Hardcover, 400 pages
I’m grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.
Life is fragile. In a many-worlds universe, where everything that can happen, does happen, there are so many ways to end civilization
Volcanoes can lob billions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, triggering an ice age. Asteroids or rogue moons can set the world on fire. Disease can rage, whether natural or created by humans.
Sometimes, the people just seem to disappear.
Jerry Beche has seen all this, and more. It wasn't enough that he was left alive, the last man in the world. He was then recruited by a shadowy Authority as a “pathfinder”, employed to loot those myriad, desolate alternate Earths for weapons, technology and data. This book is his story, and that of his colleagues, survivors like him, who have proved themselves up to the task. But people like that don’t just do as they’re told, they aren’t good team players.
Gibson is scarily good at conjuring up apocalypses, ways for the world to die, whether natural or the result of human tampering. As Beche explores these, we gradually learn what happened to his own – our own? How would you tell? – world, what he went through, and what he lost. I’m impressed that Gibson uses Beche's history mainly as backstory - there is enough there to make a novel in itself. But he is reaching further than just-another-apocalypse. While the interplay between multiply-iterated global disaster and the rivalries and squabbles of the pathfinders is also striking, there is still much more going on here than there seems at first.
The pathfinders are a ragged group, truly diverse in ways that science fiction and fantasy are often accused of overlooking (again, Gibson is good at delineating their personalities and backgrounds). This brings conflict with the Authority, which is revealed to have pretty bigoted, narrow-minded views. The core of the book, then, is a cross between a spy thriller (who is on which side? What even are the sides? Who can Beche trust? Why do they react so strangely to him?) and a kind of John Wyndhamesque, survivalist nightmare.
Exactly what the Authority is up to, where it came from and how it threatens the future of Jerry and the others - all this does becomes clear, slowly. It is a compelling story, difficult to put down and pretty much action packed throughout. Gibson evokes a deep sense of unease. Not only is Jerry alone, amongst strangers who – while human – literally come from different worlds to him, but the very premise of the story emphasises the fragility of the Earth and of life on it.
That’s backed up by what we’re not told. Mysteries abound. Why are so many Earths empty, with no sign of what happened to the people? Is there something out there even more horrible than artificial diseases, than global winter, than the beebrains? Lots of ends are left loose, and I hope this means Gibson will follow up with more - even though after reading this I'll see all those routine news stories about spreading disease, global warming and possible asteroid strikes in a different light...