Picoverse, Robert A. Metzger

Ace, 2002, 389 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01030-X

It doesn’t take a lot to make me interested in a book. Simple words like “a hard-SF novel by a working scientist”, for instance, are more than enough to make me drool over furniture and rush toward the bookstore check-out counter. While most would sneer at the thought of literature where scientific content would take precedence over such niceties as plot and characters, I know where my sympathies lie.

So Robert A. Metzger’s novel Picoverse would seem to be a logical choice for the generous hard-SF reader that I am. Blurbs with such choice expressions as “Fresh Thrills” (Benford), “Cosmic Concepts” (Sawyer), “mind-boggling work of hard SF” (Wilson) and “knows his science” (Sheffield) are enticing enough. The universe-spanning work suggested by the plot summary simply closed the deal. Unfortunately, as it so often happens, the reality of the book didn’t seem quite so fulfilling as the blurbs suggested.

Picoverse is about a bunch of things, but it’s mostly about how a few scientists manage to create alternate universes that somehow happen to be quite close to ours. Close enough not only to allow inter-universal travel, but also to allow for interesting alternate realities. An heroic trio is quickly formed between a woman scientist, her very strange son and a man who proves to be far more than a government contract supervior. Arrayed against them are nothing less than an alien schemestress and her faithful immortal servant.

For the first hundred pages or so, Picoverse charges full-steam ahead with a steady stream of revelations, zings of plotting twists and intriguing character setup. At some point, it’s almost impossible not to wonder it Metzger will be able to keep it up at this pace; some of the big secrets seem to be revealed far too soon for the novel’s own good.

At the same time, quite a few elements fail to gel together. The ultra-special son, for instance, seems to spring forth without explanation, routinely defying physics as we understand them without much concern from his mother—who should know better! At least the development of Jack Preston as someone far more powerful than even he realizes is handled gradually, though his coincidental (?) involvement in the plot is never resolved to my own satisfaction.

Those two early flaws contain the seeds of the novel’s ultimately disappointing impact. The twists continue (at an inconsistent rate), racing between alternate histories, grandiose cosmology and pure metaphysics, but my interest in seeing how the story would end waned as it departed further and further from any objective reality. This plot skids away from any kind of control like a screeching car, and the only possible reactions are either to hang tight or go in kind of an apathetic shock as the whole landscape spins outside the windows. Surprises are sprung with a depressing lack of effect; this is a novel where the whole point seems to be all about deus ex machina. By the time half the characters were transformed in Neanderthals, I couldn’t possibly care less. Worse; by that time I had come to actively hate the evil little kid and his mother’s one-note characterization. (Don’t hurt my son! Oooh, he may be an evil genius with the potential to destroy entire universes, but don’t you dare hurt my son!)

The fun little epilogue (not exactly unpredictable given the novel’s early flirtation with alternate history) managed to salvage some of my initial liking of the novel, but not quite enough. I don’t think even all the plot-lines are resolved.

Picoverse is far from being a disaster. It certainly contains at least a dozen different elements that could be assembled in a dynamite ensemble. (Will Rogers as the President of the United States? Heh-heh.) But for some reason, it just failed to ignite properly. I suppose that Metzger has other novels in him, and much better novels at that. I will even wait for them attentively. But in the meantime, I’m having a hard time liking Picoverse, a promising stab at an ultra-hard-SF novel that ultimately falls flat. Better luck next time; I’ll be there to check it out.

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