This is a book of science fiction unlike pretty much any other I’ve read. The science fiction piece revolves around a causality violation device (it’s not a time machine!) and about the consequences of using it or not using it, but the book isn’t really about that. Like all the best science fiction, this book is about people: it’s about what makes us human instead of collections of data points, it’s about loss and grief, about friendship and love, about tragedy and addiction, about race and gender, about ideas and machines and science and what it means to go through the long and sometimes very tedious work of combining them. It’s a long book, and I loved the entire thing, in this best of all possible worlds.
The novel begins by tracing the relationship of Philip Steiner, a physicist working on the causality violation device, and his wife, Rebecca Wright, who has a part-time job working for Lovability, an online matchmaking service. The couple is recovering from a terrible tragedy, and Rebecca (who has recently stopped drinking) has an uneasy feeling that the world is wrong, somehow; that nothing is quite what it should be.
The whole first part of the book could feel like set-up if you were waiting for a big science-action-thriller-y plot. I didn’t find it slow or frustrating, however, since I was completely caught up in reading about these people. They live in a world that’s just slightly in our future: self-driving cars are the norm; the President can appear on our screens any time he likes, thanks to advanced AI; department stores can take your metrics and send you home with a custom-fitted garment (supposedly, anyway.) But the conveniences and fads haven’t taken away any of the insecurity, the sorrow, the need to connect, or the need to make sense of a world that often seems upside-down. We still have to do that ourselves.
The people in this book talk a lot. They have conversations about big ideas: science, God, time travel, what it means to be a human being, ambition, grief, love, race. I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to think this isn’t realistic. I guess it depends on your friends, because I do this all the time? I mean, I also have conversations about TV and what I’m going to have for dinner and what my kids are up to lately and how I don’t understand jazz, but big-idea conversations don’t seem unrealistic to me at all. I usually have three or four a day. I loved this about this book; it gave meat to the bones and let me understand the characters. I didn’t think it was ever heavy-handed or a way to let the author monologue — it just felt like part of the weave of the novel. It made me purely happy to read it.
When big events finally happen in the novel, part of the pleasure is seeing what changes and what doesn’t change. Is it a second chance? Is it really? Are we actually living in the best of all possible worlds? If we weren’t, would we know? The science — the long process of trial and failure and trial again — is a way of being in the world that can eventually lead us to acts we never thought possible.
I thought this was an absolutely wonderful novel: engaging, fascinating, full of new, bright ideas as a riverbed is of stones. I wanted even more of it when I was finished. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing more from this author.