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Picoverse by Robert A Metzger
(Ace, $22.95, 389 pages, hardback; March 2002.)

At infinity plus we maintain a rigorously egalitarian policy in our book reviews. cover scanBooks from small presses -- and even self-published ones -- are given exactly the same treatment as books from the larger and better-established houses. In theory at least, it doesn't matter if your book is from Bantam or iUniverse: it has the same chance of being reviewed, and will be expected to conform to the same standards.

This has one obvious disbenefit so far as the reviewers are concerned: all too often we have to plough through garbage. But that is far outweighed by the benefits of the policy, most particularly that with surprising frequency we come across marvellous books that otherwise we'd never have read -- indeed, that otherwise would never have impinged upon our consciousness at all. To give a measure of this, this reviewer discovered that his slate of five titles he listed on his Hugo Nomination form as his personal choice for Best Novel of 2001 contained two books from print-on-demand houses.

Why are some of these books that have been ignored by the larger houses so good? What they have -- the best of them -- is often a freshness, a vigour, an enthusiasm. To generalize wildly, the books coming from the established imprints are, at least in the USA, tending more and more towards the formulaic, the safe. To be sure, there are a few excellent fantasies being released by the big houses, but the vast majority seem to be merely romantic adventures set in a thoroughly familiar otherworld. Similarly, while the major firms are publishing some excellent sf -- whether of the thought-provoking or just-for-entertainment variety -- all too much of it is just the same old, same old. One has to assume this muffling of the imagination in the theoretically imaginative genres has to do with commercial pressures and the search for safety: the new and daring represents a risk, whereas a rehash of the tried and tested should be at least nearly as successful as it was last time.

I would argue that such policies are in fact commercially disastrous even in the medium term, but that is another discussion.

No such constraints apply to the small presses, of course, and most certainly they don't apply to the self-publishing author. I do not imagine there's a small press or a fiction writer who doesn't desire to sell stacks of books, but nevertheless the freedom is there to experiment -- most importantly, perhaps, to produce books that aren't afraid to challenge the reader, but also to issue novels that are, because of the vigour I mentioned earlier, just heaps of fun, wild romps in which the author's imagination is allowed simply to let rip, and to hell with the consequences.

There are common characteristics among many of the best novels in the latter category that come from the small print-on-demand houses and the self-publishing imprints. Some of these are not so desirable: the spelling errors, the occasional instances of weird grammar, the typos, and all the usual myriad signs that the expense of a copy editor has been spared. But others are joyous; for example, the lack of plotting conventionality, the endless inventiveness, and -- to focus on sf -- the exuberantly wacky science.

Wacky science need not in itself be a good thing, of course, no matter the exuberance; if it's packed with elementary errors at the most fundamental level then the reader sooner or later will lose patience with it. But wacky science that is at least plausible-seeming as it draws on the frontiers of quantum physics, cosmology, robotics, nanoengineering ... well, that sort of wacky science is probably what brought us into the field of sf in the first place, packed as it is with potential for generating the elusive Sense of Wonder.

There is a point to this long preamble, and I'm getting to it right now.

Picoverse displays all the characteristics of the very, very finest of the small-press publications. It has lashings of wacky science of the best possible type -- indeed, its science is, within the confines of a fiction, utterly convincing. The enthusiasm of the text, like the pace, never flags: one has the glorious sense that the author was enjoying this wild rollercoaster ride as much as we readers do, and quite possibly even more. Ideas are everywhere. The plot skids and jumps seemingly without ever a fear that the reader might be left behind, gasping. The scope is too great to be contained within a single universe, but that doesn't matter because the author blithely creates a plethora of new ones -- while equally blithely destroying a fair number as well.

It has to be added that, on the downside, there are also the other characteristics of a small-press publication. Aside from a hailstorm of oddly placed commas, I spotted frequent instances of: "criteria" used as a singular noun, "lead" used for "led", "breech" used for "breach", "waddle" used for "wattle" ... The author has the very curious habit, which should have been excised -- it is doubtless born from his writing of technical papers -- of italicizing supposedly "difficult" words on their first appearance, even when this is within quoted dialogue. I never did work out quite what the word "cavication" was supposed to mean, although a furtive search on Yahoo! (my extensive battery of dictionaries having proved unable to assist) showed that at least the word seemed to exist. There were grammatical errors, too: "...but that one hundred pounds were well distributed", for a sole example.

Also in keeping with the traditions of the small press was that it was the author who sent IP the review copy of Picoverse, the publisher presumably balking at the expense.

The only thing distinctive, in short, is that Picoverse comes not from a small press but from Ace.

Well, Ace deserve to be congratulated on publishing one of the most riotously enjoyable pieces of hard sf to come this reviewer's way in a very long while. This novel is a true feast of the scientific imagination, both utterly uninhibited and, for the reader, immensely liberating. The hugely laudatory cover quotes -- and this book has lots of them, from folk like Robert J. Sawyer, Gregory Benford and Charles Sheffield -- which one would normally dismiss as just so much white noise, are in this instance entirely deserved.

So what is Picoverse all about, then?

Well, in a universe that is extremely like ours but which differs in at least the minutiae of its recent history, a gang of scientists funded by covert government grant construct a device capable of generating smaller daughter-universes. It takes them a while to realize that their own universe itself could be a dependent daughter-universe created by the scientists of a greater one, and so ad infinitum, and by about that same time they discover that at least one of the officials with whom they are interacting is a rogue corrective android from the next universe up the ladder of realities. As the scientists enter and explore -- are forced to flee into and explore, because of all the skulduggery that's going on in all directions -- a selection of the picoverses further down that ladder from their own, they discover of course their own alternate personae, leading to much confusion and irony. In the end it seems that the young son of one of the scientists, whose versions are found scattered through the picoverses in various different guises, good and bad, and grown to various different ages, holds the key to a restitution of reality and the extinction of all the deleterious cross-linkages between the picoverses. But can the versions of the son always be relied upon? Indeed, can even the main good-guy protagonists be relied upon, either to act for the good or to be what they seem?

All is eventually resolved, of course, at least so far as our own welfare is concerned: this wonderful romp delights in taking us to the very brink of the abyss but would never dream of doing anything so depressing as actually plunging us into it for a finale. Whether all the plot strands are entirely resolved is another matter; there seemed to me to be a few ends left hanging loose, but I confess that by then I was so enjoying myself that I didn't much care -- besides, it must have been about 4am by then, because I couldn't bear to put the book down and switch out the light until I'd finished it.

Picoverse may not be great literature -- although who is to judge what that term means? -- but it most certainly is great science fiction. If your taste for the genre has become jaded by constant recycling of the formulaic, well, look no further for a source of abundant refreshment. If you want a joyride through the farthest shores of the imagination, or if you simply long for the youthful time when you could read a whole book with a great big grin of sheer enjoyment on your face, then again Picoverse is for you. And if you're among the unlucky few who have yet to encounter the Sense of Wonder and are baffled by the phrase, then it's pretty obvious which book I'm recommending you rush out and buy.

And let's hope that Ace bites the bullet and pays for a proofreader/copy editor to go through the text so that the reprints which Picoverse so manifestly deserves are freed from all those trivial but irritating blemishes.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 18 May 2002