Tor, 2009, 383 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1997-5
One of the charges most commonly made against the written Science Fiction genre these days is that much of it doesn’t look like the type of SF on which readers first got hooked on the genre. This is either a good or bad thing, depending on your opinion of old-school SF: If your model of excellence was Asimov’s uncluttered prose, then the new stuff is pretentious and unreadable. If you’re hoping for literary excellence, then the genre has never been healthier than it is right now. Most of all, it’s an acknowledgement that Science Fiction has changed a lot since the pulp magazines, and that it can accommodate plot-driven and literary-minded readers, to say nothing of those who enjoy both.
But from time to time, it’s worth noting that some books feel as if they have escaped from a previous decade. So it is that Paul Melko’s second novel, The Walls of the Universe, could have been published at any point during the past forty years with very few changes. It tackles the well-worn subject of parallel universes in a way that doesn’t rely on any recent innovations, and does so in a style that feels almost transparent once the story gets underway.
Knowledgeable SF magazine readers will remember that the first part of the novel was published in Asimov’s in 2006, going on to be nominated for a number of awards including the Hugo and Nebula. With this novel, Melko delivers an expansion and conclusion to his novella, taking the story further along in the same direction. The premise is simple: A young man named John is accosted by another version of himself (“John Prime”), and receives a device that allows him to travel to parallel universes. Unfortunately, it’s a trick: The device only works one way, and John Prime only gave away the device to get rid of the other John while he takes his place. The novella ended with hero-John promising to investigate the mystery and return to his home universe.
The novel eventually expands the scope of this premise, but first spends a lot of time following the parallel Johns as they learn to settle in their chosen universes. Hero-John chooses to settle in a universe much like his/our own, intending to study enough physics to figure out the inner workings of the parallel-universe device but accidentally ending up inventing pinball. Meanwhile, John Prime unsuccessfully tries to bring Rubik’s Cube to his new world, but ends up attracting the wrong kind of attention in addition to accidentally murdering his high-school nemesis.
The Walls of the Universe spends a lot of time trying to keep this initial situation boiling before finally committing to expanding the canvas and sketching out the fuller implications of travel between parallel universes. When it does, it leaves enough unanswered questions to suggest the possibility of either sequels or spinoffs; fortunately, it feels like a complete story by itself.
But what this plot summary only suggests is the truly old-fashioned feel of the novel, which seems written from the same reservoir of wonder and imagination that characterised old-school SF. Our hero is an engineer (of sorts) who eventually Figures it Out (in a grandly implausible display of reverse-engineering skills), tries to make things better and get along with everyone. There’s a romance, a conflict with unsympathetic stranded world-travelers and an epilogue that corrects the book’s worst wrongs in a typical SF fashion. The Walls of the Universe may have been marketed as an adult book, but it’s just as adequate for young adults (much like Steven Gould’s best novels) or adults who prefer a more straightforward kind of SF.
Even with its mid-book lull and rushed ending, The Walls of the Universe remains too charming to resist. It’s a very different novel from Melko’s debut Singularity Ring (which carried all the hallmarks, good and bad, of contemporary Science Fiction), but it’s likely to be far more accessible even to readers who are generally unfamiliar with SF. It’s a good, traditional read that leaves readers satisfied. If that’s what we mean by old-school SF, then we could use a lot more of it.