Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)
The title refers to humankind’s mastery of quantum teleportation, the ‘entanglement’ of sub-atomic matter that allows astronauts from 2180AD to instantaneously travel to distant planets. This is the founding principle of the book, which might be classified as ‘metaphysical’ sci-fi, in two senses: firstly, the literal projection of astronauts to explore far-off worlds whilst their ‘other selves’ remain cocooned in stasis on Earth, and secondly in the sense of the philosophical exploration of discovered worlds: interacting with intelligent species that challenge our notions of birth, life, sex, culture, community, death and belief by showing alternatives that areâ€¦well, ‘alien’.
Whilst a novel it reads almost as a series of interlinked short stories, with each chapter giving an insight into a new planet, interspersed with glimpses into the lives of the scientists who operate as mission controllers. The effect is episodic, a deliberate fragmentation only held together by a loose synergy, with each planet providing its unique perspective before the narrative moves on, never to return to. This reflects the fact that after a brief stay, the astronauts leave (though some encounter different fates), and humankind knows a little bit more but the explorations progress, without really processing and understanding what has been uncovered.
But the side effect of this is an emotional fragmentation for the reader: it is difficult to feel connected to any of the characters, some of which undergo emotional fragmentations of their own. But as astronauts pass before us as little more than names, their trial and tribulations have little resonance. Perhaps this too is deliberate: we, like the mission controllers, are observers.
This is reinforced by a dispassionate narrative style and passiveness of voice that distances the reader; even the personal human dramas taking place on Earth seem as distant as the stars. Contemplating space does this: it dissipates the emotions, trivializing that which is heartfelt. This depersonalization is a deft accomplishment on the one hand but a risk on the other, the opposite of the author mantra: ‘engage with your characters’. Here the disengagement creates too much distance for some readers to want to overcome.
It is a book of the mind rather than the heart, one that enquires rather than arouses. In showing us alien forms, Thompson illuminates human assumptions and limitations whilst offering fresh perspectives on our lives.
Eventually however, the chapters tended toward the formulaic: another new planet, another alien race and another weird happening. It was less fascinating once ‘weird’ became usual; the book already asks for a galactic-scale leap of faith in its premise, and the descent towards absurdity in some chapters asks too much. At times it had the feel of ‘just popping down’ to a planet millions of light years away, in the style of pulp-era sci-fi before harder science dulled the glimmer of fantasy in the genre; that said, several of these new worlds are a pleasure to discover.
If you prefer space travel to show close encounters that are cerebral rather than visceral, prepare to be entangled.