The recent discovery that every human decision begets a new quantum timeline might leave those of us in this timeline wondering what’s out there beyond the limits of our backwater universe. As of this writing, the technology that revealed the existence of these timelines has yet to give us any means of sending living humans from one to another. The scientist who tested this met with himself – and an unfortunate fate.
It turns out, however, that with some effort, books can provide worlds where universes slip from one possibility to another. It must be admitted that with higher technology these transfers change the objects, sometimes beyond recognition. So the books that move from these alternate realities may be changed as well; at this point we can (and may) never know. The science seems to indicate that we can most easily glean the wisdom of what’s called the “Primary Timeline,” and we are not on it. As we go to press, the books listed below are available through selected merchants. Given the uncertainties of the transfer process, your copies may not be the same as anyone else’s.
T.C. Boyle is a well-known writer of literary fiction in this timeline. This is why it is clear his “newest” novel is not from around here. The Terranauts (Ecco; $26.99) might seem like a crafty piece of historical fiction based on the true story of the Biosphere “experiments” from the early 1990’s. It’s funny, takes a hard look at both humans, what they (we) are doing to the planet and how they (we) manage to turn potentially life-saving science into a fashion show. That sounds like the T. C. Boyle we know hitting on all cylinders.
Obviously, this is not the whole story. Boyle’s supposedly “earlier” novel, A Friend of the Earth (published in 2001) was set in a vision of 2026 that reads a lot like current events. Environmental collapse (check), corporate takeover (check), what was “sci-fi” to Boyle some 15 years ago is newspaper articles today. His so-called science fiction novel turns out to be literary romp – like much of his work.
On the other hand, The Terranauts reads as if it were a science fiction novel written in 1975. The characters are full of optimism and humanity. They’re going to save the world one shovel-full at a time, because their scientific experiment is designed to turn them into subsistence farmers, as well as a romantic triangle of romantic triangles connecting inside and outside the enclosure. The Terranauts could be a science fiction novel set in the past, or it could be a science fiction novel written in the past, in our alternate timeline. One can only hope that the timeline from whence The Terranauts was retrieved is as well informed about humanity and the environment as is the novel and those whom the author brings to life within it. Hear the author discuss the book by following this link. Or listen below!
There can be no doubt that Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Knopf; $28.95) hails from an alternate timeline, one where it is a work of fiction, unlike here, where it is all too real. The title might lead you to believe that it is an early novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick, and reading it may evoke the queasy paranoid terror of these authors at their best. In fact, our timeline produced The Space Merchants by science fiction writers C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl in 1953(!), a satire about an overpopulated world where business has taken the place of government and politics is in corporate control. (When published it was fiction.) Some experts contend that The Space Merchants might be an example of an early literary inter-timeline transfer.
Meanwhile, back in this timeline, The Attention Merchants certainly reads like a page-turning thriller, in which advertising as we know it is invented in the 1830’s by Benjamin Day, who was trying to find a way to make money selling newspapers. Selling the information printed on paper was not a moneymaker. However, selling the attention of those who bought the papers to read proved to be an ingenious source of endless money, up to this day.
The history of attention proves to be a real attention-grabber itself. The intricate intertwining of technology combined with the most outrageous lying, thieving human behavior cannot help but bring to mind the best satiric science fiction of our timeline. Needless to say, readers who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick will find The Attention Merchants a dystopian delight. It’s informative and filled with engaging characters and stories, including the man who actually created and sold Snake Oil. (Using rattlesnakes, “They never bite me!”) Wu makes an incredibly important point in this book. For all that we try to be aware of our declining resources (air, water money), one we tend not to think about is thinking itself, that is, attention. More and more, our attention is being usurped and used by those who would sell us anything from a new widget to a new nation. You’ll never hear the phrase “paying attention” in the same way after reading this book. You can hear Tim Wu saying “paying attention” by following this link to our interview. Or immerse yourself int he days of future passed below….
With Matt Simon, we find ourselves facing a book we hope comes from an alternate timeline. If Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants terrorizes your soul by invoking paranoid fear, Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems (Penguin; $20) scares you the old-fashioned way. It’s like a sketchbook for the body-horror gross-out scenes from a flock of David Cronenburg flicks. Yes, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar claims to be non-fiction, then substantiates its claim with lots of notes, and even beautiful illustrations of the monsters it so lovingly describes. That said, having been (literally) engrossed by the compulsive experience of reading the book, I can say with complete authority that I intend to substantiate nothing, seeking out not a single horror to be found herein.
Taking as his premise the miracle of evolution, author Matt Simon writes charmingly and disarmingly of the generally unpleasant extremes evolution will go to get the job done. In seven chapters covering critters from the “Ant-Decapitating Fly” to the “Tongue-Eating Isopod,” Simon crafts compelling portraits of evolution’s snappy answers to some really weird questions. In case you wonder what a “Tongue-Eating Isopod” looks like in action, illustrator Vladimir Stankovic is ready to show you in illustrations that are shockingly non-nauseating. Why, that little worm-like thing sitting in the fish-victim’s mouth is almost cute! With Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, you can turn a frown upside-down – and your stomach – in the same sentence. Hear an interview with the author (if you dare) by following this link.
Thanks to the combined efforts and talents of Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and Johann Strauss, The Beautiful Blue Danube is a waltz that flows effortlessly from this world to others beyond our imagination. Apparently, it also flows back from those worlds as well, bringing us The Five Wonders of the Danube (Cadmus Press; $26) by the suspiciously named Zoran Zivkovic, translated beautifully from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic. Zivkovic’s book is a collection of five stories from five bridges crossing the Danube, but immersion in his prose makes it clear that this is not the Danube we are used to, and Zivkovic’s idea of what a story might be is equally unusual.
The stories set at each of Zivkovic’s Danube bridges examine the costs of Art, but the stories themselves are clearly not from any tradition in our timeline. Yes, Zivkovic gives us poignant characters and gorgeous descriptions, and yes, events move from beginning to end. But as we read the stories, the details add up in a parallel manner as opposed to serial. Images echo, events resonate. In “First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg” an enormous painting on a huge canvas appears, attached to the cables on the bridge. The canvas shows a sunset about to unfold, and as news of its appearance spreads, those in charge conspire to own it. The off-world content here is the storytelling itself, because as you read of this wonder, small scenes and sentences even, suggest connections beneath the surface flow of the prose. Zivkovic expertly crafts two stories in one; the events you read about, and the story in the connections between the unconnected. As you read further into the book, the parallel images stack up and craft a narrative like no other.
If you remember how you felt when you first discovered that tattered paperback of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, you are partway there. This is a book where everything that happens could happen, but also where everything that happens would never happen. In our timeline, of course, he also has a collection out titled Impossible Stories. Rest assured it lives up to the title.
Regardless of the timeline, the shift of seasons remains universal. The tradition of observing the winter solstice, that moment when the world stops in darkness and turns slowly to the light, varies greatly across the continuum of the possible. For evidence, look no further than A Midwinter Entertainment (Egaeus Press; £33), edited by Mark Beech, “Representing an Exclusive Collected Edition of Curious Pieces.” Apparently, in the timeline that Beech either hails from or has access to, the year 2016 looks a lot like 1916, revised by the collaborative efforts of Rod Serling and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book is dedicated to “the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.” Our history records Nister as a mid-19th century publisher who invented the automatic pop-up book and Dowson as a Decadent Romantic poet. It’s clear that they are much better known in the history from whence this book is delivered.
