Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Adam Peter Johnson is without question one of the more promising authors to have arrived on the scene recently, having published his first novel, Branches, in 2020 and received a fair share of acclaim for it. The story follows a man who discovers that not only is he in the wrong timeline, but there’s also a remedy for it. With the world around him headed for catastrophe and chaos, he takes the plunge, and begins a surreal trip of seemingly endless second chances.
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Adam Peter Johnson Opens Alternate Realities
The idea of getting the chance to do things differently, of being transported into an alternate reality where events have unfolded in alternate ways, is one most of us have obsessed over, at least to some degree. Naturally, we haven’t yet found a way to reverse the arrow of time (and it’s quite doubtful we ever will, for various reasons), and so we store those thoughts in the back of our minds, rarely to be touched upon. In Branches by Adam Peter Johnson, we’re taken into the shoes of a man for whom the dream becomes a reality.
The story begins by introducing us to our first-person narrator and the protagonist of the story. He lives in the United States of America, with his wife Meredith and his son Nolan, and is trying to spend some quality time with his aging father. Their lives are largely unremarkable, with the notable exception being the rise of a political figure threatening to push the country into turmoil.
The fictional yet instantly-recognizable politician (he is based on a real person, a fact which becomes all too apparent right away) wins the election, and in response the country begins to spiral down into some authoritarian dystopia from a horror movie. Meanwhile, our protagonist takes to social media, hoping to use it as a weapon to shake up those who make things worse with their indifference.
The problems only begin to accumulate for him, his life seems like it’s veering into dangerous territory, but there is yet hope for him. A recent scientific breakthrough has permitted some experts to determine a rather interesting fact: the protagonist is actually in the wrong timeline. More importantly, they’ve devised a method of treatment.
With his days consistently going from bad to worse, he takes up the unusual opportunity he is offered, and begins to visit one alternate reality after another, in search of the correct one for him. Unfortunately for him, the quest proves a lot more daunting than it appeared at first sight, especially since each and every alternate life he ends up visiting leads him to an abrupt death.
The Consequences of Choice in Branches
We make choices every single moment we are alive, and while it is up for debate how much agency we actually have in making the decisions we do, what is not up for debate is that we can seldom calculate their consequences from start to finish. As a matter of fact, most of the choices we make end up having repercussions we will never be there to witness.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of Branches is that it allows the main character to truly see and feel the profound impact his own decisions have had on the world and the people around him. As he jumps from one alternate reality to the next, he constantly learns a little bit more about the effects of his past choices, by virtue of them not having been made in his current universe.
Adam Peter Johnson doesn’t exactly take a long time to explain the setup and technology from a scientific perspective, instead asking us to suspend our disbelief in some parts for the sake of the story. Personally, I’m quite glad he didn’t take a hard science-fiction approach to his book, because ultimately, it feels more like a philosophical journey (and political commentary, but I digress) during which we are meant to meditate on the choices we’ve made in our own lives.
Sometimes humorous and at other times tragic, the aftermaths of the protagonist’s choices are always traced with a welcome amount of realistic details, with the author taking his time to explain how one point leads to the next one, or how the absence of one takes us in a whole new direction. Slowly but surely, he gains insight not only into his own inner world, but also into what it takes to actually bring about some change.
Ultimately, it turns into a book-long reflection on the simple question of what actually makes life worth pursuing, even if it is far from ideal or seemingly headed for a dead end. The more he learns about his existence, the more he realizes the power and impact his choices can actually have on the world, the more he becomes inspired to act in ways which will strengthen his connection to everything around him, and perhaps change it for the better.
The Excitement of Rewriting History
If you’re going to pick up Branches, then do keep in mind that at it’s very core, it remains a work which focuses primarily on philosophical concepts and tries to extract from them truths we can all apply to our own everyday lives. However, Adam Peter Johnson wrapped this philosophy up in a fairly exciting adventure which helps establish a kind of pacing which ensures a lack of monotony.
While it is true there were times when I felt like the action ought to pick up a little more (especially in the latter parts of the story), these moments didn’t really bother me as a whole for two main reasons. One, the author’s prose is simply exquisite and a pleasure to make your way through. Two, we are actually imparted useful information or food for thought during those instances.
Our protagonist’s journey from one alternate reality to another also leads him to encounter perils and make unexpected discoveries, and while it isn’t a totally action-packed ride, we do get a respectable dose of excitement and entertainment along the way. It’s especially fascinating to see him trying to change history time and time again, the pitfalls of the process and how one would even go about it in the first place.
At the same time, Adam Peter Johnson also involves a fair bit of political commentary in his novel, largely centred on the afore-mentioned political figure whom you’ll instantly recognize. The protagonist is also far from afraid of sharing his political views, so we are treated to them on multiple occasions. Whether the author holds the same views or not, I believe, is quite irrelevant; they are reasonable in the sense of being justified with logical arguments, and they actually contribute to characterization.
Even if you do disagree with the thoughts the author is putting into his character’s head, I think it’s important to remember an artist should not be punished for the thoughts and actions of his fictitious creation. The author clearly cares immensely about his country and the state it’s in, and this novel felt like his attempt to do at least something about it, to make the kind of choice which will positive repercussions down the line, even if he’s no longer around to see them.
|249||Independently published||Oct. 21 2020||979-8709799387|
The Final Verdict
Branches by Adam Peter Johnson is a unique piece of time travel fiction, and for a first novel, it’s essentially a masterpiece. Only suffering from a few slower moments here and there, it takes us on an insightful, emotional and entertaining adventure through alternate realities, all while imparting philosophical musings and life lessons on the reader.
If you’ve enjoyed Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, or are looking for a science-fiction book dealing with alternate histories and time travel, then I think you’ll fall in love with this novel.
Adam Peter Johnson
Adam Peter Johnson is an American newspaper reporter living in Minnesota with ten years of experience, as well as an author who is primarily influenced by science-fiction stories through which he tries to discover truths about everyday life. On October 21st, 2020 he published his first novel, Branches, centred on time travel and alternate universes.