Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lost Books, Part X: Alternities, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

If there are parallel universes, it would be pleasant to think that Alternities had become a bestseller in at least one of them them, rather than disappearing from print as it has.

Alternities posits a series of parallel Earths, linked by a maze accessed through portals. When Endicott, a wealthy sadist, stumbles across one of these in his version of Philadelphia and finds his way to a parallel Boston, he sells the secret to the U.S. government in his new homeworld in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle - including a steady supply of attractive young women who he can torture to death.

The U.S. of the Home Alternity, sole possessor of this secret, uses the network of gatehouses to access other worlds and copy any inventions unknown in their own version of 1971. None of this knowledge, however, has made life significantly more comfortable for its citizens, who huddle in (they hope) bomb-proof shelters while the charismatic president, Peter (Rabbit) Robinson, attempts to place American nukes in England in response to Russian subs invading U.S. territorial waters.

Rayne Wallace is an interworld courier, trained in the customs of Alternity Red, until a riot threatens the gatehouse there and the gate is closed. Rather than anger his wife by taking a less well-paid position, he unintentionally infuriates her by accepting a long-term posting in Alternity Blue - where anti-nuclear sentiment has been heightened by sabotage on a reactor. Wallace seeks out the parallel version of his high school sweetheart, Shan, and begins an affair with her.

Robinson, seeing the risk of a nuclear war increase in the Home Alternity, stars planning to use Alternity Blue as a world-sized fallout shelter for his government and cronies. Endicott, whose parallel in Alternity Blue is still alive, begins making plans of his own.

One of the reasons I admire this novel is not just its creation of so many beautifully detailed alternative worlds, all of which diverged in the 1950s (our own timeline is discovered late in the novel, and merits only a brief line about President Carter), but the number of levels on which it works. Kube-McDowell does an excellent job of showing us the horror of Rayne's collapsing marriage and contrasting it with the erotic romance of his affair with Shan - but the dynamic is complicated by Rayne's obvious love for his young daughter, still living in a shelter in the Home Alternity. Kube-McDowell does an equally good job with the political drama of Robinson's dealings with his allies and enemies, foreign and domestic - including the growing hatred between his unscrupulous White House Chief of Staff and his conscience-driven Defense Secretary. The novel begins with an action-packed scene as Rayne blunders into the aftermath of what seems to be a full-fledged civil war and must do his best to preserve the Secret of the gatehouses - and for added suspense, there's the shadowy presence that many of the couriers have felt as they wander through the maze between gates.

So, that's political thriller, romance with more than a dash of sex, action-adventure, espionage, a psychodrama that never descends into soap-opera territory. Not bad for 380 pages.

Though Kube-McDowell weaves these subplots together extremely well, with unexpected but plausible twists, the novel is not without some minor inconsistencies. For example, though the maze is lethal to anyone carrying metal, the 'souvenirs' that Robinson shows his cabinet include metal coins. And the brief glimpses Kube-McDowell gives us of the other alternities are almost as frustrating as they are intriguing.

That aside, as I said, this is an excellent novel which - despite its 1970s setting - deserves to be more widely read. And in the best of all possible worlds, perhaps it was.

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