by Douglas ThompsonThere's something very Golden Age about Entanglement, Douglas Thompson's short story collection about interstellar travel. It captures that sense of wide-eyed wonder and endless possibilities of those earlier works, before the evidence from real space flights squashed the wilder dreams of many science fiction writers. This is more of a novel than a collection, since all of the stories fit together to form a linear narrative, and not all of the stories or chapters stand alone.
The plot is based around various NASA missions a couple of centuries or so in the future, and spanning a few decades. Quantum entangled teleportation has made it possible to send astronauts to distant planets faster than the speed of light. They travel by becoming entangled with special matter that's sent to other planets, so by falling asleep in one world they're able to wake up in the other, and vice versa. It's interstellar travel without all of the vast distances and delays, although there's still plenty of risk involved. It's called dupliportation, and the way it works means that damage sustained by an entangled body on either world will affect both bodies.
This isn't the most realistic sort of science fiction, and as the story progresses each new world gets further into the realm of fantasy. NASA discovers new worlds and strange civilisations all over the place; it's like the Star Trek universe might have been if they had better props than green and blue face paint and some latex masks. Every species is breathtakingly weird, and their alien natures aren't confined to the way they look. More often than not each first contact event is a philosophical examination of what might happen if we had a completely different attitude to happiness, or death, or hierarchy, or the way we should live.
Gene Vesberg is in charge of directing the earlier missions, and he's later succeeded by Hillary Fording. These two characters and their lives link most of the stories. The entangled astronauts they send out on missions have a tendency to meet with sticky ends or other mishaps that put them out of the picture, as if they're more or less disposable. There's some gore, as well as creatively horrible fates in store for a few of these characters.
It's hard to talk too much about each chapter without spoiling the surprises, because it's all about these revelations of different ways of existing. I particularly liked Two Miles Down, a very strange planet with odd seismic activity and anomalous weather. There are others: a planet of diamonds, or of birds, or an underwater ice world for instance, all of them occupied by weird and wonderful creatures. Each planet might be a good setting for a novel in its own right. However weirdness alone doesn't make for a good story, and after the book's mid-point these adventures start to seem formulaic: two astronauts dupliport into the unknown, meet something crazy and mind-blowing, and the experience either changes them profoundly or it kills them. And to bring it back to Star Trek, everybody violates the Prime Directive, interfering with the development and progress of the aliens without much concern for ethics or safety. Not every single chapter follows that pattern, but enough do for it to be noticeable. By the time we're meeting trans-dimensional aliens and ones that can see the future it's crossed the line into absurdity.
However all of the strangeness makes sense by the end, and the afterword rounds off the story and explains not only what happens but also why the story takes the tone it does. And that's a tone of bizarreness, wonder, and occasional viciousness. Entanglement could do with tighter editing in parts, but it's brimming with ideas.
2nd February 2013
Review © Ros Jackson