I’m going to let you in on a secret, dear reader: I’ve already written this review once.
I rattled through the story, themes and whatnot in record time, words tumbling from my brain like… I don’t know, things that tumble from other things. It was all lined up, ready to add media and links…
Then I read it back, and realised that the rambling nonsense I’d written did not do Each Little Universe justice. At all. So I mercilessly deleted it all and vowed to start again. Part of my issue the first time around is that I really wanted to talk spoilers, yet forced myself to avoid them. Well, no more! This will be a spoiler review for Each Little Universe. As such, those seeking a review that doesn’t reveal story truths should probably steer clear of this one! Otherwise, read on!
Each Little Universe is written by Chris Durston, whom I have the pleasure of knowing from gaming website The Well Red Mage, which we both write for. Durston also hosts the Philosophiraga podcast, a show which delves into the philosophy around video games, which is very interesting and a good place to jump into the venerable and possibly even intimidating world of philosophy.
Durston first realised a love for literature, in his own words “at 3, or something ridiculous”, when he would disappear for days at a time with a book. As soon as the national curriculum had bestowed his mind with the gift of writing, the stories soon followed, which an older, wiser author recalls as being “terrible, obviously” (I wrote a story I thought was amazing as a kid too, it was rubbish).
Durston’s favourite authors, who have influenced his writing in no small way, are Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman and Bryan Lee O’Malley. He also notes that feedback has painted his work as “Pratchett-like” (which I can certainly agree with when it comes to his detailed writing and winks to the reader). Whilst he has not read any Pratchett himself, this is something he is looking to (quite rightly) fix soon!
Each Little Universe is Durston’s first published work, which he puts down to “self doubt and amazing procrastination skills”, something which I can most certainly sympathize with!
Each Little Universe took five to six years to see the light of day. Durston recalls that the initial scene, in which protagonists Veggie and TM discuss the “Octobike”, has not actually changed very much since the idea was originally conceived, way back when it was written for a university assignment. Three years on from Durston leaving university he picked the story up again, this time submitting it for the NaNoWriMo online writing event in 2016. After a few more years of reiterations, alterations and more of those amazing procrastination skills, he finally took the plunge and moved to get Each Little Universe published.
Of course, as with many great creators, he also credits his partner for being just as committed as he was in getting this story out to the world. So if you enjoy this book, there’s two people you need to be thanking!
One of the most memorable elements of Each Little Universe is it’s varied, realistic and likable characters.
Our protagonists, as mentioned earlier, are Veggie and TM, a pair of eccentric inventors who shack up together in a chaotic, messy flat from which they launch their great inventions. Or at least they would, if they actually managed to come up with any. These two friends make for strong leads, they are affable, quirky and have a manner of speaking which is very much in line with quite a few people I know in real life (including, amusingly, the author himself).
Even though they are arguably just about circling the drain initially, Veggie and TM never give in to bitterness, or ever even question if what they are doing is right. Their optimism (sometimes to dangerous, impossible levels) is something to aim for in life, indeed Each Little Universe has changed my outlook on life just with these two guys alone.
But there is more to this tale than just two inventors living in relative squalour. Fighting alongside them in this battle we call life are their erstwhile friends, Derrida, Marty and Dominika. Jack Derrida is the kind of person to work the rules in their favour, with such heinous acts as meta gaming in tabletop adventure games (his character having ridiculous stats and being generally far too badass). They are also the first non binary character I have ever encountered in a work of fiction,
Marty is the frontman of a rock band and, later in the story, partner to Veggie. He has rich parents, an awesome attic room and comes up with an epic song about a certain JRPG character’s Buster Sword that has the crowds going wild.
Rounding out the gang is Dominika, who never speaks a word and communicates mainly with knowing facial expressions. It turns that Nika can not only speak after all, but is also capable of being an absolute ninja when required.
Then we have the final member of the gang, met by TM and Veggie at the start of our story, the enigmatic Ziggy. A young lady who is initially dressed like Bowie from his Aladdin Sane phase and claims to be not a human, but a star come down to earth. Ziggy’s naivete at the world around her drives the initial half of the story, as TM, Veggie and the gang introduce her to their delightfully nerdy lives and the general goings on of modern day earth life.
Also of note are local celebrities, Al Tyer and Riegel O’Ryan. From the off, the gang is confused by Ziggy’s behaviour whenever she sees them on the television, as she seems to be visibly shaken by their presence. Whilst anybody with a decent grasp of astronomy has probably already figured out the trick here, it wasn’t until just before the big reveal halfway into the story that I spotted it (and very smug I felt too!) But more on that later.
Whilst these characters are, in part, based on people, celebrities or otherwise, Durston explains that they are really more built around the kind of people he would like hang around with. As the man himself says, “it’s sort of wish fulfillment, I guess, making the perfect group of friends I wish I had”. I have to say that, if this lot were my assigned friends for life, I certainly wouldn’t be complaining. A more welcoming and well rounded bunch you could never hope to meet!
