There are certain books that just have your number, that were designed by an algorithm specifically for you. And one of the many, many different books crammed inside A Hundred Thousand Worlds — Bob Proehl’s sweet, charming, and just a little overcrowded love letter to geek culture — certainly has my number.
That book is the story of Gail Pope, a nerdy young woman who went to college at my alma mater and upon graduating started writing feminist pop culture critiques. As A Hundred Thousand Worlds opens, she’s a comic writer.
Gail spends the book trying to reconcile her love of the medium with her distaste for the industry’s casual misogyny, trying to carve out a space in comics for the kind of story she wants to tell. She’s conflicted, tough, and witty, and I would read a hundred thousand books about her.
But Gail’s story is one of many in A Hundred Thousand Worlds. At the heart of the book is the relationship between Val, an accomplished stage actress best known for starring in the cult sci-fi show Anomaly (read: Gillian Anderson analogue) and her son, the 9-year-old, comic-book-loving Alex.
Val is taking Alex across the country to live with his father — her former Anomaly co-star, Andrew — and stopping at a series of comic conventions along the way. As they travel, Val tells Alex about her past with Andrew, and that past blends and combines with the plot of her old TV show until they become difficult to distinguish from one another, to Alex’s mingled confusion and delight. Their resulting mother/son bond is right on the border of co-dependent, so specific in its sweetness that it manages to avoid becoming saccharine.
Val, however, is less a realistic character and more a portrait of what TV fans want their favorite actresses to be like: She’s beautiful, kind, empathetic, and she knows every single episode of the show that made her famous by heart. Val will never have one of those awkward convention panel moments where a fan asks her what her favorite line was and she has to explain, cringingly, that she doesn’t really remember episodes word for word, that being on a TV show was her job eight years ago and she hasn’t retained every detail of that show’s mythology. No, Val loves Anomaly as deeply as its fans do, and knows it just as well as they do.
As they travel from con to con, the story of Val and Alex butts up against a whole plethora of other stories: the story of Gail and her career aspirations; the story of a struggling indie comic artist, Brett; the story of the women paid to cosplay in skimpy outfits along the con circuit; the story of Anomaly’s showrunner turned agoraphobic idea man; and the story of a deluded and murderous fan. And interspersed between chapters are vignettes about the lives of various comic book characters, all more or less in the style of Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible — a little arch, a little winking, a little gritty.
It is a lot. A whole lot. And while it can be fun to watch these stories intersect and play off one another, the overall effect is overcrowded. Dropping one of A Hundred Thousand World’s storylines would have given the remaining characters much-needed room to breathe and develop. As it is, you get the general sense they would be interesting if they were given the space, but you can’t quite be sure.
Still, despite the crowding, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is remarkably coherent and consistent in its core themes. It believes wholeheartedly in the power of story, cherishing the idea that we can learn about ourselves and the world around us through the tales we tell one another.
The book is definitely one to read if you get misty-eyed over storytelling and geek culture makes your heart sing.