Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky's weird alternate biospheres are the highlight of this first contact thriller-esque sci fi
The Doors of Eden is a novel about alien worlds, as you've never seen them before - because every one of these alien worlds is, in fact, our earth, in a timeline where the development of sentience spun off a little differently each time. Within the confines of our planets fixed geological ages: the early conditions for life, the Permian extinction, the era of dinosaur potential (although not always dinosaurs), the meteor strike and the march to our own present, The Doors of Eden imagines planets full of immortal trilobites, isolationist orthocones, raptors, rodents, asshole cats (naturally), giant amphibious scorpions and of course some spiders, all of whom inherit the earth at some point and must then figure out how to keep going with the hand they are dealt. Most of the inhabitants of most of these worlds remain unaware of each other most of the time, but for a few, knowledge of each others' existence comes either accidentally or deliberately through accessing doors between realities - and its these convergences which create the plot of this book.

We open with the story of Mal and Lee, two young women who take on cryptid hunting as a hobby, only to have it go horribly wrong when they accidentally go through a portal on Bodmin Moor and find themselves being chased by weird dinosaur birds. Lee makes it back, her girlfriend Mal does not, and Lee spends the next four years trying to make sense of the whole experience. Elsewhere, government agents Julian and Alison are investigating a criminal case into which mathematician Kay Amal Khan has been drawn, and when the gory death of a group of thugs implicates a man who looks rather unlike the average homo sapiens and a woman who looks very much like an older, grittier Mal, storylines collide, a creepy interdimensional computer genius racist gets drawn into the mix, and everyone finds themselves in a dimension hopping thriller with more episodes and reversals than I can reasonably summarise here, with the universe at stake.

Most of the species of the various earths are introduced through extract from an in-universe academic text which outlines the different divergence points in chronological order, although in the case of several of the main species, we meet their representatives before the worlds they come from are fleshed out. The introduction of Neanderthals - who are able to operate more comfortably in our world than, say, the three foot tall ferret creatures or the gargantuan space bugs -  drives the sense of early contact in The Doors of Eden, and the juxtaposition of Neanderthal society and culture with Homo Sapiens remains an interesting aspect of the story whenever it comes to the fore. In contrast, the inclusion of the "birdmen" is interesting but significantly more episodic, and some of the other species representatives are more explanatory factors for elements of worldbuilding that would otherwise feel like deus ex machinae than active "characters" as such.

What I liked about The Doors of Eden had far more to do with its concept than its somewhat disjointed plot. For most of the novel I was content to be reading a story that was just a vehicle for exploring alternate evolution and, towards the end of the novel, the concept of alternate timelines in general, rather than having any specific aspirations of most of the characters. At times, The Doors of Eden is held back by the lack of roles for its most interesting humans (Mal, Lee and Kay), instead relying on the viewpoints of bigoted genius Rowe's henchman Lucas, and the less objectionable but somewhat bland Julian and Alison. All of the present day narrative comes from a human perspective, which makes sense in that The Doors of Eden is already too jam packed for a deep dive into what alternative cognition would look like for these species from the inside, but it does mean we are sometimes focused on painfully incomplete human interpretations of alien behaviour.

That said, The Doors of Eden does keep a lot of balls in the air and its three act plot - a first act with equal parts horror and real-world thriller, a second of dimension-hopping adventure, and a third of time-bending science exploration and world-saving shenanigans - covers a ton of fast-paced, interesting ground that it's impossible not to get swept along with. While it can be challenging to follow a narrative where many of the characters thrown together through circumstance haven't even bothered to learn each others' names, by the endgame there's an intriguing core of human and non-human characters whose fates we are (with the exception of Rowe and Lucas) pretty invested in. Some of the personal and interpersonal outcomes are harder to root for - am I supposed to be cheering on a character cheating on their spouse just because I can see they have chemistry with the person they are cheating with? - but, hey. The end of the world is at stake here, so there is something we can all generally agree on even if the particulars of who ends up in what dimension banging who might not be something we should dwell on.

Fundamentally, though The Doors of Eden is a tricky book for me to put a final quantification on, simply because I don't think landed where I expected it to be, and I'm not sure what to make of what it was. As speculative science fiction, this is an awesome premise, and there's so much chewy worldbuilding included that it basically carries the novel on its own. The mash up of science fiction and thriller adventure has potential but it never quite squares the circle of balancing the action between characters who are interesting and fresh-faced, and those who are experienced and capable, sidelining the former while the latter remain a bit of a snoozefest. Still, this is solid Tchaikovsky and as an exploration of sentience with an awesome hook, that kept me searching Wikipedia for real-life critters of bygone ages, I have to give this one a thumbs up for keeping me entertained, and if it sounds like your thing you could do much worse than to give it a go.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 An intriguing central concept.

Penalties: -1 Doesn't give its central characters enough to do.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Tchaikovsky, AdrianThe Doors of Eden [Tor, 2020]