Paradox Men, The by Harness, Charles, 1949

Paradox Men, The by Harness, Charles - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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For a book written after the pulp era, from an author that seems pretty deeply rooted in the pulp movement, and which really relies quite strongly on pulp motifs, this book in the end has some real transformational qualities to it, even though it was a bit repetitive in places. Harness was a very capable writer from the Golden Age who for some reason managed to elude fame. He is one of those great unknowns I am always talking about, though he is far from one of my favorites. Originally a lawyer who had a very low output during his years of the practice of law, he tried to catch up with the curve after retirement. This book was his first novel; it followed his first story into publication. There is an apocryphal story that he wrote it because he needed rent money. Thankfully it reads much much more smoothly than most of Philip K. Dick's novels, most of which were written for exactly the same reason.

I'm not even going to try to get into the plot of this book. The plot of The Paradox Men, a.k.a. Flight into Yesterday, a.k.a. Toynbee Twenty-Two is so convoluted that it really has to be read to be believed. Suffice it to say that it is the story of a member of a guild of honorable "Thieves," who are in actuality a political organization. They opposed a repressive adn evil emperor who lorded over "Imperial America." The main characer, Alar, was a guild member thief who could remember his past beyond five years - he had a virtually impenetrable amnesia. Alar went on a series of adventures to fight the powers-that-be without really knowing why. It was gradually revealed that he was chasing the phantom of a larger-than-life hero named Muir who was a visionary scientist, incorrigible troublemaker, and vehement anti-establishment freedom fighter. Five years before the tale began Muir had disappeared, supposedly into death. Now Alar has attempted to pick up where Muir left off. Alar was helped by Keiris, Muir's widow, and an intelligent computer called the Meganet Mind which is manipulating people on both sides of the conflict. He was also being pursued by Haze-Gaunt, the emperor, Thurmond, the emperor's general, and Shey, a sadistic torturer. The action surrounded a very interesting ship, called the Toynbee Twenty-Two, numbered for the next civilization that Muir believed would shortly be replacing his own as foreseen by Arnold Joseph Toynbee, an actual British historian who wrote a treatise some years ago on the topic of the death of civilizations.

The Toynbee Twenty-Two was was designed and built by Muir before he disappeared. It was a faster than light craft which Harness used to discuss philosophical issues that circled the relationship of time and space. Without getting into the specifics Harness seemed to imply that the universe would try to correct for the problems created when an object goes faster than light. To understand what Harness was saying, consider this example: Imagine a car traveling at the speed of light. The driver turns on the headlamps. What happens to an observer ahead of the car? In that case the car, which is traveling at a speed greater than the photons from the headlamps, will come the observer first, before the photons from the headlamps. Not only that, but photons from remote light source from behind the observer will not have had time to bounce off the car and into the eye of the observer, so in all situations the car will get the observer before the image of it does. In this very loose example, it can be said that effect precedes causation, which has all kinds of Einsteinian consequences. Harness' point is that the universe will never allow such a thing to occur, so in order for this to make sense the car would have to move backwards in time, presumably to compensate and "balance the books" from the negative result from moving forwards in space. If the car does that - moves backwards in time - then cause will again precede effect, keeping the balance of the universe. This is exactly how the Toynbee Twenty-Two moves through the universe: By jetting forward it moves backwards through time. Harness also got into all kinds of Aristotelian conversations about the nature of existence. I found most of this fascinating. But to tell the truth, it took up only about 1/4 of the book, which left 3/4, or 150 pages or so, of what I though of as repetitive and somewhat boring adventure, most of which involved multiple capturing of Alar, followed by an obligatory escape to a new setting for further pontification on the nature of reality.

There were two other interesting aspects of the book. The first one has to do with the very ending of the book, but I do not think I am really giving away anything important, since it was right out of left field and was not really discussed at all until page 197 of 199. The hero goes back in time with the Toynbee Twenty-Two and genetically modifies Neanderthals (whom Harness wrongly believed gave rise directly to Homo Sapiens Sapiens) so that they would be more empathetic. This had the effect of eliminating the blood lust that our race seems to have as an inbred feature. I liked the idea, even if it was completely and utterly ignored until the real action of the book had been resolved. The other interesting aspect will be of interest to Frank Herbert fans. The Thief's guild, Muir actually, had invented an "armor," which was an electronic screen that was capable of stopping high velocity projectiles, but which offered less protection to slower moving blades and the like. Quite frankly, it looks to me like Frank Herbert completely co-opted Harness's invention for use in Dune as shields.

If you are a fan of the post-pulp era/Golden-Age, you should like this book. A.E. Van Vogt heavily influenced Harness in the writing of this book, particularly The World of Null-A, but others as well. What really makes this book different, particularly when you keep van Vogt in mind, is the frenetic pace with which Harness produced idea after idea in the work, but still managed to keep the story under control. He never really let it get away from him, and he tied up all the myriad story threads in a neat little bow at the end of the story. Certainly with one of them he sprung the resolution on the reader at the end, but he did do a fine job of keeping the story from winding out of control.

This book is a light form of space opera, but it does have some social SF aspects to it. It sure is not in the vein of the New Wave, although Michael Moorcock did reprint a lot of Harness' back catalog in New Worlds when he was editor there. I personally would not call it visionary, or anything close, though many I have read would. I think it is a decent adventure story with quite a bit of flash-bang, larger than life characters, over-blown action and improbably tech. Harness managed to surprise and impress with the deeper issues described above. Harness gave a very archaic and controversial take on the mechanics of time travel in this book, but he managed to pull of some great dialogue on the nature of the phenomenon. He also had a very interesting superman motif as well. Unfortuntely in the last two pages Harness managed, in a quite uncoordinated manner, to make the story really about the transformation of the species through time travel and genetic manipulation, even though the bulk of the story is really about transformation of the individual through self exploration, trauma and pain. Harness does have a cult following of fans these days, and none of them can understand why Harness is not a bigger name. I have nothing to say about that, though I do think that Harness deserves a place of honor in the pantheon of authors who have given us good reads,and I am always glad to see a lawyer who produces SF. Pick this one up if the pulpish stories are your cup of tea, if you have a historical interest in the genre, or if you love a good adventure yarn.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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