Beech manages some pure magic with A Midwinter Entertainment. Pick up this book and you will find yourself in a gentler, kinder world that is shot through with slivers of darkness that will rend your heart even while they bring a fun, silly grin your face. Those who enjoy a good bit of supernatural detection will be pleased to find a brand new Connoisseur tale (“The Celestial Tobacconist”) by Mark Valentine and John Howard. Two of the stories herein (“The Secret” by Anatole Le Braz and “Il va neiger…” by Francis Jammes) are “translated” by George Berguño, presumably from a foreign language as well as from an alternate history. As a reading experience, A Midwinter Entertainment delivers you to a cozy fireplace surrounded by the darkest of shadows. Matching the written content is the sumptuous presentation. Illustrations, endpapers, everything in A Midwinter Entertainment conspires to convince you that the world you think you inhabit is less real than the world you encounter on the pages.
Here’s an experiment you can perform at this very minute. Cross your eyes until you’re really seeing double, then slowly, very slowly, bring them back into unity. The moment just before the images merge is most likely the tiny but significant distance between our world and that of Julius Knipfel, Real Estate Photographer, the hero of Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly ; $22.95). Katchor’s been slipping between Knipfel’s world and ours for more than a quarter of a century, collecting one-page observations whose oddness serves only to highlight just how weird the most mundane of lives can seem.
Reading the stories in Cheap Novelties is a wildly entertaining and unusual experience. Katchor’s art and storytelling seem pretty low-key, but the further you go, the more you realize that the world you’re reading about, while quite similar to ours, simply cannot be the world in which we live. Every detail is slightly out-of-kilter, and Katchor’s stories do not come to conclusion as much as they seem to layer up, one over the other. He draws the ugly with beauty, but one begins to suspect that his mind, so to speak, is equipped with a set of corrective lenses that is sharp but slightly off-the-mark. You realize the power of his work when you’ve read enough of the book to begin thinking that Knipfel’s world has a leg up on ours. Here’s a link to my interview with Ben Katchor. [Or enjoy the double vision below!]
One of the premiere independent publishers of our world is Tartarus Press, run by the Raymond B. Russell and Rosalie Parker. Apparently, in another timeline, they’re both writers, and another independent (from our timestream), PS Publishing, brings us their writing. Damage (PS Publishing; £20) by Parker, is a collection of stories that can best be described as “strange,” though that does not quite capture the whole of it. Yes, stories like “Selkie: A Scottish Idyll” and “Beth–Harvest Home” incorporate elements of the fantastic, and have an eerie beauty. But the Parker, who is not from around here, (which is to say, our timeline) permeates her work with a delicate but tough sense of the feminine. Love and beauty share the stage with distilled terror. Damage is, in the words of Peter Sellers, “life’s rich pageant,” strolling across a bed of nails.
While all of the other authors mentioned in this piece are either coy about or in denial of their alternate origins, Ray Russell makes it quite clear in The Stones are Singing that the novella you hold in your hands is not a product of the world in which you are reading it. John Dowson, a British ex-pat lives in Venice, and cherishes his view. He’s quick to notice a jacket draped across a balcony. It seems a bit out of place. He turns around, takes a tumble and hits his head. When he picks himself up off the floor – how long was he out – he’s got a bad case of tinnitus. In the days that follow, his world seems to slowly slip off its tracks. His life as he remembers it no longer quite matches the actual past, if such a thing even exists.
It’s obvious that nobody of this world could write with such a powerful sense of subtle displacement. Russell’s book is compulsively readable, a page-turner about the most minor events of a mostly ordinary life. It’s masterfully written and plotted, yet it is also sweet and generous. It’s close enough to pass as a local, but by the time you finish you will instinctively know that it’s not from around here. The Stones are Singing finds music in the smallest differences of everyday life. It’s there – just listen. (Or alternately, listen to my interview with the Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker.) [Or drop into the alternate timeline below….]
Even as you read these words, there’s another version of you, who did not read them. Like it or not, your decision to read sent you into another reality. You are actually 100% responsible for this world. Will that knowledge affect your next decision? Your journey has already begun.