A Hundred Thousand Worlds: An ambitious and successful debut

A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl speculative fiction book reviewsA Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

There’s a lot to like in Bob Proehl’s debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds, and if the author occasionally tries a little too hard or the book suffers a bit in trying to cover its audience bases, the end result remains a heartfelt coming of age story set amidst the fondly but realistically portrayed world of comic book writers/artists and convention goers.

The story follows a mother and son (Valerie and Alex, respectively) as they drive from NYC to LA to reunite Alex with his long-separated father, Andrew Rhodes, though Alex does not know this at the start of their trip. Years ago, Val and Andrew had co-starred on a fan-favorite sci-fi show entitled Anomaly, and why Val left the show, Andrew, and LA — and why she is now returning six years later — is slowly revealed as she and Alex cross the country. Their trip is punctuated with signing appearances at comics conventions in Cleveland, Chicago, and eventually LA, and it is at these that they meet and become entangled with the rest of the main characters, including Brett, the illustrator of the indie comic Lady Stardust; his writer partner Fred; Gail Pope, the only female writer at National, one of the two big-time distributors; and a group of women paid to dress up as various comics characters.

This wider universe moves the novel into roman à clef territory, with thinly veiled real-world analogues for many characters, companies, and events. For instance, National and Timely — the two major comic book distributors — are obvious stand-ins for Marvel and DC Comics with many of the characters met or referenced having their own real-life counterparts, such as Stan Lee, Alan Moore, and Jack Kirby. As for Val and Andrew, although Anomaly was a time-travel show, between the references to a split between “Freak of Week” and “mythology” shows and Andrew’s subsequent show about a womanizing former actor, it doesn’t take much to spot Mulder and Scully lurking in Andrew and Val’s shadows.

Structurally, the narrative moves back and forth among the main characters’ POVs, and is also interspersed with several stories-within-stories: the various episodes of “Anomaly” as retold by Val to Alex as bedtime stories, the “secret” origins of several comic book characters, and a story Alex is writing (with Brett illustrating) about a boy and a robot.

As one can see, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is an ambitious undertaking, and while it does sometimes creak under the strain of such ambition, the novel is by and large a success. Alex, at nine, is just on the cusp of childhood and adolescence, making him the perfect age to evoke both a sense of wonder and magic and a creeping realization that people and the world can be darkly disappointing. The relationship between Val and Alex, meanwhile, is vividly presented in all the highs and lows of parenting, which are a bit more extreme given the surrounding circumstances. And the budding friendship between Alex and Brett is sweetly poignant. Val, Alex, Gail, and Geoff feel fully fleshed out, as do several of the lesser characters, some of whom are painted in sharp, efficient fashion. I did wish Andrew had been equally rich in his characterization, but he comes off as a bit wan as a character.

The comics/convention world comes to full life in its depiction of the convention floor, the backstage areas, the bar scenes afterward, and the sweltering swamp of emotions that can swirl around such events: the mix of professional resentment and envy, the pecking order/hierarchy of players, drunken more-honest-than-they-should-be rants, spontaneous sex, bittersweet nostalgia, the aching hope of being discovered, a sense of fading glory, “old guy” memories of the “good old days,” objectification of women, and more. Proehl also brings in issues surrounding diversity in comics (Gail being the “token” female writer), as well as issues of creation and labor.

I had a mixed reaction to the stories-within-stories. On the positive side, most were individually fine, and several of the secret origins could stand out as excellent flash pieces. Here, for instance, is a beautifully written and moving segment from “The Secret Origin of Outer Man:”

So breakable. They are like glass, like china, how is it you come from a race made of such sturdier stuff than them, and yet your people are dead and these people with their bones of spun sugar thrive?

 

You avoid touching them, as much as possible … the potential to casually shatter one of them … is overwhelming. Even with the woman who raised you, whose embrace had a fierceness to it, who squeezed your indestructible body until tears welled in your impossible eyes, you could never chance it. You could only stand stock-still, arms at your sides, while her love for you crashed against skin that could never be cut, never bleed…

 

[Until] they need you. Unless some certain death is barreling down upon them. Only then can you swoop in and pick them up, as gently as you would a baby bird. In those moments, you can cradle them in your hands, soft as they are, slight as they are. In those moments, they can break through your skin and save you.

On the (slightly) down side, I’m not quite sure we needed quite the number of each and three separate ones. This was part of that “trying too hard” that I mentioned at the start of the review. It wasn’t just the number but also that at times the inter-stories were a little too much on point, the parallels drawn a little too closely to the events and emotions of the main storyline. That same sort of heavy-handedness came down now and then in other areas. For instance, at one point Gail explains “fridging” to the group of costumed women and while I’d argue it’s a good thing to educate the general public about, the execution here felt just like that — the narrative brought to a halt for a Very Important Teaching Moment. It’s possible some of the other details of the comics industry may fall into a similar betwixt-and-between no-person’s land — too obvious for knowledgeable fans but too much detail or insider joking for non-comic readers.

Most of these flaws aren’t all that surprising in a debut novel, and there’s no doubt that they are outweighed by the book’s strengths: the richly-felt relationship between Val and Alex, the spot-on portrayals of most of the main characters, the vividly fond — warts and all — depiction of the comics/convention world, the non-linear structure, and the generally ambitious nature of the novel. All of which make A Hundred Thousand Worlds an easy one to recommend.

Publication date: June 28, 2016. “A Kavalier & Clay for the Comic-Con Age, this is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.” —Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints. Valerie Torrey took her son, Alex, and fled Los Angeles six years ago—leaving both her role on a cult sci-fi TV show and her costar husband after a tragedy blew their small family apart. Now Val must reunite nine-year-old Alex with his estranged father, so they set out on a road trip from New York, Val making appearances at comic book conventions along the way. As they travel west, encountering superheroes, monsters, time travelers, and robots, Val and Alex are drawn into the orbit of the comic-con regulars, from a hapless twentysomething illustrator to a brilliant corporate comics writer stuggling with her industry’s old-school ways to a group of cosplay women who provide a chorus of knowing commentary. For Alex, this world is a magical place where fiction becomes reality, but as they get closer to their destination, he begins to realize that the story his mother is telling him about their journey might have a very different ending than he imagined. A knowing and affectionate portrait of the geeky pleasures of fandom, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is also a tribute to the fierce and complicated love between a mother and son—and to the way the stories we create come to shape us.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I started reading this and thought, “Wait, these sound like regular people I read about on the internet all day,” and then I thought, “Well, duh!” It sounds like Proehl loves popular culture and observes it thoroughly. It also sounds like maybe he had more story here than the book could hold, so he piled it on a bit, but what the heck. I admire artistic ambition.

  2. It’s interesting that he gave the surname of Pope to the character who has a Teachable Moment regarding fridging–I wonder how Gail Simone would feel about that sort of namesake?

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