Doors to Anywhere
Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley, Pyr, $17.00
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald, Pyr, $16.95
Railsea by China Miéville,
Del Rey, $18.00
Science Fiction has long inspired science. We all know that—the examples are endless, from Jules Verne’s proto-steampunk submarines and flying machines and cannon shots to the Moon to William Gibson’s cyberspace. And of course, science has long inspired science fiction. We all know that too; without it, of course, science fiction couldn’t even exist.
But while there certainly are exceptions, more often that not it is real world technology, the fruits of scientific advancement, or real world scientific discoveries, that have served to inspire science fiction, rather than new theoretical science. And the influence has been primarily on enabling settings, gizmos, and McGuffins, rather than choice of literary form or metaphysical angle of attack.
Lately, however, something more complex, a kind of (probably positive) feedback loop between science fiction and farthest out cosmological physics—what I’ve called quantum cosmology in He Walked Among Us—seems to be forming.
The concept of the “multiverse” is nothing new in science fiction, and, indeed, I’ve even titled a self-published ebook collection of these very columns A Critic at Large in the Mulitiverse. It’s the convenient literary convention that one way or another the universe in which we find ourselves is not the only one that exists or can exist—be it a purely literary device like the “alternate history” or some sort of clade of alternate realities formed by literary fiat or quantum indeterminacy, or the ultimate Phil Dickian metaphysic that in the multiverse all realities are relative and virtual, that a “base reality” does not and cannot exist, or as I put it again in He Walked Among Us “what is, is real.”
This, of course, is, if not quite Science Fiction For Dummies, Science Fiction 101. But now “quantum cosmology,” inspired by it or not, seems to be catching up at least on a theoretical level.
A fairly dominant theory until recently of how our universe was born and will expire and whose death will generate the next iteration in thirty billion years or so is what has sometimes been called the Oscillating Universe or, better, Oscillating Universes theory. Some sort of anomaly in the quantum flux, the random emergence of an ordered attractor in the perfect chaos, generates the Big Bang, the birth of the universe, an Ur-explosion that expands for several tens of billions of years. Until gravity overcomes the initial impetus, and sucks all those galaxies back into an enormous black hole, the Big Crunch, which is somehow the other side of a Big Bang out of which a new iteration, a new universe, is then born.
It’s certainly metaphysically more satisfying to those who consider such things than the alternative, the Heat Death of the Universe. In this theory the initial force of the Big Bang is stronger than gravity, the universe, rather than being sucked back into a Big Crunch, continues to expand until all initial energy is expended, the stars burn out, nothing is left but nothing, and nothing further happens because nothing can.
Which will be the ultimate fate of our universe was an open question whose resolution seemed more likely to have been in favor of the Oscillating Universe. But quite recently it has been discovered, or postulated, that so-called “dark matter” and/or “dark energy,” whatever they may be, are somehow overcoming gravity. Recent measurements say that the expansion of the universe, far from decelerating toward an eventual Big Crunch, seems to be accelerating toward an eventual Heat Death.
But now current best cutting edge theoretical cosmological physics, perhaps psychologically propelled by this recent discovery, is sidling up to the next and bigger question. Namely, if our universe is destined to expire into nothingness rather than collapse into a Big Crunch generating the next Big Bang, then how could it or any other universe emerge into being from the nothingness to which it is doomed to return?
In non-time-bound terms, how can there then be something rather than nothing?
It doesn’t seem possible, and yet we think, therefore we am.
There’s a French intellectual put-down joke of excessive French intellectualism: “It works in practice all right, but will it work in theory?”
The theoretical answer, unproven, and seemingly inherently unproveable or disprovable, is more or less the cosmological quantum physical version of the science fictional concept of the multiverse. Please don’t ask me for the math. The best I can manage is the Quantum Cosmology for Dummies version, which goes something like this:
Picture a bottle of seltzer. Bubbles form, exist for a few moments, pop, burst, or fade away. Picture the quantum flux multiverse as the soda water and each bubble as a universe like or unlike our own. There you have it, if not in a nutshell, at least in a soda bottle. For present purposes, let’s leave the next question—namely, what’s outside the cosmic soda bottle—for another day.
