Mammoth by John Varley


A solid sci-fi time-travel adventure with archeobiology and quantum physics. And an aluminum briefcase.

Pages: 341 (Paperbook)
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0-441-01335-X (9780441013357)

I've never read anything by John Varley, and I picked up this book in some bookstore on a whim, probably looking for a new read for an airplane trip or some such. Apparently Varley has a number of books, and the presentation reminded me of the usual pop-pulp Creighton stuff you find in big booksellers. Big typeface for the author name (more prominent than the actual title), stylized font for the title, and an endorsement by Tom Clancy. It didn't look good.

But upon reading, this turned out to be a surprisingly good read. It's not your usual boy-meets-time-machine yarn. This story presents a gimmick I don't think I've ever seen before (and I'm probably instantiating a Googlewhack or Statistically Improbable Phrase by saying it aloud). Mammoth revolves around what is probably fiction's first vacuum energy McGuffin. Yeah, you read that right. Go read the Wikipedia pages linked there and put them together in your mind.Vacuum Energy McGuffin. The time machine in this book is not created by the protagonist. It comes to him, out of the blue, from some alternate quantum reality (where perhaps he did design and built it -- this part is left Heisenbergly uncertain). But it doesn't work. The main character, Matt, tries to repair the time machine (at the behest of not-very-subtly Howard-Hughes-like benefactor Howard Christian), right down to replacing the batteries. But it inscrutably doesn't work. Until it does.

A brief wild fling back 12,000 years drags love-interest Susan and some woolly Mammoths into the story, and starts a convoluted plot of trying to save the mammoths, control time, and defeat the rich semi-antagonist (Howard Christian). All along, one question persists -- who was the modern human male originally found holding the time machine frozen next to the arctic mammoth carcass, and where did he get the wristwatch he was wearing? The obvious answer, of course isn't the real answer. In the end the story is more touching than you would expect, with a sub-plot of love and faithfulness spanning the eons. Even the antagonist turns out to be a reasonably decent and honorable guy, and everyone turns out mostly ok in the end. The most delicious part, and the most unexpected is the nature of the Vacuum Energy McGuffin time machine. Resisting the temptation to sew up every story line neatly and cleanly, Varley never really reveals the true origin of the device at all, and it disappears from the Feynman diagram of the plot, leaving it symmetrically only present for a closed-timelike-loop of 12,000 years or so, with no origin or destination. Voila, vacuum energy McGuffin on a macro-quantum level. It appears from the vacuum, interacts with other particles, and disappears leaving no trace other than its interaction. The entire device (the time machine AND the plot device simultaneously) is really much more subtly brilliant than most people would give it credit for.

I liked this book much more than I expected to, and that was a surprise for popular fiction. I will have to go and read some more Varley and see if his other works are similarly complex and enjoyable. It completely out-does Jurassic Park, which is the obvious comparison. And it manages to draw in a number of inferences to Otzi the iceman as well. I'd say if you like a decent sci-fi read and you're not concerned with the exact superstring theory behind it being terribly rigid (or explained at all!), you'll probably like this.

Mammoth (Paperback)

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