The Story (Spoilers!)
As mentioned previously, our adventure really begins when intrepid (but largely unsuccessful) inventors, Veggie and his best friend TM, stumble across a striking and mysterious girl sitting on a bench. After butting in on their conversation, she immediately bedazzles them with her mysterious nature and larger than life personality. She also confides in the duo, telling them that she is a star descended to earth to see what it’s like to live as a human. Whilst the duo are a little dubious about this last fact, as anyone would be, they agree to let her come with her as she has nowhere else to go. Due to her Bowie tribute getup she is dubbed Ziggy by the inventors.
The first half of the story is spent developing these characters, along with fellow friends Derrida, Marty and Dominika, who all take to Ziggy just as easily as TM and Veggie have. Together they introduce her to the world of the geek: video games (with some hilarious pastiches of Dark Souls, Metal Gear Solid and others), wrestling and tabletop roleplaying games, among other things. Whilst I found these chapters a little slow going at first, I soon got drawn into the story and found myself easily able to imagine the characters and the environments, such as the inventor’s dirty flat or Marty’s aforementioned fancy digs.
Throughout the background of this initial leg is weaved the ongoing mystery of Ziggy’s true nature, including her strange fear of local TV personalities, weatherman Al Tyer and survival show host Riegel O’Ryan and her attraction to an unusual stone that has fallen from outer space. Being the caring type and harbouring unlimited hospitality, the gang of friends decide to organise a heist, to steal the unusual stone from a local museum.
After some (highly dubious) preparation, the gang makes their move, breaking into the museum and getting Ziggy right up to the space rock. This is also where the story goes, for lack of a better phrase, absolutely mental. The heist goes sideways, not due to any law enforcement but rather the arrival of Tyer and O’Ryan, who are behaving oddly and very much intimidatingly. Here, dear reader, is where the idea that had been growing in the back of my mind finally paid off.
Hear me out here: Al Tyer and O’Ryan: Altair and Orion! (again, you probably already knew that, didn’t you?) Yes, it would seem that the local celebrities are actually celestial bodies also, which would explain Ziggy’s earlier discomfort. They are on earth for one reason: to reclaim their missing star, for Ziggy’s absence will surely cause imbalances in the cosmos, resulting in the shifting of orbits and, possibly, an end to life on earth.
After an incredibly action packed scene, the first act comes to a close.
On telling the author of my excitement at working out Al Tyer and O’Ryan’s true nature before the big reveal, he said, and I quote, “you’re the first person to tell me that they figured that out in advance! I reckon a few people probably could, because to me it’s pretty obvious, but there is a rule of writing that things are usually less clear to readers than the writer might think.” I have tried to write stories before, and always worry that my twists would be super obvious fro the get go (how many movies do you read a review for and see the line “I saw the twist coming from a mile off”?) yet Durston gives me hope that maybe the writer holds the secret better than I thought. It’s also cool that I’m the first person to boast of my twist sensing achievement!
The second half of the story commences three years later, the inventors finally got lucky, thanks to an idea left in their flat by Ziggy before that fateful night on which Altair and Orion took her back up to the cosmos. Veggie and TM have taken Ziggy’s final idea and have opened a gym/seafood restaurant, which also employs Dominika and makes them good money (no more scummy flat!) Life is good for them, but they have never given up on trying to get their celestial friend back, unable to reconcile her loss, even if it keeps earth from being destroyed.
The plan is simple, but also totally impossible for a gang of twenty-somethings in an unnamed British town: build an actual, functioning space rocket, head up to the stars and give Ziggy a lift back down. The rocket (kind of) launches and, through a rather interesting and unusual series of events, TM, the machine’s solo pilot, finds himself floating around in space, or perhaps a dream, having a chat with his old friend Ziggy, once more a burning ball of gas. She explains that, whilst she loved her time on earth, she cannot ever go back, the risks would be too high. Heartbroken, TM is forced to accept her decision, waking back up, minus rocket, on the floor of the warehouse it had “launched” from.
Whilst I found this part of the story very different, coming across as a lot more “out there” and fantastical than the first act, the next part takes it up another notch. Throughout the story so far, we have been drip fed information about Veggie’s ex, a mysterious figure known as The Swede who broke his heart when they split.
Well, we’re about to meet him, as he contacts the enterprising duo once more, stating that he is going to sue them over the invention of their seafood outlet/gym (Mussels and Muscles, very clever) as he supposedly came up with the concept himself. What follows is what I can only describe as an out-of-nowhere heist as TM, Veggie and Dominika infiltrate The Swede’s mansion. If it was just the three bubbling about and getting lucky, then fair enough, but here we discover that Dominika is pretty much a ninja and that all three of them are willing to attack security guards to get to their target. It was a jarring change of pace and character for sure, but still plenty of fun to follow. Eventually they find The Swede himself, who reveals that no such evidence actually exists, before seeing the real reason why he has lured them over.
