Paul Di Filippo Reviews Infinity Gate by M. R. Carey
Infinity Gate, M.R. Carey (Orbit 978-0316504386, trade paperback, 544pp, $18.99) March 2023
During a very brief window in the 1990s, I thought to discern a newish mode of near-future SF being born. It was the period when John Barnes and William Barton were doing their best work. I am hard put to label precisely what they were doing, or even define it properly. Maybe those impediments mean it wasn’t really a unitary thing. In any case, their fiction was muscular and hard-nosed, maybe even little mean and cynical. Their extrapolations were sharp and precise and believable along linear vectors, but they also introduced Black Swan events to skew things nicely. It was kind of a Heinlein-and-Laumer meet Bear-and-Sterling fusion trip. Can I shanghai Richard Morgan into this movement-that-never-was, and maybe, on the space-opera end of the spectrum, Neal Asher?
If such a nascent, nameless school ever existed, it’s mostly damped down now, with none of the aforementioned authors plowing the same territory anymore, except insofar as Asher continues to be richly productive out in the far reaches of the galaxy. So I had become resigned that my reading of all near-future novels would be vastly different than what I had experienced with Kaleidoscope Century and The Transmigration of Souls. Imagine my delight and surprise, then, when M. R. Carey’s newest struck many of the same notes. It’s bracingly prophetic, but veers off wildly into mind-blowing territory, and the narrative is conveyed in sharp-edged verisimilitude, when it’s not reveling in exotic and far-out technological novums.
Now, before we dive into this exciting and thought-provoking thrill ride, please note that Infinity Gate is “The Pandominion Book 1,” and while its conclusion is richly satisfying, it comes to a screeching halt at the very lip of its large plateau of action, and we do end on a cliffhanger, dang it. We can only hope that the sequel is not too far away.
Carey—under several bylines—has had a stellar career, in both comics and prose fiction. But I would have to say that his prior forays into fantastika have been mainly along the horror/weird axis, and that this book really represents a bold new direction for him.
After a mysterious first-person preface by an enigmatic entity (stay tuned!), we start, under conventional narrative protocols, some years in the future, following the exploits of a scientist named Hadiz Tambuwal. Her Earth—pretty much a dead ringer for ours, if not ours in fact—is dying fast from all the usual causes seen in the headlines of 2023. Hadiz is part of a last-ditch think tank seeking solutions. Her arcane researches, derided as somewhat impractical, inadvertently open up a method of “stepping” across timelines to parallel Earths. In the face of catastrophic societal disintegration, she hastily starts exploring these continua, which prove mostly empty, looking for practical solutions to her world’s problems. What she does not know is that her forays have shown up in the Registry computer of the Pandominion, a rigid and jealous crosstime empire of thousands of strands. (Enforcement of the Pandominion’s harshest wishes is the task of the Cielo, merciless amped-up supersoldiers.) The monitoring of her trespasses is assigned to a bureaucrat named Orso Vemmet.
When her origin world is going down for the last time, Hadiz steps to a new one, not too far different from her own, including an analogue of her base of operations, Lagos, Nigeria. There she continues her researches and meets our second major character, Essien Nkanika. Essien is a hard-scrabble guttersnipe, a bit of a gigolo. He charms himself into rich Hadiz’s life, learns of her secrets, and plans to steal them and maroon Hadiz on a barebones timeline. But before that can happen, the soldiers of the Cielo intervene. Hadiz seems to be killed, and Essien is swept up into the brutal soldier’s life in the Pandominion. Meanwhile, for his transgressions and failures, poor functionary Orso Vemmet is given the crappiest posting possible, in a dump on a prison planet. But don’t worry—his native spunk will have him playing a further part.
The rest of the book is a multiplex traverse with this formidable cast and others ancillary yet vivid characters through developments in the Pandominion as it discovers another crosstime empire of intelligent machines—the Ansurrection—and goes to war. But one more vital world and character need to be introduced to our readers. On the timeline where Earth is named “Ut,” the sentient “humans” are lagomorphs: big bunnies. Do not snicker, because Carey sells these rabbits as convincingly as Richard Adams did in Watership Down. Our heroine is the nineteen-year-old student, Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, Paz for short. She’s a smart, nice, good girl who happens to become best friends with another girl, Dulcimer Coronal, or Dulcie. Unfortunately, Dulcie proves to be an agent of the Ansurrection, and pretty soon the pair of lagomorphs are running for their lives, across several strands of the multiverse.
Not, I hope, to spoil anything, for the journey is the treasure, that resonant and gloriously unpredictable ending I mentioned earlier finds Hadiz, Essien, Paz and Dulcie—along with an unforgettable Cielo soldier named Moon Sostenti (a cat woman)—all hunkered down together, facing off against Pandominion and Ansurrection alike.
Carey’s pacing is superb, and his infodumps are tasty and easy-to-digest. His troupe pops off the page, with many idiosyncratic touches. And he’s done some hard thinking about the nature of the multiverse. For instance, how to communicate across timelines (somewhat in the manner of Gibson’s The Peripheral):
“This drone is relaying what we say to another device—a second drone, let’s say—somewhere nearby. The second drone is Step-enabled, and it’s shuttling between this continuum and a different one to pass on the relayed signal to . . . well, presumably to whoever sent it. We’re having a conversation with someone in another universe.”
Any reader who grew up on Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium, or younger readers who enjoyed Ian McDonald’s Everness series, will find in this book an up-to-the-minute sophistication of the parallel worlds trope, yet one that still possesses all the old-fashioned allure of worlds beyond measure.
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