Monday, July 23, 2012

Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey

When this book was published in 2004 it was hailed as a brilliant novel. The British press in particular went gaga, as they gushed over the complicated tale based on quantum mechanics. My opinion is less sanguine. While conceding that it is very well written, this is not the ground-breaking work that so many reviewers described.

The story revolves around a physicist named John Ringer and the idea that parallel universes are possible. This idea is made plausible by a plot line involving a corporation that wants to use quantum computers to build a global communication network. When approached by a former student who is working to establish this network, Ringer replies that the quantum computers, if ever put into effect, could cause irreparable harm to the fabric of reality as they could unleash a wave of parallel worlds crashing into each other.

Within this context, the reader is faced with a whirlwind of characters that include, among others, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the composer Robert Schuman and the writer Herman Melville. These scenes overlap with the story of John Ringer, as he visits a remote village in northern Scotland.

As a science fiction fan this book should be right up my alley. Furthermore, given that Crumey is an excellent writer (the narrative flow is quite good) this would seem like a certain home run. When I finished the novel, however, I couldn't help but shrug my shoulders.

To begin with, this book does not deal with a ground-breaking theme. The Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, which was first published in the late 1970s, discussed parallel universes and the implications of quantum mechanics. The famous Schrödinger cat experiment, meanwhile, which plays a key role in Crumey’s book, has appeared in numerous other books. This doesn't mean that writers should shy away from quantum mechanics. In fact, as a sci-fi fan I would argue the opposite. However, we also can't pretend that this novel deals with previously unexplored themes.

On a more annoying note, Crumey occasionally descends into moments of banality. For instance, some of his sex scenes are pointless, while certain pieces of dialogue come across as blather. It’s as if Crumey, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, assumes that he can’t explain certain ideas to a regular reader (he could be right), so he throws in mindless dribble for amusement (which is annoying). To use an analogy, it’s like a cutting-edge comic who suddenly loses his intelligent creativity and in a moment of panic reverts to fart jokes.

This book is definitely ambitious and deals with a subject that is quite hard. (You try to write a novel based on quantum mechanics and parallel universes involving, inter alia, classical musicians, philosophers, physicists and members of the Nazi party). Credit must therefore be given where it's due as this book does aim to be intelligent. Just because a book is ambitious, however, does not make it good, and simply because a novel is well written does not mean it is a masterpiece.

3 out of 5 stars