Saturday, 12 May 2001

John Barnes: Finity (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 821

John Barnes has written several novels about culture clashes (most recently A Million Open Doors); this paranoid alternative universe novel is almost more of the same. Finity is a science fiction thriller; investigation of sabotage at a huge company turns up evidence that a large number of alternate versions of reality are beginning to collide Colleagues no longer share the same idea of history, or even of recent events. In addition, something has happened to the USA, or its equivalent in every alternative reality; the rest of the world has lost contact with it, without realising.

There seem to me to be several holes in the explanations of what's going on in Finity (there is also more exposition than in most of Barnes' novels). Some things are just sloppy - Barnes surely cannot mean that there can only be a finite number of combinations of a finite number of symbols as he seems to say; an infinite collection of numbers can be built from the symbols 0-9. It is also not the case that a point has infinitely many neighbours; neighbour is not a valid concept in Euclidean space - within a particular distance of any point there are infinitely many points, but there are always ones closer than any given one). Some of his explanations of quantum physics also contain suspect statements, and the idea that use of quantum computer powered devices will swap an individual into an alternate universe seems pretty ludicrous.

Although alternative realities are interesting, it is difficult to see any way to travel from one to another, and this is something which an author needs to face once multiple alternates are introduced. This has been done in several ways. In The Man in the High Castle, they are fictions in each other (linked by the I Ching), and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series makes them fantasies. In other Moorcock novels, alternate realities are a by-product of time travel, which is left with an unexplained mechanism, and Robert Heinlein mixes this idea with that of fiction in The Number of the Beast and the novels that followed it. Other ideas used by writers include traumatic events such as near death experiences or experiencing other universes by drug taking. In almost every case, though, these are more causes of travel between alternates than explanations of how it might be possible.

To have no real explanation, particularly when dealing with one of the well established components of the genre, is not really a problem. (The reader tends to think, "Oh yes, alternate realities" or "time machines", or whatever, and it's a concept already familiar and acceptable to them.) However, Barnes does attempt an explanation, and this is not very convincing. As a result, the novel as a whole is diminished. In general, Barnes is a writer I admire a great deal; but Finity is his most disappointing novel to date.

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