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Paths to Otherwhere by James P. Hogan
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Bristling as always with one remarkable idea after another, James Hogan gives us a startling and compelling new take on one of SF's favorite chestnuts, the alternate universe. In Paths to Otherwhere, alternate universes — plural — is more like it. This is one of the first, and one of the most energetic, SF novels inspired by quantum physics' mind-bending Many Worlds Hypothesis.

It is the not-too-distant future, and the world is torn by geopolitical strife which may well lead to global warfare. In the midst of all this, a small group of Berkeley researchers led by charismatic young Hugh Brenner is extrapolating upon the idea that there are possibly an infinity of so-called alternate universes, in which all historical possibilities have occurred and are occurring. What's more, they've developed a machine that can tap into these other realities. But of course, so has a government agency eager to perfect the machine for intelligence work in the hopes of avoiding worldwide calamity. Said agency has taken notice of Brenner's talent, as well as that of a colleague (and not to mention their sudden threat as a perceived security risk), and the two men are inevitably scooped up to work for the more advanced team the government already has in place.

As Brenner and his new co-researchers experiment further with the technology, they begin to see all sorts of possibilities. Just imagine if all the knowledge gleaned from numerous Earths were pooled. Just imagine if, on some counter-Earth, Shakespeare wrote a play he never wrote here. But there is one bizarre drawback: Brenner and his teammates often find themselves suddenly being "plucked" out of this reality, and deposited into the bodies of themselves as they exist in another reality. Similarly, they are often briefly "inhabited" by alter-egos of themselves who are popping over from their realities.

At first this is a startling diversion. Then it is seized upon as a chance to glean knowledge, and tests get underway to attempt to control and direct the process. Yet looming over everything is the governmental defense agency running the show. For them, the machines being tested are for military and intelligence use, first and foremost. So Brenner and his team press forward, following instructions, while pursuing their own researches on the side to see exactly how far they can go, how extreme the deviations can become from their own reality. Finally they stumble upon an alternate world they name Otherwhere, where existence is a peaceful, humanistic idyll so appealing our heroes begin contemplating a permanent transfer. But does the government have other plans...?

When Hogan was still in his hard SF period, he was always a skilled enough storyteller to make the scientific premises of his stories accessible to non-science trained readers, and so there's no need for any advanced degrees to follow the action here. (Good for me, in other words.) Paths to Otherwhere is executed with consummate skill. If your tastes don't happen to run towards hard SF stories full of characters spouting physics shop talk, this may not be the book for you. But by no means is it the least bit dull. I find myself drawing comparisons to Crichton. Whereas both Hogan and Crichton utilized hard science as the basis for their thrillers (at least, before both men took a left turn into pseudoscience and even antiscience towards the end of their careers and lives), Crichton typically veered towards Hollywood action formula when it comes time to deliver the excitement his readers want. Hogan could excite his readers just as much, but intellectually as well as viscerally. Paths to Otherwhere, perhaps underappreciated in his overall oeuvre, is another trophy on his mantle.