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White Light by William Barton and Michael Capobianco

Published by Avon Eos

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This book starts with a scene so dark and grim that it may well put some readers off before they get past the first few pages: a teenage girl in a refugee camp is being collected by an unsavory older man, presumably for immoral purposes. Off they go to another world, leaving behind the ruins of post-World-War-III Earth for a world in a distant solar system.

And then we get to discover that this guy isn't a creepy child molester at all, but her new sorta-stepdad, and the ruse was necessary to get past certain people who don't want dependents brought to this distant world but will look the other way if properly bribed for reasons that correlate with their own crookedness. Although the world only vaguely Earthlike, having far too much carbon dioxide and not nearly enough oxygen in its atmosphere to support life, it isn't a mess of radioactive ruins like Earth.

But Cori's no sooner settled in with her ditzy mystic mother Honoria than things start coming apart. The authorities back on Earth want all the illegal dependents and pets removed from the colony, pronto. Quite possibly killed, if some bean counter deems it too expensive to ship them back and find homes for them. So sorta-stepdad Wolf piles his family and that of a friend into the spaceship that brought Cori here and off they go to another colony.

Except they never quite make it, because on the way they encounter a space anomaly that sends them flying wildly off course. For lack of a better name for it, they call it a stargate. It is apparently an artifact of a very powerful alien race, and not a friendly one. The fellow refugees they encounter, the BeauHuns, call it the Topopolis, and warn them that this civilization is rapidly expanding, disassembling whole stellar systems and incorporating the matter into their giant megastructure that is expanding faster than the speed of light, so that Earth has no idea they are in danger. For it seems that the Topopolis is not evil, or even indifferent, so much as it is oblivious to the harm it is doing to the civilizations it is destroying. To the Topopolitans, civilizations such as humanity matter no more than we regard a colony of ants that happens to be where we want to put a building.

According to the customs that have developed among the refugee species struggling to exist in the edges of a space rapidly being taken over by the Topoplis, Wolf and his human crew are given a device to help them navigate the stargate system, the proper name for which is the TrackTrix. If they can find their way back to Earth in time, they may be able to save a few hundred humans, maybe as many as a thousand, before the Topopolis arrives to demolish Earth and incorporate its matter into itself.

Except that things aren't as easy as they seem. An attempt to outwit a device known as a Rip Wrapper that controls unauthorized access to the system instead sends them deep into parts of the system controlled by the Topopolis. Another set of intelligent network-beings known as Packet Wights trap them, and although the TrackTrixCom is able to negotiate a reprieve, the process of "putting them somewhere safe" drops the humans and their pets in a strange world dominated by giant airship-beings upon which live two other races of refugees.

This is where things start getting really weird. It seems that this area is a collecting point for refugee humans from a multiplicity of alternate timelines, and not just anatomically modern Homo sapiens, but Neanderthals as well -- except they're from an alternate world in which Neanderthals rather than humans came out on top and formed an advanced technological civilization (think Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, except with the women being kept unclothed a la the Ferengi in Star Trek).

But of course our heroes couldn't possibly be satisfied with the safety of a floating island. No, they have to go running after a nebula they can see at the end of the Topoolitan tunnel, and off they go into a gigantic city that may well be some version of Heaven -- except that it looks like a gigantic shopping mall, complete with hairdressing salons staffed by working stiffs who don't know anything about the bigger issues.

In many ways this novel felt like a new take on the issues William Barton originally dealt with in his early solo novel The Transmigration of Souls, particularly the various habitats in which humans from a multitude of futures lived together, and the protagonists' insistence on continuing to seek answers and press onward in mysterious and possibly hostile spaces. And both of them have the idea that if the multiverse includes all possible worlds, one of them has to include an Almighty God, and a human character getting nabbed for that role.

However, if anything this novel is even less satisfying than that one, primarily because the ending explodes into boundlessness. If anything can happen, if there are no limits to what is possible for the characters, how can there be any meaningful conflict that isn't just an arbitrary construct of the author because it is convenient for the story at the time? It makes me think of the old "playing tennis with the net down" canard that has frequently been leveled against various science fiction tropes by those who disapprove of them. However, in this case I feel it has far more merit, for the simple reason that the tropes that were being disapproved of often made the story work (for instance, by keeping travel times between star systems within human lifetimes), while in this novel creating a situation in which everything is possible makes the story unravel.

Review posted April 15, 2009

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