Alternate Universes Are Big Business

Stories about alternate universes always get stuck on the big things — the Nazis win, the South wins — so it's refreshing to read Paul Melko's universe-hopping novel, which sweats the small stuff.

In Paul Melko's The Walls Of The Universe, out in February from Tor Books, an entrepeneur visits a universe where the Rubik's Cube was never invented, or at least never took off, and tries to make a fortune selling intellectual property from another universe. (He also tries to write The Shining, which Stephen King never wrote in this universe.) The novel becomes at various times a murder/suspense thriller, a story of inter-universe refugees and war crimes, and a coming-of-age saga. But it never really leaves behind its brilliant central concept: If you can plunder ideas from other universes, unlimited wealth will be yours.

The Walls Of The Universe is expanded from a novella that appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction. (You can read a chunk of it here.) You can sort of tell it used to be a novella, because it reaches a sort of stopping point — and then starts to get more and more insane and twisty from there on out. The first half is entertaining as anything, but probably around the time Melko runs out of novella, it starts to get really good because he stretches the premise a lot further.

Alternate Universes Are Big BusinessS

That premise, by the way, is that there's a device that can zap you from one universe to the next, with each universe marked in numerical increments. We visit universes where Alexander Graham Bell invented an electric car and now all cars are battery-powered; a universe where World War I was a minor skirmish and World War II raged for three decades; and a universe where the 1950s never quite ended and the Internet and other technologies never developed. The novel's main character is John Rayburn, and we meet several versions of him.

At the start of the novel, the "main" John Rayburn gets visited by another John Rayburn from an alternate universe, who shows him the universe-hopping device. The new John ("John Prime") convinces John Rayburn to go traveling to another universe, while John Prime takes his place. It's only after John Rayburn leaves his home universe that he realizes the device is defective, and each journey is one-way only. He can visit infinite numbers of other universes, but he can never return to his own home universe.

Eventually, John Rayburn settles down in the 1950s-esque universe, while John Prime goes about ruining Rayburn's life in his home universe. They both fall in love with the same woman, Casey, in two different universes, but their relationships take very different turns. About halfway through, the novel becomes a story of trying to make a life even though you know this isn't really your world. John Rayburn can leave his adopted universe any time he wants, because he still has the travel device, but he chooses to stay. Meanwhile, Prime feels trapped, and has to live with the memory of the way he's mistreated dozens of Caseys in other universes in the past.

Eventually, we discover the two Johns aren't the only travelers between universes, nor are they the only ones who've had the idea of importing ideas through the walls of reality.

The Walls Of The Universe is a really fast, entertaining read, with nice, crisp prose. (At one point, Rayburn hits a guy with a tire iron, and he falls "like a suit off a rack.") The little character touches, and the parallel between the two Johns' stories in the two alternate universes, add a lot to the basic idea. But it's also refreshing to see a book about travel between universes where nobody's trying to change the course of history or build an empire — just make a fast buck. Highly, highly recommended.