Australian science fiction and thriller author Max Barry has done arcane conspiracies (Lexicon), satire (Jennifer Government) and space wars (Providence) so it is perhaps no surprise that he has moved on to multiple world theory in his latest book The 22 Murders of Madison May. With its delightfully onomatopoeic title, the book is based on the idea that every small decision creates a completely new reality and that there are people who have the ability to jump from one reality to another. While there are rules specific to Barry’s conception of this narrative device, as long as readers can accept this premise and not ask too many questions, this is a great thrill ride.
The book opens with what appears to be the random death of estate agent Madison May. News reporter Felicity Staples, not usually involved in the crime beat, is sent to investigate. That investigation will lead her to a man who gives her a strange egg-like object and pushes her in front of a moving train after which she finds herself in another, almost identical world – but a world in which she only has one cat (not two) and her boyfriend Gavin is slightly different. In this version of reality Madison May is a drama student and she is again killed.
[Felicity] felt her own brain struggle to make sense of it, as if it was one of those illusions that would change from one thing to another as you looked a it: bird, woman, bird, woman. What am I looking at? Student, real estate agent. Inside, outside. Yesterday, today. She felt afraid to move, as if she might disturb the tablet and the image and headline would disappear.
Before long Felicity has encountered a group of people who can jump between different versions of reality. This group are, among other things, trying to stop a serial killer who is killing his way through versions of Madison May that do not live up to his ideal.
As one of them explains:
‘You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.’
Barry lampshades his scenario by having Felicity visit a friendly professor of quantum physics. He both mocks the whole theory on which the book is based (‘I think it’s extremely ridiculous, even for Multiverse theories.’), and then provides a pseudo-scientific explanation for the effect:
‘You see, one of the problems with the idea of travel, if there really is an infinite array of universes, is that most of them would kill you… With information conservation, however, it is impossible for a traveller to inject something new into the destination universe… And this means he must arrive in a universe like his own, which contains a copy of himself to replace. All other possibilities are unreachable – filtered out.’
Multiple world theory is a well-used science fiction trope in a long list of books, movies and TV shows. So much so that even the multiple worlds/crime thriller combination is not necessarily a new one. Some great recent examples of the trope include China Miéville’s The City and The City, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, and TV series like Counterpart and The Man in the High Castle. In order for these to work, particularly where there are potentially an infinite number of alternate worlds, there have to be some rules. Barry’s rules include ideas like “moorings”, which allow travellers to constrain the variables of the realities they visit, and specific timing constraints so that travel can only happen at specified times, when bubbles of reality come close to each other. Much like another very popular science fiction trope, the time loop (think Groundhog Day or Russian Doll), this conceit allows Felicity to learn from her mistakes and get better at completing her mission (saving Madison) with each reality she visits.
While it is undoubtedly pacey and enjoyable and builds to a tense and explosive finale, The 22 Murders of Madison May raises more questions than it answers. The first of those may be the most existential which is: if there are literally infinite versions of someone does any of this matter? And if it does matter then why is Felicity so blasé about essentially wiping out other versions of herself when she drops into a new reality while also leaving a Felicity-sized gap in the universe that she leaves behind (a rule which does not allow her to return to her “home” reality”)? Or as she puts it herself:
…the woman had been replaced, and Felicity’s arrival was like Dorothy entering the land of Oz in a spinning tornado house, landing on the Wicked Witch of the East and squashing her flat.
How does every traveller end up in the same reality? And it is never really clear what the group trying to stop the killer really want to achieve, because they have wider motives. The questions go on, as they tend to with speculative fiction of this type, but the pace is so relentless there is little time to think about them before the next set piece.
The 22 Murders of Madison May is what is often termed a “high concept” thriller. Barry has built a fairly standard journalist v serial killer narrative into a multiple worlds framework. Accepting the premise at face value and being prepared to enjoy the ride is the key, because on that level Barry delivers a page turning thriller with an engaging and relatable protagonist up against an implacable, resourceful enemy clashing in a series of well-staged, escalating set-pieces.