Prepare for a wild ride through multiple worlds and fracturing reality in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest riveting novel, The Doors of Eden. The winning characters of this fantastic science fiction universe never know when a sudden drop in temperature signals a break in reality through which will pour creatures of one alternate earth or another. Sometimes they come to help, sometimes to kill. It’s usually best to run, but sometimes that will plunge you into a different world, perhaps bringing you face to face with a dinosaur. Something strange is happening, and no one seems to know why.
And we always have to ask which earth are we talking about. Because in this universe, there are multiple worlds that have branched off from our own evolutionary timeline. Thanks to the interludes taken from the brilliant (fictional) text, Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence, we learn about the whole history of paleontological eras of earth but with a strange twist.
It soon becomes apparent that intelligence and even advanced technology emerged on many of these alternate earths, even among the early mat-like forms of one celled organisms that spread all over the world. There are the trilobites that achieved a huge size, the posticthyans that developed an ice-mind of vast computational capabilities, bird-like creatures a little smaller than humans, brilliant neanderthals and an intelligent race of rat-weasel creatures. I haven’t encountered such a prolific imagining of sentient life forms since Stapledon’s Star Maker.
And the writing is brilliantly precise throughout. Consider this description of posticthyan technology:
“They have no industry you might recognize, and yet the ice caps of the world are their supercomputers, filigreed with metallic and chemical logic gates that they cultivate like gardens, flurrying with electronic thought. Their machines are sliding block puzzles, regulated by melt and flow and freeze. You would never spot their great engines, and yet in a mere millennium they pass from the primitive to a level of engineering sophistication that neither you nor we can imagine.”Doors of Eden, Kindle edition, location 1513
Each of the life forms described in Other Edens achieved a high level of skill but in a branch of earth that exists somewhere alongside our own. Those branches remind me of Gibson’s stubs in his Jackpot universe, but there is no time travel. The branches are concurrent with our own and held apart by some force that seems to be giving way, threatening the end of everything.
Stumbling through one dangerous and amazing twist in reality after another are Lee, a young Anglo-Pakistani woman, and Mal, a thin girl with a history of eating disorders. They are lifelong friends, lovers and devoted hunters of cryptid life-forms.
They get more than they bargain for when tracking down the site of an online video offering a glimpse of a strange figure. Could it be a cryptid? Off they go to a farm on the Bodmin Moors in southwestern England. They find themselves in a sudden cold zone in the midst of ancient monoliths and have to run for it as a pack of bird men appear. Mal doesn’t make it, and is lost for the next four years.
Then we’re introduced to a very odd couple, Julian, an MI5 official who fantasizes about being James Bond but has never used a gun, and Allison, an analyst completely immersed in her work.
The long-suppressed attraction between them is more appealing than I could have expected. They call each other by their nicknames – he’s Spiker, she’s Matchbox – and soon fall in with Lee and a reappearing Mal, along with a trans mathematician named Khan whose brilliant mind may hold the key to saving this universe.
That’s just the beginning of a wild ride of invention featuring one amazing run-in with overlapping worlds after another. To complicate things, there is a mysterious figure named Daniel Rove who seems to have connections to everyone in power and who is driving events toward his own preferred conclusion in which he will wind up running the whole show. His thugs keep threatening to upset the plans of our intrepid protagonists. So there are a half dozen or more agendas for fixing or breaking everything, complicating everyone’s efforts to salvage a recognizable earth.
This is all told with a deftly light touch this is unfailingly exciting, witty and serious all at once. The story moves at a rapid clip to a precarious moment atop an enormous London skyscraper where the most fantastic rescue imaginable takes place.
And then there is a pause in the action with a fair amount of backfilling explanation, perhaps more than is needful, while a collection of geniuses tries to figure out how to work together to save the world(s). That pause, though, turns out to be worth it as the last section of the book unfolds with a complicated set of endings, as befits a story about multiple worlds and branching realities.
This is one of the most inventive and satisfying novels I’ve read this year. The conclusion leaves Lee and Mal resolving to stay together as they embark on further adventures, and I hope that means a sequel will follow before long. I can’t wait for the news.