The Probability Man
Series: Probability Man 1
Reviewed date: 2021 Jul 12
From the back cover:
He had forgotten his real name, so they called him "Spingarn" after the last role he had played. He was the man the directors of the Frames regarded as their major headache--for he was guilty of two unforgivable arrogances. He had programmed himself into every one of the vast world-staged dramas he had directed--and he had reactivated the forbidden Frames of the pre-human planet of Talisker.
In those days of an overcrowded colonized cosmos, a thousand years from now, the Frames were a major means of diversion. Historical re-creations and fictional dramas played out on planets as stages and whole populations as actors--the Frame directors and their robot assistants had become the masters of all life.
They could not destroy Spingarn, THE PROBABILITY MAN, but they could sentence him to undo the damage he had done. So he was sent to the mad Frames of Talisker to unravel the secret of their origin a billion years before the Universe.
Amnesia and stream-of-consciousness
See my previous review of the sequel, Planet Probability for an explanation of the Frames. In this book we meet Spingarn as he's jumping from one Frame to another. Spingarn's memory is hazy, which allows Ball to reveal the backstory slowly as Spingarn learns about his own past. That kind of thing can be well done, but here it is aggravating. Spingarn remembers things at points convenient to the plot, and he does so by repeating words and phrases to himself until he understands what they mean. The book lapses segments that are barely better than stream-of-consciousness. That's not satisfying to read. Stream-of-consciousness writing is never satisfying.
Spingarn was a Plot Director. Not content with his day job, he set up an unauthorized personal experiment by reactivating the long-dormant Frames on the planet Talisker. In doing so, he made contact with an Alien from another universe. He and the alien run the Frames on Talisker, and to populate the unauthorized Plots they snatch people from other Frames. That's bad enough, but the Alien introduces the Genekey: people put into the Talisker Frames have their chromosomes rewritten. Some end up as dwarfs, some as thyroid giants, some as shapeless monsters. The Alien's purpose is to study human reactions to random stimuli, which it thinks will help it learn to return to its own universe. I never did determine Spingarn's reason for participating in the experiment.
Hey Spingarn, go fix what you broke
Kidnapping people from other Frames, manipulating their genes, and giving them to an Alien as playthings upsets the directors of the Frames. The directors are unable to put an end to the experiment, so they grab Spingarn and demand that he put a stop to everything. They send him to Talisker with specific instructions: find the Genekey and bring it back so that everyone who has been turned into a monster (or a dwarf or giant or whatever) can be made human again. They allow Spingarn to take some backup with him: he takes his woman Ethel, the robot Horace, and Sergeant Hawk (whom he met in a Frame where they were both French fusiliers.)
Nothing makes sense on Talisker. Spingarn has devil horns and a tail, Ethel has angel wings, and Sergeant Hawk has metal legs. The robot Horace is unchanged, but he is contractually prohibited from helping Spingarn unless the probabilities are at a certain threshold. That makes no sense but it's convenient for the plot. The Alien throws random changes into the Plot to see how people react, so everyone has to watch out for the Frame Shifts.
First Spingarn has Sergeant Hawk blow up a moving road, or something. It makes no sense. Then the group gets captured by thyroid giants. Frame Shift! The group escapes in hot air balloons. Frame Shift! Spingarn discovers that in addition to the Alien, Talisker is inhabited by malevolent ghosts. The ghosts want to obtain the Genekey so they can embody themselves and conquer the galaxy. There's a tower that houses the Genekey and everybody is attacking it. Spingarn destroys the Genekey to keep it from falling into the hands of the ghosts.
The directors are not pleased. The Genekey is destroyed so everybody is stuck with their non-human bodies. The Alien is also not happy: it still has not achieved its goal of getting back to its own universe. Spingarn, Ethel, Sergeant Hawk, and Horace return to Talisker to spend the rest of their lives living in the Alien's Frame experiments.
The story gets wrapped up in the sequel, Planet Probability.