The Transmigration of Souls by William Barton
Cover art by Sean Beavers
Published by Warner Aspect
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
As the novel begins, the Arabs are about to launch a mission to the moon, some decades after the US gave up its space program. They are hoping to beat the Chinese to the moon. However, as it soon develops, they are not operating in the near future after the failure of the Space Shuttle program with no follow-on. No, this story lies more than a century in the future. During the middle of the twenty-first century the US went back to the moon and even established a base there, apparently planning for a mission to Mars. And then they suddenly came back and shut down their space program, then closed their borders behind a mysterious impenetrable force field, becoming a hermit republic, a Fortress America.
Outside those borders, the earth has become a nightmare place of overpopulation and dwindling resources. Either contraception has become forgotten or as economic erosion progressed it became unavailable to those who most desperately needed it, those for whom sex is the only recreational activity available for the simple reason that it doesn't cost money. Both China and the Arab world have come to realize that within the next century everything is going to come apart and if they don't gain access to the resources of the rest of the solar system, they are going to die.
Glimpses through the Barrier of technological wonders within the US suggest that the Americans found something which enabled them to make sudden leaps in technological prowess. However, there is still the unsettling question of exactly why they should have suddenly abandoned their moonbase and shut themselves away from the rest of the world. Some claim that they decided to just wait for everyone else to die so they can take over without any competition, but others wonder if it was fear of something awful out there.
As the Arab and Chinese missions speed toward the moon, the Americans ready a mission of their own to stop them. It will be headed by one of the few survivors of the last crew of the moonbase, and it uses a ship with strange capabilities, a ship they barely understand, for it was originally made by a mysterious race known as the Scavengers.
For there is a strange alien device on the moon, which the Americans called a stargate, since it could open passageways to other worlds. On some of them they found remnants of a race of tall, slender humanoids who had apparently discovered most of their technology from an even more ancient and more advanced race known as the Colonists. But both races were wiped out suddenly, not by disease or internal dissention, but by a crushing blow from some overwhelming force, a mysterious cosmic enemy the Scavengers termed the Space-Time Juggernaut.
A monstrosity that then came after humanity, as Astrid Kinkaid recalls all too painfully. She saw friends suddenly vanish like a windowshade being rolled up, then their dried bones raining out of the same noplace. She was supposed to have destroyed the gate as part of her superiors' hope that they could thus keep the Jug from coming after all humanity, but she'd disobeyed those orders in faint hope of leaving some way home for her lover, who'd been on one of the Scavenger worlds when the Jug struck.
Now, as the Chinese and Arabs land and begin to explore the empty moonbase, she begins to wonder if she made a grave mistake in that act of disobedience. Although she destroys both ships, away teams are already in the base and going through the documents left behind, documents that explain how to use the controls for the gate. So there is no choice but to take her own team through the gate after them, to a world called Mars-plus, where ancient ruins are all that remain of a race who were just starting to discover the nature of the gate system.
From there they flee to another world that proves to be a satellite of Alpha Centauri -- except that it must be sometime in the past. But even as they're trying to figure out how to send information to their own past selves, they realize there are also coordinates for gates on Earth. Only not the Earth of now, but of Old Red Sandstone, the proto-continent that preceded the formation of Pangea -- so off they go to a time before the dinosaurs, only to see one of their number devoured by a dimetrodon, a creature often lumped with the dinosaurs but in fact a proto-mammal.
And then they discover that they can't get back home, for whenever you go into your own past, you go across a cusp that ties two threads of time, and the old timeline becomes lost forever. For the stargates are not a simple teleportation device, but a system of gates to a multiverse in which every world is possible.
