April 7 , 2009
To Your Own Self Be True
***** (5 stars) Novel Portrays How Science Can Reveal What We Instinctively Know
Following the successful, mind-bending plot of his first novel, “The Room,” Ray Melnik makes a triumphant return with his new book, “To Your Own Self Be True.” This second novel can be read alone, but several characters are the same as in “The Room.” While Melnik warned us in his first book that he does not write “science fiction” because “science is not fiction. It is a reality of the most all-encompassing kind” this second novel tends more toward typical science fiction than his earlier work solely because of its futuristic setting. “The Room” was set in 2006, the year prior to that novel’s publication, but “To Your Own Self Be True” takes place in 2021, a time when global warming has caused oceans to rise and air-conditioning to be a necessity, while technology has also improved life greatly in terms of communication and transportation. Still, it is a world not so far in the future to be unfamiliar to current day readers.
The main character of “To Your Own Self Be True” is Kaela, a twenty-three year old scientist, and the daughter of Harry Ladd, protagonist of “The Room.” Events from “The Room” are frequently referred to because they impact the plot of this novel. In “The Room,” Harry Ladd had experienced a fantastic but scientifically probable event that changed the course of his life. For years, he kept that event a secret, but finally, before his death, he revealed it to his daughter. Kaela has never known what to think of the story her father told her—she knows he is a man who relied solely on logic, dismissing belief in the supernatural or wishful thinking—so while she cannot prove or even be certain that the event happened, she knows her father was always truthful and believed in it himself.
Kaela was eight years old at the time of her father’s life-changing experience. Now grown up, she works in physics research for SciLab. In addition to her usual duties, she has been asked to test out a new type of UPA (Universal Personal Assistant). UPA’s have been around since 2013 but are being improved upon, and Kaela’s company has created one that is programmed to learn from people how to interact. “Adam” as Kaela names her UPA, is more than a computer. Responding to voice commands, it does everything she requests, including unlocking the house, heating the food, and paying the bills. Kaela soon begins to refer to “it” as “he” and develop a relationship with “him.” Adam even tends to pry, asking her how her day was, while trying to understand human relationships, emotions, and belief systems, and questioning her about whom she might marry. His mathematical and scientific abilities will also confirm the truth behind the story of the phenomenal event experienced by her father.
Kaela learns that her co-worker, Kyle, who has worked at the lab for more than fifteen years, was involved in experiments that occurred at the same time as her father’s experience, and these experiments affected what happened to her father. When Kyle reveals he had a similar experience to that of Kaela’s father, Kaela tells him she does not think he is crazy; when she shares her father’s experience with Kyle, they decide to try the experiment again. Kaela has her own personal reasons for wanting the experiment to succeed, although what results will be far different from what she initially imagined would happen. Ultimately, she learns to look inside herself to find the one thing missing that will make her feel whole.
Ray Melnik provides a more complicated storyline, with multiple plots that come together, in this second novel. The book has more scientific terminology than “The Room” but those unfamiliar with science will find it readable and educational. The novel revolves around M-theory, which we are told has encompassed disparate string theories about alternate universes—“The Room” was built upon the idea of String Theory. In one of the novel’s most enlightening scenes, Melnik uses the alternate universe theory to demonstrate the different courses the United States might have taken had the American people made different choices, including in a presidential election. While readers may not agree with the political and social commentary expressed, they are likely to appreciate and find themselves open to the possibilities of what the present and future might have been had certain events in history happened differently, and they may find hope in knowing it is not always too late to go back and correct past mistakes.
Thoughtful, Insightful, Philosophical and Skillfully Woven are the words that come to mind to describe “To Your Own Self Be True.” I have a feeling Melnik has only begun to explore the application of scientific theories to his philosophical fiction. He does not write to awe or dazzle the reader with robots, spaceships, extra-terrestrials or other typical trappings of scientific fiction; rather, he asks us to look inside ourselves, to think rationally, and to envision what we could be, based on the decisions we make. I hope Melnik’s third novel will not be too far in the future.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., author of “The Marquette Trilogy”
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