Finity (John Barnes)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This should have been a fairly deep, hard sci-fi treatment of alternate realities and identity in a universe where everything but the individual is constantly changing.  Unfortunately, the effect is ruined by boring disposable characters, a premise that isn’t self consistent, and a story that sort of meanders about with mostly unnecessary scenes that feels more like a travelogue than than the action-packed, exciting story the author is trying to write.  We are left with a decent attempt at high-concept hard sci-fi that explores some interesting concepts and is imaginative, but fails in execution.  I would not recommend it.

Greater Detail:
Lyle Peripart is an unremarkable university professor in an expat American community with odd ideas about the rules of logic and quantum mechanics.  When the richest man in the world offers him a job (discovering the secret of why no one can seem to contact his homeland), Lyle is drawn into a great mystery that takes him across the globe.  Can Lyle adjust to the revelation that the world he lives in is governed by rules that even he finds difficult to comprehend?

Finity isn’t by any means terrible; it hits all the good points for a solid sci-fi story, there is a big mystery, the setting is varied and interesting, and in the end there is a satisfactory big reveal of what is actually going on the entire time.  Sadly, even though this book has the requisite components to be good, they just aren’t assembled well enough, and the other inadequacies make it fail.

Even the central mystery premise on which the entire story hinges, while very imaginative and by no means a let down when you finally discover what it is, seems to act inconsistently and leaves some fairly significant plot holes that are never addressed.  For a hard sci-fi book, this is a fairly egregious issue.

The protagonist has almost no personality other than being a stereotypical, professor — like something out of a 1940s B movie — so the large number of scenes that depend on identifying with him fall flat. He has no real internal conflicts or motivations aside from being a scientist, and is mostly just lead around outside influences.  The conclusion raises some serious philosophical and ethical questions, and you would think they would cause the protagonist to carefully analyze how his actions affect those around him; in fact, the last section drags on so much that you expect some moral denouement, but the protagonist instead ignores all these philosophical questions altogether.

The other characters are almost as bad; they are mostly hollow husks or stereotypes until they briefly come alive right before they meet their sterile uninteresting demise or disgorge copious amounts of exposition.  In terms of exposition, for a book that is supposed to be a finely crafted mystery like this one, you would expect the mystery to run throughout the book as you gradually learn more and more about what is going on, but the exposition instead comes in giant sections sandwiched between superfluous and forgettable “adventure” sections that aren’t very adventurous or exciting and mostly fail to hold interest altogether.

This is by no means a terrible book, and it does explore some interesting imaginative themes, but overall there are too many faults to have to get through to make up for its good points.  I really wanted to like this book but in the end I just couldn’t, so unless you are desperate for a fix of hard sci-fi I would say to avoid it.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I would like to contrast this with Spin State by Chris Moriarty.  Spin State has all the things Finity has going for it, with a strong central premise and a good treatment of the source material, but both the world and the characters are more interesting, and everything in the book feels like it should be there, unlike Finity, where the transitions from one exposition dump to another are completely inconsequential to the overall plot.

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Posted in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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