City at the End of Time by Greg Bear: A Pre-Read Pre-Review
The following is a pre-read pre-review of a "hard" science fiction novel. The book is "City at the End of Time" by Greg Bear.
You may be asking yourself: A) What in the world is a pre-read pre-review of a book?; and B) How on God's green Earth can he "review" a book before he's even read it?; and finally C) Why should I bother even reading such a ridiculous essay?
These are good questions, one and all. Well, let us start the proceedings this way: Those of you who have read my reviews here on HubPages, know that there is a certain procedure I like to adhere to. Now, If I've said it once, I've said it dozens of times: The fairest way to review a book or anything else creative, is to understand the thing in and of itself; to understand how it sees itself; and the goal it sets for itself and how well it executes in meeting that goal.
What I want to know with Mr. Bear's novel is this: What does it promise to do and how well does it do it?
Question: How can we know what Greg Bear's novel, "City at the End of Time," promises to do?
Answer: It is fairly easy to come up with that information for contemporary fiction, especially in the science fiction/fantasy fields. We need only read the plot synopsis on the inside jacket cover. So let's do that now.
"In a time like the present, in a world that may or may not be our own, three young people---Ginny, Jack, and Daniel---dream of a decadent, doomed city of the distant future: the Kalpa. Ginny's and Jack's dreams overtake them without warning, leaving their bodies behind while carrying their consciousnesses forward, into the minds of two inhabitants of the Kalpa---a would-be warrior, Jebrassy, and an inquisitive explorer, Tiadba---who have been genetically retro-engineered to possess the qualities of ancient humanity. As for Daniel: He dreams of an empty darkness---all that his future holds.
"But more than dreams link Ginny, Jack, and Daniel. They are fate-shifters, born with the ability to skip like stones across the surface of the fifth dimension, inhabiting alternate versions of themselves. And each guards an object whose origin and purpose are unknown: gnarled, stony artifacts called sum-runners that persist unchanged through all versions of time.
"Hunted by others with similar powers who seek the sum-runners on behalf of a terrifying, goddess-like entity known as the Chalk Princess, Ginny, Jack, and Daniel are drawn into an all but hopeless mission to rescue the future---and complete the greatest achievement in human history."
Question: So, why are you doing this again, writing something you call a pre-read pre-review?
Answer: I am doing this as much for myself as much as for you (whoever 'you' may be). As you know, writing is a way to find out how you feel about things. If you publicly present your written meditation on these things, you hope that someone else with similar concerns can take something away from your thoughts as well. Also, I've been reading a good deal of science fiction, and thinking about it.
Also, as anyone who reads my reviews knows, I consider myself to be in a state of "still learning" how to properly and fairly "review" books; and, presumably, the more I do it, the better I will get at it.
Finally, this unusual approach of a pre-read pre-review is a way to get at something I have usually stayed away from: the specific section of "hard" science fiction. If you (whoever 'you' may be) are about to read this novel, I hope my thoughts will be of some use to you in processing what you will be reading. Here goes.
Let's go back to the plot summary we just read together.
1) "In a time like our own..."
2) "... in a world that 'may or my not' be our own."
We highlight the words "like" and "may or may not," because this signals to us, I think, that the starting point of the story, while set in "our" contemporary time setting, it may not be "our" dimension and "our" dimension's protagonists who are the heroes of the story. Just a small thing to keep in mind.
The major thing that I zero in on is the term "fate-shifters." Ginny, Jack, and Daniel are mutant fate-shifters. They have been born with the ability to cross over into alternate, parallel dimensions, inhabiting "alternate versions of themselves." We are also given to understand that Ginny, Jack, and Daniel face adversaries with similar powers.
This is a big deal and we have the right to expect good-to-excellent execution of this dynamic (outstanding or superb if we're lucky). I don't know about you (whoever 'you' may be) but there are several questions I will need to be addressed in order for me to consider this dimension-jumping/alternate self-inhabiting phenomena to have been successfully executed:
1) What happens to the body when the consciousness jumps into another dimension? Remember, we read that their bodies are "left behind" when they make these trans-dimensional jumps.
a. If the bodies are indeed left behind, what happens to them? What provisions are made for their safekeeping until the minds of Ginny, Jack, and Daniel return?
b. If their bodies were to be discovered by someone, while they have made their dimensional jump, would it look like they were dead?
2) When Ginny makes one of her trans-dimensional jumps into one of her alternate selves, what happens to the consciousness of that alternate self?
a. Does that other consciousness get temporarily displaced, so that only one consciousness, the invading consciousness has control?
b. Is trans-dimensional jump a one time thing in a universe of endless parallel dimensions, so that when Ginny makes such a jump, the consciousness of her alternate self is extinguished, leaving her an infinity of realms she can still go to?
c. When Ginny makes the trans-dimensional jump into one of her alternate selves, is this a "piggyback" operation, so that both consciousnesses are in the drivers seat, working together?
3) I assume that Mr. Bear chose the term 'fate-shifter' very carefully. That is to say, that I gather that he really means for us to understand that when Ginny, Jack, and Daniel make the trans-dimensional jump, and do whatever it is they have to do, that they are literally "shifting" the "fate" of all of their inter-dimensional selves as well as the people whose lives these multiple selves affect.
