Published by Viking A Hundred Thousand Worlds on June 28th 2016
Genres: Literary Fiction
“A Kavalier & Clay for the Comic-Con Age, this is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.” —Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints
Valerie Torrey took her son Alex and fled Los Angeles six years ago—leaving both her role on a cult sci-fi TV show and her costar husband after a tragedy blew their small family apart. Now Val must reunite nine-year-old Alex with his estranged father, so they set out on a road trip from New York, Val making appearances at comic book conventions along the way.
As they travel west, encountering superheroes, monsters, time travelers, and robots, Val and Alex are drawn into the orbit of the comic-con regulars, from a hapless twentysomething illustrator to a lesbian comics writer to a group of cosplay women who provide a chorus of knowing commentary. For Alex, this world is a magical place where fiction becomes reality, but as they get closer to their destination, he begins to realize that the story his mother is telling him about their journey might have a very different ending than he imagined.
A literary-meets-genre pleasure from an exciting new writer, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a tribute to the fierce and complicated love between a mother and son—and to the way the stories we create come to shape us.
I should have gotten a clue from the constant comparisons of this book to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I have always intended to read but have not actually managed to get around to.
I somehow expected A Hundred Thousand Worlds, with its immersion into geek culture, to remind me at least a bit of Ready Player One, but it doesn’t. Probably because those Hundred Thousand Worlds are based in the here and now, so any resemblance to real people has to be at least thinly, sometimes very thinly, disguised.
At its center, this is a book about the relationship between one mother and her rather singular son, as they travel across the United States in a road tour of local and regional Comic Cons. It probably helps the enjoyment of this story if the reader recognizes a significant chunk of the insider references.
I’ll confess that as someone who has attended a couple of Comic Cons, but most of whose fannish life involves Worldcon and other book-based science fiction conventions, I recognized some of the people and situations disguised, but possibly not enough. And the things that I almost got drove me crazier than the ones that I either got completely or went whistling over my head.
For example, while I’m positive that Alex’ friend “Idea Man” is a version of Josh Whedon, Alex’ mother Valerie Torrey feels like an more like the character that Sigourney Weaver played in Galaxy Quest than any actual person. And the show that died in such tragedy feels like a mash-up of Firefly and Babylon 5, but I suspect the second antecedent is something else.
Your warp speed may vary.
In addition to the plot thread of the boy Alex and his mother Valerie, there’s a second string plot of comic book creators who hang out in Artists’ Alley at the various cons and are all looking for their first big break with one or the other of the national comic book franchises. Those franchises are thinly disguised versions of Marvel and DC. The way that the lone female comic creator is treated both by her company and the media is all too reminiscent of recent events in geek culture. And a lot of the commentary on geek culture in general and comic book culture in particular seems right on the money – at least from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
One reviewer said that this story sprawls, and it certainly does. It’s a long trip, with a lot of detours. For this reader, a few too many of those detours were in Alex’ point of view. As a nine-year-old, Alex seems to be living as much in his imagination as in the real world, and what he was doing and thinking about didn’t always gel for me.
There is a central tragedy in this story. One that happened in the past but is still playing out in the present. The reveal is slow and sometimes halting, which fits in with what happened and how it still affects all the people involved. When things finally come to a head, it’s quite lovely, but it was sometimes a slog getting there.
I have mixed feelings about A Hundred Thousand Worlds. There are parts that race, and parts that drag as long as the miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. Those who are most invested in the story about Valerie and Alex may bounce off the geekier aspects. As a reader who came for the geeky aspects, I didn’t enjoy the story as much when it switched back to that relationship.
As a consequence of those mixed feelings, I give A Hundred Thousand Worlds a B-