That’s the macrocosmic multiverse. For the writers of science fiction it’s a kind of literary ally, and for the readers thereof more or less of a familiar old friend. But thanks to quantum indeterminism (and don’t even expect the Dummies version of the math of this one from me!), there’s now a theoretical scientific microcosmic version of the multiverse, too.
Most of the readers here are probably familiar with the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment in which the cat in the box exists in an indeterminate state, neither alive nor dead, until the box is opened, and the cat is observed, and the probabilities collapse into one state or the other. And most of the readers here are probably familiar with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot be known at the same time, so that quantum mechanics must deal with probabilities rather than certainties.
Combine these theories together and you get a scientific theory of the multiverse in which another “reality” or “universe” or “brane” or “sheaf” or “plane” is branched off within the “multiverse” by every event taking place within it.
If this gives you a metaphysical headache, if the seeming logical contradictions to explore leave your brain reeling, welcome to the club. But there is literary advantage to be gleaned from this, and it has been.
And it is quite formidable. Namely if you accept the quantum scientific notion as your extrapolative postulate, any reality that can be imagined is not only possible but “has” happened or “will” happen in the multiverse, whatever temporal terms can mean in this context. And so it allows you to write just about anything and still be writing true science fiction, and not what Gregory Benford calls “playing tennis with the net down.”
It opens the doors to anywhere.
And here we have two novels, Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald and Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley, which walk right through them into the multiverse with attempted more or less hard science fictional rigor according to this quantum version of multiverse theory. And another, Railsea, by China Miéville, which ignores it in a quantum multiplexity sense, but adheres to a kind of literary version thereof in another mode. This Miéville has called the “New Weird,” but this time around it at least is not quite fantasy.
Curiously enough two of these novels, Planesrunner and Railsea, are proclaimed “Young Adult” hardcovers, with teenage protagonists and prices below twenty dollars, at a time when “Adult” hardcovers of the same page counts are going for at least twenty-five dollars or more. Both would seem to be the opening volumes of potential series, and forthrightly declared as such in the case of the McDonald.
Cowboy Angels, on the other hand, is about as “Adult” as it gets. It is politically, cynically, and morally sophisticated, with a viewpoint character who is anything but an innocent teenager, and an ending that would seem to have slammed the door to an ongoing series. It’s a trade paperback original selling for about the same price as the Railsea and Planesrunner Young Adult hardcovers, and, in the case of the McDonald, published by the same imprint, Pyr.
Ian McDonald and China Miéville have emerged as two of the leading literary lights of serious adult science fiction in the twenty-first century, in terms of extrapolative vision, world-building detail and sophistication, subtle and deep character creation, colorful and intricate descriptive detail, and prose styles that go far beyond mere serviceable transparency. True, Paul McAuley has yet to rack up an equivalent oeuvre on their productive level, but Cowboy Angels itself is up there on the same literary level as Railsea or Planesrunner, and arguably then some.
Well, I’ve been told that the royalty rate for Young Adult science fiction novels is a lower percentage of the cover price than the industry standard for “Adult” science fiction novels. What is more, or rather less, the advances are mingier, too, which would explain how the publishers can sell them for about a third less a copy and still turn a profit. Not because Adult hardcovers are necessarily overpriced, but rather (what else?) by short-changing the writers of the Young Adult titles.
Lower advances and reduced percentages of lower cover prices for the same amount of work! Is this really an offer that writers can’t refuse?
This might explain why Paul McAuley has thus far not chosen to write such stuff, but hardly why Ian McDonald and China Miéville, both of whom at worst could surely command regular royalty rates and better advances for their Adult novels, have.
But then, short-term economic determinism isn’t necessarily everything. Way back in the dim dark 1950s, library sales dominated the decisions about what hardcover science fiction books were published, and most of these books ended up in the Young Adult section whether they belonged there or not. And many were the young readers introduced to novel-length science fiction by the Robert Heinlein “juveniles” who graduated to Heinlein’s central adult fiction when they grew up.
