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I found this book used, read it and then gave it away. It was hardback, slipcover was missing, but the book had an Ouroboros worm embossed on the cover.

It opens with a savage being brought into a city (can't recall the name) populated by science types, where you find out it has all sorts of knowledge (but sections of the library are closed until puzzles are solved — indicating the culture is ready). One such challenge involves going to a previously unknown sister city. (I think it was named "Xen".) The sister city was populated by artist types and ultimately collapsed. The puzzle on the last door had two solutions. One was the Oppenheimer quote "I have become death the destroyer", and the other was E = mc², which caused the city to be destroyed.

It may have been a trilogy published as one book since it was several hundred pages. The title may have had "Ring" or "Cycle" in it.

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    The famous quote was actually from the Indian scripture the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Oppenheimer just said that it was what came to mind after witnessing the Trinity test. (Kenneth Bainbridge, who had directed the test, shared his more prosaic version with Oppenheimer and the other Manhattan Project leaders who were there: "Now we are all sons of bitches.")
    – Buzz
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 0:08

1 Answer 1

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It's not an exact match; the cover doesn't fit for one, but a lot of this makes me think of The Erthring Cycle (1984-1986) by Wayland Drew. It is a trilogy that was later re-released in a single-volume omnibus edition.

Things that match:

  • Asa, who lives in a primitive coastal community, is captured and taken to Yggdrasil, an enclave that is trying to rebuild human civilization after what is probably a nuclear war.
  • There are a series of doors in Yggdrasil, each one unlocked by a riddle or puzzle and each providing access to new records, instructions, technologies.
  • Opening the third door requires travelling to Xtaplacia, another community established with the same goal of trying to find a way to teach humanity to be peaceful.
  • Xtaplacia has ignored their purpose and devoted themselves to the arts.
  • The inscription of the last door is "I HAVE BECOME DEATH, THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS."
  • Xtaplacia gets destroyed by the peoples ("aborrs") it was to be shepherding.
  • Opening the last door caused all of Yggdrasil (including the island chain it was built on) to be destroyed.

What doesn't match:

  • The cover of the book has a forest scene with a spider robot on it.
  • "I have become Death, the destroy of worlds" is an inscription, not the solution.
  • "E = mc2" doesn't figure into the story
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  • This is it. I never had the slip cover. It’s been 20 years since I read it, so I’m not surprised I had details wrong! Thanks
    – WombatPM
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 2:13

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