I get why the multiverse theory is popular for science fiction (and some fantasy) authors. When you’ve got multiple universes or realities to let your character run amuck in, anything is possible. You aren’t limited to worldbuilding for just one planet or even just one set of laws of physics. Imagination, ahoy! Cue the interdimensional travelers, the alternate histories where so-and-so actually won the such-and-such war and now the world is…well…altered in some significant way.

Bring on the newspapers with headlines about different presidents in the White House, or actors playing in movies that were never made, or one world having been sent back to the Bronze Age while another has vastly outpaced our technology.

This concept gives authors plenty to play with…which means that whenever an author gives it a go, it turns out vastly different than another author’s interpretation. Let’s take a look at three books (two from the past couple years, one out this December) that have multiple worlds/universes/realities as the centerpiece of their storytelling:

Cowboy Angels – Paul McAuley

THE RUNDOWN: Adam Stone is one of the original Cowboy Angels–covert agents who were the first to explore alternate histories and provide the foothold for American revolutions. While retired, he’s brought back into duty when one of his old partners goes on a killing spree throughout the multiverse.

THE CONTRAST: Cowboy Angels takes a military-and-politics stew approach to science fiction, where the entire purpose of exploring alternate universes is to help spread good ol’ American democracy to less-fortunate versions of our country–often by violent and/or black ops means.

Cowboy Angels is a thriller with science fiction elements. It’s an espionage tale that happens to have wormholes to other worlds as part of the normal scheme of things. Now, this doesn’t mean you could take away the science fiction and be left with a perfectly serviceable story. That’d beg the question of why the author included the techy bits in the first place. The plot hinges on the way the technology is used and some of the hidden aspects that come to light which provide an intriguing mystery. Cowboy Angels is the grittiest of the three, so expect a few broken bottles and cracked knuckles along the way.

The Skin Map (Bright Empires, Book 1) – Stephen R. Lawhead

THE RUNDOWN: While on a day’s outing in London, Kit Livingstone crosses paths with his great-grandfather, who reveals that Kit possesses a rare talent to travel throughout alternate worlds. Kit must help his old relative uncover a secret map that holds the key to navigating the pathways of reality in relative safety, while dodging ruthless enemies who will stop at nothing to gain this power first.

THE CONTRAST: The Skin Map takes more of a fantasy route towards the multiverse, though one might argue that it’s actually science so advanced it appears to be magic. The other two books employ gates, either Turing or Heisenberg, and lend themselves to more of a Stargate MO by which bright holes are torn through the fabric of the world by science. In The Skin Map, interdimensional travel is supplied by ley lines, and only a key few are able to find and manipulate these places of power as they intersect with reality.

The Skin Map holds a lot of promise in its premise, the titular “skin map” being actually made of human skin torn from an ancient traveler who once mapped out the various byways and highways of the universe. The story does give quite a bit of variety as far as the places, times, and cultures you run through by the end, and there’s a good bit of color in all that. It’s let down, though, by sketchy pacing and a main character lacking much in the way of an engaging personality. In fact, it was more the subplot that focuses on the ancient traveler and his loved ones that intrigued me and drew me along.

Planesrunner (Everness, Book 1) – Ian McDonald

THE RUNDOWN: When Everett Singh’s father is kidnapped, Everett suddenly comes into possession of a computer program, the Infundilbulum, that maps out all the known parallel worlds–one of which his father has been abducted to. Everett sets out on a rescue mission, going up against the might of the Ten Known Worlds in order to get his father back while keeping the Infundibulum out of the power-hungry hands of those who would abuse it.

THE CONTRAST: Geared towards a YA audience, Planesrunner still appeals to the adult market, for sure. The protagonist is the youngest of the bunch in these three books, but Everett embodies the sort of wit, nerve, and oddball intelligence that quickly endears him to both younger and older readers.

The characters in Planesrunner (available December 6, 2011) are also more memorable than the others. They’re the sort of people you’d like to sit down for a meal with, to hear all their stories and jokes and marvel at the different lives they’ve experienced. Whereas in Cowboy Angels, you’d maybe want to share a beer with Adam in a seedy bar and pray he isn’t there to claim a contract on your head. Planesrunner doesn’t just have color, it has spice, from fun street slang to Everett’s penchant for cooking.

THE VERDICT

So…which one(s) should you read?

I’d suggest giving all three a try, as far as overall quality and your personal tastes. For military science fiction fans, Cowboy Angels would be more up your dark, foggy alley. For those who like a science-fantasy brew, then The Skin Map could suffice. If you aren’t a fan of younger protagonists, Planesrunner might not suit you, despite the vibrant writing and characters.

If I had to sort the stack, I’d unfortunately put The Skin Map on the bottom thanks to character and pacing inconsistency. I’ve not gotten to the sequel, but perhaps things improve on those fronts there. Cowboy Angels and Planesrunner both provide a large deal of contrast between the various worlds you see; however, because of its ex-military protagonist, Cowboy Angels has the same grainy filter wherever you go, which gives many of the worlds the same “feel.” Whereas in Planesrunner, we definitely have a strong sense of an infinite number of worlds just waiting to be explored.

So Planesrunner tops it for me, with Cowboy Angels a close second. And even if you don’t have time to pick each up, at least take solace knowing that, in some other realities, alternate versions of you have all the time they need to read as many books as they want.

The lucky bastards.

Filed under: Book ReviewBooks

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!