Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review of R. Leib's The Negative's Tale

subtitle: brilliant fictional science in a tale within a tale

Allon Wu lives sometime in our distant future – far enough for people, having aged 300 with the help of their non-sentient clones, to have become bored with life – plus enough time for us to have developed that technology. Alternatively, one could figure in the time it'll take us to get around the barriers to faster-than-light travel, and then populate the farthest reaches of our galaxy.
The latter technology is one in which our protagonist plays an essential part, through his psychic ability. But first, let's start with how faster-than-light travel is possible to begin with: it's those factors that also make time-travel impossible, that are combined so as to complement each other, that make faster-than-light travel possible. When it's done right, computers can then be used to calculate the variables that will relocate the ship to anywhere in the universe – within certain limits. However, things can still go horribly wrong through various distortions in the cosmos, and that's where a navigators with psychic abilities comes in. Only they can detect those distortions so as to make the necessary mid-course adjustments. So, one or two such “navigators” are required for every interstellar flight.
Allon Wu's particular ability is rare. He's a dowser with negative orientation. As a “negative”, he's able to enter the mind of any psychic of “positive” orientation, and make use of their ability. His use of his ability as a dowser (finding things, or hitting on the right course of action) is also affected by his negative orientation. The right course of action is usually the one his normal intuition tells him is the most unlikely, so he has to learn act counter-intuitively – almost in a New Testament sort of way: becoming small in order to achieve greatness, losing your life to gain it, etc.
Leib's fictional science is brilliant. Not being a nuclear physicist myself, I don't know where the hard science ends and his ingenuity begins. Not having read every sci fi novel ever written, I don't know if anyone else has thought of this sort of work-around to faster-than-light travel – with the possible exception of myself (I used something I called “logical relocation” in one of my novels, but I didn't explain it in nearly so much detail – and I didn't use psychics).
The technical details are explained to 10-year-old Allon Wu by his aged instructor, Professor Billgore at the beginning of one of the two story-lines in this narrative. That's the other unique feature of Leib's novel; he's actually telling two stories.
The main story is the one in which the adult Allon Wu has been commissioned by his estranged wife, a Vice Admiral, to solve a suspected murder on board a space station cum city. The background story is told, initially through flash-backs, and then continued in the form of a story he tells his colleagues during pauses in their action – thus the “Negative's Tale”. The “tale” actually takes longer than the main story. It begins with a workplace accident that changed the direction of his career, then further back to the age of ten, when he began his education as a “second navigator”, then his romance with the Vice Admiral that began in the wake of his career change following the accident. The story he tells his two colleagues is of a trip to distant star system in pursuit of a murderous religious fanatic who has almost killed his admiral/wife, and is on his way to systematically kill more people. On this trip, he interacts with non-human extraterrestrials, which, interestingly, one of his old professors claimed didn't exist. Both stories come to a great finish.
Personally, I loved the innovative style of this book. I can see how some might prefer a more standard approach, but I loved it. Although there may have been a few non-standards glitches such as switching points of view in mid scene, a few over-long descriptions and a little bit of unnaturalness in some parts of the dialogue; the great story-telling carried it for me, so I'm giving it a fiver.

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