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The Hundredfold Problem

by John Grant

(BeWrite, $14.44, 341 pages, paperback; August 2003.)

Comedy and science-fiction have long held a tenuous relationship. Rarely is the cover scancombination 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 cut".

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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