Friday 23 November 2007

Review: The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness

Charles Harness is little remembered now, but he was a significant writer at the end of SF's "Golden Age". When I checked on Wikipedia I was surprised to find that the last of his dozen novels appeared in 2002 (he died in 2005, at the age of 89) and that most of them were published in the 1980s, since I had always associated him with the 1950s and 60s. 'The Paradox Men' was his first novel, published in 1953 under another title (Flight into Yesterday). My edition, a NEL Master SF Series paperback from 1976, benefits from a substantial introduction by Brian Aldiss.

The story is set a couple of centuries in the future, on an Earth divided into two huge power blocs, with space travel only within the Solar System. A man named Alar, who has some non-human characteristics, survives (with all memory lost) a crash-landing in an unidentified spaceship and becomes a "Thief"; the Society of Thieves being a guild which provides the only organisation to oppose the government of America Imperial. A unique attribute of the Thieves is a mentally-powered armour which reacts to block fast-moving objects such as bullets, but lets through slower weapons like knives: an idea later borrowed and adapted by authors such as Frank Herbert (Dune) since it allows the romantic combination of swords and spaceships!

As well as Alar there are some memorable characters: Haze-Gaunt, the scheming and arrogant Chancellor of America Imperial; Count Shey, the sado-masochistic Imperial Psychologist; Thurmond, the ruthless Police Minister and a superb swordsman; the Microfilm Mind, a badly scarred man with the ability to synthesise vast quantities of data and jump to conclusions based on non-Aristotelian logic; the beautiful Keiris, trapped in a forced relationship with Haze-Gaunt; and her husband Kennicot Muir, a brilliant scientist and explorer believed to have died years ago but still casting a shadow over events.

Alar is hunted by Haze-Gaunt, Thurmond and Shey after being identified by the Microfilm Mind as a major threat to their regime. The pressure which this puts him under forces him to develop his unusual abilities to escape from their traps. At the same time he is trying to solve the mystery of his arrival on Earth five years before, studying records of strange astronomical disturbances before his spaceship arrived. And America Imperial is completing a spaceship with a new kind of drive, designed by Muir, which is believed to be capable of exceeding the speed of light. The ship is called the T-Twenty-two; a reference to the historian Toynbee's classification of civilisations which (for the present) concludes with our own at Toynbee Twenty-one. T-22 is the theoretical next civilisation to follow after our own collapses, and it is hoped that the FTL spaceship will provide a way of surviving that collapse. The T-Twenty-two bears a remarkable resemblance to Alar's wreck, which becomes increasingly significant as Alar wrestles with the concepts of space and time to understand what is going on. There are two dramatic climaxes; one on board a huge platform hovering above the surface of the sun to collect precious elements, the other on an Earth on the verge of a nuclear Armageddon. The finale is as breathtakingly ambitious as one could hope for.

Typical of the SF novels of its era, 'The Paradox Men' is short, fast-paced, and concentrates on mind-stretching strangeness rather than extended character development. By modern standards there are some clunky contrivances, notably an early info-dump in the form of an unconvincing extended conversation between two of the principal characters, but it is still a real page-turner. Aldiss memorably describes this type of fiction as 'Widescreen Baroque', which gives a flavour of the style. It won't be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed re-reading it and am looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with some of Harness's other novels.

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