Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Old Ace Double: The Paradox Men, by Charles Harness/Dome Around America, by Jack Williamson

Ace Double Reviews, 18: The Paradox Men, by Charles L. Harness/Dome Around America, by Jack Williamson (#D-118, 1955, $0.35)

by Rich Horton

This old Ace Double is a fortuitous combination -- back in 1955 Ace managed to pair two writers who, in 2003 (when I first wrote this review), were nearly the oldest living active SF writers. (Andre Norton still qualified as active, though only one of her late novels was not a collaboration. Her age was between Williamson's and Harness's. Nelson Bond was not then active, but he did have a story in Asimov's not too many years before 2003. Among truly active writers, Williamson and Harness seemed then clearly the oldest.)

The Paradox Men has become a classic in the field. Dome Around America hasn't. In both cases, for good reason. The Paradox Men was first published as "Flight Into Yesterday", in the May 1949 Startling Stories. That version was about 56,000 words long. The first book version was a 1953 hardcover, also called Flight Into Yesterday, from Bouregy and Curl. It was slightly expanded -- I haven't seen that book, but I presume the 1955 Ace Double, with the title changed to The Paradox Men, is substantially the same, and it's about 60,000 words. The Paradox Men was later reprinted, again slightly expanded to about 64,000 words, in 1981 in a Crown hardcover, as part of their Classics in Science Fiction series. As far as I know the 1999 reprint from NESFA Press, as part of the four novel omnibus called Rings, follows the 1981 text. Dome Around America was also originally published in Startling Stories, in the July 1941 issue, under the title "Gateway to Paradise". The 1955 edition is certainly a revision, though I haven't seen the earlier story. Dome Around America is about 42,000 words long.

(Cover by Richard Powers)
The Paradox Men is arguably still Harness's most famous and most respected novel. The plot is complicated, but consistent, logical, and thematically sound. The characters are two-dimensional but interesting and involving. The action is well-done, and the scientific ideas are sometimes philosophical and thoughtful, and at other times wild, implausible, but still engaging. The basic story is of a Thief, Alar, who has appeared in Imperial America 5 years prior to the action of the story, with no memory of his past or identity. The Thieves work underground against the repressive society, using tech invented by their mysterious, dead, founder, Kennicot Muir. The key piece of Thief tech is armor which protects them against high velocity weapons (like projectile weapons), but not against swords and knives. Thus fencing is again a major skill. (Herbert swiped this notion for Dune, of course.) At the time of the action, various threads are converging: the plans of Imperial America to attack its Eurasian enemy, the Toynbee society's attempts to avoid the continuing historical cycle of civilizations rising and falling (they believe that the coming war will bring Toynbee Civilization 21 to an end: the next one will be Toynbee 22, hence Harness' original title (never used on a published version): Toynbee Twenty-Two), the completion of an experimental FTL starship, the relationship between the evil leaders of Imperial America and Keiris Muir, the enslaved widow of Kennicot Muir, and her attraction to Alar, the predictions of the computer-enhanced human called The Meganet Mind (or the Microfilm Mind in the original). What a horrible sentence: but trying to summarize Harness can do that to you. Everything comes to a head with a trip to the surface of the Sun, and then a much stranger trip ...

I recommend it. It seems comparable in many ways to its near contemporary The Stars My Destination: Harness probably had a more original mind than Bester's, and his themes seem a bit more ambitious. But he really couldn't write with him -- and I think it is because of the writing (both prose and pace) that the manic energy of the Bester book is more successfully sustained. Still, The Paradox Men remains a powerful and interesting novel, and such scenes as the final selfless act of Keiris are all but unmatched in SF.

As far as I can tell from comparing the three versions of the novel I have, the first expansion involved some minor wording changes throughout, and the addition of a couple of fairly minor scenes. There is one new chapter, which is a division of one of the original chapters into two (with some additions). It might well be that the editor of Startling Stories (Sam Merwin) made the original cuts to fit the space available. The 1981 expansion involves some changes in the tech, to make it slightly (only slightly!) more plausible for 1980s sensibilities. The most obvious change is that the Microfilm Mind becomes the Meganet Mind. On balance, I think the latter-day changes sensible and not harmful to the feel of the story, and I'd recommend the NESFA edition -- but reading any of the three main editions will give you pretty much the same experience.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
Dome Around America is set a couple hundred years in the future. The United States is enclosed in a force field which has preserved its air and water from the disaster caused by a "dwarf star" wandering through the solar system. The US offered this technology to the rest of the world, but Cold War tensions caused the other countries to refuse it, and to disbelieve US reports of the dwarf star danger. (There was also that accident in Australia, but that was probably commie sabotage anyway!) I'm guessing that one of the changes from 1941 to 1955 was substituting Soviet villains for Nazi villains. The dwarf star sucked away the atmosphere from the rest of the Earth, and it is assumed that it is all a moon-like desolation, just as it looks.

Barry Thane is a young man, part of the "Ring Guard", the dwindling crew of men who guard the dome from sabotage. But he has come to believe that something weird -- aliens, maybe? -- live Outside. So he is mentally prepared when he notices a moving rock penetrating the dome, and what he discovers is a camouflaged spaceship/ground vehicle, sent by an organization of surviving humans who are consumed with hate for America, and who live in domes with limited water and air on the former ocean bed. Barry foils the plot of the man in the invading ship, Glenn Clayton, and he hatches a plan to impersonate Clayton and infiltrate the Outside. But Clayton has plans of his own ... And both men are vulnerable to the charms of a woman of their enemies ...

It's really silly stuff, with not much in the way of redeeming values. The science is nonsensical. The resolution is just plain wholly unbelievable. The story itself moves nicely enough -- Williamson was too much the pro to fail to tell a solid story scene by scene. But all in all it is a fairly prime example of why routine 1940s SF is so often unmemorable.

1 comment:

  1. I read this ACE Double sometime in the 1960s. Your fine review makes me want to reread it! Love the covers on these old ACE Doubles!