So maybe McDonald is looking a decade or so forward to grow a “fan base,” or at least has been persuaded by his publisher that this is a good career strategy. Maybe there is also a certain pedagogic idealism involved, though Miéville’s reasons for writing Railsea may be something else again, which we will get to later.
The setting for Planesrunner is present-day or near-past London, or rather Londons. For the McGuffin of this novel, the declared “first part of the Everness series,” is the Heisenberg Gate, a piece of science fictional technology based squarely on the quantum cosmological multiverse theory previously elucidated. As the cover copy puts it: “There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one among billions of parallel Earths.”
As the story begins, the Heisenberg Gates are primarily the doors to the so-called Ten Known Worlds, though they are known only to various secretive cabals. Stepping through one can be something of a crap shoot, unless the connection has been previously established, since the Heisenberg Gates are potentially doorways to anywhere and everywhere in the infinite “planes” of the multiverse.
The teenage hero of the tale is Everett Singh, son of Tejendra Singh, a computer scientist working on the clandestine Heisenberg Gate technology who is kidnapped before Everett’s eyes in the very first pages. The father is taken to a London in a different multiverse plane by forces of the sinister Order led by Charlotte Villiers. The Order is after a device called the Infundibulum, which Everett’s dad has secretly left in his hands.
Everett is a kind of scientific and cyber whiz and also a top-notch soccer goalie and a terrific cook besides. His two-fold quest is to learn the secret of the Infundibulum and use the device, which turns out to be a kind of map-cum-key to all the infinite planes in the multiverse, to rescue his father from the Order in the London of the plane in which he is being held.
If this seems like a perfect format for an open-ended Young Adult science fiction novel series, it sure is. At the end of Planesrunner it is revealed as even more so, when Tejendra Singh disappears through a Heisenberg Gate into an unknown plane of the multiverse, leaving Everett, empowered by the Infundibulum, to quest after his father through plane after plane as the Planesrunner of the multiverse for as long as McDonald chooses to write episodes and the ratings hold.
But while these comments may sound rather cynical, Planesrunner is also a genuine and genuinely sincere Ian McDonald novel with all or at least most of his formidable literary skills and talents deployed, and you don’t have to be a Young Adult to fully enjoy it.
For one thing, McDonald is very, very good at fictional world building, not only on geological, ecological, technological, and cultural levels, but on the pop cultural levels that arise from and color them, and Planesrunner is no watered-down exception. The London of more or less our “plane” is rendered in intimate and even loving detail as seen through the eyes and consciousness of Everett Singh, even though McDonald is no Londoner.
McDonald has a genius for this, and the London of the alternate plane in which Everett finds himself for the majority of the story is quite a fascinating and even enticing creation, a kind of pseudo-Victorian London in feel and street-level life, like steampunk. Except it doesn’t run on steam, it runs on electricity, created by any means possible, windmills, tidal generation, augmented by coal to the extent necessary, for this London exists in an alternate Earth where oil is quite rare.
And the main aircraft and mode of long distance air travel therefore is the electric-powered dirigible, whose technology and flyboy and flygirl culture McDonald explores and renders in detail sure to charm retro-technophilic boys and girls of all ages.
Everett Singh earns a berth on a four-person crew of one of these dirigibles, the Everness, at first as cook, and toward the end via heroic derring-do. At the very end, he and his doughty crewmates, including Sen, his nascent love interest, are off into another multiverse plane via the Infundibulum and into the next novel in the series.
If this sounds calculatingly formulaic, well, in a commercial sense it certainly is. But while Everett Singh in that sense is indeed the perfect teenage Young Adult series hero, he’s a much more sophisticated character than, say, Harry Potter, since Ian McDonald is a much more sophisticated novelist than J.K. Rowling, and is not watering down anything here.
Everett is a fully rounded character, with real personal depths and existential angst and desires, as well as fully adult intellectual abilities. That he is a Brit of East Asian descent is not irrelevant, nor are his skills as a soccer goalie or his father’s divorce from his mother, nor his guilt at leaving his mother and sister behind worrying about where he has disappeared to.
