Alternate-realities puzzler that first appeared in the U.K. in 2004, from the author of Pashazade (2005).
Grimwood’s dense, enigmatic, almost quantum-entangled tale opens in Paris, where a tramp in a tweed coat reads that U.S. President Gene Newman intends to visit Marrakech, and resolves to assassinate him. The attempt fails—not by much—and the tramp, captured by U.S. anti-terrorist forces, becomes Prisoner Zero, the sole inmate in a prison on a desert flyspeck in the Mediterranean Sea. Various bigwigs arrive to interrogate him, but Prisoner Zero—he talks in his mind to something he calls the “darkness”—smears his cage with feces, upon which he inscribes astonishing and revolutionary mathematical equations dealing with zero-point energy. Meanwhile, in alternating, almost obsessively detailed chapters, young mixed-race boy Moz, who becomes infected with a brain-enhancing parasite, and his friend Malika struggle to survive in the pitiless streets of 1969 Marrakech, where Moz becomes friendly with rock-star and mathematician Jake Razor, upon whom he is instructed to spy by the Moroccan police. In a third strand 5,000 years into the future, a wrecked Chinese starship’s last survivor is revivified by an alien intelligence out by a Dyson sphere; the upshot is a new Chinese empire spanning 2023 worlds and hundreds of billions of people. Its 53rd emperor, Zaq, loathes his circumstances—he dreams of Prisoner Zero and believes that all the people that inhabit his vast palace—eunuchs, functionaries, concubines, generals—are mere projections of the Library, and he suspects that his sponsor, the “darkness,” also known as the Library, made a fundamental error when it encountered his remote ancestor.
Brilliantly imaginative, moving with the crystalline precision of a Swiss watch, Grimwood’s demanding accomplishment should be avoided by those who think the author should do all the work.