Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe reminds me a bit of the old-style Heinlein/Asimov kind of juveniles: plucky young intelligent male protagonist into science gets himself into lots of scrapes then extricates himself using those sciency smarts (say, to invent or build something), all of which is conveyed in adequate but not particularly memorable prose. It also reminded me a lot of the old TV show Sliders, both in its movement-through-parallel-universes premise (not original to Sliders by any means) and in its TV-like presentation — easily digestible writing, various moments of implausibility, a tendency to have things happen a bit too easily. What redeems the novel somewhat is its use of multiple point-of-view from the “same” person — two parallel versions of the main character, a nicely managed twist on a familiar premise that lifts The Walls of the Universe above its other, more pedestrian qualities.
John Rayburn, a high school senior, is surprised in the woods near his family farm by another version of himself (John Prime), who explains he is from a parallel universe. Years ago John Prime was himself surprised by yet another version of John (John Superprime) who showed up and gave him the device which allows for interdimensional travel: a small machine that straps across one’s chest. Prime, who plans to make money by transplanting as yet untapped ideas from other universes into new ones (such as “inventing” the Rubik’s Cube), convinces Farmboy John (Prime’s name for him) to take the machine for a spin and see for himself. Unfortunately, the machine only goes up the universe chain, meaning Farmboy John (hereafter referred to in this review simply as “John”) can’t get back home, which was Prime’s plan all along, as he now slides relatively effortlessly into John’s life: going to college, becoming a businessman, eventually marrying and impregnating the high school cheerleader John had always been too shy to speak to.
Meanwhile, after having some near-shaves in a few of the multi-universes, John eventually settles in one and gets on with his life, going to school (where he meets his best friends and eventual partners Grace and John), starting a business by introducing the pinball machine to this world, and trying to learn as much as he can about the transport device in an attempt to fix it and return home. These twin goals eventually bring him into conflict with other interdimensional travelers who become the eventual villains. And behind them, it is rumored, is another group who seemingly enforces interdimensional travel and rules.
The premise of The Walls of the Universe is a familiar one and Melko doesn’t do much here to expand on it or make it feel all that new. We only see a very few of the multiverses and not for any extended period of time at all. The vast majority of the book is set in Ohio in Universe One (John’s original universe) and Universe Two (John’s new universe) and there really are very few differences between them. On the one hand, it serves the plot, as this is what allows the two Johns to insert themselves so easily into their new worlds. But even then, it would have been nice to have seen some tiny, even trivial divergences of world and culture that wouldn’t have been disruptive but could have added a bit of imaginative spice.
The two separate storylines are mostly exciting. Prime’s gets complicated by some legal issues and then complicated more by a murder, and John’s storyline picks up in action and stakes-level with the arrival of the other travelers. There are some pacing issues, mostly in John’s story arc, where the author spends a bit too much time on the pinball creation (probably more detail on the actual construction as well) and on the finer, more mundane points of business creation.
The villains are a little cartoonish, edging near to caricature mustache-twirling masters of a massive criminal conspiracy while at the same time being a bit too conveniently inept. That “too-easy” aspect raises its head multiple times, unfortunately. Even at the very beginning, I found it implausible just how easily John accepts the idea of parallel universes, a too-fast acceptance we see repeated by several characters throughout the book. Having one character say “I read a lot of science fiction… so this is not as much of a shock as it should be” doesn’t quite cut it.
That’s mostly just a little annoying, but when the still-in-college kid manages to reverse engineer an interdimensional transport device, well, that was not only harder to swallow but detracted much more from the reading experience. A few other, more minor complaints include the ease with which some of the characters use weaponry, a few somewhat abrupt character shifts, and the sense that the whole dimensional aspect isn’t quite fully nailed down. For instance, as when one character reels off a whole bunch of percentages — 1% of the time the South wins the Civil War — but we’re given no explanation for how such a percentage could possibly be determined; or when the idea arises of “Singletons,” people with no alternate versions of themselves, versus “Dups,” duplicate versions such as Farmboy John and John Prime, and again, we’re given no explanation of how one could determine this or how it happens.
Paul Melko’s style is relatively pedestrian. It isn’t bad at all; it’s smooth flowing, doesn’t clunk very often, speeds you easily through the plot, and never slows you down. For some, that’s exactly the definition of what they want in style. Others would say this is just what is needed for a YA audience. I prefer a bit more of a challenge, some lines that startle me with their originality of phrasing or use of metaphor/simile, some evidence that the author is at least a little in love with language. As for the YA argument, there are certainly enough gorgeous YA stylists out there that one can debunk the idea that YA means language stripped down to its easiest, most digestible, most dull chunks (China Miéville’s Railsea completely explodes that idea, while Ursula K. LeGuin undermines it with starkly graceful beauty, to offer up two examples).
If those are the The Walls of the Universe’s weaknesses, what are its strengths? Its best aspect is the use of the two points of view to show us how the “same” character can diverge from identical beginnings into two quite different personalities based on the situations they find themselves in. The complicated relationship that eventually forms between John and John Prime is extremely interesting. In many ways, actually, I found John Prime the more interesting of the two characters, if only because we tend to like the “good” characters but be fascinated by the “bad” ones. Prime isn’t wholly bad by any means, and it’s that grey line he walks that I found intriguing, as well as his introspection over it. I also thoroughly enjoyed the relationship he ends up forming with the Casey of that world, who is also quite different in fascinating ways than the Casey John originally hooks up with in his adopted universe.
Conceptually, I like what Melko does when he raises the question of what value does a life have or not have when we become aware that there may be an infinite number of versions of that life? Should we really care, for instance, what happens to any of the Johns or Caseys since there are infinite Johns and Caseys? He does a good job of exploring this, though I wish he had done even more with it.
I also did enjoy the almost nostalgic feel of the plot, with its optimistic focus on young characters banding together and using their intelligence and other personal strengths to overcome the odds. I think had I come across this as a child fresh off my Danny Dunn and Tom Swift reading and in the midst of my Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov reading it would have slid quite happily into the rotation. Is it as good? Who knows? I’m sure in some ways it’s actually better written despite its flaws (some of the dialogue in those books would probably make me cringe now), but I have so much sentimentality wrapped up in those books it just wouldn’t be a fair comparison.
Finally, as The Walls of the Universe is YA, I should mention that there are a few brief references to sex (“he felt how hot her sex was near his” is the most graphic line amongst not very many references at all), as well as a good amount of gun violence and death.
In the end, I’d say I was a bit disappointed in The Walls of the Universe, as I’d heard lots of good things about it. It seems to me it’s what people are thinking when they use that qualifying line I usually hate, “it’s good for a YA book”: not challenging, smooth flowing plot, lots of action, likable characters, not a lot of depth. To me, it makes it not a “good” YA book, but a “pleasantly decent but wanting” YA book, which is what The Walls of the Universe is.