I was really looking forward to Gary Gibson‘s Extinction Game, as it combines two of my favorite concepts: parallel universes and post-apocalyptic settings. But while I found it a generally pleasant read, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was a bit disappointing, perhaps because of those high expectations.
The premise is so great I’m shocked that it hasn’t actually been done before. Jerry Beche, one of the few survivors of an extinction-level, planet-wide plague, hasn’t seen a person for years, so he is understandably surprised when he finds a set of footprints outside his home. He is even more shocked when the people those prints belong to abduct him and then explain they are from a parallel Earth that has also suffered its own extinction event. Even better, they work for a mysterious entity (is there any other kind of entity?) called The Authority, which is overseeing a kind of exploratory salvage mission through a series of post-apocalyptic Earths. Of course, being a “mysterious entity,” hints soon crop up that the Authority might not be as benevolent as they want to seem, and is in fact holding back some crucial information from their “Pathfinders,” the group of explorers Jerry becomes a member of. It also turns out that some of what the Authority is hiding might have a more personal connection to Jerry.
In many ways, then, Extinction Game, is less a post-apocalyptic novel than a conspiracy/murder investigation novel. That isn’t to say we don’t see a decent number of end-of-the-world scenarios, some of which are more original/interesting than others, including an asteroid strike (which actually becomes a tourist event by visitors from the Authority’s Earth, a nuclear war, a rogue brown star (one of my favorites), and an engineered virus that left one Earth filled with strange bee-human hybrids (one of the most original and another personal favorite).
The plot is solid, though I’d say large parts are pretty predictable. Gibson makes no bones about the Authority having some ulterior motives, but I wish they’d been a bit more surprising. Jerry’s more personal mystery has an underlying premise I liked quite a bit (I’m avoiding spoilers here), but its resolution felt somewhat flat. The novel kept my attention for the most part, but unfortunately its weakest section came toward the end, where it devolved into too much talking, with too much plot being revealed not by action, but by second and even third-hand accounts through dialogue. And worse, dialogue that was more summary than anything else. I’d also say the plot was harmed by one of my personal pet peeves — people just not talking to one another (at one point, I wrote as a note, “Just tell them!”).
Gibson does a better job with the characters and their inter-relationships. Jerry especially is sharply formed, starting off with his introduction as a man nearly driven insane by loneliness (he spends a lot of early time talking to his dead wife). His Pathfinder mentor, Nadia, is also a strong character, and I liked his relationship with her quite a bit. I also thought Gibson did a good job presenting a diversity of characters, not just in the usual sense (racial, sexual), but also in the varied responses to the end of the world. On the downside, Jerry does fall a bit too quickly into a romantic relationship for my liking (to be fair, there is an explanation for this), and I wished for a stronger, better defined villain.
The prose style was solid; if it wasn’t noticeable for any particular richness or lyricism, than it also didn’t distract for worse reasons. And if Extinction Game didn’t quite meet my hopes for some wildly inventive and richly detailed apocalypse-Earths, Gibson has left himself open to revisiting this group of people and this universe(s). I’d like to see what he might do with a follow-up.