The first thing you should know about Patchwerk by David Tallerman is that I found it hard to finish on my first attempt. I received a review copy of the novella from Tor about three months ago, sprinted through half of it, and then put it aside for an onslaught of video games and comic books which I deemed more worthy of my time. It was only on my second attempt that I managed to finish the story.
The second thing you should know is that the novella relies very heavily on a gimmick to work, and it was one I didn’t quite like on my first attempt. In order to talk about this story, I have to talk about that gimmick, so consider this your SPOILER WARNING.
The third thing you should know is that knowing the gimmick ahead of time made my second attempt at this story much more enjoyable.
Patchwerk is a short science fiction novella (the .pdf I received was around a 100 pages, though Amazon.com is listing the page count closer to 150) about Dran Florrian, a scientist turned spy who is covertly shipping his world-bending invention across the ocean. It’s a gamble, and like all gambles, falls through: A group of…let’s call them terrorists takes control of his machine and attempts to kill him.
As far as plot and character go, Patchwerk isn’t going to break any grounds. It’s a fun little action/adventure scifi story at its core and doesn’t try to do much more than that. However, what sets it apart is that little gimmick I mentioned earlier.
Dran’s invention, Palimpsest, is heavily rooted in the multiverse, and in fact, can glimpse and view other planes of existence. This fact is treated as a somewhat big reveal and mentioned halfway through the novella (around page 50), though how it actually affects the characters within the story starts much earlier, around page 24.
As Dran makes his way through the novel, Palimpsest jumps him through the multiverse, changing him and his surroundings as the story advances. These changes are done abruptly (I imagine in an attempt to be seamless), and I found them very jarring and strange. The first time reality shifted, I thought I was staring at a bunch of typos since all of the names were spelled slightly differently. I also thought I had missed a very big deal of world building since the characters went from human to anthropomorphic insects.
It was frustrating, especially because Dran wasn’t confused at all. Everything was normal, except nothing was normal.
By the third or fourth shift, I figured out what was happening, so when the big reveal arrived, I wasn’t all that surprised. In fact, it made me shrug and think something along the lines of, “short pieces of fiction are great for experimenting, and interesting ideas can be annoying in practice.” It’s never good when a story makes you doubt the editing of an author or publishing house.
However, on my second read, I did quite enjoy this little reality-jumping gimmick. It added some spice to an otherwise obvious scifi story, and looking back, the jumps are all done for very specific reasons. There’s more depth in Patchwerk than had I originally thought.
It also becomes the source of some amazement, since there’s a lot of world building done in a short amount of space. In the span of paragraphs and even well-placed names/nouns, I could garner much of why Dran’s dystopian future was such a dystopia, and this goes from the first version of reality to the last.
It takes a good deal of skill to do that, so bravo Mr. Tallerman.
As far as characters go, Dran is fairly alright and likeable. He’s a scientist first and a spy second, but as it turns out, he’s a pretty terrible spy. He knows just enough to not die, but not much more than that. It adds tension and makes certain sequences either very impressive or very amusing, and his lack of skill certainly makes him more relatable. His goals turn a bit topsy-turvy when he runs into his ex wife, but the relationship subplot going through the book manages to work.
It helps that Dran’s wife, Karen, is pretty cool.
The only character I really didn’t like was the villain, who came off as rather boring and obvious. He’s a bit of a sociopath, but not the fun kind like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He just exists to drive the plot and be the bad guy.
Perhaps the best part of Patchwerk is how it turns the “mad scientist” idea on its head. Dran isn’t evil or crazy, yet his invention is so dangerous that he might as well be Dr. Evil drilling his way into the Earth’s core to set off every active volcano on our planet. It’s fun, because even though he means well, his authorial intent doesn’t really matter.
Conversely, the villain is as evil as Dr. Evil but not a scientist!
Patchwerk is a bit of a mixed bag. With the gimmick’s frustration out of the way, it becomes a pretty fun little scifi story with solid action and a likeable protagonist, though it also doesn’t aspire to much more than that. The gimmick is interesting in theory, yet in practice I found it kind of aggravating. It is well-written though, so if you’re desperate for this kind of story, you could do much worse. I’d say go for it if you’re willing to spend what Tor is asking for on a novella.