0) INTRADIEGETIC SUMMARY AND THE APTNESS OF NAMES
THE DOORS OF EDEN begins and ends with two young women, Lisa Pryor and Elsinore Mallory, who call each other Lee and Mal respectively. They are in love with each other but are separated at the beginning of the novel, at the age of nineteen, as Mal falls into a crack in the world and disappears. They are reunited four years later, when Mal reappears and drags Lee into an adventure to save the multi-verse.
Mal aptly and concisely summarises the plot:
‘We’re here and they trust us.’ Mal chuckled. ‘It’s a million-to-one long shot, and only these two desperate lesbians can save the world. Perfect action movie material.’
A certain number of the themes of the novel can be seen to be reflected in the names, with varying degrees of plausibility. “Lee” is appropriate to a story based on chance and its branchings, “Pryor” to one based on Deep Time. “Elsinore” alluding to Hamlet, is appropriate to the choice between being and non-being, Mal to the necessary tolerance for transgression. “Mallory” is an anagram of morally, it is also the surname of the protagonist of SLIDERS, a TV series involving transport to parallel Earths.
1) POP-STAPLEDONIAN DIFFÉRANCE
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s new book THE DOORS OF EDEN is an intelligent and enjoyable book quasi-Stapledonian in scope, ambitious and full of sense of wonder, only it includes pop culture clichés, silly puns, and geeky memes.
There is much in the book to interest and give pleasure to the contemporary reader, multiversal alternate Earths and Extinction Events, multiple other Intellects, puns and paradoxes, transgressive sex (polyamory and adultery, lesbian love, transsexuality, “open-minded” Neanderthals), Fortean research and Dr Who references. The whole book is a eulogy to difference.
Talking about a god-like “it”, Mal says:
maybe it was static. It saw the possibility of something dynamic and different, and it preferred that. It sure seems to want to preserve that difference…We are the things it dreamt, and now it needs us to keep the dream alive,
2) GENITIVITY AND THE AMBIGUOUS TITLE
“THE DOORS OF EDEN” is a resonant but cryptic title. To unpack its sense we need to resort to some (simple) grammar. It is possible to distinguish at least three main types of genitive with “of” in English: objective, subjective, and appositive. This enables us to see three different meanings for the title.
a) Objective genitive: the doors that take Eden as an object, that open onto Eden. Portals.
b) Subjective genitive: the doors that belong to Eden, that open from Eden onto somewhere else. Branchings.
c) Appositive genitive: the doors that are themselves Eden (cf. “the city of London”, which does not signify possession, but identity, i.e. the city that is London). “Vive la différence” (actually said by Mal).
The movement of the narrative is from objective to subjective genitive, and then to appositive genitive. There, I have spoiled the plot, but only for those who already know it and who are ready to see it through the grammatical lens provided by the title.
3) SCIENCING ALICE
An interesting technique of science fiction is its capacity to give a scientific treatment of fantasy stories, thus transforming them into sf. THE DOORS OF EDEN can be seen as a contemporary re-writing of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books as science fiction.
The structure of THE DOORS OF EDEN is based on allusions to famous plot points in Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books:
Part 1 DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: portals and multiple worlds
Part 2 LOOKING GLASS CREATURES encountering the strange others from alternate earths
Part 3 RED QUEEN HYPOTHESIS believing seemingly “impossible” things hopefully before breakfast. Any sufficiently advanced technology and cosmology are indistinguishable from magic.
Part 4 RED KING’S DREAM make the world safe for (quantum-computing exosomatic cosmological) dreams
4) SCIENCE-FICTIONING PHILOSOPHY
Another interesting technique of science-fiction is its ability to translate a philosophical concept or hypothesis into a premise of world-building, to “physicalise” the idea and explore its consequences. We can see this in the SF trope of multiple worlds that we can not only imagine or speculate on, but in certain cases actually visit. This has become a rather familiar idea by now, reprised in popular TV series from SLIDERS to COUNTERPART.
The trope has been so thoroughly exploited that it is hard to come up with a new and interesting variation on the same hackneyed old theme. One of the most brilliant inventions in this line in recent science fiction is to be found in Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which posits a multiverse in which Plato’s world of ideal forms exists as a physical world in a nested hierarchy, that we can travel to or receive visitors from.
In THE DOORS OF EDEN Adrian Tchaikovsky is able to invent a new version of the multiple world trope by having recourse to another science. Instead of making use of ideas taken from mathematics and mathematical physics as Stephenson does, Tchaikovsky turns to paleo-biology and the concept of Deep Time.
5) MULTICOGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT (1): Speculative Biology
In the structure of the book as I have described it above the four parts that compose it are of unequal size and composition, ranging from three to six chapters (part four contains three or six, depending on how you look at it).
Between each chapter is an “Interlude” composed of an excerpt from “Other Edens: Speculative Evolution and Intelligence” a fictional book by Professor Ruth Emerson. This book recounts the development of inhuman and vastly different intelligences flourishing on alternate Earths, as different species rise to dominance on divergent timelines.
This is one mode that Tchaikovsky employs for presenting what is for me the strong point of this book: its combination of a notion of multiple Earths on alternative timelines with a vision of Deep Time.
Speculative Paleobiology is his major source of cognitive estrangement. This key feature is part of what makes the book interesting as speculative fiction.
6) MULTICOGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT (II): Speculative Mathematics
The other major science that enters into the scaffolding of the book’s world-building is mathematics, but it figures only as hand-waving, in gestures at some magical science or mental potion in the possession of the “boffins”.
(The word “boffin” is a marker of a third science, or pseudo-science, that figures in the book: the science of Britishness. It is regularly invoked, but only in the guise of clichés. Does a self-aware cliché cease to be a cliché. As I keep remarking THE DOORS OF EDEN is a very self-aware book, does that mean it is not very clichéd?).
This use of mathematics to generate or explain the sense of wonder sought for in good science fiction is becoming more frequent in recent sf, perhaps in response to the increasing abstraction of contemporary physics itself. I mentioned the example of Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which is a rather demanding book. Another example is Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT and its lesser sequels, whose world-building relies on a mathematical substrate.
The case of NINEFOX GAMBIT is interesting, as Yoon Ha Lee remarked that he could have made a more demanding use of the mathematical basis, but that he chose to privilege the adventure and accessibility to a wider public.
So it is a little disappointing that a recondite (fictional) field of mathematics plays such a central role in the world-building and plot in THE DOORS OF EDEN, but that Tchaikovsky does not elaborate much on it. He is very much aware of this magical use of mathematics, and several times jokes about it, but it still seems to be a failing.
7) SEQUENCING WITTGENSTEIN’S LION
Preliminary disclaimer by a giant alien intelligence quoting Wittgenstein:
“If a lion could talk we could not understand him, it pronounced.”
This dictum is put forth as an self-evident remark in a surreally funny scene of an attempted dialogue with a talking head made out of worms secreted by a giant intelligent flying trilobite the size of a small village, so far beyond us in intelligence that Wittgenstein’s statement is a truism for it.
But if we had a sequence that ran without break from lion to human then perhaps we could pass words up and down the chain.
This contains the best analysis of and response to Wittgenstein’s “if a lion could speak” argument. It is proffered by Alison Matchell, who is called on one occasion “Alice”, whose main activity is “rabbit-holing”.
8) TCHAIKOVSKY’S LADDER
This scalar sequence of intelligences expresses an idea that I propose to call Tchaikovsky’s Ladder. It is a good image of the book’s style as it moves with impressive ease from a YA adventure story through speculative biology, and from multiversal spy thriller to apocalyptic cosmology, or from Charles Fort to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Ascending the scale we have humans from our world, Kay Amal Khan – a scientist from our world, but the only human capable of understanding the mathematics of multiverse cosmology, Neanderthals from a parallel Earth – more intelligent than us both intellectually and emotionally, giant trilobites, a giant Ice Computer, a planet-wide moss-like creature (making us wonder about the continued use of “sod” as an insult, e.g. the villain is called “a patronizing sod”, Kay says “Sod it” to complain, Alison even says in a fit of despair “sod the universe” – all these should be good things, if only humans weren’t so ignorant).
9) MULTIVERSAL MULTICULTURALISM
THE DOORS OF EDEN is not a short book, 445 pages long, but I read it avidly over three days. The book is ambitious, clever, engrossing, funny, and self-aware but does not live up to the full speculative potential of its ideas, preferring in the end to privilege the “only a young lesbian couple can save us” adventure.
Perhaps this is an indication that Tchaikovsky agrees with his Neanderthals, and with Lee and Mal, that emotional intelligence is more important than cerebral intelligence, that difference is to be valued rather than to be fought and purified away.
A political reading of THE DOORS OF EDEN would be as an anti-Brexit novel, glossing the title as THE DOORS OF EUROPE. One very nasty main character, who finally comes out as a racist and a fascist, accomplishes provisionally the ultimate Brexit. The novel addresses the question of the fate of difference in a not so tolerant world, and of how much difference and diversity we are willing to “tolerate” or even enjoy.
There is much to enjoy and admire in this novel, and that it is enough to make it a book I can wholeheartedly recommend.