BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John Rayburn meets his double from a parallel universe and becomes stranded on an alternate Earth.
PROS: Sense of wonder around the parallel universes; Melko’s writing is smooth and easily digestible; both story lines are uniquely gripping.
CONS: The story meanders a bit too long around the pinball machine project.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent, well-told story with a classic sf feel.
A common practice (at least in genre literature) is to take a well-received piece of short fiction and use it as the basis for a novel. It makes sense — the theory here being that that readers would enjoy seeing whatever happens next. The question is whether the longer story can hold up to the promise of the shorter work.
Paul Melko’s second novel, The Walls of the Universe follows this formula. It’s based on his excellent 2006 novella of the same name. (You can read a preview here.) The novella was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and rightly so; it was a fast-moving story based on the interesting parallel universe premise. The novella focused on John Rayburn, a farmer’s son, who is visited by his double (dubbed “John Prime”) who came from another universe. John Prime hopes to make lots of money by introducing pop culture products into universes where they don’t exist. John Prime lets his namesake use the device that lets him travel between worlds, but “farmboy John” learns too late that the device is broken and he cannot return to his own universe.
The novel, which contains the novella as Part 1 of the story, shows us what happens to the two Johns in their respective worlds. Farmboy John attempts to fix the device so that he may return home and exact revenge. He is also drawn into creating a pinball machine (heretofore unseen in this universe) and subsequently forming a company with his new friends, Grace and Harold. Meanwhile, John Prime assumes the life left behind by his twin while he tries to get rich by introducing the Rubik’s Cube to this world. It is soon learned that there are other players in the game of multiple universes, too…people who control the technology and people who are stranded by it; the latter group stopping at nothing to gain control of a working device to aid in their escape.
Like the novella, one of the prevalent themes of the book is trying to make the best of your current situation. For farmboy John, that means assimilating into his new world while (1) trying to fix the broken device, and (2) forming relationships (and a company) with fellow students. With John Prime, not a model of high morals to begin with, his situation goes from bad to worse when the narrative delves into “plans-gone-horribly-wrong” thriller territory. Both plot lines are uniquely gripping, though perhaps farmboy John’s story meanders a bit too long around the pinball machine project. Or maybe this is because the majority of the parallel universe hopping is relegated to Part 1, the original novella. Melko’s use of parallel universes is the stuff of wonder and near the middle of the book it was a noticeable absence.
But that’s far from being a story killer. Melko’s writing, which gives the story a feeling of classic sf, is incredibly easy to digest — so the events whip right along. The stories remained consistently interesting and even offered a few unexpected twists. Then it went one step further with the introduction of others who know about parallel dimensions. This is an intriguing addition over the original novella and one that demands further exploring. Until then, The Walls of the Universe does indeed live up to the promise of the shorter work on which it is based – it’s an excellent, well-told story.