There’s an old story I once read that went like this: The last man in Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door. Except for me it wasn’t a knock, just some muddy tracks in a field that told me I was not, as I had long since come to believe, the last living human being.
So begins Extinction Game, the most enjoyable science fiction novel that I have read over the last year. The surprising thing is that this is just one more dystopian tale of a ravaged earth. It’s also yet another parallel universe story, something which is fast becoming an obsession in Sci-Fi. It all follows the real scientific theory that we live in a multiverse, a series of discrete but connected universes. Everyone is drinking from the same well, so it is unsurprising that so many authors have taken inspiration from the same idea.
The action in Extinction Game takes place over a vast and intriguing series of alternate earths. During the story, we only get a tantalising glimpse of many of these ruined planets. Where the characters do explore an ‘alternate’ in more detail, they encounter a far-from-cosy catastrophe:
According to the read-out on my helmet’s display, it was a chilly 268 degrees below zero, cold enough that the snow lying all around us was composed not of crystallised water, but of frozen air. As their world spiralled out of its former orbit, moving farther and farther away from the life-giving sun, the atmosphere had grown sufficiently cold that it had frozen into a thin layer clinging to the ground. Beyond my visor lay only hard vacuum, and certain death were I to remove my helmet.
In addition to these cross-dimensional adventures, there are a series of mysteries that confront our hero, Jerry Beche, the last man on earth. There are twists and turns which are genuinely surprising and worthy of an Agatha Christie conundrum.
Sent as a pathfinder to the alternate earths to seek out advanced technology, Jerry discovers that to his rescuers, the shadowy Authority, he is little better than a captive. A captive that is, with a hidden past. This is Stargate crossed with the classic Patrick McGoohan TV series, The Prisoner.
Despite its expert plotting, there are one or two lapses into cliché, such as a moment when a character escapes from prison by picking the lock of his handcuffs with (gasp) a paperclip. The brilliance of the rest of the book makes these weaker moments stand out all the more strongly.
Extinction Game has a setting which has infinite possibilities, and I was delighted to see that Gibson intends to write more books in the series. That’s not to say that this novel has a disappointing conclusion. Far from it: enough puzzles are solved to satisfy the reader whilst many other enigmas remain to be unravelled.
Any Sci-Fi fan would enjoy this novel. If you aren’t a fan but are looking for a present for the geek in your life, Extinction Game would be an ideal choice (although it has some quite adult moments).