Thursday 27 June 2013

Entanglement - Book Review

by Douglas Thompson

Elsewhen Press
Amazon (UK)(USA)

In 2180, travel to neighbouring star systems has been mastered thanks to quantum teleportation using the 'entanglement' of sub-atomic matter; astronauts on earth can be duplicated on a remote world once the dupliport chamber has arrived there. In this way a variety of worlds can be explored, but what humanity discovers is both surprising and disturbing, enlightening and shocking. Each alternative to mankind that the astronauts find, sheds light on human shortcomings and potential while offering fresh perspectives of life on Earth. Meanwhile, at home, the lives of the astronauts and those in charge of the missions will never be the same again.

Best described as philosophical science fiction, Entanglement explores our assumptions about such constants as death, birth, sex and conflict, as the characters in the story explore distant worlds and the intelligent life that lives there. It is simultaneously a novel and a series of short stories: multiple worlds, each explored in a separate chapter, a separate story; every one another step on mankind's journey outwards to the stars and inwards to our own psyche. Yet the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts; the synergy of the episodes results in an overarching story arc that ultimately tells us more about ourselves than about the rest of the universe. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Douglas Thompson has written stories for past issues of a magazine that I've been editor for, including 'Dissemblance', which appears in this collection. So naturally, when he asked if I'd like to review this book, I was intrigued! Quick disclaimer: I had nothing to do with the editing or publishing of Entanglement, and was not required to write a positive review.

Entanglement is a collection of short stories that are all part of one larger story, centred around the invention of Dupliportation technology, which has finally allowed humans to walk on other planets. This means that the book is an interesting blend of short story and novel, as the stories, though many of them could stand alone, really must be read in order and are all part of the larger story. I’ve only read one other thing that’s sort of similar, Asimov’s Foundation series, but those stories were separated by long periods of time and so this book has quite a different feel. It’s very interesting, and the stories are all fairly short and quick reads. I raced through, and really enjoyed it.

Dupliportation technology is influenced by the ansible from Ursula Le Guin’s fiction (I love Le Guin’s stories, and it was nice to see her actually mentioned by the characters in this book), and, as suggested by the book’s title, by real science: quantum entanglement. A very simplified explanation: the technology is sent through space to another world, where doubles of the human explorers are created. The consciousness of the explorers is then transferred to these doubles while the original bodies sleep on Earth. This is a fascinating method of visiting other planets, which I haven’t seen done in science fiction before. Because the explorers sleep and then enter another world, it’s strongly linked to dreaming, and the theme of dreams runs throughout the whole collection. In fact, the stories themselves often have something of a dream-like quality, which really suits the book.

I found most of the stories fun and interesting, with a good mix of tense, thoughtful, dreamy, funny and absurd. A book like this couldn’t have worked if the author had taken things too seriously, but thankfully Douglas Thompson gives us changes of tone, style and pacing when needed. The technology aspects are written well and not bogged down with too much explanation, and the science and more fantastical elements mix very naturally. The characters on Earth tend to be more interesting than the actual explorers, who are really just there to observe and report. Some of the stories worked less well for me than others, with one or two that were a bit forgettable, but most have really stayed with me. I also found a lot of the linking stories to be very compelling, particularly anything involving Guy Lecoux.

Many of the stories have quite a classic sci-fi feel, something like Ray Bradbury stories, which felt a little odd at first, a kind of mix of nostalgic and new. I thought this worked in some places and not in others. There is a very exploratory feel to the collection, which science fiction doesn’t tend to do so much these days, and the humans have quite an astonishingly gung-ho attitude in some parts. Where these stories differed from classic sci-fi was in their more cynical outlook; humans walking on other worlds would be an incredible and uplifting thing, but also hugely destructive to both humans and aliens. In these stories, the humans find that they are not necessarily as intelligent or morally superior as we often like to believe that we are. Even though rules are put in place to try to prevent too much interference, the human explorers still manage to cause plenty of harm in their blundering about and their assumptions about intelligent life. I really liked this aspect of the book.

What worked less well for me was Earth itself, which felt a bit old-fashioned with an almost 50s feel, though I can’t quite put my finger on why this was. Perhaps the attitudes, perhaps the characters coming almost exclusively from neat, traditional family units, perhaps something else. The alien worlds also seemed a little too similar to old Earth societies sometimes, with in most cases one leader, and often some form of hierarchy. At the very end of the book, we get an answer as to why Earth may have seemed this way, and why the aliens were limited by human experience. This last story provides a twist that might be frustrating in any other novel, but actually works very well for this book and added a new element to the stories, changing everything.

This is a clever book, packed with ideas, and I loved the idea of linking short stories with the same technology. The book asks some fascinating questions about dream and reality, intelligence, and how humans view their world. As ‘philosophical science fiction’, I think it works very well. I particularly enjoyed getting to know recurring characters over the course of the collection, and found the stories to be memorable and absorbing.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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