Friday 2 November 2012

Entanglement, by Douglas Thompson

I have previously reviewed two other novels by Douglas Thompson: Ultrameta (October 2009) and Sylvow (February 2011). A few extracts from these reviews give a flavour of this author's work:

It might best be designated "slipstream"; that catch-all title for unreal fiction which doesn't easily fit into anything else… Both are written in the form of discrete chapters, some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications… Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific.

Entanglement, his latest novel, shares these characteristics, but the plot is closer to the mainstream of SF. The time is more than a century in the future, when scientists have developed the principle of quantum entanglement currently being demonstrated at the sub-atomic level (i.e., two particles linked so that any change in one instantly causes a similar change in the other, over any distance) to apply to large and complex physical objects - including people. A device dubbed an Ansible in honour of Ursula Le Guin has been developed. Two paired Ansibles, each of which contains a chamber of quantum-entangled sub-atomic matter, remain permanently linked in such a way that anything introduced into one chamber instantly appears in the other. A large number of sub-light speed probes have been dispatched to nearby star systems, containing such Ansibles paired with similar ones remaining on Earth. When they arrive they send back their initial findings and, if deemed worthwhile, explorers on Earth then enter the equivalent chambers to enable their duplicates to appear on the planet. When humans are "dupliported" in this way, only one can remain conscious so the other sleeps, the two alternating every few hours. In this way, humans can explore other planets and report back in person without the necessity of making a physical journey. The catch is that if anything happens to a dupliported person, it instantly affects the original - and vice versa. If one dies, the other dies.

The novel consists of the experiences of explorers on sixteen different planets with a wide variety of physical environments and life forms. In that respect, there's an echo of the classic 1950 SF novel by A E Van Vogt, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. In between are linking sections concerning the key people who run the operation on Earth; their histories, personal lives and relationships, plus the shadow of the first failed human entanglement experiment which still lies over them.

As can be expected from this author, this is far more than a routine humans-meet-aliens story. The experiences of the explorers are often intensely bizarre, sometimes causing them to lose their objectivity and even their sanity, and bringing into question the whole project. The concluding chapter introduces yet more plot twists which change the reader's understanding of what has been happening, with the final twist returning to the theme of the foreward. Like all of Thompson's writing, strong and sometimes disturbing images are created in the mind. A memorable book with much packed into it, tempting the reader to turn back to the beginning and start reading it over again.


Bill Garthright said...

A memorable book, but did you enjoy it, Tony? It sounds like you're not sure. :)

Anthony G Williams said...

It isn't the kind of book that you can lose yourself in like a good thriller, simply because the characters up at the sharp end kept changing. Despite that, I did enjoy it!

Carl V. Anderson said...

A very curious review. I haven't read a lot of fiction with a surreal edge to it. It isn't the kind of fiction that instantly appeals to me and yet I have read some work, a few of Cordwainer Smith's short stories come to mind, that are bizarre/surreal and are actually quite effective. This one has some appeal because of the mainstream elements that you mention and I love the idea of the duplicates being able to explore other planets. Of course I imagine I would like that idea a lot better in a more mainstream and less bizarre book.

Anthony G Williams said...

I love Cordwainer Smith's writing and I think I have all of his work. Whether you will enjoy Douglas Thompson's writing I can't say, but I like it even though I also generally prefer a more mainstream approach.