As the events from here all lead to the endgame, I’m reluctant to go over much more of it with a fine toothed comb, instead I’ll look at it in broad strokes.
After one of Marty’s gigs in which his band plays off against an all girl band, it is revealed that O’Ryan has returned, looking for another fugitive star. Overcome with anger at the thought of other lives damaged as theirs were, the gang move to intercept her, despite being no match at all for her cosmic strength. With the help of the girl band (who, it is revealed, are also stars), O’Ryan tries to hold them back, but all leads to a rather epic face-off with the survival show host/cosmic hunter outside the very same museum where Ziggy was taken from them originally.
Despite a couple of surprising gear shifts in just how fantastical this story can get, I really enjoyed the story of Each Little Universe. Durston has a knack for creating believable characters and settings (if you live in a quiet British town yourself, you can really relate to the setting!) and injecting the whole thing with a wonderful science fiction thread about stars disguising as humans to live the life of a human being. The ending is done well, and balances emotional payoff with some excellent spectacle, as well as giving satisfying closure for all of the characters.
Themes & Other Thoughts
As covered earlier on, author Chris Durston has a keen interest in philosophy, hence his hosting of the excellent Philosophiraga podcast. Just as the podcast uses the medium of video games to educate on and discuss philosophy, Each Little Universe weaves some philosophical ideas throughout the story also.
These are delivered in flashback throughout the story, looking back at some deep discussions between TM and his ex partner, Aster. Whist we never meet Aster outside of these flashbacks (which is a shame, especially as she was also on my “is probably a star” list), the character is developed enough for her to be a nicely fleshed out mouthpiece for some of the ideas which he finds so interesting and would like to share with the reader.
It isn’t just the bigger ideas which Durston explores in this way, many other things, from pro wrestling and stealth games to the concept of people being non binary, are also explored with the intent of not only adding more colour to his universe, but also perhaps educating those who haven’t looked into any of these things before. When asked, Dusrton explained:
I think I have one major trick for explaining big ideas in ELU and that is to have two characters attempt to talk about it when they don’t really understand it. It lets me be dumb and not have to get everything right – I can even have them go over it again if they don’t think they’ve explained the point!”
This works fantastically well every time it is used. Durston could easily have sat back and tried to explain everything himself between the action, but this, whilst delivering the required information, may have come across as a little impersonal. Alternatively, he perhaps could have neglected to explain the philosophy, geek culture and modern lifestyle touches altogether, which would definitely have alienated me and ruined my enjoyment. Having the characters, who already seem delightfully real, explain these themes and ideas between themselves is an excellent way of mixing story beats and higher concepts together.
The last thing to mention of note in this review would be a few chapters where the gang sit down and play some good, old fashioned fantasy tabletop role playing games. These chapters follow the action of both what is happening around Veggie and ™’s grotty table and also in the world of their imagination. We are introduced, through Veggie’s commentary as the game master, to each of the gang’s fantasy hero counterpart and, in this way, we follow both stories at once, seeing what the gang’s dice rolls and decisions amount to in their own fantasy story as well as learning a little more about the players themselves (Derrida games the system whenever he can, Dominika let’s her character’s weapons do the talking, Marty gives his wizard character awful dialogue). It really works, adding some extra action and characterisation to the proceedings.
My main takeaway from Each Little Universe is that with enough optimism, acceptance and curiosity, you can indeed reach the stars, in a metaphorical sense at least. |Every obstacle the characters meet, they overcome with help from their friends and family and, even when the odds seems insurmountable, they never give in, or even question doing so. There is a point, at the end of the story, where Veggie and ™, a pair of regular nerdy kids, try to stand against a supernaturally powerful entity, only to relentlessly get their butts kicked. Yet then don’t beg for mercy, they keep standing up and they keep getting kicked around, over and over again. It’s inspirational and makes me think “could I be as headstrong as that, if it came to it?”
I really enjoyed Each Little Universe. The story is fun and interesting, with strong characters and plenty of mystery to keep the reader engaged. The first act introduces the universe gradually and includes some fun Dungeons & Dragons-esque roleplaying gaming and the second comes loaded with most of the action and some really out of left field action sequences which, whilst initially jarring, were still plenty entertaining. My only regret is really that Aster didn’t reappear in the story outside of her flashbacks, and that she wasn’t a star!
Durston admits that he is the kind of writer to have too many things on at any one time, and has introduced a structure now to try and get his next stories out into the world as efficiently as possible (as he described it to me, almost like a conveyor belt, lucky that he is disciplined!) He currently has six stories in the works, or ready to be added to the works, and has added them all to his website to keep himself accountable, a brave move indeed!
Would I recommend Each Little Universe? Definitely! If you are clued up on your geek culture and philosophy then you’ll feel right at home. If not, or of you have some knowledge gaps as I did, then Durston has expertly tasked his characters to explain the finer details through their dialogue, thus telling the reader an exciting science fiction tale whilst also, perhaps, teaching you a few things along the way to boot.