's adventure and Prime's attempt to have a normal life more of the focus, rather than an exploration of the mysteries of the Multiverse which are only hinted at here and there. For instance, there are statistics about the likelihood of how certain historical events play out across the Multiverse—George Washington being shot for treason, Napoleon uniting Europe, etc.—but that aspect is only touched upon here and I hope a future novel in this entertaining setting will explore this further.

In the end, I enjoyed “The Walls of the Universe” much more than I expected. Just an absolutely fun golden-age sf adventure with modern sensibilities, I highly recommend “The Walls of the Universe” and greatly look forward to reading more books by Mr. Melko who is finally coming into his own as the great talent his short fiction presaged...



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