I very much wanted to like this book. It’s not easy to summon up a believable city one hundred trillion years from now. Greg Bear’s multiverse is collapsing into terminal degeneracy as the Chaos intrudes upon the last city – the Kalpa – on a twisted surreal earth.
In present-day Seattle, characters Jack, Ginny and Daniel possess “sum runners”, mysterious Feynmanesque stones which will eventually be found to code the innermost ordering principles of reality. But our heroes have lost all memory of their origins, and spend their lives flitting between alternative realities of the multiverse, in endless flight from ill-defined threats.
Ten to the fourteen years out, the male warrior Jebrassy and female explorer Tiadba are groomed to leave the Kalpa for a one-way journey through the Chaos to the mythical city of Nataraja – somehow this is the Kalpa’s last and best hope. Jebrassy and Jack, and Tiadba and Ginny, are psychologically linked through the Terayears and will physically meet at the novel’s climax, when the universe may, or may not, be cyclically renewed.
Bear has ransacked Greek, Hindu and Buddhist mythologies for this story, along with a light dusting of quantum mechanics. Typhon, the personification of Chaos, is the Greek Satan-like figure; Nataraja is the dancing posture of the Hindu God Shiva, lord of destruction/transformation; in Buddhism, a great kalpa is 1.28 trillion years long.
OK, so does it all work? I personally found it hard work. The book is dense with repetitious description of chaotic landscapes, which sap the reader’s patience. For much of the time the main characters are engaging in relatively mundane activities or trying to get from one place to another in situations devoid of much tension.
All this could be forgiven – there are plenty of hard-to-read books out there – if there was some subtle and profound point Bear was trying to communicate. I really struggle though. At the end, when identities are resolved and the threads of events have been drawn together, what have we learned that is deeper then simply another drawn-out fantasy-SF-action thriller? I fear the answer is nothing.