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Heavy on philosophy and moral tracts, without a single tasty bit of fun!
on April 3, 2015
Every once in a while, I feel like I have to break the rules set down for me by the Starving Reviews, LLC corporate office. So far, I have restrained myself because, well, I'm starving, darn it! I need this literary sustenance to flow and I dare not cut off my biggest supplier. Today, though, I may wind up breaking that creed, as today's long-delayed culinary snack can't be dissected without some SPOILERS!
This Changes Everything is, on the surface, a science fiction novel talking about an alternate future where aliens approach Earth and offer entrance into a galactic collective. This sort of treat, at first glance, looks scrumptious, offering a many-layered look at the interactions between our delightfully bizarre little planet and a vast series of societies and species. In some ways, Changes delivers on some aspects of that promise.
The writing itself is solid, at least once you get used to the various styles employed. The book is comprised of many nuggets of scenes, each written in a different style and from different view points. It can be a bit jarring at first but is easy to get a grip on once you realize what's going on.
The plot ... has problems. The majority of the rest of this review will touch on that, but let me get one thing out of the way. If you ever wanted a true definition of a Mary Sue, read Changes. You see, the Mary Sue concept isn't one of abilities or perfection (though those help), it is the plot black hole they represent. The protagonist in this book is the most important person in the world (literally), receives almost universal praise from most quarters, gets pretty much everything she could desire, lives happily ever after, and nothing really bad, dramatic, or dangerous really happens. There is the hint of tension at several points but, as described below, there are certain story and structure elements that destroy all the drama before it even has a chance to start.
The problems start to come in when the concepts of the 'reality' of how time and history work in this universe. The core concepts of the book (that all time exists simultaneously and that time lines can be altered and culled by anyone with the appropriate psychic training) do provide some interesting promise, but the way they are actualized in the story create a rolling cascade of issues that really break the book down as a fictional slice of cake.
It boils down to a few major, seemingly paradoxical, concepts. First, the concept of all time being simultaneous doesn't really hold out in how the events of the book work. The aliens, and later Earthlings, can alter time by changing events (which don't often require them actually doing the actions, which is strangely dissatisfying) ... but how does that work when all time is simultaneous, which suggests there cannot be true causality? Likewise, the book repeatedly talks about the existence of free will, but how can free will truly exist in a world where others can reset and alter their personal time lines, altering entire sequences of events, thereby altering those free will decisions? Finally, there are strange arbitrary limits on how often people can alter their time lines, with no mention on how this is enforced or even known to be. Maybe it's something touched on later in what is supposed to turn into a ten book series, but arbitrary, unexplained limits on what is essentially a 'magic' system in a fictional world is always a bit of a distaste for me.
The main story issue that this concept of time and time altering brings about is the total destruction of dramatic tension. Very early in Changes, we already know, from the characters that can see the future as well as future documents included, that everything turns out A-OK. The girl gets the boy, Earth turns out fantastic, and the main character gets a healthy, happy ending. We know this by (if I remember correctly) chapter 5 of a 30+ chapter book. Yes, you can argue that the meal can be no less tasty when you sneak in dessert early, but that's usually not the case. Knowing everything turns out great turns every attempt at adding some drama or tension to any point of the novel fall flat.
That is a key component of what really leeches the taste out of Changes. I could excuse the very strange time alteration parts (it is a fictional universe, after all) and roll with it, but the lack of dramatic tension, the lack of any real conflict and consequences (something that the writer tries to interject with the idea of 'Psi-P', the emotional backlash of choosing to go with time-lines that benefit others but are not the best for you personally, something that never gets written to have the real impact it could), just makes Changes a sludge of a book. It is simply tiring to read, with no real emotional high or pay-off. It's just not entertaining and that is the biggest sin a work of fiction can have.
You may be wondering where the spoilers were? Well, I saved that for last because I have to take a moment to chew the fat about something that may very well be opinion. This next bit isn't a critique of the book, which is why it comes at the end, but a critique of some ideas in the book (a very different thing). Changes has some very insulting and, to me personally, dangerous ideas about what is good about humanity. Humans are depicted in some cases as being so unable to cope with the idea of actual alien contact that they die or go crazy from the news. Like significant swaths of the population, at least before the aliens change history again. Not to mention there is an Appendix, as well as mentions in the main text, where it is shown that many human achievements in many areas, from the Underground Railroad to splitting the atom to most major religious figures (Jesus, the Dahli Lama, and others) were directly influenced by this alien collective, either through dreams or direct intervention. It frankly made my gut curdle to see so much of humanity's accomplishments turned into the results of alien meddling. Changes pains humans with a very savage and ignorant brush, laying our salvation and much of our past good points in the hands of our alien saviors. Now, about those aliens ...
The aliens in this world alter time repeatedly to change human history to make the Earth a better fit for their galactic collective. They banish people unable to conform with their way of doing things to a 'prison' alternate time line until they reform or die. They alter the biochemistry of the ENTIRE human race in one chapter to make them more receptive and peaceful without the consent of, well, anyone. They are fully telepathic and casually mind-read the main character (and the rest of humanity) for most of the book. In a different book, these aliens would be the worst kind of manipulative overlords. In this book, though, they are perfect, wonderful utopians. I find especially that their methods really don't jive with that 'free will' concept. How can you have free will when aliens are altering your biochemistry, psychically manipulating you, and implanting thoughts, dreams, and knowledge into you?
Wow, that went on for a while. Okay, so, how does this come together? This Changes Everything is a science fiction yarn that just has no drama or fun in it. Regardless of how you may feel about its philosophical or moral points, Changes breaks the cardinal rule of any fictional work, and that is to entertain. If you're looking for good, interesting sci-fi, look elsewhere. If you, however, are looking for a very unusual tract on philosophy and morals, you might want to give this a read, just don't expect to be entertained by it.
FINAL VERDICT: ** (Heavy on philosophy and moral tracts, without a single tasty bit of fun!)