This would suggest that Greg Bear has created a realm, in this book, in which all of the dimensions are connected, so that each version of Jack, for example, share a strong current of commonality despite minor differences in their appearance, lifestyle, and so forth. By "shifting" the fate, then, of one of his alternate selves, Jack is creating a total, aggregate effect on all the "Jacks" of the universe and everybody whose lives the Jacks touch. And so it is with Ginny. And so it is with Daniel. Apparently, the situation is most emphatically not "every dimension for itself."
The closest thing we have to all of this, in real life, is what we hear about twins separated-at-birth, who may not meet for decades, and yet, go on to have built incredibly similar lives.
4) We have been told that Ginny, Jack, and Daniel are being pursued by enemies with similar abilities. This is curious. How are we to process this? That is: How are we to understand the structure of the battle between Ginny, Jack, and Daniel, and their similarly enabled adversaries? This wrinkle requires clarification in issues we raised earlier.
a. What happens to the bodies of the dimension-skippers, when they make their jumps (Ginny, Jack, and Daniel, as well as their adversaries)?
b. I assume that a particular version of the consciousnesses of Ginny, Jack, and Daniel, are the specific targets of their dimension-hopping enemies. How does everybody keep track of who's who?
5) The enemies serve a "goddess-like being" known as the Chalk Princess. Is she able to keep track of everyone without any trouble? Is that faculty what comprises her "goddess-like" powers?
6) What makes the Chalk Princess a "goddess-like" being relative to the other characters who jump back and forth across dimensions?
a. Is it perhaps that all of the trans-dimensional versions of herself are in accord with each other, such that each of her selves have the same, perfect knowledge of everything that's going on in all the dimensions, so that she does not even have to jump across the planes to "shift" "fate"?
b. Can the Chalk Princess choke you in one dimension and make all of your other, alternate trans-dimensional selves feel it?
7) If the story's villains have the Chalk Princess to guide them, do the story's heroes have similar "divine" guidance at their disposal? It hardly seems like a fair fight, if Ginny, Jack, and Daniel don't have someone of similar powers to those of the Chalk Princess, in their corner.
8) There is one more thing to consider. I raised the question, before, about what happens to the bodies of the trans-dimensional jumpers, and what do their friends and loved ones say when their consciousnesses leave their bodies, and so forth.
A. Suppose the situation is different from what we have been considering so far. What if Ginny, Jack, and Daniel, and their adversaries make the trans-dimensional jump in such a way that there is, somehow, no disruption in their lives, no one wonders where they have gone off to, and there is no issue about really leaving inert, dead-seeming bodies behind? Let us say, for the sake of brevity, that this is indeed the scenario that Bear has pursed. There is an alternative way in which the logistics of the story might be successfully managed.
What are you talking about?
Think about the game of three-dimensional chess.
Three-dimensional chess is played the same way that the regular, one-dimensional game is played. The rules and object, as well as the pieces and their moves, are exactly the same, of course.
The only difference is that the three-dimensional game is played throughout three boards---or, we might think of them, for our purposes, as "dimensions." We're looking at a set up that features one board directly above the other.
There are still only two sets of playing pieces used, one for the black, and one for the white. There is still only one black queen and one black king, and one white queen and one white king.
But with three-dimensional chess, every move you make with every piece, has a corresponding effect on all three boards. Because this is true, one can use his bishop to capture his opponents knight, for example, without being limited to placing the capturing piece on the square of the captured piece on the same board. You can capture the piece on the bottom board and put your capturing bishop playing piece on the corresponding square on the second or third board above. And so on.
The object, aside from winning the game, is to try to confuse your opponent. You are trying to see who can maintain his more of his concentration and skill level.
Now imagine the concept of three-level chess applied to the fate-shifting dynamic we have been talking about. Also, please remember that I am proposing this as a possible solution to a possible problem (which I do not know exists for sure before I've read the novel). The problem, if it exists, concerns the safekeeping of their bodies when they have exited them to go into alternate versions of themselves in alternate dimensions.
B. I know that we have read in the plot summary that when Ginny, Jack, Daniel (and presumably their adversaries) make the inter-dimensional jump, that their consciousnesses leave their bodies and inhabit alternate versions of themselves. But what if:
1. It turns out to be the case that there are not ACTUALLY alternate versions of ourselves, but that there are, in fact, parallel or alternate dimensions?
2. It turns out, also, that when our heroes, adversaries, and anyone else with "fate-shifting" ability, make the inter-dimensional jump, they do not ACTUALLY inhabit alternate versions of themselves, because despite their being parallel dimensions, there remains only ONE version of you and me?
3. It turns out that, like three-dimensional chess in which there remains only one set of pieces for each color, each adversary, so, too, is there only ONE version of you and me, whose actions, nevertheless, have a corresponding effect on all the other dimensions?
4. It turns out, therefore, that when one makes such an inter-dimensional jump of consciousness, we only THINK that we have inhabited some other body, some "alternate version" of ourselves?
5. It turns out what follows from all of this is that when Daniel, for example, leaves the dimension of his birth to go to another, that he is mysteriously, incredibly, in a way we cannot comprehend, actually, temporarily "written out" of the existence of his home dimension---so that it is for the time he is gone, as if he "never existed"? Think of this as "editing out." And what if, conversely, when he makes the leap back into his home dimension, he is "edited in" again?
The last thing I want to say is that I really think Ginny, Daniel, and Jack need someone to guide them who is the equal of the Chalk Princess, another one who can "see the whole board," as it were.
Oh well, we'll see how the book turns out. I will come back and write a post-read review, after I finished reading Greg Bear's "City at the End of Time."
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