Theo Bernstein’s promising career as a physicist blows up along with the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, apparently because he moved a decimal point the wrong way. Now he has lost his job, his fortune, his wife, and even his fleabag apartment. The only work he can find is hauling cartloads of offal at a slaughterhouse, where he also sleeps because he has nowhere else to go. Then Theo learns that his mentor, Dr. Pieter van Goyen, has died and left him the contents of a safe deposit box—which turn out to be an apple, a face-powder compact, an empty bottle, a letter offering him a job at a weird, run-down hotel… and a hint that these things are more than they seem. In fact, Pieter’s letter promises that the bottle holds fun and danger, if only Theo can work out a math problem that could either blow up the universe or create a gateway to an infinity of universes. And in an infinite multiverse, not only is everything possible—it’s inevitable.
So begins Theo’s strange, exciting, and often funny odyssey through a series of possible (but unlikely) worlds. In one, cartoon animals from Disney movies have come to life and rebelled against their human overlords. In another, the Russian revolution never happened, the Roman Empire never fell, and Pope’s palace has been relocated to Sydney, Australia. And that’s not even counting the “default setting” universes, where Theo learns to navigate among medieval villagers, Old West gunslingers, ray-gun-toting aliens, and policemen who carry silver bullets in case a werewolf needs taking down. For Pieter has left Theo nothing less than a revolution in entertainment: better than virtual reality, YouSpace makes it possible to visit an actual reality, where you can really experience what it’s like to live under a different set of Laws of Nature. When things get a little tiresome (such as when everyone is trying to kill you), all you have to do to return home is look through the hole in the center of a doughnut. It could be amazing. It could make the shareholders filthy rich. The only problem is that Pieter died before he could complete the User’s Manual. Or did he? Either way, it’s up to Theo to work out how YouSpace works.
With the self-effacing put-uponness of the quintessential British comic hero, Theo goes on an impossible journey, spurred in part by clues that his late, ne’er-do-well brother Max may be alive somewhere in the multiverse, hiding out from some bad people he owes money to. Theo is torn between wanting to find Max (at least for the sake of their paranoid sister Janine) and wishing he would really be dead (particularly when the attractive Matasuntha turns out to be using Theo to get her true love back). While both Pieter and Max turn up, less dead than expected, in different universes, Theo is forced to smash all the rules of maths, logic, physics, and metaphysics, and put them together in new ways, over and over. All this just to escape from a series of increasingly escape-proof traps and dead ends in his madcap tour of far-flung realities. And just when you think he has figured out what is really going on, the multiverse confronts him with a new puzzle that will force him to defy the fabric of space and time.
This is the third Tom Holt novel I have read, after Little People and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages. And though there are many other titles by this author, this third book confirms for me a theory that seems almost as improbable as the mind tricks Theo performs in it: that Holt can somehow, consistently, tirelessly, sustain a flow of brilliant comedy while, at the same time, packing it with nosebleed-inducingly high-grade scientific theories and philosophical ideas. While I freely exercise my own judgment as to how much of this novel’s worldview is in the same ballpark as the truth, and how much of it is either whimsical leg-pulling or dogmatic tripe, I nevertheless enjoyed Holt’s writing with all my heart. From a grand design that challenges you to reconsider the narrative order of “cause and effect,” to fine details like the sentence “If Time is a piece of cheese, the two seconds that followed were fondue,” this book makes you think, then laugh, then grip your arm-rests with concern and excitement, over and over until its cleverly satisfying ending.
I look forward to reading more by this author, including his most recent book When It’s a Jar and, coming in 2014, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice. For a convenient list of Holt’s works, click here.