PROS: Imaginative post-Scarcity worldbuilding.
CONS: Weak and undeveloped characterization; Plotting and pacing issues.
VERDICT: A disappointing return to novels for the author.
The Sleeper Awakes is a common trope in science fiction. A form of one way time travel, it allows characters from or relatively close to our present to bear witness to futures they otherwise never could. Be it “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth, or Buck Rogers, the man from the present travels into the future by means of something like cryogenic suspension, and there proves key to the success of that future time. As a bonus, the trope allows the reader to have a viewpoint character to identify with as he/she interacts with the future world.
I was extremely excited to read Roberson’s return to novels with Further: Beyond the Threshold, where the author has his own take on the genre.
RJ Stone is the pilot of a slower than light attempt to reach the stars. He and his crew are cryogenically frozen for the trip with the intention that they will be thawed out at the end of the journey, and thus accomplish their mission. Things…do not go as planned. In the tradition of Captain William Buck Rogers, RJ Stone’s ship is found and he is awoken 12,000 years later. Humanity — now a very diverse term that includes Artificial Intelligences, uplifted dogs and chimpanzees, and a wide swath of sentient beings — has definitely moved on and developed while Stone has been sleeping.
It turns out that a man out of time is a very useful person to have around. Unencumbered by the ennui and staleness that threatens the Entelechy, Stone is quickly given a chance to head up a new expedition outside of Entelechy space. And in the process, learn about the world he has fallen into. The strength of the novel is thus quickly made apparent. Roberson’s imagination is fecund as he describes the wide variety of sentient beings, technologies and concepts of his post-Scarcity future. From intelligent chimpanzees to multiple-body humans, wormholes to the lovingly designed faster than light ship, some of the best parts of the novel is Stone’s constant sense of wonder and discovery. A lot of thought has been put into the various aspects of this post-Scarcity future. Stone makes an excellent contrast to the various types of beings he encounters, and his relatively-close-to-early-21st-century point-of-view allows us to quickly soak in things from his perspective. There are some good messages and themes about diversity and the meaning of humanity lurking in this prose.
The writing of the novel is generally competent, if not scintillating or overly thrilling. Like some of the author’s previous novels, the action sequences and set pieces that we have show off a talent for describing action in an exciting and engaging manner. Chapters are short, allowing the book to be read quickly.
On the other hand, the weaknesses I found in the novel are glaring and far outweigh the strengths and virtues of the book. First is underdeveloped characterization. Beyond Stone, characters are at best one- or two-note wonders, with a distinct lack of depth and nuance. I was often hoping to explore relationships that never went anywhere. The antagonism that a major character has for the main character is, after a period, explained, but it’s never resolved or undergoes any character growth. Another character has an extremely puzzling arc that confuses me as to why the character was outlined in her particular manner. The dialogue is leaden, if not actively infuriating. The plotting and the pacing of the novel are extremely broken, in my opinion. Time and pacing between events, and some minor events are described in a herky-jerky pace that continually jarred me as a reader. The “wait, wait, hurry and move on” style sends the novel off in new directions at unpredictable intervals. Further, the novel doesn’t really show a development of any tension or a plot until the latter half. The book frankly meanders like a mayfly, flipping between locations as the worldbuilding is shown off. Once the main plot of the novel finally gets going, things improve somewhat, but the other weaknesses of the novel remain in full force. Another problem is that I’ve read much better books tackling some of these themes and ideas. Post-Scarcity Humanity and wide-canvas futures have been done and been done well by others. Compared to some of those luminaries, Further: Beyond the Threshold simply doesn’t have anything to commend it by comparison and contrast.
The novel ends as if at the end of an episode, with clear indications that this could be the first of a series of books involving Captain Stone in the future of the Entelechy. However, especially given my high hopes, in the end it was a chore to finish.