Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 154 (7/7) -- Meanwhile by Jason Shiga

Traditionally, the job of a creator of narrative artwork -- whether his format is a novel, a film, a stage play, a comic, or a panorama projected by magic lantern and accompanied by the obligatory stentorian voice -- is to tell a single story, with a beginning and an end, and only one path from one to the other. There have been exceptions to this, of course, such as Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch (on the literary end) and the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (on the other), but usually the reader looks to the author to decide what the story is and where it goes. (Insert standard early '90s rant about the Bright Shiny Future of hypertext, or the slightly dingier modern version retrofit as a pro-gaming argument.)

Meanwhile is another one of the great exceptions to that rule, a multi-threaded story about time travel, doomsday devices, memory transference, and identity, all set in motion by the choice of one boy to have a vanilla or chocolate ice cream cone. Jason Shiga, a cartoonist, game designer, and mathematician, has constructed an intricate story machine here, a book that must be read several times just to reach all of the pages. Many times during the story, Jimmy -- that boy with the ice cream cone -- has a choice, and those choices lead off to separate pipes connecting to different story outcomes. And all of this is executed in comics panels, an array of alternate versions of the same story that twist in and out and around each other -- occasionally overlapping, and often looping back to the same few big choices.

Meanwhile is a book that demands to be read more than once, and not just for the trivial reason of finding every ending -- the alternate stories all describe the same world, and the events in them all (through multiple trips in time, megadeaths, and lectures about alternate universes) have relevance to all of the different stories. As Shiga says in his opening note, "Meanwhile splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in DOOM and DISASTER. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success." Savvy readers, working through the manifold possibilities of Meanwhile, will realize exactly what kind of happiness that is, as they find the various flavors of DOOM and DISASTER (some of which might not seem purely disastrous, on first glance).

This is a brilliant use of comics to illustrate both real scientific principles -- Shiga elegantly explains Shroedinger's Cat, without ever naming the man or his feline -- and human nature, through the eyes of a Kid Everyman that any reader can project himself onto. Meanwhile was published for younger readers, but it's a deep and thoughtful examination of disaster, contingency, and possibilities for readers of any age. Experienced SF readers will particularly take a lot away from Meanwhile; Shiga elegantly sketches or implies things that we've seen worked out at tedious length a thousand times before, and makes them fresh and energetic.

It also has a few Easter eggs for those who make the effort to read the entire book -- two sections (one frivolous, one more serious) that can't be reached via the usual paths, at least two infinite loops, and another sequence that appears identical to one of those loops, until it suddenly diverges. Meanwhile is both carefully constructed and deeply entertaining, as well as just plain dragging readers in -- I had to read it quickly (and write up my thoughts about it now) because both of my sons were trying to read it over my shoulder and had to be shoved away bodily.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Okkervil River - Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979
via FoxyTunes

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