Wednesday, 7 August 2013

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) by Ingrid Jonach is the author's first book for young adults (her earlier works are for younger readers) and the first book to be released by Strange Chemistry by an Australian author.

This book was awesome and a lot about it was not what I had expected. I have to say, prior to reading, the title conjured up images of a love story set on the flat world at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree... for some reason. This book is (unsurprisingly) nothing like that. And, in fact, the title doesn't really make sense until about halfway through when mysteries start to be revealed. That is part of the problem with writing this review; I want to talk about a lot of the things that come up in the second half of the book, but that means a lot of spoilers. If you don't care about spoilers (although I think you should in this case because not knowing adds to the mysterious vibe of the first half), you can read my spoilery thoughts under the jump and also by highlighting the white text.

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) is about Lillie, a teenage girl in small-town USA who starts having weird and disturbing dreams in which she dies, every single night. And not just dies, is murdered by a figure in a balaclava. Her resulting unsettled demeanour gives the narrative a dream-like quality with a dark vibe that I really enjoyed. Probably my favourite thing about the first part of the book is the eeriness Jonach effectively evokes with her writing.

A reasonable amount of the story involves Lillie's interactions with her two best friends, Jo and Sylv, and their former-friend, now-cool-girl-enemy, Melissa. Jo and Sylv were less thoroughly detailed characters than Lillie (as often happens with first person narratives) but they weren't two dimensional, both with their own issues which, although we only see the surface, hint at complexity. Sylv wants to be a model and in her day-to-day, hams up being a "slut". Of course she cops flack for it from the cool crowd, but doesn't really care what anyone thinks of the image she's projected. Jo has to deal with her father's cancer after his relative absence in her younger years and issues at school which I won't spoil. There isn't much change in the main group's relationship with Melissa throughout the book — the popular girl exists mostly to be annoying. I wondered at first if there might be some sort of reconciliation with her during the story, as I've seen in other YA books, but thinking back on my own high school experiences, that doesn't seem realistic and — more importantly — would have sidetracked the main thrust of the book.

The main thrust, of course, being Lillie's nightmares and the mysterious new boy in town, Tom. She does spend a lot of time dwelling on him, but I was glad to see her being annoyed at his "hot and cold" attitude towards her, before his mystery was revealed (which is a spoiler). I also liked that while there was another boy in the picture, he was never a serious love-interest for Lillie and Jonach avoided a pointless love-triangle (huzzah). On the other hand, I thought Lillie's feelings towards Tom jumped to "love" a little bit too quickly, but I was willing to overlook that given how much I was enjoying the book otherwise.

You might be wondering why I've tagged When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) as science fiction but haven't talked about the SF aspects at all yet. (And if you know me at all, you'll know that I can't refrain from talking about science for very long.) That's because the science fictional premise is a massive spoiler. If that doesn't bother you, I do talk about it below the jump. If you're after hard science fiction, this is not the book for you. The scientific concepts, when they do come up, are introduced in a very hand-wavey way, which works in context and serves to reduce potential errors, but hard SF it does not make.

When the World Was Flat (And We Were in Love) is an excellent read. Even if you ignore the premise and just look at the mundane interactions between the characters, it doesn't read like a stock-standard YA yarn. The mood evoked by the writing sets it apart from many other YA novels. I recommend it to YA fans looking for something a little bit off the beaten track.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: the publisher, via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

More discussion below and in white, but beware of spoilers! I have also included non-white headings for you, in case you only want to be spoilt on some topics.

Tom, the love interest

The only thing about the book that irked me was that Tom, the love interest for a lot of the book, was much older than Lillie in absolute terms. It reminded me of Twilight — with less-creepy stalking — and other vampire/supernatural old dude plus teenage girl books. I was worried, while I was reading, about how it would pan out, but I was ultimately very pleased with how Jonach dealt with the issue. (Hey, I'm not spoiling everything.)

The science fictional element

The science fictional premise is based on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The idea that every possible choice spawns a new parallel universe, so that every possible choice happens in some universe, even if a different choice was made in your universe. Tom (and a bunch of other people from his universe) are able to travel between universes and, in fact, are compelled to do so because their original universe was destroyed. So far so good. And in explaining how the physics of travelling between universes works, Jonach was vague enough to not technically be wrong, for the most part. Except some of the bits about Einstein. It's true that Einstein was working on a theory of everything when he died (a popular past time of notable scientists), but the book does not accurately portray Einstein's views of quantum mechanics. Despite helping to develop the theory (notably the quantisation aspect), Einstein was against one of the fundamental tenets of quantum mechanics, probability. He famously quipped, "God does not play dice." And, unfortunately, the idea of many worlds arises from the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. So, given that Einstein died still in denial, it strikes me as unlikely that he would have embraced it if he'd lived a few years longer (as he did in Tom's universe). In that respect, name-dropping a few other (quite frankly, less clichéd) physicists would have helped, especially given the lead time between Einstein's death in 1955 at the age of 76 and the events of the novel set roughly in the present. I would've maybe gone with Hawking.

And there's also the fact that many worlds doesn't technically allow for a bunch of universes spawned by human choices, but by slight variations in the wave function of the universe itself. But I'm happy to overlook that, as the latter doesn't make nearly as compelling a story.

Oh and the equations thrown about in the book were a bit random, but not, y'know, technically wrong, so I was willing to overlook that as well.

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