So what did I think of this book?
Very well-written, intriguing, intelligent and exciting. The tension is maintained. That is not only – or even, for me, mainly – tension about some cataclysm. It’s tension about what’s going on. In that respect it resembles a crime story in which the focus is on detection. There must be an explanation for these events. What can it be?
Right away the fact that a supercomputer is involved and characters recognise that the computer, becoming self-aware, might create its own virtual world, raises the possibility that the world John Macbeth lives in might not be real. There are other possible explanations – for example, that there are parallel worlds of equal reality and these are somehow getting mixed up. Something of the sort seems to be happening because time is being disturbed, though only in people’s minds: they’re “seeing things” which really happened centuries or millions of years ago. There are also shadowy groups mentioned which might be orchestrating something – one violent Christian fundamentalist group and an obscure network of scientists. There is also that worrying American president.
It would be spoiling the read to let on what the answer turned out to be. Enough to say that there is a dramatic twist right at the very end which makes you reinterpret everything. For me that left some questions, some things I couldn’t quite relate to the solution.
I liked the book enormously. Criticisms? Three, I think. I picked up very early that the standpoint of the author seemed to be strongly anti-religious. You can argue that this reflects his characters, but then it’s odd that all the main sympathetic characters are atheists, with the possible exception of a Californian police sergeant whose Latino surname suggests he’d very likely be a Catholic, but for whom religion isn’t mentioned. There is a tendency to equate religion with crankiness. The young priest featured at the very start trying to talk down a potential suicide lectures the man in a way I find quite unlikely. I suspect priests get some training in how to handle emotionally unstable people: they have to do it often enough. Admittedly this one is inexperienced, but he talks to an apparently desperate man as if he were a rather stupid pupil.
That’s one. The second is that the poetic writing, while fast-paced, is sometimes a little overdone, I think. Russell uses words I’d never heard of – “pearlescent” for one. The third is that the strand or sub-plot about the sinister US president is developed to a point where it seems very important and then left hanging. The denouement does shift our perception of her in a neat and clever way, though.
In summary – I’m glad I discovered this book and this writer.