Thursday, June 15, 2006

How chaos can be fun

Alan Dean Foster's Parallelities is a very funny book, but it's also a creepy and unnerving book, one that aims to shatter our sense of stability in the world around us. While parallel universes are a staple of contemporary science fiction, this novel does an exceptional job of conveying how disturbing the concept is, using it to explore philosophical questions about knowledge, identity, and randomness. But the book also has a sly sense of humor. Foster seeks to mess with our heads, and he has a fun time doing it.

The story centers around Max Parker, a slimy Los Angeles tabloid reporter sent to interview a rich man, Barrington Boles, who claims to have invented a machine that can break through the barrier between parallel worlds, dubbed "paras" in this novel. Max naturally assumes that the man is a typical loonie, but then the machine not only works, but has a side effect that not even Boles anticipated: it "zaps" the reporter (the scientific nature of what happens is never explained), inflicting him with a bizarre condition. At first he doesn't notice anything different, but as soon as he returns home, strange things start to happen, in several absurdly hilarious scenes. I don't want to give away too many of the surprises here, but let's just say Max has become a sort of cosmic magnet, pulling people and things from parallel universes into his world, and eventually drifting on his own into other worlds. He has no control over the process, which seems to intensify as the story continues.

That's the basic setup to what has become one of my prime book obsessions, a truly special novel that I have read cover-to-cover numerous times. I should note that I'm virtually alone in this reaction. The novel is still little-known, even among Foster fans. I have seen only one web reviewer who seems to hint at the book's greatness: "I didn't expect to sympathize with a shallow, arrogant tabloid reporter, but the unfolding of his inner self as he reacts to the wildly variable parallelities around him reveals a complex character study not promised in the opening chapters."

The slow opening chapters are, I believe, the main reason why the book isn't more famous. The entire first chapter, showing Max's regular life before it goes awry, is unnecessary and distracting. I do not exaggerate when I say that you could skip it and have no difficulty following the rest of the story. The chapter lacks the tension needed to engage us, it introduces characters who never appear again in the novel, and it depicts events that are entirely tangential to the later plot. This is the book's single and greatest flaw, and I'm sure that many readers have tossed the book aside before they had a chance to reach the good parts.

In most books and films of this genre, parallel universes are entirely distinct from our world. Foster's own Spellsinger series, for example, depicts a parallel world full of magic and talking animals. Parallelities uses a less common approach, depicting the worlds that Max visits as virtually identical to his own world, to the point that Max has great difficulty telling whether he's in his original world or in a slightly different para. Each of the "para" versions of Los Angeles has the same buildings, the same streets, and even the same people, including another version of Max! But subtle differences abound, and one of the joys of the book is seeing how the paras get progressively weirder, even as they continue to resemble Max's original world, at least superficially.

Every para he visits functions as a story in its own right, and in the process the book catalogs several genres. One of the paras, for example, is directly inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but I will say no more because I don't want to give away one of the book's great shock moments. The running joke is that every time Max thinks that his experience has reached the height of madness, and that it couldn't possibly get any weirder, it then proceeds to do just that by several orders of magnitude. We, the readers, are in a constant guessing game to see how far Foster will take the story into the realm of the absurd.

One of Foster's charms is his wry sense of humor. His prose has a delightfully smart-alecky tone, which permeates even the most mundane of lines, as in the following sentence: "While he was waiting for the deep fryer to perform its task of inserting cholesterol and fat into otherwise healthy fish, Max examined his surroundings" (p. 153). At other times, Foster's playfulness is employed for shock value: "He...sucked in a mouthful of water. Fresh, not salt. Not that it mattered much under the present circumstances. He could not breathe either one" (p. 247).

Foster's vivid prose, which constantly pushes the limits of what's possible to put into words, brings the parallel universes alive. For example, here is one passage describing a futuristic, utopia-like version of Los Angeles:
A much larger hover vehicle appeared, traveling from north to south. As it turned up Pico, it bent in the middle to make the corner, flexible as a snake. The people within were not affected. Overhead, the sky shone a deep, untrammeled blue. There was not a hint, not a suggestion, of smog, much less the gray-white ash of total devastation. (p. 204)
Foster's writing is so intricate and detailed that it further allows the surprises to creep up on us without warning. It also includes much introspection, largely because Max is so isolated by his experience. Max is shown to be dishonest, unethical, and insensitive, but he has enough real-life traits that we can relate to him as a human being. There is a scene where he sits on a diving board and looks into the stars, contemplating the vastness of the universe, and how much vaster it must be now that he knows about parallel universes.

We have the feeling that his experience as an unwilling cosmic traveler is causing him to become more reflective and considerate. When he encounters the previously mentioned utopian para, he is impressed by people's courtesy, especially when contrasted with the behavior of those in his L.A. And even the more negative paras are giving Max a deeper perspective on life. But Parallelities isn't a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day, where circumstances inspire a jerk to become nicer. Max never really gets an opportunity to change. All he wants is to return to his original, normal life, but we're never sure whether his experiences will ever make him want to move beyond his immoral lifestyle.

The novel primarily dwells on the negative effects that the experience is having on Max. Because he keeps meeting different versions of himself, his whole sense of individual identity is coming apart, a situation that makes self-preservation seem less understandable. As he ponders in one of the book's eeriest lines, "What would happen to him if he died here? To his real self? Probably, his paras would live on, including no doubt the one who occupied his life position here.... But he, him, the one Max that was Max to the Max, he would perish, permanently and forever" (p. 186). For most science fiction books and films, parallel universes are just an excuse to bring us to exotic new places. Parallelities stands as a unique example of the genre, by examining this concept more closely than usual, while at the same time never forgetting to be entertaining.


Marian/Bonnie said...

I think you have an extremely interesting and good blog here. This review: I "couldn't put it down" and kept reading to the end. Thank you, and keep up the good work.


parnellpr said...

yay someone blogging on books etc. Frustrated

Marian/Bonnie said...

With your permission, I created a link on my blog to your site.

Thanks and sincerely,

Baal Habos said...

I'm not sure I'll ever get to it but it does sound interesting. You mentioned Groundhog day, which is one of the most profound movies I've ever seen, though I don't think most people perceived it that way.

Baal Habos said...

And most important, good luck with your Blog

Kylopod said...

Actually, Groundhog Day is officially my favorite movie of all time. Here is my review.