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Book Review #9, by Eric Weeks

August 30, 1998
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"As She Climbed Across the Table" by Jonathan Lethem, Doubleday, 1997.

A rather odd book... but pleasant to read, and it goes by quickly. Philip, an anthropology professor, is in love with Alice, a physics professor, who in turn is in love with a physics experiment. Famous physicist Dr. Soft has created an unusual quantum-mechanical thing, which gets named "Lack." Lack may be a gateway to another universe, we're never quite sure; basically Lack is just a location in the lab on a table, with no real physical presence. All that is known is that some objects placed inside Lack disappear -- but not all. There appears no explanation for why Lack prefers to "eat" certain objects but refuses the others. Alice has decided that Lack has intelligence and the eaten objects are ones that Lack has a preference for; Alice then falls in love with Lack.

The story is told from Philip's point of view, as he tries to win back Alice's attention. It's an unusual love triangle, with one side being a physics experiment nobody understands. Much of the book examines various theories of what Lack is, and there's a lot of speculation about the nature of quantum mechanics. In many ways it reminded me of nonfiction books like The Tao of Physics -- muddled attempts to be philosophical about quantum mechanics which fail to get the physics correct. I think this book does a better job than than the nonfiction books I've seen, despite putting forth some weak philosophical ideas such as the strong anthropic principle (the idea that a universe must contain conscious beings in order for the universe to exist). It's appealing to read a fiction book with such a wide range of philosophical ideas, and Lethem never endorses any one idea about Lack or quantum mechanics. At one point another professor who has a deconstructionist point of view is brought in, and his ideas provide humor while also making Dr. Soft physically ill. That's about the only time Lethem appears to be taking a stand on the philosophical views of the characters.

The one distracting part of the book, to me as a physicist, is that Philip sprinkles lots of physics jargon into his narrative. It reminds me of bad jokes physics students make when they're taking quantum mechanics. For example, "Finals were faintly visible on the event horizon, and students began making pilgrimages to my office to ask about their status, negotiate extra-credit assignments, beg extensions on work already due, or plead for outright mercy. I started pinning notes to my door. I employed the uncertainty principle, offered only fleeting glimpses of my trajectory." I thought it was a little tedious that Philip needs to describe his life in physics jargon, but it's not a major flaw.

Overall, it's a 3 star book. If you're someone who reads nonfiction books about the meaning of quantum mechanics, you'll love this book. Apart from that, it's a decent story and isn't too surreal, for Lethem. (I prefer his first book, Gun, with Occasional Music, and found Amnesia Moon to be a little too far-out for my taste.) Lethem has a more unusual style than most sf authors; if you find most sf books too conventional and main-stream, I urge you to read his books. This one's a good one to start with.

"The Coming of the Quantum Cats" by Frederik Pohl, Bantam Books, 1986.

It may appear I'm continuing the quantum mechanics theme, but the catchy title of this book has little to do with the plot. It's a parallel universes plot: scientists have discovered how to travel, in limited ways, between Earths with different histories. This travel is only in limited ways; in practice, only about a dozen distinct universes are interacting with each other in this book. The main characters are the Dominic DeSota's of several of these worlds. In one, Dominic is a scientist; another Dominic is a senator; in a third, Dominic arranges mortgages for people. All of these Dominics have relationships of varying sorts with Nyla, who also has various jobs in the different universes.

The basic story is that one of the alternative Earths is invading another one. Several of the Dominics are swept up by this, and they all are busy trying to survive and romance the various Nylas (not always the ones from their own world). Some of the fun of the book is the glimpses of the parallel Earths, such as one where Nancy Reagan is the president, or one where Ronald Reagan is a subversive liberal. These amusing bits are all handled with subtlety by Pohl, which is pleasant.

This book gets 2 stars. The plot isn't that tight, and the viewpoint keeps switching between the characters, which I sometimes found distracting. It's sometimes hard to define what the plot is at any particular point, as the events are moving rapidly and the goals of the characters change. Pohl has written lots of better books, and I wouldn't go out of my way to read this one, but still, it's a fun read.

The "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" trilogy by Tad Williams: "The Dragonbone Chair," "Stone of Farewell," and "To Green Angel Tower," Daw Books, 1988, '90, '93.

