The Hundredfold Problem
(BeWrite, $14.44, 341 pages, paperback; August 2003.)
Comedy and science-fiction have long held a tenuous relationship. Rarely
pulled off so that all lovers of the respective genres are satisfied.
Too much science and the comedy drowns in a slew of facts and gadgets.
Too much comedy and the science is all but obliterated. Even when it
seems to work, it really doesn't.
Douglas Adams gave us the Hitchhiker's Guide books, but the
series (as well as his Dirk Gently ones) is really a spoof on
sf in general. Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero is another fun
series (at least for the first two books), but is really a spoof of
sf writing. Many point to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, yet
many more can't even read the darn thing. Where are the good sf stories
that are also funny?
Up to the plate steps John Grant and his offering in this difficult
subgenre, The Hundredfold Problem. The book is actually a reprint
of sorts. It was first published in the mid-1990s, but Grant was afforded
an opportunity many authors never get: to republish a book in a "director's
The book starts off with all the necessary ingredients for a successful
marriage of our dear genres. We have complex and satisfying science
ideas as well as enough craziness to set up numerous jokes. The first
half of the book feels like Monty Python meets Heavy Metal. Apparently
our sun has a companion star that we've never seen because millions
of years ago sentient alien machinery built a Dyson Sphere around it,
then populated it with Neanderthals. A hundred-plus years from today,
we have not only discovered it, but are now dumping our criminals and
other unwanted people onto what's come to be called the Big Dunkin Donut.
Oh, and we've enslaved the evolved descendants of the Neanderthals.
Onto this backdrop fall Petula McTavish, a barely clothed xenotheologist/xenoanthropologist,
and Dave Knuckle, an übercop with a short temper. They are sent to investigate
growing turmoil caused by a mounting religious feud between two evangelical
atheist fundamentalist preachers. You read that one right -- evangelical
atheist fundamentalist preachers. Well, from there things get crazier
when Knuckle's matter transmission is botched and one hundred versions
of him are formed.
It's funny and crazy and keeps you going. And it is still a real sf
story. The characters, for the most part, have some depth that takes
them beyond straight-man/funny-man roles. There are real scenes with
more purpose than creating whacky scenarios and silly jokes. The novel
even goes so far as to present a few frightening scenes, both intense
and grotesque. In one case, a street urchin taken in by McTavish is
horribly violated/infiltrated by the literal tendrils of a holographically
projected preacher's wife. Later, we witness a human flaying. Still
later, during the climactic freeforall of violence, we get a graphic
description of one character's dismemberment.
The big question, of course, is: Does it work? Does Grant give us the
balance of humor, character and ideas that this subgenre sorely needs?
Well ... almost.
For the first half, he's dead on target and had me thinking this might
be the first of its kind. The second half, however, is so chock full
of action that the humour only comes through in little bits and too
infrequently. That's not to say that the second half is bad. In fact,
the story is so much fun I flew through to the end not realizing the
lack of jokes until I hit on the one that made me laugh out loud ...
and then realized I hadn't been laughing for a while. But in comedy
it is imperative that intense scenes are undercut and balanced with
a good joke. With The Hundredfold Problem we get that sometimes,
but not always.
Having said all this, I do recommend the book. It is funny and poses
many interesting ideas, including much concerning religion as well as
thinking for yourself. Even though the comic/scientific balance isn't
perfect, it is still one of better entrants in this field.
The book itself is from BeWrite Books, and they've put out a well made
product here. The type is clean and easy to read, I found only two typos
(many small presses do far worse), and I loved the cover art. I especially
enjoyed the figure hiding in the shadows behind Petula's left. He looks
remarkably similar to the author.
As I write this, it occurs to me that the book is much like a Pearl
Jam song. You can listen to it, enjoy it, understand the main point
clearly, and think, "OK, that was interesting." However, the more you
let it mull in your brain, the more notes you hear, the more depth it
takes on. I'm not saying this book will give you an epiphany for the
meaning of life, but it will make you think and even laugh. And someday,
when we aren't looking for it, some author will come along and nail
this genre perfectly. I have no doubt that author will have read The
Hundredfold Problem many times.
Review by Stuart Jaffe.
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