Book Review: The Sundered Worlds by Michael Moorcock (also published as The Blood Red Game)
In the distant future, Jon Renark comes to the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Migaa, where the criminals and misfits of the galaxy have gathered. It’s the closest world to where the Shifter System will at some point appear, their one chance to escape the rigidly ordered society that rules humanity. For the Shifter System normally exists outside the universe as we know it, orbiting into it sideways from time to time.
Jon Renark has also come to go to the Shifter System, but with a nobler cause. He is a Guide Senser, a powerful psychic able to detect the shape of things, down to the very atoms of a human body or up to the location of every star in the galaxy. And he has learned that the universe is contracting at a rate faster than the speed of light. Renark has a hunch he’ll find answers in the Shifter…somehow.
Gathering up his two best friends, technician Paul Talfryn and former prince Asquiol of Pompeii, as well as Asquiol’s current squeeze Willow Kovacs, Renark makes the dangerous journey to the Shifter when it appears.
Within the Shifter System, the normal physical laws don’t seem to consistently apply, and the visitors are immediately attacked by beings they will learn are called the Thron, absolute xenophobes whose lust to destroy all other intelligent life is indirectly responsible for the existence of the Shifter in the first place. Renark and his crew are rescued by ships from the exile planet Entropium.
Entropium, filled with the refugees of a dozen different universes, has one governmental law–do what you like, as long as you don’t try to tell anyone else what to do. It’s not a happy place, but everyone has to get along, as the other planets are worse, and there’s no leaving the Shifter system once you’re inside. Talfryn and Willow decide to play it safe and stay, leaving Renark and Asquiol to planet-hop within the system to learn the truth of the multiverse!
This book is some of Michael Moorcock’s earliest published work, cobbled together from two novellas. It’s primarily important because it introduced the Multiverse concept he’d use heavily in his future work. Later editions have a bit of editing to fix the multiple typos in this first U.S. printing, and to tie the story into his Eternal Champion cycle.
It’s not much like Moorcock’s more famous New Wave fiction, being space opera in the tradition of E.E. “Doc” Smith. This story is all about the big concepts, and characterization is told, not shown. In the first half of the story, Willow seems to exist solely to be a female character. She’s quickly consigned to the galley (and never does finish cooking a meal), then dumped on the first alien planet, not to be seen for a while.
There’s a bit of mild humor in a side character who’s a parody of “beat” musicians, on Entropium since the galactic government outlaws his kind of music.
In the second half of the story, Renark and Asquiol return from the Shifter System changed both mentally and physically by their discovery of the nature of reality. It’s impossible, it turns out, to save their home universe, but they can preserve large portions of galactic humanity by getting them on spaceships fitted with dimensional drives, and emigrating en masse to another universe. Renark stays behind for vague reasons, and is the last living mind as the universe shrinks to zero.
The new universe is already inhabited, and while Asquiol tries to negotiate with the natives, the story focus switches to Adam Roffrey, a rebellious type who’s barely stayed within the law up to this point. Now he deserts the rest of humanity, piloting his ship to the new position of the Shifter System.
Turns out Roffrey is the husband of the madwoman Mary the Maze, briefly met on Entropium in the first half of the story. She’s been missing a long time, and until now Roffrey hadn’t known where. Roffrey retrieves Mary, and as an afterthought Talfryn and Willow, and heads back to where he left the rest of humanity. An understated love triangle begins.
Meanwhile, the natives of the new universe have proved to be hostile, but they’ve challenged the invading humans to a game to determinate who will be master. The Blood Red Game consists of teams beaming disturbing mental images at each other until one side collapses. (The cover illustrates a hallucination caused by the Game.) The humans are losing badly, but Mary the Maze may be the key to victory!
Overall, some great concepts with two-dimensional characters who do things because that’s what the plot says they do. Mostly for Moorcock completists, and even for them I’d recommend the later revised editions.