And here's where things start getting really weird, They go through another gate and arrive on a world where they find the wreckage of a starship with a mechanical computer. They meet a young man by the name of Lord Genda who fled a world where the Han Chinese didn't turn inward, but instead became world leaders and launched the Scientific Revolution a few centuries early. They invented cool things like hyperspace, but that led them to discover the stargates. And then the Jug came after them as well, and it wasn't just satisfied with destroying their civilization as it had the Scavengers and the Colonials. It shut down their whole universe -- the stars fell from the sky like letters from a bulletin board, and then all matter dissolved into nothingness. Genda escaped only because he was in his starship at the time and close enough to a stargate that he could flee through to another world.
Except now they are on a world that proves to be part of an entertainment system created by a super-advanced civilization, and the characters within it are somewhat aware that they're parts in an interactive entertainment system that's not exactly a game and not exactly a play. The world they've created isn't precisely Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, but it's close enough for government work. And here's where things start seeming oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast,, albieit with more modern cosmological understanding, because if the Multiverse includes every possible universe, that means it includes every fictional universe that anybody ever made up.
Worse, Genda has been deliberately trying to figure out the true secret of the Gate system, to chase it down to the final gate and demand answers from the creator of the Jug. Kinkaid is less than pleased with the idea of deliberately searching out the entity that killed her friends before her very eyes, yet she also knows it may be the only way back out, the only way to find out what happened to her lost lover. Especially considering that Genda possesses the robot girl Kinkaid built for her younger brother, and she remembers being shut away in a box for centuries or even millennia -- a sign that her own worldline has alredy been destroyed.
So off they go through further gates, until they're in a bubble-world where a fantasy girl paladin by the name of Amanda Grey seeks to rescue the crown prince from the evil Archangel Ahriman, who is locked in eternal battle with the equally evil Archangel Lucifer. For the humans were once brought to this bubble-world as slaves for the Angels, but when God went missing, the Angels fought among themselves, leaving only those last two, and humanity won its freedom.
Their quest takes them to yet another gate, and when they pass through it, they wake up naked on the banks of a river, all their scars and wounds vanished. In this world reminiscent of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld where all the dead who ever were are raised to unending life and re-raised whenever they are killed by mischance, they initially are the victims of the predatory behavior of older and less enlightened peoples, but are then rescued by a dimensional twin of Amanda Grey's squire Edgar -- except it's suggested that the squire is in fact the duplicate and the airship captain is the real one (not to mention broad hints that he is in fact Edgar Rice Burroughs, although ERB was not bald as both iterations of the fictional Edgar are). Off they go to High America, a technological paradise on a high plateau near the end of the river.
Even there they cannot be content, for they are consumed by the need to know just what is going on here. So off they go through a cosmic rabbithole on an island just off the edge of the gigantic continent of the World Without End. And then at last they're surely going to finally get the great cosmic revelation about how everything works -- except that the ending is that you don't get a resolution. You're not going to get answers to your questions, that's just the way things are boys and girls, and if you know what's good for you, you'll stay content to live your lives and not poke your noses where they don't belong.
It feels like a return to the old myths of mortals being punished for inquiring into knowledge not meant for them, of Adam and Eve thrust from the Garden of Eden for eating the fruit and becoming knowing, of Prometheus chained to the rock for giving humanity fire. Not knowledge that involves wrongdoing in the learning, like the atrocious experiments of Mengele and his colleagues or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, but abstract cosmological knowledge that has simply been placed out of bounds by an Authority. Even more chillingly, that whole populations of innocents are held hostage against the good behavior of those who cannot be content -- the Jug destroyed entire civilizations, including plenty of incurious people who didn't care for anything beyond their jobs and their vacations on the beach, and it is claimed that the World Without End was destroyed and all the souls within it fell into darkness because the heroes insisted on poking their noses into that last gate.
Or maybe we're supposed to believe that it's all an automatic system, that there's no vindictive Old Testament god out there punishing overly inquisitive mortals for overstepping themselves, and the Jug is but an automaton that rectifies messed-up timelines without noting or caring that there are actually people in them who are being squashed like so many bugs. And quite honestly, I'm not sure which is scarier.
Review posted March 19, 2009
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