by Tom Holt
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although Tom Holt has generally been pigeon-holed as a humor writer, like Terry Pratchett, from early in his career he has taken breaks from writing about the early exploits of mythical beings, to focus on historical fiction, such as The Walled Orchard or A Song for Nero. More recently, Holt has written more straightforward science fiction novels hidden behind titles which seem indicative of his humorous writing. The most recent of these is Doughnut, the story of Theo Bernstein trying to piece his life back together after he caused the destruction of a major scientific facility.
Opening with hints of comedy and the destruction of the Very, Very Large Hadron Collider (VVLHC), Theo quickly finds himself without a job, without money, without friends, and with an ex-wife. He manages to find a job for himself at a slaughter house. The only positive thing in his life occurs when he gets word that his former grad school advisor, Pieter van Goyen, has died and named him sole heir to the confusing contents of a safety deposit box. This also leads him to a job in a hotel that isnít a hotel, discoveries of family secrets he never knew, and the exploration of parallel worlds that ranged from an androphobic 100 acre woods to a Venice in the sky. In an apparent inability to break away from the humor of his previous novels, Holt provides Theo with an easy escape from these worlds, he simply must look through the hole of any doughnut available at any doughnut stand.
The setup seems rife for comedic possibilities but Holt grounds his story in mathematical theory and hypotheses of multiple worlds resulting in a novel which veers away from the comedic at every possible chance. Instead, Holt dips his toe into the philosophy of discovery and scientific method. At times Theoís explorations are reminiscent of Larry Nivenís short story ďAll the Myriad WaysĒ but shies away from the defeatism of that work.
Peterís colleagues at the hotel, where Theo finds himself working, clearly have secrets they are trying to keep from Theo even as they are trying to guide him to their inexplicable goals. Theoís frustration at the lack of information forthcoming from Peterís friends at the hotel and the realization that his estranged sister and dead brother are somehow involved in the catastrophe that is now his life, pushes Theo to try to figure out whatís happening even as he doesnít want to assist the people around him.
Unfortunately as Theo gets closer to his goal of finding out whatís happening, the reader begins to question the relevance of his discoveries, leading to a novel which is ultimately about the fundamental questions of the universe in a way that doesnít make it seem important. Instead of earthshaking discoveries the outcome of Theoís research nearly seems like a petty family squabble, and makes the reader want to reach for a doughnut.
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