Proehl’s multisided take on geek culture (mixing fandom, creativity, and business) pulsates with colorful insight and ugly truths.
A Hundred Thousand WorldsPublisher: Viking
Length: 368 pages
Author: Bob Proehl
Publication date: 2016-06
It’s often said that there’s no emotional bond more unbreakable than the one felt by a mother for her son or daughter. In fact, some would even argue that this connection is inherently stronger than the one forged between a father and his offspring. Regardless of its validity, this notion makes for a compelling storyline, such as in A Hundred Thousand Worlds, the debut novel by Bob Proehl.
Taking place around a few comic book conventions, the effort centers on how an impending child custody exchange affects a nine-year-old boy (Alex) and his mother (Valerie); along the way, several colorful ancillary characters and situations arise, which make the narrative compelling as both a narrow family drama and an exploration into nerd culture. As appealing as much of it is, though, the journey also feels underdeveloped in major ways, so one can’t help but wish that there was more poignancy and plot (and less padding) in the process.
The main conflict here arises because (as the official synopsis states) Valerie “fled Los Angeles six years ago -- leaving both her role on a cult sci-fi TV show and her costar husband after a tragedy blew their small family apart.” In other words, rather than share custody of Alex with his father, Andrew, as was the legal agreement, Valeria kept Alex to herself all along, and now Andrew demands to have this lost time remedied by taking full possession of Alex for the next two years.
Thankfully, Proehl nails the most crucial element of a tale like this: the aforementioned link between Valerie and Alex. For example, she continuously calls him “Rabbit”, which is endearing, and she commonly keeps him quiet and secure by recounting the scripts of the show she and his father starred in, Anomaly (an analog of The X-Files). Proehl ensures that Valerie’s concern for him, no matter how selfish or overpowering, is very genuine and essential to who she is; Alex is her everything, and she simply can’t face life if he’s not in it. Likewise, Alex is acutely aware throughout the book that something is bothering her (especially during her most distant moments) so, modeling the superhero stories he adores and writes, he acts as her guardian, too.
Take this following exchange as proof of how well Proehl captures this complexity:
In the dark, they are not sleeping. Alex shifts against her and, thinking he might be wriggling free, she pulls him in tighter, closer.
“Mom?” he says. A sound of upward-swooping birds, a sound headed skyward.
“You don’t have to be upset,” he says. “You don’t have to be sad.”
As he says this, Valerie knows it was never Alex she was protecting from this moment. He is so much stronger than she is. She can remember every fall he ever took and how each time her heart leaped into her throat, and how each time he popped back up and continued on his way as if nothing had happened. She wasn’t protecting him; she was protecting herself.
Because his mother is routinely stuck representing Anomaly at various pop culture gatherings, Alex spends a lot of time wondering the convention floors alone, lost in his adventures and/or entering into precocious, often humorous conversations with other artists. It doesn’t take long for him to befriend Brett, who draws the semi-successful Lady Stardust (which his creative partner, Fred, writes). Eventually, circumstances push these players together, and Brett and Alex spend much of their time developing their own comic. Although it’s a bit clichéd, there’s no denying the bittersweet chemistry between the two, as Brett more or less becomes his mentor and father figure.
Sexism and homophobia have always been issues in the comics industry (just as they have in almost every other industry, sadly), and Proehl uses Gail, the lively and ambitious yet outspoken and jaded writer of The Speck & Iota, to explore these problems. She frequently questions the status quo of male dominance, which also leads her to lament her own glass ceiling situation. Her strongest moment comes during a dinner with other major genre players, including Alistair Sangster, “the Dark Wizard of Comic Books ... the Mad Brit”. Everyone else is in awe of him as he pontificates, yet Gail can’t help but call him out on that fact that in every book he wrote “that ran for more than a hundred pages, there was a rape scene, or at the very least a scene of attempted rape or sexual assault”. It’s during moments like these that Gail truly comes alive.
This scene also demonstrates another intriguing aspect of the work: the ways in which Proehl alludes to actual pop culture figures, fandoms, and fictions. Aside from the Anomaly/The X-Files connection, there’s little doubt that Sangster, with his eccentric appearance and revered yet controversial catalog, is an amalgam of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Elsewhere, there’s a British show called The Curator about a man who “every few years ... becomes a completely different person. And the audience has to decide whether they like this new person or not.” (Doctor Who, anyone?) Lastly, there are a few entertaining encounters between artists and fans peppered throughout the narrative, as well as a recurring group of hired fangirls who seamlessly become the Diviner, Prospera, and Ferret Lass, among others. Together, these components provide much of the text’s vibrancy and fun.
Though touching and engaging overall, there are a handful of major issues with A Hundred Thousand Worlds. For one thing, the “tragedy” that sets everything in motion is barely acknowledged; readers are told what happened quickly and, while certainly impactful and devastating, neither the perpetrator nor the incident is given sufficient weight. Both feel more like afterthoughts than crucial components, which is disappointing.
Similarly, the core plot (about Valerie, Alex, and Andrew) is too often put aside in favor of following other, less vital plot advancements. Brett and Gail lead their own paths, and despite some logical connections between them all, neither’s arc is developed or critical enough to warrant how much attention they take from the main draw. Lastly, Andrew doesn’t have the depth he should because he’s not justly fleshed out. Notwithstanding plenty of anecdotal details, his actual presence isn’t strong enough to make him a substantial character.
A Hundred Thousand Worlds isn’t as memorable or meaningful as it could be, but it’s quite absorbing nonetheless. Alex, in particular, elicits a lot of compassion and charm because he comes off as a real kid, and almost all of the people around him are thoroughly distinctive and charming in their own ways. Proehl’s multisided take on geek culture (mixing fandom, creativity, and business) pulsates with colorful insight and ugly truths, too, so really the novel amounts to two compelling halves (narrow family drama and exploration into nerd culture) that work well on their own yet never congeal adequately into a single vision. Still, there’s a lot to like here (especially for fans of the mocked medium), making Proehl a promising new fiction writer.