Picoverse is the damnedest book I've read in ages. It's the privilege of SF to be far-fetched, but Robert Metzger's second novel abuses privileges with all the wanton glee of a coked-up rock star. There are parts of this novel where the "oh come on!" quotient is so high, you wonder if Metzger isn't engaging in SF's biggest act of collective leg-pulling since Kilgore Trout. Is this all an elaborate goof craftily disguised by thick layers of nearly incomprehensible cutting-edge science? If so, points for chutzpah. If not, hell, I don't know what to think. For my part, it was only after I worked out that Metzger wasn't really expecting me to take all of this seriously that the story started to work for me. And once the book's momentum was in full gear, I was going with it, right over the top. As an act of sheer devil-may-care creative bravado, Picoverse has few peers on the shelves today.
What Metzger has written in Picoverse is an old-school pulp SF story right out of The Outer Limits, dressed up in the arcana of plasma physics. The result is the craziest alternate-universe novel the genre has, in all likelihood, ever seen. Katie McGuire and her ex-husband Horst Wittkowski are physicists working on a highly advanced fusion project using an experimental particle accelerator called the Sonomak. With the threat of losing their funding looming, they suddenly find themselves under the sponsorship of the enigmatic Alexandra Mitchell. Alexandra pushes the experiments to their limits, and the resulting calamity results in the creation of an all-new universe, a picoverse, much smaller than our own but in many ways, a duplicate.
Metzger wastes no time in establishing that Alexandra is Up To Something, and when spiky metal tentacles sprout from her skull and pierce the brains of those she means to control...well, that's the point you either throw the book in the recycling bin or decide, The hell with it — let's see how much crazier this gets. Metzger doesn't disappoint.
It appears that even this universe is a picoverse, a copy of a much larger and vaster universe from which Alexandra originates. Alexandra is in fact a machine, on the run from authorities in her universe referred to only as the Makers. She has violated the protocols of her original programming — the intent of which was to prevent any new universe-creation from being undertaken.
Katie, Horst, and another colleague named Jack Preston chase Alexandra through the wormhole leading to the picoverse. They emerge in an alternate Earth of the 1920's, to find that Alexandra has come to the aid of Joseph Stalin — in fact, she's taken over his brain — and the Russians have launched a sucessful invasion of America that has left only a small pocket of free resistance operating in Colorado under the leadership of President Will Rogers. Tesla, Heisenberg, and Einstein (as a priest!) also put in appearances.
See, I told you this wasn't to be taken that seriously. And in fact, readers who try will probably come out hating this book with a passion mere words are inadequate to convey. But you can't deny that when Metzger gives his imagination free rein, he comes up with some astounding concepts — even if here and there his story suffers some confusion because of it. Suffice it to say that, as it accelerates towards it finale, Picoverse flatly defies simple summarization. Can our trio of displaced heroes catch Alexandra in time before her actions cause the destruction not only of the picoverse, but of all universes?
Metzger gives his readers enough explanation of theoretical plasma physics so that you can understand, at a basic level, what his characters are trying to achieve with the Sonomak. That he's so brazen as to incorporate such pulp fiction elements as super-powered characters who want to take over the world (Katie's autistic son has somehow been duplicated in the picoverse as an immensely powerful being calling himself Alpha) shows that he's all too aware that to the lay reader, this kind of advanced science might as well be magic. So he treats it as such, which will drive hard SF purists right up the laboratory wall. But I suppose Metzger isn't really writing hard SF here after all. With its over-the-top spirit of adventure redolent with the smell of pulp, and with its author's imagination spilling out all over like the proverbial horn of plenty, Picoverse might best be thought of as "hard sci-fi." Read it with a nudge, a wink, and with tongue firmly Krazy-glued into cheek, and you'll have a good time.