Did you ever finish a book and say to yourself: “What the hell did I just read?” That was the feeling I got after reading King of the Worlds by M. Thomas Gammarino.
King of the Worlds is technically an alternate history, but with a strong dose of science fiction and some secret history just for flavor. In this timeline, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is an unparalleled success leading to an increased interest in science and a fat budget for NASA. Coupled with some discoveries in quantum mechanics, humans learn a way around light speed in the 1990s and soon discover that not only are Earth-like planets plentiful, they are also populated by human-like aliens, proving that those low-budget sci-fi shows of the 1960s were right all along.
In fact, humans learn a horrible truth about themselves in this brave new universe: they are the only hominid species who wages war or destroys the environment. Thus world peace is declared, the environment is cleaned up and everyone treats each other better on Earth…motivated more out of shame due to their past mistakes than any actual conviction, but whatever works, right?
To give Gammarino credit, he actually did manage to create an optimistic future, which clashes nicely with the life of the main character, Dylan Greenyears. Dylan was once the “king of the world” after being the lead actor in the hyper-successful E.T. 2: Nocturnal Fears, a proposed sequel to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial that was never made in our timeline, but was directed in this one by Terry Gilliam. Dylan becomes so famous he is invited up to the secret pleasure camp inside the Moon (this is where the secret history shows up) and is offered the lead role in Titanic, but one bad day on set gets him kicked off the project and he takes his new wife into exile to the planet of New Taiwan to become a teacher.
By the time our story takes place, Dylan is an unhappy family man who is obsessed with his one brief moment of fame. His mid-life crisis leads him to message old fans for random sexual encounters (including one with an insane Mormon fundamentalist) and track down the whereabouts of one young fan who appears to have disappeared from Omni, the near-omnipotent super-computer that Google will probably evolve into any day now.
To sum up King of the Worlds, its a dark comedy (which I guess is just the definition of “tragedy”) full of 90s nostalgia, which I enjoyed since I’ve always considered myself a child of that decade, rather than the 80s, which has been popular recently. It also had moments of relevant commentary on today’s society that hit right on the nose. Plus the characters had real depth and even some of the side characters were memorable. I also enjoyed the use of the unreliable narrator. Multiple references to Dylan thinking he is going crazy or fearing he will become a senile old man do provide a theory about what is exactly going on, notably in the later half of the book.
That said, King of the Worlds has a lot of issues. First, there were many moments where I felt I was being lectured to by the author, which I found killed the pace of the novel. This happened mostly when characters discussed happiness or religion, especially Mormonism. The book also has, if you pardon the pun, the old hearsay that the discovery of alien life would mean the end of religion on Earth. I talked about this in my review of The Last Exodus, so if you want a good summary of it go and read that, but to reiterate: most human religions are flexible enough to survive first contact. Suggesting that “backpedaling” will drive people away ignores the fact that almost all religions, especially Christianity, have backpedaled to some extent as we learn more about the world we live in. Aliens won’t change that.
Then there are all the graphic depictions of sex in King of the Worlds. To be fair, Gammarino isn’t the first or only author to provide the messy details. My idol Harry Turtledove does the same thing in many of his earlier works, although his recent novels have toned it down considerably. That said, I generally don’t enjoy such scenes any more when I do find them. I admit this is just a personal preference and I can’t think of anything particularly wrong with it, but unless it is integral to the plot, I don’t need to know what was stuck in where.
Finally, King of the Worlds is very meta…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dylan comes off as a stand-in for the author, which is very apparent when Dylan travels with an up-and-coming godling across the multiverse to observe multiple versions of himself (like I said, this book gets weird). One of his versions is a writer/English teacher who lives in Hawaii…which Gammarino actually is. Again being meta or breaking the fourth wall is fine, authors do it all the time, but I am not sure if it was handled well in this book.
King of the Worlds was an enjoyable read, if for shock value alone. Yet I felt some of the crazier page turning moments detracted from the overall message I thought Gammarino was trying to get across: that you shouldn’t be obsessed with being happy all the time. Not a bad message, but boring lectures and bizarre (yet entertaining scenes) don’t always communicate said message well. While I actually liked Gammarino’s rule breaking (I’ve always been told not to put yourself as a character in your own book) I feel like some distance between author and main character would have worked better.
Granted I always feel weird stating what the “message” of a book is, because I honestly admit I could be way off base on it. So let me finish my review by saying: I actually am happy I read King of the Worlds. At the very least, it was a page turner that always found a way to draw me back in after a scene or two that didn’t work. If you like weird, absurd, meta fiction, then check out King of the Worlds, but if that isn’t your cup of tea…well I can’t say I blame you for not trying it.