Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: Interworld, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

An interesting tidbit in the book's "Afterword" mentions that Interworld was originally planned as a television series in the mid-90s. That idea was scrapped however, as there was concern over the audience base, and the story was later written into a young adult novel in 2007 (and a now completed trilogy). That concern over the audience is legitimate, as authors Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves can't seem to decide whether to aim this at a younger audience or an older audience. On one hand, the science behind the story is surprisingly complex. It's so complex that there were several passages that went way over my head, but those were the moments that intrigued me the most. On the other hand, the plot goes the usual way of young adult action stories, with paper-thin characters and an improbable showdown between the good guys and bad guys. If Gaiman and Reaves stuck with one or the other, they may have had something.

Gaiman fans may recall Neverworld as they read Interworld, as both stories are about a character who somehow has the ability to travel to parallel worlds. In Interworld, that character is Joey Harker, a high school student who has absolutely no sense of direction. That is, until he realizes he has the ability to Walk. Walking means to travel between the different parallel universes through a space called the In-Between. To Walk requires an innate ability to understand the In-Between, which Joey has. He doesn't realize this until the day of his social studies final exam, given by his teacher, Mr. Dimas, whose teaching methods seem questionable. The exam puts students into groups, blindfolds them, and sets them off into a random part of town, from which they must make their way back to school. Joey, of course, gets lost, and in his panic, he Walks.

During his Walking, Joey bumps into an armored stranger who wants him to follow him. Panicked yet again, Joey flees and Walks into another group of strangers who use magic to put him under their spell. This is when we learn who the first stranger is. His name is Jay, and it is his recorded journal entry that changes the novel from mundane young adult fiction into something much more interesting and complex. Joey Harker's ability to Walk is not his alone, or maybe it is, but also the infinite versions of Joey Harkers that exist in all of the parallel universes. Jay is one of these. These Joey Harkers have different names, all beginning with the letter J, and some are different sexes and others are different species (one has wings, one is like a werewolf, one is a cyborg), and all are different shapes and sizes. Joey, amongst all of these, is the plainest, but, oddly enough, plainness is usually what makes one a hero in stories like this.

Jay rescues Joey and, after some plot turns I won't reveal, gets him back to the home world, the Interworld, a base that floats from universe to universe, untrackable except by Walkers. Here we learn that the construct of the Altiverse (which contains the infinite universes that frequently pop up) is like a spectrum. Instead of our political spectrum of left and right (democrat and republican), the spectrum falls between magic and science. Some worlds are entirely magical, and these worlds produce persons who can use magic. The worlds based on science produce very sophisticated technology. Then there are worlds in between, that have a little of both. Our Earth would fall more in the science side, but close to the middle of the spectrum. This spectrum is important, because a balance must be kept. However, two organizations, HEX and Binary, fight to make the Altiverse fit squarely into only one side, science or magic. Interworld's job is to make sure the balance remains intact. Thus we have themes of not just science vs. spirituality, but the damage wrought by humanity's turn to extremes.

The story is peopled with many characters, though none are very complex. Just as is the case for many young adult adventure stories, most of the characters are just names with one character trait, and even Joey is paper-thin for a hero. It seems Gaiman could have made a much more interesting story out of one of the other versions of Joey, such as J/O, the cyborg with a Napoleon complex; or Jo, the winged girl; or Jakon, the werewolf girl; or Josef, the tanky kid whose version of Earth has a very strong gravity. The most interesting character of all is Hue, a mudluff, or a creature that resides in the In-Between. The In-Between is apparently peopled with mudluffs, who are supposedly dangerous, but Hue is the only one we meet, and he is hardly dangerous. Hue is a bubble-like creature who can change colors, which is how he communicates. He grows loyal to Joey and also serves as a plot device to move the story forward at several key moments. It's difficult to imagine the story working without Hue.

The main trouble with the story, however, is choosing its audience. It begins with the young adult audience in mind, with a kid worried about impressing a girl clearly not interested in him, and the usual teenage concerns written into such stories. Then the story grows more thematically complex, and it dives pretty deep into the science behind parallel universes, as Joey gets some schooling in Interworld, a la Harry Potter in Hogwarts. In this stretch there were moments of humor and moments of philosophy, and also a surprisingly touching moment involving Joey's mother. But then the story leaves behind the complexity and dives yet again into the young adult story formula. Not that I mean to degrade the young adult genre, but there are certain conventions some authors use that clearly mark a story as young adult, and those conventions are so predictable that it is difficult for adults to enjoy. That's where Interworld heads, which is a shame. I was beginning to feel that this was going to be another masterwork from Gaiman, but instead grew disappointed.

So who does this appeal to? Not to adults who would like something more from the plot, and not to teenagers who may grow bored with the lengthy passages dealing with the science. It's a very strange novel, in that regard, and makes me wish that authors didn't aim to make a story young adult, but trusted in the ability for young adults to enjoy a good story. Gaiman's Graveyard Book is aimed at young adults, but is written in such a way that adults can enjoy it as well. The misstep in Interworld is Gaiman and Reaves' belief that teenagers could be smart enough to understand or enjoy the science, but without realizing that teenagers that smart would also desire something more than the easy-to-predict storyline. This paradox makes it difficult for me to know who to recommend the novel to, except fans of Gaiman who are willing to read anything he writes.


  1. I've always wondered about these books. I'm one of those read-all-Gaimans but I'm still not sure I want to read this series. Maybe it's better to skip it and just stick to rereads.

    1. I think that's a good plan. I don't think I'll continue the series, but there are some other Gaiman books I need to read.