All of which, serial nature aside, makes Planesrunner perfectly enjoyable for a so-called “adult” readership, and therefore publishable as a science fiction novel, period. After all, I myself wrote a novel with a teenage heroine on a vision quest on four successive exotic far-future planets in search of her true name and calling and a lost love, Child of Fortune. And although I’ve met quite a few parents who enthusiastically gave it to their teenagers, it was not published as a “Young Adult” novel, nor ever marketed or reviewed as such.
So just what makes a science fiction novel a “Young Adult” science fiction novel?
Okay, it must have a teenage protagonist, like Planesrunner and Railsea. But so does Child of Fortune. Okay, the story should probably be centrally a colorful picaresque quest of some sort. But so is the story of Child of Fortune.
Maybe it should tiptoe around explicit sexual description. Planesrunner and Railsea do. Child of Fortune doesn’t.
Must it be written in forthrightly transparent prose? Planesrunner is. But Railsea certainly isn’t.
So maybe the real question should be who or what is a “Young Adult Reader,” and is the adult publisher’s concept of who and what that is the same as that of an actual teenager?
When I was no more than twelve or thirteen, I decided I wanted to read Moby Dick—hey, a sailing ship with a crazed captain chasing a great white whale, way cool, right? So my dad checked it out of the Adult section of the library for me and I read it. After which my dad asked me what I thought about it.
“I really liked it,” I told him, “but it’s kind of slow, don’t you think? Some of the descriptive stuff seems too long, too wordy, too ponderous.”
Decades later, after I had become a published writer, out of curiosity, I re-read Moby Dick.
I really liked it, even more so as a adult and a writer myself, able to better see what Melville was about metaphorically, metaphysically, philosophically, in those long static discursive passages. But they still slowed down the reading of the novel more than they should have. Too long, too wordy, too ponderous.
Which, as we shall see, brings us to Railsea. Not because it is too long, too wordy, too ponderous, which it is not, but because it is a “Young Adult” novel with the requisite teenage hero and picaresque plotline that is also a forthright and very slyly sophisticated literary take on Moby Dick.
Having read Moby Dick, my twelve-year-old self would have full appreciated what China Miéville was doing. Nor does my present incarnation feel he was being written down to.
Railsea takes place on some planet, somewhere, somewhen—or rather nowhere and nowhen except on a purely literary “plane” in Miéville’s for the most part purely literary multiverse, what he calls the “New Weird.” This has mostly consisted of fantasies. The new part is that these novels, whether set in contemporary London, or on other planets, or whatever, not only pay no attention to the boundaries of what is known of the laws of mass and energy in our universe, but as often as not make no pretense at confining themselves to any consistent set of physical rules in the author’s fictional setting, either.
Chez Miéville, a novel, after all, is in reality an entirely fictional creation, within which what is, is real. But what is real on any given page can be whatever the author wants it to be for his literary purposes, internal consistency not being required. This is not only fantasy, it is, in a sense, the antithesis of science fiction, literary tennis played not only with the net down, but with the rules of the game changeable at any given moment by the whim of the author.
But Railsea is something different. Weird it certainly is, weird to the max, but a kind of weird hard science fiction. The setting is a world somewhere, somewhen, some plane of the multiverse, maybe even some post-apocalyptic future of this one. There’s really no way of telling, and it doesn’t really matter. The geography of the planet is not only utterly disconnected from that of our Earth but largely mysterious to its own inhabitants, who are familiarly human.
These humans live on islands, archipelagos of islands, in the Railsea of the title, or for the most part fairly close to the shores of the continents. The Railsea is exactly what the name implies, an ocean not of water, but of railway tracks, an endless spaghetti maze of them replete with switches, plied not by ships but trains; merchant trains, pirate trains, scavenger trains, war-trains, and whaling trains.
Well not really whaling trains. The culture, economics, and even hunting techniques of these trains may be those of nineteenth century whaling ships, but what they are chasing are not enormous cetaceans but giant moles.
The seafloor . . . er, I mean the railfloor, is inhabited, infested, with all sorts of animals and insects, outsized or not, more of them than not voraciously dangerous to the point where humans fear to “go off the rails” to set foot on this terra infirma. The top predators are the giant moles, more massive than the railtrains hunting them.
