“How can he have no doppelgangers, if there are an infinite number of universes?”
“Because, first, maybe there aren’t an infinite number of universes and, second, once you start traveling between universes—me—or interacting with someone who does—you—you can no longer be parallel with any other versions of yourself.”
“Travel between parallel universes pollutes the synchronicity of the universes. No other John Rayburn is experiencing anything of what I’ve experienced once Prime showed up with the device. My life took a radical divergence, because there can’t be any other universe where other versions of me traveled the same sequence of universes that I did. Once you start moving beyond your current universe, you become a meta-person, a meta-event, beyond what normal versions of me experience.”
Parallel universes—a staple of science fiction and comic book story telling. Perhaps not as ubiquitous as time travel stories, but thankfully less prone to repeating and recycling the old temporal-paradox chestnut. The cell-splitting of one universe into an unknown number is a potentially dangerous proposition—attempting to wrangle some modicum of plausibility from any contemporary science fiction narrative is difficult enough when set in one world. But managing to tightrope walk across dozens of worlds, iterating on similar themes, locations, and even characters—without completely getting lost along the way—is a feat in and of itself.
In The Broken Universe, Paul Melko takes the very wise route of using character to sell the science, and not the other way around. John Rayburn, together with friends Grace, Henry, and Casey, whom he is in love with, have a god key in their possession: an iaciorator—a device which allows them to cross back and forth between a so-far undefined number of parallel universes. Using their Pinball Wizards company as a publicly acceptable front, they recruit other Johns, Graces, Henrys, and Caseys from across the different universes to acquire wealth, help others, and stave off annihilation from the psychotic Gesalex and his Alarian associates—“singleton” exiles from another universe in which women are very much subjugated and dictatorship seems the norm. The Alarians look down on “dups”—men and women with doppelgangers spread across the parallel worlds. To be unique, a singular entity with no parallels, is, in the eyes of the Alarians, to be a superior being.
By focusing on John and his relationships to Grace and Henry, his love of Casey, and the painful other-side-of-the-coin relationship he has with John Prime—the John who first introduced him to the iaciorator device—Melko weaves an exciting, sometimes mind-bending tale of corporate deception, social justice, oppression, and in the end, war with an inter-universe Green Lantern-style police force known as the Vig.
The Broken Universe is actually the second book in a series. Having not read the first book, 2009s The Walls of the Universe, I was at an immediate disadvantage. Right off the bat, Melko tosses out specialized terminology and hypothetical concepts (and numbers—lots of numbers for too many universes to name). Instead of ramping up slowly, re-introducing the world and the science behind it in the opening chapters, he assumes readers have read the first book and are already up to speed. This is not a complaint. In fact, I admire the approach. It’s a sales gamble, to have a somewhat difficult to penetrate second book in hopes of persuading readers to step back and seek out the first in the series. In many ways, it pays off. I was able to gather enough of an understanding of the first book’s events to become entrenched in The Broken Universe’s plot and character interactions.
Where it stumbles, however, is that The Broken Universe feels very much like the middle chapter of a trilogy—the first half is spent wrapping up threads and detritus from the first book, while the second half paves the way for the confrontations that I imagine will dominate the third book in the series. This does not negatively impact The Broken Universe too much. The novel is an exciting page-turner that doesn’t wrap itself too tightly around any metaphysical lampposts, nor does it gloss over the inherent paradoxes that would inevitably present themselves if such technology were possible. Yes, I would have loved to know more about Visgrath’s villainous, torturous ways and to better understand the impact his actions in the first book had on our character’s lives, just as I would have preferred a less truncated, MacGuffin-inspired finale. But I’m not terribly frustrated by these details, because the ideas and characters presented are inventive enough to keep me on board, waiting to see what happens next.
I like to imagine Paul Melko’s office is wall-to-wall whiteboards of universe names and numbers—that even he struggles to keep the details separating each location intact. That is, perhaps, the greatest threat his story has: becoming so bogged down in its own details that it risks overwhelming new readers. A threat, absolutely, but this is also what makes Melko’s story so much fun—that he is willing to go so deep into the construction and layering of these universes that they become characterized within the novel, stepping away from simple numbers and nomenclature that define the individual universes early on.
The Broken Universe is a great deal of fun, and I’m excited to see where Melko goes next. However, I do recommend, if you are interested, picking up the first title before diving into this one. As much as I enjoyed the second chapter in Melko’s surprisingly down-to-earth epic, I know there is much that I’m missing.