The final frontier

Paul Constant

June 02, 2016

It’s perhaps a gross generalization to say that most novelists don’t understand quantum physics, but it is a generalization that I feel confident standing behind. You’ll see certain well-worn scientific oversimplifications dragged out again and again in fiction: the idea of light being both particle and wave, depending on how you observe it; the fact that gravity is dependent on mass; and the idea that there are countless parallel universes out there, a multiverse where every world you can imagine is true.

This last one, in particular, appeals to novelists because it renders them a sort of quantum God: by imagining a universe where, say, America elects Charles Lindbergh president, the author wills that universe, in a way, into a reality. I do not know enough about physics to say this with surety, but I suspect that real quantum physicists probably cringe when they read these novels and their oversimplifications of the complicated formulas and theorums that consume their waking thoughts. Most professionals dislike it when amateurs muck around in their business, after all.

But these manglings and oversimplifications of quantum physics aren’t intended to be taken literally. They're just our new fables, the way we make sense of the universe. And like fables, they are reduced to their most resonant, basic elements for maximum effect. Does the story of the scorpion that stings the frog after the frog carries the scorpion across the raging river reflect a great moral truth? No. But it vaguely resembles enough real-world moral dilemmas that it can be employed in a variety of situations.

It’s the same with these bumbling manipulations of quantum physics. They’re another way to imagine the world, a new framework to interpret our place in the greater scheme of the universe. While no novelist is likely translating Stephen Hawking’s formulas into fiction with any level of accuracy, those formulas are still performing a necessary function. They give us meaning.

M. Thomas Gammarino’s novel King of the Worlds plays in the fields of physics with the carefree excitement of a toddler. An honest-to-God physicist might be horrified at its half-baked quantum universe of magical teleportation. But it’s called “fiction” for a reason; what Gammarino is doing with Worlds is using a science-fictional physics to reinvigorate a kind of novel that is very much in need of new breath.

Worlds is the story of Dylan Green, a middle-class teacher who is growing dissatisfied with his marriage. You could say it’s the story of a midlife crisis, a study of interiority made familiar through books written by novelists of interiority like John Updike or Richard Ford. But Gammarino starts from this very familiar point of a middle-aged man on the verge of tearing his life apart for the sake of feeling something again, and then he piles on dense layers of surreality.

The first deviation from the well-trod midlife crisis novel: Green was a world-famous child actor, best known for starring in the E.T. sequel that, in our universe, Stephen Spielberg really did try to make. After landing the lead male role in James Cameron’s Titanic, Green blows the opportunity and is replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio,making him a kind of cosmic also-ran figure, a schlub who has to run from his past in pursuit of something normal because he blew his chance at greatness.

And then things get really strange. Gammarino then shrouds his story in dense science fiction trappings. Green doesn’t move to some distant countryside in search of his anonymity; he travels to another planet on the other side of outer space. He’s teaching Earth culture to bored teenagers, and he flips through his old fan letters to stoke his dormant ego. One concludes:

I wasn’t going to say this, but I’m just going to say it, okay, because I don’t even care. If you ever want an Earthling girl to make out with like that I’ll totally do anything you want. I don’t even care what it is. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a slut. Honestly I’ve never even done it with anyone. But I would with you though. Honestly I’d marry you right now if you asked me. I’m only sixteen though so we might need to wait a year or something.

Green lives in the past. Even before his acting career, he fondly recalls his summers working at Borders, which “For a heady moment there…was like the Library of Alexandria was up and running again, and everyone had a card.” And he misses his fame, even though he’s smart enough to simultaneously loathe the difficulties that fame brings along with it.

But novels about failed child stars, too, are fairly ubiquitous by this point, so Gammarino spruces Worlds up with hundreds of little asides that would not feel out of place in a Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams novel: alien customs that are close enough to Earth to be recognizeable, but just alien enough to be funny; descriptions of alien food that lands halfway between appealing and sick-making; a celebrity brothel hidden away in the moon; a forest full of tentacles that eagerly massage human flesh.

These sci-fi elements are deeply considered and thoroughly entertaining. Gammarino has carefully selected the themes and symbols he’s working with, and the advanced technology of Worlds serves as an extension of Green’s interiority. In the universe of Worlds, when Earth finally reaches the stars, we find alien life that looks surprisingly like us:

The discovery that complex life was so similar throughout the galaxy had served as a real buzzkill for those Terrans given to a sense of cosmic exhilaration. Yes, there were now hundreds of new cultures to discover, and no doubt each had its fascinating quirks and eccentricities, but there were no bug-eyed monsters or Wellsian juggernauts, no parasites or dream bests, angels or telepaths. Tentacles remained a water thing. Eating, drinking, breathing, and sleeping were practiced by hominids everywhere. Bicameral eyes appeared to be universal, as were mouths, anuses, and dimorphic sex.

This end-of-history vibe to intergalactic travel perfectly reflects the inside of Green’s mind: there were wonders out there to discover in the universe, but all those wonders share a familiar shape. They walk on two feet and speak a familiar-sounding language. The window turned out to be a slightly warped mirror, and surprise has faded away into a memory dulled by familiarity.

Gammarino keeps Green’s story moving at a sci-fi clip, peppering the narrative with funny footnotes and adding a truly sexy sex scene every now and again. At times, the sci-fi reverts to a background buzz and the satire shuffles to the forefront, as when humans flock to take pictures of the last phone booth in the universe, leaving their bored kids to wonder what the hell the big deal is. When Worlds gets bored of being one type of story, it quickly becomes another, and to Gammarino’s great credit, all the stories flow together into a narrative that never feels strained or out-of-place.

Worlds does suffer from the lack of a woman's perspective; Green’s wife is an admirable character, but she at times feels like a stereotypical nag. The women who tempt Green occasionally seem to be their own kind of enticing stereotypes, too. Granted, a story as perspective-driven as Worlds was always going to have trouble getting into any other heads besides Green’s, but a little more of an interior life for these women, a motivation besides reacting to Green, would have added another compelling hook for the reader to catch themselves on.

In its very title, this book promises worlds. And it delivers many worlds, even if the familiarity of those worlds cause great disappointment to the first intergalactic explorers. But they should've expected that kind of an ending. When we go out into the universe to look for something new, we often just find ourselves. Those who are bored by that revelation, those who believe that we can journey outside ourselves if we just go far enough, are likely to be disappointed anyway. We explore, we find new ways to explain how the universe works, because it helps us understand ourselves.

Books in this review:
  • King of the Worlds
    by M. Thomas Gammarino
    Chin Music
    April 11, 2016
    280 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

October 17, 2017

Going steady

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Boyfriends
    by Tara Atkinson
    Instant Future
    October 26, 2017
    36 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
  • Requiem for the American Dream
    by Noam Chomsky
    Seven Stories Press
    March 06, 2017
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
October 04, 2017

Among the ruins

Jessica Mooney

writes about
  • Imagine Wanting Only This
    by Kristen Radtke
    Pantheon Books
    April 18, 2017
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound