Friday, October 19, 2007

Into the Multiverse: A Review of Paco Ahlgren’s Discipline

As we settle into the 21st century, amid unending, questionable wars; escalating gas prices and the undeniable existence of Global Warming; a growing reliance on ubiquitous computing; and an ever-enlarging sense of coming Change (whether it be the far-right Christian Rapture or the mostly misunderstood implications of the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012), there is a growing focus on quantum theory and the idea that our universe is one of many, all existing in parallel (a collective entity called the multiverse). Within this multiverse are infinite probabilities and the ability to create our own destinies and realities on a daily basis. Films like What the Bleep?!? and the numerous theoretically accessible titles in quantum physics from writers like Fritjof Capra, Daniel Pinchbeck, Fred Alan Wolf, Michael Talbot, David Bohm, and Gary Zukov (or self-help systems like “The Secret”) give the interested reader lots to think about as he or she struggles down (this) life’s path.

One writer, first-time novelist Paco Ahlgren, has taken these ideas and married them with the fundamental theories of chess and international finance in a compelling new novel called Discipline (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2007).

The story is so intricately woven that any story-based elements in this review would only serve to lessen the ultimate enjoyment of the reader, so I will stay general with my remarks.

Ahlgren is an excellent storyteller, able to present complex theories in a conversational and easily accessible way. There is a danger of losing the audience when talking about international monetary systems, trading in futures, and the intricacies of chess in a mass-market novel, but Ahlgren never comes close. His main character, Douglas Cole, is intriguing enough that we follow his every move (whether at the chessboard or saving the world) with interest and I was interested in hearing his thoughts and explanations.

In a compelling twist on the teacher–student relationship, Douglas has two mentors, each with a very different approach to his education. While each of the relationships brings to mind such partnerships as the Star Wars pairings (Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan, Darth Vader/Emperor, Luke/Obi-Wan), Carlos Castenada/Don Juan, and Dan Millman/Socrates, the double mentor device opens up a world of possibilities for Ahlgren, and he takes advantage of all of them.

In the spirit of The Matrix, Equilibrium, and films and stories that tackle time travel and parallel universes, this subject matter brings up some thorny problems of story structure, plausibility, and readability, and again, Ahlgren succeeds with each of these challenges. He never writes over his head, and takes the time to explain the theories and circumstances that many authors don’t, for fear of slowing down the narrative. In addition to the illuminating conversations and first-person passages in the book, there is a helpful reading list at the back, which makes the case that virtually everything that takes place in Discipline could, when considering quantum physics and its parallel field of spiritual manifestation, actually happen. I found myself on more than one occasion putting the book down and giving thought to what had just transpired—given what I know of quantum physics and what Ahlgren shares in the course of the narrative, there is a remarkable plausibility to the fictional events he depicts.

He obviously did his research—when Douglas’s little brother has life-threatening asthma attacks, the story reads like a diary—such is the level of realism and detail.

Every good story has its villain and Discipline is no different. Groeden calls to mind the great Stephen King antagonists and helps to ground the fantastical in the everyday cruel. As elegant as Ahlgren’s writing is when he is fleshing out complicated theories he can be brutally cruel and vivid in depicting violence, and this book certainly has its share. I found the combination to be one that works amazingly well.

Pay attention to the section headings, dates, and the little details of seemingly unimportant meetings, places, and events. As you complete the book you’ll want to go back to them a few times (or more) and see what you gathered and what you missed.

Paco Ahlgren is one of the promising new writers of a promising new age. I look forward to seeing what comes next. Visit for more information and check out the Discipline book trailer while you’re there—it’s another sign of things to come.

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