David Weber & Joelle Presby, The Road to Hell. Baen, 2016, 1009 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8188-4
Rating: 3 out of 10
David Weber is a hugely prolific author and one of my favorites. At last count, I own 58 of his books (some of them containing more than one novel). But recently I have started to have mixed feelings about his work. Previously I have written about what I like about it. Here, I’m afraid that I will have to write about what I don’t like about his work.
The horrible names used in his Safehold series have been mentioned before. Fortunately, that is not too much of a problem in his Multiverse series, of which this is the third volume. Sure, the names of his characters are not directly everyday names, but at least they are not phonetic Anglo-Saxon names either.
The premise of this series is that there exist multiple universes (a multiverse, a concept first popularized by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock in 1963), that are connected through “gates” that appear spontaneously. Although it is not mentioned, these gates seem to be permanent. Here we get to my first quibble with this series. These gates do not necessarily occur at the same geographical location (even though they seem always to connect two places on different alternative Earths). This leads to situations where, for example, a gate intersects a river, which from then on streams from one Earth to another one. Others are at different heights, leading to a difference in atmospheric pressure and a more-or-less constant wind blowing from one universe into another one. No attention is paid to what I think should be rather obvious: after some time (depending on the size of the particular gate), air pressure should equalize around the gate. This would mean that air pressure would severely diminish in the universe where the gate is at a lower altitude, and increase in the other universe. Similarly for the water flowing through that river. It might take a few centuries, but one universe would get drier and the other one wetter.
Lets go back to the story. Two civilizations are both exploring this multiverse, colonizing adjacent Earths (most universes, while strongly resembling each other and all having life that is similar, do not have human populations). Of course, at one point they meet each other and due to an almost criminally-incompetent under-officer, a blood bath ensues and both sides find themselves at war with an opponent about whom they hardly know anything. Unknown to these people (but rather evident to the reader from this Earth), the physical laws differ slightly between different universes, so that in one home universe magic functions whereas the other universe relies on strongly developed mental abilities like telepathy and premonition. Ignoring the quibble above, this makes for a rather interesting setting.
However, there are serious problems with this series, which I am afraid is symptomatic for Weber’s recent work. Like the Safehold series, this one moves at a glacial pace. In 1009 pages, we advance from November 29, 1928 CE to May 3, 1929 CE. Barely three months… And this in a multiverse where it takes months even to send a message from one end of a chain of universes to another. The use of CE dates (in addition to the calendars used by the two opposing universes) makes me fear the worst: is the story at some point going to add a gate to our own universe? Which, of course, should be at some point in our future? Meaning that at a pace of 3 months per 1000 pages we have something like 400,000 pages to look forward to? Please no!
In fact, I’m not even sure that I will buy the next installment in this series, because the glacial pace with which the narrative advances is not even the worst part of this book. No, those are the endless discussions of military logistics. Yes, I get it, provisioning an army is complicated, especially one that is tens of thousands of kilometers away from its nearest base (all those universes add up to large distances). I really get it. But why do I have to read about every minor discussion of transporting feed for animals and men, ammunition, weapons, and whatnot in excruciating detail?
I’m afraid that the title of this book is all wrong. A much more appropriate title would have been Boring as Hell… And by giving this a score of 3 out of 10, I am being generous.