This is the setting of the novel, and while it is improbable in the extreme, it is as much “science fiction” as any steampunk novel, since nothing here violates any of the physical laws of our own piece of the multiverse. It all remains internally consistent, and while it has the same sort of retro charm as steampunk, it isn’t exactly nostalgic.
The teenage hero of this Young Adult novel is Sham Yes ap Soorap, a boy who goes to railsea aboard the moletrain Medes, captained by Ms. Abacat Nephi, obsessively pursuing the Great White Mole Mocker-Jack that bit off her arm.
Does this sound like a take on Moby Dick?
Don’t call Sham Ishmael, but boy, is it!
And what a take it is!
And China Miéville makes no bones about it.
On the surface, up to a point, what we have is forthrightly the surface plot of Moby Dick, a sea-faring whale hunt by an obsessively vengeful Captain Ahab pursuing his Great White Whale, transparently transmogrified into a train-faring mole hunt by an obsessively vengeful Captain Nephi pursuing her Great White Mole.
Miéville is such a masterful writer that in the reading of the novel this is not at all as silly as a summary of it has to sound, though when Sham and Miéville go off the tracks toward the last part of the book, the dénouement turns out to be not only quite silly indeed but a naked set-up for the next novel in a series. However, with China Miéville, and especially in this one, it may be some kind of sly literary put-down joke of just that sort of thing.
Captain Nephi, it turns out, is not the only moletrain Captain obsessively chasing a particular giant mole, nor is she the only one with an arm or leg bitten off. If indeed it was bitten off, because if your “philosophy” hasn’t really taken an appendage, a captain might fake it.
Because moletrain captains of any serious standing must indeed have a philosophy, even as Captain Ahab, even as the author of Moby Dick himself, concretized in the singular Giant Mole, the single Giant Metaphorical Symbol, the pursuit of which is their existential raison d’etre.
This is a Young Adult novel?
Well, Herman Melville wasn’t focusing on a Young Adult readership when he wrote Moby Dick, now was he? But I was a Young Adult when I first read it with somewhat critical enjoyment. Given that the plot was an exciting whale-hunting tale that China Miéville has deliberately followed as the plotline of most of Railsea, I doubt that I was the only one enticed into reading it as a kid, and able to enjoy it, if not as fully as I did decades later.
So maybe the distance between publishers’ marketing concept of a Young Adult reader and what a real Young Adult with a taste for reading fiction at all is capable of reading with full comprehension has narrowed. Which is maybe why so-called “Young Adult novels” like Planesrunner and Railsea can fully engage literarily sophisticated so-called “Adult Readers,” and only the mandated age of the protagonists matching the age of the targeted readership is what makes them Young Adult novels.
Which is to say that in the twenty-first century publishers and the culture at large may have gotten it through their heads that teenagers really are young adults and not older children.
But this is not to say that a novel like Cowboy Angels can really be enjoyed by anyone, adult or young adult, without considerable historical knowledge on their meter and a jaundiced and cynical taste for jaundiced and cynical realpolitik. And even my dad, who had both, probably wouldn’t have gone to the Adult section of the library to get this one for twelve-year-old me unless I had adamantly insisted.
Cowboy Angels is a hard-core novel with a hard-core viewpoint character doing hard-core killing for politically hard-core reasons, and retaining the reader’s sympathy while doing it. And if you think that’s personally impossible, maybe you shouldn’t dare to read this book.
It is also hard-core in relation to the theoretical cosmological physics of the multiverse, or anyway probably as hard-core as you can get and still be able to write a coherent novel. Here what is called a Heisenberg Gate in Planesrunner is called a Turing Gate, because it was developed in 1963 thanks to pioneering work by Alan Turing. But it is exactly the same technology based on exactly the same multiverse physics.
But of course in our “plane,” which McAuley calls a “sheaf,” no such technology has been developed thus far, let alone in 1963. The protagonist and viewpoint character, Adam Stone (he can hardly be called a hero), is a native of the sheaf where it was, not ours—a sheaf pleased to call itself the Real.
