Down the Bright Way by Robert Reed
Excellent book, definitely makes me puzzle why I hadn't heard of Reed at all until encountering his "Truth" in Hugo novella candidates last year. With everything of his I read I find more reason to consider him one of the greats. This book specifically is a great study in a widely vibrant setting with believable and engaging characters, combined with some stark and exquisitely murky moral ambiguity. The background involves a group called the Wanders that move from parallel universe to parallel universe, seeking to make small subtle changes to improve the lives of the inhabitants and develop their own wider knowledge. The story tracks several viewpoints in relation to the Wanderer presence, at first as a somewhat plotless survey of their policies and priorities. It becomes increasingly clear that there's something larger going on, though, and it's eventually revealed as a struggle by a small conspiracy of Wanderers to destroy the whole system. The intention is a destructive one and the eventual story involves foiling the attempt, but the plan and antagonists are rendered in considerable sympathy. In transpires that Wanderers on the other side of the Way encountered a fundamentally malevolent species labelled the unFound, the Pyrric nature of the struggle lead to attempts to shut down the whole multi-worlds system.
What I love primarily is the intimacy of the character nuances and attendant pathos with the epic scale of the setting. In particular, the energetic way the possibility of contact with a huge array of parallel universes, and conflict between rival multiverse groups unfold make Banks and Melko's recent efforts in this theme look even more pitiful by contrast. More than just the usual twists of divergent recent history, Reed's book explores alternate hominid development, a wide array of different social models and significantly different situations. Among the array of civilizations--including multiple Earths depopulated by human efforts--there's a fundamental optimism in the array heavily tied to the creativity of the setting. Reed provides enough solid description and small hinting detail that makes the wide scale of the universe credible. It's the ultimate believability of the setting that constitutes the book's greatest accomplishment, and the book's refusal to signpost the larger picture into either an utopia or a dystopia builds up this strength.
Also worth mentioning is the effective construction of some very interesting personality types. Normally for a work this wide ranging in environment and dealing with such a twisty plot it's frustrating to go beyond a single viewpoint perspective, losing track of events and making connection to the novel's pace rather difficult. Here Reed pulls it off quite effectively, in part because the different characters have such easily distinguishable voices and intentions
I was most interested in one character, a regular out of sorts normal human who meticulously pretended to be one of the famous Wanderers out of a basically psychological compulsion. It's effectively the type of approach that has someone spend a lot of effort plagiarizing for an assignment when in so doing they demonstrate enough skill to do their own work effectively. In this case, the fact that someone is able to imitate the patterns of behavior enough to actually fool real Wanderers establishes that he could do just find on conventional Earth, but he's drawn to this specific type of masquerade. It's an interesting take on the whole nature of the alien, and it works as presented particularly not as any kind of big breakthrough or self-realization but the small little details involved in keeping up the charade.
If there was one weakness it's that more probably could have been done with more fully describing the nature of the unFound and some of the background technology. Still the stark nature of the larger menace helps put the ambiguity of the narrative villain into sharper relief. Overall I've few complaints, and put this book high on my list for examples of how one can write classic, fairly conventional science fiction really well.
Better than: Transition by Iain Banks
Worse than: Marrow by Robert Reed