08 October 2012

Quantum Lysergy

by Roger Zelazny

I devoured this book in an evening, relishing every last morsel. I think the correct adjective to describe it is ‘lysergic’. Hallucinogenic drugs are never mentioned, but every page is like acid-impregnated blotting paper. The flashbacks commence on page three and never let up.

The plot, which is mostly just an excuse for the settings and set pieces, is a road movie played out along a highway that runs between the Jurassic and the thirtieth century. Specially gifted people and machines can travel this highway in both directions. The protagonist is an especially gifted man who travels the road in a blue Dodge pickup, trying to change the past in order to find his way home. Other people, not unreasonably, are trying to prevent him from doing this. One of them wants Рor seems to want Рto kill him, sending various hirelings in pursuit. Other people (and machines) want to help him. The action climaxes at a place called Last Exit to Babylon, where all is revealed. Attentive readers will have foreseen the revelation some chapters earlier, but this does not matter. The d̩nouement loses nothing from having been telegraphed long distance.

It may read like an acid-inspired fantasy novel, but Roadmarks is science fiction, and pretty hard science fiction at that. Not much is explained in the book, but if you have some knowledge of  quantum mechanics you will see the road as a worldline connecting ‘histories’, or values of the wavefunction of the universe, that have the highest probability. It is possible to visit alternative histories as well as create them – this results in new bends, forks and feeder lanes along the road – but such changes are rarely permanent. The topography of the road is changing all the time in response to the actions of those who travel it. There is also a race of sentient beings, called dragons, who are able to view the landscape of probabilities as a whole and move freely from point to point in it without being confined to the road. The dragons’ actions can also affect history by altering the relative probability of events.

The more I think about this quantum underpinning, the more impressed and charmed I am by it. It is presented almost entirely through metaphor and imagery. There are no lectures or info-dumps in the text. If you don't know a little about the quantum mechanics, some of the features and conceits of the book will seem a little more arbitrary than they really are – but arbitrariness, as any seasoned head will happily explain, is among the salient features of any really good, properly mind-bending trip.

A final note, especially for lovers of Iain M. Banks: there is a lot in this book that you will like. In fact, I enjoyed it rather more than I did Banks's own excursion on the same theme.