Some novels demonstrate how a writer evolves over time and practice. His or her style changes over the years it takes to write a novel. Some themes are important early, and they’re supplanted by others later on. That’s the case with Zachary Bonelli’s first science-fiction novel, Voyage: Embarkation, published in 2013 by Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. The novel is the first in the author’s Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series. Bonelli says the novel began in 2000 as a series of posts on a fantasy forum. Written in high school, the posts formed the early chapters of the book. Though the novel is really a series of loosely connected anecdotes, the reader can see how Bonelli’s writing becomes more confident and polished by the end of the book’s 515 pages.
The novel’s arc focuses on Kal Anders, a teenage boy with an unusual allergy that exiles him to an alternate Earth populated with giant house cats. Nanotechnology forms the core of his ability to visit Earths in other, parallel timelines via the “metaxia,” described as “the unspace between universes.” He meets Tria, a virtual brother, who tags along on the protagonist’s adventures, and he encounters worlds ranging from the uninhabitable to an update of the old TV series Fantasy Island. Much of the action takes place in and around variations of Chicago and the surrounding geography near Bonelli’s childhood home. Important themes are intolerance, sexual identity, loneliness, and the acceptance of things one cannot change.
As a first novel, Voyage: Embarkation is an imaginative experiment, with its episodic structure and unpolished narrative. A few of the episodes, such as “Benevolence,” about a world dominated by a monster made of mud, stick in your mind, while others are forgettable. “Liberty” is a transparent rant against a crazy boss and the self-repression of workers in a technology corporation. (Bonelli works a day job as a programmer.) Mature readers who have fumed at the stupidity of management will immediately recognize Kal’s experience at the hands of his supervisor. The episode comes late in the novel, and it’s something Bonelli could not have written as a teenager. It’ll be interesting to see how he matures further in his next works.