I got this book from the library when I happened to see it a couple weeks ago because I am interested in the author. Jane Jensen is a game designer – best known for the Gabriel Knight series of adventure games. She currently heads the independent game studio Pinkerton Road, which has a completely new business philosophy – community supported gaming (based on the model of farm shares and community supported agriculture). I had reasonably high hopes for this book – she is adept with character and dialogue, her games are very well-researched and rooted in history and a sense of place. The only books of hers that I had read, the two Gabriel Knight novelizations, were decent (the second one, The Beast Within being less tied to the exact elements of the game and therefore better than the first, Sins of the Fathers). I hoped that in a non-game-related novel, her prose style would be more well-developed, and I was looking forward to a historically-situated thriller-type book with a moderate fantasy/sci fi twist.
And that’s what I got, for the first 225 pages. It unfolds slowly at first, mixing elements of mysticism and a pinch of sci-fi. Four characters – a particle physicist, an Orthodox rabbi, a flaky tabloid journalist, and an agent from the Department of Defense – are closing in on a secret discovered by Yosef Kobinski, a physicist and rabbi who wrote a kabbalistic manuscript in Auschwitz and then disappeared. This manuscript contains a fundamental truth that could be used for spiritual enlightenment, but could also be adopted to create a uniquely dangerous weapon. Each storyline unfolds on its own, but just as they begin to converge and things seem to be perfectly situated for a cross-European, gun-swinging, action-packed second act, the book takes a complete left turn and turns out to be about something else altogether.
The book describes three axes of the soul borrowed from Jewish mysticism – logic/intuition, openness/restriction, and inward-looking/outward-looking. The scientist-type personality (that’s me) might be logical, open and inward-looking, whereas a right-wing moralist, for example, would be intuitive, judgmental/restrictive and outward-directed. The book posits that that these fundamental qualities are part of the physical universe as well as the mental/spiritual realm. What Kobinski discovered, and the scientist character rediscovered, is that underlying our universe is an equal balance of “good” and “evil” – a force that causes things to cohere and one that causes them to fall apart. These are both necessary forces – creation is needed to make sense of chaos, entropy is needed to give value to creation. Because we have an equal mix of positive and negative forces, our world is at the center of the three axes – we are as logical as we are intuitive on the whole, as restrictive as we are merciful. However, there are other universes, those that have a different ratio of positive and negative force. These universes are skewed along one or another of the three axes.
Just as the book is becoming most thrilling, when the characters have all come together for the first time, they are all simultaneously sucked into some sort of “miniature black hole.” They are each pulled out of this world, and because they are unbalanced in their own souls, they are drawn into the universe that most closely reflects their own internal imbalance. Thus, the Orthodox rabbi who too rigidly adheres to the rules of his faith finds himself in a world of spiritual and physical restriction and judgment while the scientist who rejects human contact in favor of the ambitious pursuit of her theories is drawn to a soulless world of technology.
As soon as that happens, when the characters are drawn into entirely separate universes, it is no longer a book about keeping a dangerous new potential weapon from being created, but is instead about redemption and learning the true nature of the self. The alternative worlds reflect their own complement of good and evil in both the laws of physics and in the characters of their inhabitants. On some, there is cold and crushing gravity, on others heat and lightness. Some have advanced societies, others struggle along in hunter-gatherer mode. In some, individuals pursue only their own pleasures, in others, citizens are subsumed in the will of the state. Although some of these worlds seem to be more heaven then hell (containing as they do more creative force that destruction), they each still reflect the darkness that the characters carry within their own souls – too much openness and lightness means that life cannot be truly valued or appreciated.
There are no easy answers to be drawn from this novel. This is, more than anything, a book of ideas. The characters, even the best of them, can be surprisingly cruel or heartless or thoughtless. Still, they are well-written. Jensen has an empathetic grasp of human nature – her characters may be designed to reflect imbalance in a particular way, but they each still felt unique and alive (with the possible exception of the government agent – I’m not sure she had him totally figured out). It is a unique sort of book with regards to the question of faith. One man can learn the nature of the world and see God’s plan at work, while another woman can see only the beauty of the laws of nature. Jensen doesn’t insist that either character is right. It does seem a little strange to place our own world at the most balanced position. I do not think this is the best of all possible worlds, and things feel increasingly unbalanced in this world – I don’t see the countervailing positive force that will offset the destructive way we’ve changed our climate, for example. The book presents a philosophy that is both bleak (nothing can reduce the amount of evil in this universe) and hopeful (every person, no matter how flawed or damaged, can redeem him/herself). The only, and best, thing each person can do is face his/her own flaws, to find a place of perfect balance.