The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2020)

Cover blurb

Four years ago, two girls went looking for monsters on Bodmin Moor. Only one came back.

Lee thought she’d lost Mal, but now she’s miraculously returned. But what happened that day on the moors? And where has she been all this time? Mal’s reappearance hasn’t gone unnoticed by MI5 officers either, and Lee isn’t the only one with questions.

Julian Sabreur is investigating an attack on top physicist Kay Amal Khan. This leads Julian to clash with agents of an unknown power – and they may or may not be human. His only clue is grainy footage, showing a woman who supposedly died on Bodmin Moor.

Dr. Khan’s research was theoretical; then she found cracks between our world and parallel Earths. Now these cracks are widening, revealing extraordinary creatures. And as the doors crash open, anything could come through.

My thoughts

As I detailed in an essay, fiction writers have long found inspiration in trying to answer the “what ifs” of history: What if the Nazis won World War II? What if Rome never fell? This is the genre of alternate history, where authors imagine worlds where human history diverged at some point in the past. Some writers have gone further than the few thousand years of recorded history to explore even greater changes — Earths where natural history rather than human history went in a different direction. The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky takes this more expansive view of time, creating worlds where the course of history diverged millions of years before humans evolved. It is a fun read with creative takes on speculative evolution, but unfortunately the book gets bogged down in metaphysical technobabble and an absurdly high-stakes plot.

The Doors of Eden opens with two young lovers — Lee Pryor and Elsinore “Mal” Mallory — traveling to Britain’s Bodmin Moor in search of a mysterious animal. This isn’t the infamous Beast of Bodmin Moor but rather a strange “birdman” creature caught on grainy security camera footage. The trip quickly takes a terrifying turn and Mal disappears without a trace. Several years later, Mal reappears, reaching out to Lee via phone and asking to meet in person. We are then introduced to U.K. security agent Julian Sabreur, who has his hands full protecting physicist Kay Amal Khan from a group of Proud Boys-type thugs. A raid by the thugs on Khan’s home leads to several deaths apparently perpetrated by Mal and a mysterious, primitive-looking man. Even more problematic for Sabreur is a string of evidence linking the attack on Khan to Rove Denton, one of Britain’s most powerful businessmen. Denton has taken an unhealthy interest in the physicist’s top-secret research and it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the universe rests in stopping him.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers at a minimum as half the fun of The Doors of Eden is following the unfolding mystery, but I haven’t revealed much by saying the plot revolves around the concept of parallel universes. The novel’s main narrative is occasionally interrupted by excerpts from a fictional pop-science book detailing alternate timelines where evolution arrived at intelligence long before humans showed up. This is where the author’s world-building chops are on full display as he crafts a variety of radically different societies based on whichever prehistoric animal is pushed toward sentience. It is a shame we get to explore only three of these worlds in the main narrative, which is more concerned about the reason the parallel worlds exist in the first place.

The first half of The Doors of Eden reads like a mystery-thriller as the characters slowly piece together the truth of their situation while being pursued by shadowy forces. The second half is a more straight-forward science fiction novel as the plot delves into stopping a threat to all existence. I preferred the first half, which was much more focused on unraveling the central mystery while exploring strange alternate Earths. The latter part of the book gets too wrapped up in the fringe science underpinnings of its universe, with the author throwing out hand-waving explanations involving quantum physics and world-spanning supercomputers. As a result, the book’s most interesting premise — the exploration of Earths where evolution took a different course — gets placed on the back burner. This is not a book where the existence of alternate realities needed to be explained or the multiverse had to face a Doctor Who-level menace. A less ambitious plot would have given the author breathing room to explore his more original ideas instead of tread the same ground as countless other sci-fi works.

I’m coming down hard on the novel but the truth is I enjoyed it. The characters are fun and better developed than most fiction of this type (except the villain, who is practically twirling a mustache), the world-building elements are superb, and the plot moves along nicely despite the book weighing in at a hefty 600-plus pages. Paleontology nerds in particular will get a kick out of its various twisted timelines. I may have some reservations about where the story ultimately goes but I recommend reading the book.

Trivia

  • One of the worlds featured in The Doors of Eden is an Earth where several non-avian dinosaur lineages survived past the asteroid impact that caused the K-Pg extinction. In an afterword, the author explains that this world is based (with permission) on “dinosauroid” world created by C.M. Koseman and Simon Roy, which can be explored in detail here.
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of several science fiction and fantasy novels and stories. His website is ShadowsOfTheApt.com.

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