After reading Tad William's essay on writing sf, I decided to give his books a try; I liked his philosophy on how to write good sf. After reading this trilogy, it's clear that he really does know how to write good sf (fantasy, in this case). It's hard in some ways to write a 3000+ page trilogy without using some stock situations: two sons competing for their father's throne, with the elder son being the less deserving; the love story between the princess and the kitchen boy; and, of course, the kitchen boy who becomes a hero. But Williams writes these situations with originality and surprises, and writes them better than most authors. Consider Simon the kitchen boy: hints are dropped early in the trilogy that Simon is special in some way (besides him just being in interesting situations). But this is handled subtly. Simon doesn't go from being kitchen boy to grandmaster swordsman or arch-wizard, unlike some main characters in other fantasy novels. He does mature through the course of the trilogy, but he earns his maturity in realistic ways; it's not some sort of unfolding inevitability.

The basic plot is that the High King has died, leaving the throne to his elder son Elias. The power behind Elias's throne is Pryrates, an evil magician, who in turn is conspiring with a vastly evil undead being. For most of the trilogy, Pryrates is the visible villain, with the evil undead being taking mysterious actions in the background. Simon finds himself on the side of Prince Josua, Elias's younger brother, fighting against the evil schemes of Pryrates and Elias. Elias seems to have the upper hand; not only is he legally the High King, but he has the evil powers of Pryrates to help him, evil nonhuman allies, and a large collection of corrupt humans who have gained power with Elias becoming High King. Josua's side has to scrounge for help from people who are the refugees from Elias's tyranny.

While this is the plot, the main story is Simon's. In a typical way for such books, Simon ends up on various challenging quests involving him and small groups of others of the main characters. Simon is a good main character, as he's more light-hearted than most of the other grim and earnest good guys around him. Even before he begins growing up, he's never a spoiled brat, unlike some main characters in other fantasy series. I don't want to give away too much about Simon's adventures, but they are all exciting and fun to read.

Above and beyond the adventures and the war, an interesting parallel story is a research story. Everybody is trying to figure out the true nature of the evil undead enemy, and also to unravel two prophesies which might help. Also, much of the current events is tied to a complex past history, both the distant past and also the recent path. Several of the characters are members of the League of the Scroll, a centuries old group of scholars. These characters spend much of their time researching the prophesies and history, and I found that story was also engrossing. Williams skillfully reveals facts slowly enough that we can grasp them all, which is helpful. It's also interesting that some of the most knowledgeable researchers die in the trilogy, leaving behind the less skilled ones -- there is no one powerful person who figures everything out. It's a good mystery that kept me continually trying to put the pieces together.

These books are fast-paced. In some ways, too fast-paced at times. The characters seldom can take any action without being beset by troubles. I thought the most egregious example of this was when one character gets mauled by a crocodile during his travels, for no apparent reason other than to spice up the story at that point. Chapters frequently end with main characters going unconscious for various reasons, leaving us in suspense as to the outcome of their situation until one or two chapters later (Williams is usually following several story threads at once.) The overall result is a story that is hard to put down, although also sometimes tiring. I am glad I have a policy of always reading series of books at one time; each book ends with a cliffhanger, but then again, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Still, this is not necessarily a bad thing, the series is truly a "page-turner".

I have read lots of these sorts of series, and this trilogy is one of the best: 3 1/2 stars. The characterization is extremely well done, and it's probably the most realistic portrayal of someone maturing (Simon in this case). All of the characters are real and distinct, although as I mentioned before quite a lot of them are grim and earnest people. Why not 4 stars? I'm not completely sure. I would have liked to see more of the villains; mostly we see glimpses of Elias's tormented personality and vignettes showing Pryrates' cruelty, but at times it's difficult to see a well-crafted evil plan unfolding. This is most likely because we don't really know the full outline of the plan until near the end. I guess I really enjoy seeing the villains being crafty all throughout a story, rather than just seeing them be villainous and nasty. In fact, the main reason the villains have the upper hand throughout most of the book is just because they're strong, not because they are particularly clever. Also, the environment felt slightly too familiar to me -- certain nonhuman races resemble elves and dwarves; the main religion is essentially Catholicism with slightly different names -- I didn't feel the impact of discovering a far-and-away unique fantasy world. This is only a minor complaint, though. As noted above, Williams handles everything in creative and interesting ways, with much style. All in all, this is one of the best fantasy stories I've read.