Well, actually it is specifically the United States of America of this sheaf that calls it the Real, and which has built many Turing Gates to many sheaves including our own. And it is that U.S. which intervenes in the Americas thereof via clandestine commando operatives like Stone, the Cowboy Angels of the title, or straightforward military force, in order to build a kind of trans-sheaf multiuniversal Pax Americana dominated by itself.
Well, actually this really doesn’t deserve to be called a Pax Americana, since the “Real” United States of America considers itself the elder brother of this trans-sheaf clade of alternate Americas, or in blunter terms, the Hegemon of these client states. And eagerly willing to extend the sway of its version of truth, justice, and the American way over more and more alternate Americas by whatever means necessary and available to it.
Until the Jimmy Carter of the Real is elected President of the United States. Carter is determined to put an end to this armed and clandestine democratic imperialism, and more or less sets out to put a stop to it.
This does not sit well with the Real’s version of the CIA, and less still with its inner elite Cowboy Angels whose mission is to do the dirtiest of its history-altering trans-sheaf dirty work. Still less with a maverick element within it that loathes Carter with a purple passion and is willing to go to drastic means, up to and including fomenting multiuniversal nuclear wars in order to overturn his weak-kneed pacific policies and return the America of the Real and its vassal Americas to the status quo ante.
Stone is a former Cowboy Angel who has had more than his bellyfull of this dirty business and returned to a tranquil sheaf where homo sapiens never evolved and Manhattan is a bucolic paradise. He is dragooned back down into this cesspit of political assassinations, coups, counter-coups, derring-dirty-do, and casual discorporations of even the innocent when tactically necessary when his old buddy Tom Waverly, long since disappeared into his own clandestine retirement, resurfaces as a trans-sheaf serial killer of the multiple incarnations or “doppels” of the same scientist.
What makes Cowboy Angels a masterful novel, and not just an angry political screed, is that even while Stone keeps racking up his body count, McAuley keeps successfully rendering him as a sympathetic character. Not only on a personal psychological level, but even on a moral level, a soldierly moral level, doing what he does for coldly tactical reasons, convinced most of the time that he is committing necessary evils in the service of higher good, and maybe even being right.
Nor does the end of the novel read anything like a set-up for a sequel, multiverse or not, nor a tranquil justly earned reward or transformative pacification of Adam Stone.
And if you think I’m exaggerating the passionately ireful tone of this novel to express my own political opinions, you are dead wrong. Paul McAuley has written this novel in even harsher terms, if anything. Think a clear-eyed brew of John Le Carre, Mickey Spillane, and Julian Assange.
No doubt there are some Young Adults who could read this novel with pre-educated understanding. No doubt there are some Young Adults who should read it before their first vote or while contemplating a military or clandestine service career. But they would hardly add up to its central mass audience.
Paul McAuley has followed the logic of multiversal quantum cosmology with more scientific rigor than Ian McDonald. In Planesrunner, the Heisenberg Gates serve as doors to anything and not much more, and you can’t meet your doppel.
But in Cowboy Angels, doppels can and do meet and the story revolves around them. McAuley accepts what the theory implies: that every little event in every sheaf can branch off another alternative reality, in which every little event can branch off another alternate reality, and so forth, quite literally ad infinitum.
He fudges the seeming impossibility of being able to write any kind of a coherent story in such a situation with the corollary that events that are too small do not prevent what branching sheafs they may create from collapsing back onto the main line they came from.
However, even McAuley, and anyone else thus far who has used quantum cosmology to frame science fiction, has avoided tackling the ultimate implication of the theory that sits there like the eight hundred pound gorilla in the logic thereof.
Cowboy Angels embraces quantum cosmology perhaps further than any other novel yet has. But McAuley confines his novel to alternate Americas. And if the theory is correct, if each significant event branches off another alternate brane, another alternate reality, then this has to be true for each significant event, not just in the United States, not just on the planet Earth, not just in this solar system, not just in this galaxy, but anywhere and everywhere in our soda bubble universe, and indeed in the multiverse in which it has arisen among an infinity of others.
It works in theory, all right.
But can anyone make it work in science fiction?
Copyright © 2013 Norman Spinrad