Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This fascinatingly intense book starts with a highly effective description of a consciousness recovering from a seventy-three year sleep in stasis. This is not suspended animation because before you fully awake you have to re-grow your body. Humanity has acquired the ability to modify DNA, thus becoming capable of altering all biological material to meet every requirement from constructing buildings to fabricating spacecraft. A story of this major scientific achievement would have been just about enough for an entire delightful work in which heavy metal sci-fi could be reversed into biological constructs, but Johansson adds in the appearance of the `multis’, creatures of the multiverse who know no boundaries.
At the start you think that the story is about a team of humans colonising an alien planet oddly called `Shylock’, describing their pioneering experiences of digging irrigation ditches, growing their biologically based homes and producing crops. Only it isn’t, it is really an examination of the multiverse, of individuals capable of downloading their entire consciousness into copies of their own biology as if it were so much data to be dumped on a server somewhere in the cloud, and how humanity made almost immortal by this process, handles the nature of multiple universes.
You see Jack is obsessed about Rachel, a spoiled brat made mad and bad by indulgence and snobbery, who used and abused him in his youth. Tell me about it! In many respects the body of this tale is about this failed relationship that Jack tries to analyse through using the multiverse as a tool with which he can examine both Rachel and himself over time. One has to accept that this relationship is a literary device that allows Johansson to fully explore just how a multiverse would work. He does this very well. It is a good thing this is not romantic fiction as Jack spends ages examining the many Rachel aspects in umpteen universes only to go off into the icy forests that surround his palace in a Bergman-like sulk, when his time could perhaps have been more satisfactorily spent with Mrs Palm and her five ugly daughters.
In many ways this is an exploration of free will. All the other countless worlds in the multiverse interfere in opportunities and outcomes within this reality. You imagine you have made a choice but all that you are doing is fulfilling some pre-existent event. This philosophical conundrum has persisted for well over fifteen hundred years and still challenges. A multiverse is the foundation of all things and all worlds whose boundaries are arbitrary. Johansson describes it as the sum of all particles and all their quantum states raised to the power of themselves countless times. Hence Googolplex! In other words in the multiverse you can easily disappear up your own fundament and our hero, Jack seems determined to fulfil that trick.
However, once DNA’s potential has been unlocked and set to work in a conscious universe then the conditions for an almighty, all-knowing god are established. An eternal collective dream-time beckons, only Jack’s pursuit of his ideal Rachel prevents him from losing his individuality. Perhaps this is the contradiction between action and repose?
The entire story sets out to illustrate a future without any boundaries to anything. In that it succeeds very well, but the very absence of limitations leaves the tale grounded around Rachel and Jack. This creates an interesting contrast between huge philosophical and conceptual propositions at the same time and in almost the same place as the contemplation of individual performance at horizontal pleasures, if I may be so bold. As a book it succeeds but you are not left with a warm feeling at the end, just a desire to read Calvin’s Institutes all over again.
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson