Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Club: Fair Coin

The book club is not dead, long live the book club! After a loooong hiatus, John, Hillary and I decided on a new book to review together: Fair Coin by E.C. Myers. 
We originally decided on it after reading this article that promised that the book would be "pure awesome crack" - which seemed to be a pretty good description of a book to go after. 
I have to say that I vacillated between liking it a lot and being rather disappointed by it throughout the reading experience; disappointed not because it was bad, but because it could have been so much more. 
It started out in a clever guise of a young adult magic novel where a troubled teen finds a coin that grants wishes when flipped and starts making changes to his life that (SHOCKINGLY) take unexpected and undesired turns, in a classical "be careful what you wish for" morality-infused story line. This is where I got most annoyed with the protagonist Ephraim: it just seemed so shallow and similar to what I read when I was twelve that I was a little upset with the io9 author which suggested it could be seen as Sci-Fi adult literature as well. 
Hillary does a wonderful job in laying out a female perspective on why Ephraim is unrelatable as a character which I also agree with fully (hint: it has to do with his treatment of women, particularly the girl he likes...) This interpretation also head-on collides with the io9 author's perspective that "a lot of books, dealing with the premise of a young guy who gets an insanely powerful artifact, would try to spin out the plot by having the main character be kind of a selfish jerk, who gets corrupted by all that power and makes things worse and worse until he finally repents. ... Myers, very wisely, avoids that pitfall and makes Ephraim both smarter and more likable than that storyline would allow." I disagree; Ephraim seems aware that his wishes are wrong for the most part, and tries to correct them relatively early in the game, but the fact that he is a thoughtful outsider and not the football-playing jerk makes it even harder to sympathize in a way. This first part, I kept half-identifying but then being thoroughly taken aback by his decisions, always thinking "you know better than that!" 
HOWEVER (spoilers after the jump; suffice it to say that there is a lot more to the story than that and if you like your elements of surprise you will only find out about it when you read it ;)...
... once you realized that the coin was in fact, not magical, but a technological devise that let Ephraim access different parallel universes, the story picked up big time. There was also the nice touch of the more experienced friends of Ephraim laughing about him thinking it was a magical coin, which then reflects on the reader thinking it was a magical coin and feeling a little stupid (well, that was me, anyway). It also referenced beautifully what older generations might say to our technological devices of today, and made me think of a podcast I listened to recently about time travel and how only because we can't imagine things today doesn't mean they couldn't be possible tomorrow. Anyhow, back to the topic at hand.
Then, for the next couple of chapters, I really loved how the incongruousness at the beginning started slowly to fall into place as the story continued. This is hard to do and it's especially hard to lead the reader there (I remember being thoroughly frustrated with the Prisoner of Azkaban when I was around 14 because I didn't. get. it.) and I felt Myers did a good job there, as well as letting the reader discover the awesomeness of parallel universes along with Ephraim. 
However, here comes my second-phase disappointment: once I realized where Myers was going, I expected SO much more. I read the book a couple of weeks ago and most of what I remember is Ephraim just jumping around in different universes, sometimes with guns, sometimes without them, trying not to accidentally kill any of his or his friends' 'doubles' (this will make sense if you read the book) or get killed himself. It got old very quickly. I felt there was so much more potential, particularly when Myers mentioned a world in which the USA was at war with the Soviet Union (at present day) and one in which the area that Ephraim lived in had never been settled and was still pristine wilderness - there was the perfect set-up for an epic political and/or culture-critical twist and it just never came. Maybe I was just expecting too much from a young adult novel though (that thought still irks me because I have read freaking intelligent YA novels before. No excuses.). 
Furthermore, the final showdown and plot resolution felt very heavy-handed. John mentioned something similar (though he was a little more kind) and I whole-heartedly agree: this might be a personal pet-peeve, but if there is a specific set-up that is resolved surprisingly easy, especially through a character revealing a factoid about the rules of the game that completely changes the rules and the previously unmanageable situation, it feels like an easy cop-out and leaves me unimpressed. 
I wish I had liked the actual story line more because so much of Myers' imagined world and the underlying thought process is fascinating. I was less familiar with multi-verse theories than John and thus Fair Coin really made me think about what my other doppelgängers would be like, and how facts of my life have influenced me as a person. It also brought up interesting ethical questions: if you face your doppelgänger in a different universe with no way back into your own, how far would you go to take their place? How would you take their death? Is that you in any way more than any other random person? 
Overall, I am not sure I would recommend Fair Coin as alternative adult SciFi, though it was a solid easy read and I think my 14-year-old self would have liked it a lot. However I will make sure to look into Crichton's Timeline, the other book about quantum physics that John recommended, because I love the topic - and I am a major geek.

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