John Brunner’s 1974 Web of Everywhere is a stand-alone science fiction novel.
Skelters supplied humanity with inexpensive global teleportation1. Island paradises were but a step from vast cities. Likewise novel plagues, irate terrorists, and savage bandits were but numbers on a keypad away from vulnerable populations. Faced with a rising tide of chaos, governments lashed out with nuclear weapons. Two thirds of the human race perished.
Decades later, two men visit an outpost of the long-dead world before the Blowup.
Poet Mustapha Sharif has his own reasons for illicitly breaking private skelter codes and visiting empty homes. Mustapha requires a companion on his foray because Mustapha is blind. At the moment, his partner in crime is would-be historian Hans Dykstra. Mustapha has already had to murder a disappointing confederate. Hans will prove even more disappointing.
Mustapha spent the decades after the Blowup establishing himself not merely as a wealthy man, but as one beloved by his Egyptian neighbors. Hans, conversely, is not as rich and not at all beloved. He does, however, possess a valuable status symbol: a wife. In a world where men outnumber women five to three, married men are respected.
Because he values status too much to think of divorcing his wife Dany, he finds himself stuck in a loveless marriage. He loathes Dany because she is older, unattractive, loud, and stupid. When she inadvertently spoils his latest set of photos, Hans spitefully denies Dany the chance to attend a party put on by Chaim Aleuker, noted explorer. Hans goes in Dany’s place.
The world’s elite have enemies. By gathering his friends and allies in one place, Chaim has made them a convenient target. As armed attackers massacre the partiers, Hans escapes via skelter, taking with him one of the revelers.
Anneliese Schenker is a souvenir retrieved by Chaim from an expedition to Brazil. She is the last survivor of an isolated community and is utterly unfamiliar with the modern world.
Hans and Anneliese materialize at Hans’ house and find an unpleasant surprise. Dany has committed suicide in Hans’ absence.
Hans sees this as an opportunity. Perhaps he can upgrade from old, ugly Dany to the much younger, pliable Anneliese. All he needs do is lie convincingly. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, Mustapha, Hans’ employer, is becoming increasingly unsure of Hans’ reliability. Perhaps it is time to take firm steps to ensure Hans does not become an unwanted complication.
I first read this book as a distraction after I placed a large boulder on my hand playing cards, after which, having reached civilization, I closed the window of my hotel room on my broken finger. I am therefore confident that this is a book that holds attention even under trying circumstances2.
As the cover makes clear, this is another entry from Frederik Pohl Selections, Pohl’s eclectic line of science fiction stories. There were eleven works in the series: Commune 2000 A.D. by Mack Reynolds, Star Rider by Doris Piserchia, Hiero’s Journey by Sterling E. Lanier, Web of Everywhere by John Brunner, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, The Towers of Utopia by Mack Reynolds, Tetrasomy Two by Oscar Rossiter, Triton by Samuel R. Delany, Science Fiction Discoveries edited by Carol Pohl and Frederik Pohl, and A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia. I have reviewed (with this volume) six. The only thing protecting you from a complete run of reviews is my memory of how dire the Reynolds is. As for Dhalgren, that’s bit beyond my limited attention span at this time.
Web of Everywhere is a dystopian hard SF novel, playing with the potential consequences of a novel technology. While society’s leaders hope they’ve saved the world, event suggest they may be kidding themselves. The Skelter may be to our civilization as [whatever it was] was to the Bronze Age.
Web is also a crime novel focusing on two miscreants. It says a lot about how thoroughly unpleasant Hans is that Mustapha is the more sympathetic of the pair. (Mustapha exploits his wealth and position to acquire an abundance of underage bed partners3) But Mustapha’s crimes are offstage4, whereas the novel minutely details Hans’ efforts to isolate and manipulate Anneliese.
This book is not pleasant reading. It is, however, engaging. It’s fairly clear that Hans will not succeed in his various schemes, but it’s not at all clear how they are going to go wrong. Witnessing an unpleasant man get his comeuppance is a pleasure often denied in real life.
Web of Everywhere is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo). I did not find Web of Everywhere at Chapters-Indigo.
1: Skelters are not just cheap. They are easy to construct from common household components. This means that there is no central source of skelter components, which in turn means that this genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
2: Long time readers may remember that the other book I purchased in Huntsville was Darker Than You Think.
3: Mustapha is certain that all of his underage bed partners were willing and happy… but then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
4: Among the many important ways Mustapha differs from the rest of the planetary elite is that he does not isolate himself from the masses. Instead, he makes a point of ingratiating himself with those around him. Hence, unlike Chaim, he does not have armed mobs invading his home. He is regarded highly enough by his neighbors that they find ways to convince themselves that anything he does is for a higher cause.