Dran Florrian’s latest invention, the capstone of his scientific career, sits in the hold of the transcontinental airship he is traveling in. Palimpsest, a way to access parallel universes, is a powerful invention, powerful enough that a rival of his, and an ex-lover, would do anything to get it. In short order, the scientist is learning that espionage and feats of daring aboard an airship, and damage to Palimpsest itself, soon mean that it’s not just Dran that is fighting for the object with his antagonists, but his own counterparts in parallel universes are struggling with their counterparts in other worlds. And Palimpsest itself may have ideas about its, and Dran’s, future.
Patchwerk, by David Tallerman is a novella from the Tor.com novella publishing program.
A light, fast read, Patchwerk works as an extended conflict across multiple universes, as Dran and his antagonists struggle over and over for the fate of Palimpsest. We get to see a wide variety of Drans, and Harlans, and Karens, as well as worlds and cultures given glimpses at. Not only are the people same, but different, but the circumstances of their world, from the vessel they are traveling on, to the technology used, all cycle through inventive variations. Only the monolith like Palimpsest remains a fixed node, the MacGuffin of the story that everyone and everything struggles around. Tallerman does a great job of both narrowing the scope of the conflict to the three individuals, and also with the parallel universes and alternate worlds, making it seem that the scope of the conflict is limitless. It’s an excellent balancing act.
If I do have a criticism, it is a formatting issue. After the first and surprising switchover in protagonist, I think the shock and surprise of the fact that such changes can happen are lost. As a result, I think the text might have been better formatted if the switchovers, once the concept is established, were more directly flagged, perhaps with a line break. In that way, the switchovers go from surprise to something to look forward to — who will Dran be in THIS iteration, and will it help him get back the Palimpsest. It is a testament to the author’s writing skills that the action beats do not falter, especially when things are flying fast and furious, and Dran’s nature, and the nature of the world around him, is in constant flux. Patchwerk is eminently entertaining, and a lot of fun.
Alternate worlds and multiple universes have been my jam every since I first read of Random and Corwin’s drive across shadow to Amber in Nine Princes in Amber, and I’ve, too, written stories using the concept. The work that Patchwerk reminds me most of is the late Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, where alternate versions of protagonists feature strongly in the narrative and plot. David Tallerman’s Patchwerk fits delightfully well within the tradition.