Monday, August 11, 2014

Beyond the Barrier by Damon Knight

Internet science fiction maven Joachim Boaz recently posted on twitter a "Wall of Shame" of what he termed "some of the worst SF ever written."  When I suggested that, despite Mr. Boaz's harsh assessment, I would be curious to read some of these books, he made me put my money where my mouth was. He mailed some of the Wall Of Shame books to me, as a trade for my superfluous copy of Jack Vance's The Face (a novel I adore; I retain the DAW printing) and Norman Spinrad's The Men in the Jungle (which I found to be a tedious and overblown attack on adventure fiction and those who read it.) Mr. Boaz picked out one of the Wall of Shame titles in particular, literally daring me to read Damon Knight's Beyond the Barrier. Nobody would mistake me for a member of the Damon Knight fan club, but I am curious about Knight's career, and so this weekend I met Mr. Boaz's challenge, reading the 1965 McFadden paperback of Beyond the Barrier which he sent me.

I like the typefaces used for the text, and the square motif that appears on the title pages. The front and back covers are pleasant and unusual.  The advertisement on the final page, which suggests that if you liked Beyond the Barrier you will also enjoy a book that sets out to prove the legitimacy of fortunetellers, is amusing.  If I'm permitted to judge this book by its cover, it's a winner!

Alright, what about the story, 135 pages of what a Canadian newspaper considered absorbing and spicy excitement?  Beyond the Barrier, an expanded version of a serialized 1963-4 magazine story, the Tree of Time, is the story of Gordon Naismith.

Naismith is a college professor in the Los Angeles of the future, the year 1980, a future of space travel, visiphones, and a machine that can duplicate you so you can teach five or ten classes at once; when class is over you get reintegrated and you have memories of all five to ten lectures!  (Get your asses to the unemployment line, adjuncts!)  Naismith is a victim of amnesia, and only has memories of the last four years.  This is due to being injured in an airplane crash while in the armed services... or so he thinks!

Strange interactions with odd students and other mysterious characters, and then crystal clear dreams, begin to reveal to Naismith that he is not native to the time and place in which he is living; in fact, he is from a caste-bound zero gravity environment, 20,000 years in the future, where he was a dancer in a zero gee entertainment troupe and a soldier in a war against aliens.  He is here in 20th century LA on some kind of mission, which he doesn't remember, and isn't sure he wants to pursue. But other travelers from his home milieu are manipulating him into doing what they want, shutting off his options by stealing the money from his bank account and getting him indicted for murder!

The plot is twisted and convoluted, and several times it turns out that what Naismith (and perhaps we readers) thought was going on is not quite what is really going on.  Halfway through the book Naismith is transported to the future, where he meets various factions, and Knight keeps it unclear how much of what they tell Naismith is true and which (if any) of the factions is worthy of our sympathy.

In the end, Naismith triggers a social revolution in the space station-based aristocratic society of 20,000 years in the future: the servant class and technical class are exterminated, the aristocrats become cattle to be eaten by aliens(!), and the Earth is repopulated with the creative artistic class!  

Knight is famous for his harsh criticism of A. E. Van Vogt's work, and some claim Knight materially damaged Van Vogt's career.  So, when I read Knight's Hell's Pavement some years ago I was struck by how oddly reminiscent it was of much of Van Vogt's fiction, including such elements as secret worlds that are suddenly revealed, and the discovery of secret cabals that are manipulating history and events behind the scenes.  I felt the same way reading Beyond the Barrier, which inspires in the reader the same kind of confusion and unease, the feeling that the world makes no sense, that Van Vogt often evokes, and includes, like much of Van Vogt's work, a protagonist who figures out the mysteries of the world as well as of his own mind and grows in power until he is master of all he surveys.  

Here's a party game for ya: if you could go
 back in time only once would you prevent
the Titanic disaster, JFK's murder, C.
Lombard's death, or  D. Hammarskjold's death?
Knight's style is weak and there is little characterization, but there are fun SF gadgets, robots and weapons and vehicles and so forth, and the crazy plot kept me interested.  I'm going to have to side with the Canadians on this one; I enjoyed Beyond the Barrier.  I'd judge it moderately good.


After reading Beyond the Barrier and drafting the above blog post I looked at the Wikipedia article on the novel, and read Joachim Boaz's hostile review from August 2011.  It turns out that I'm not the first to see similarities between Beyond the Barrier and the writing of A. E. Van Vogt--it is nice to know it's not just in my head!

Joachim gave Beyond the Barrier only one out of five stars while I am giving it a positive review; does this mean I can rebut his criticisms?

Not really.  I agree that the book is short on characterization and is "all plot" and that it includes "ludicrous" scenes.  But whereas Joachim found the "continuous action...utterly dull" and some of the more "ludicrous" scenes irritating or even offensive (Naismith, practically out of nowhere, calls a young woman "a dirty little slut" right to her face) I found the novel to be a wild and crazy thrill ride, punctuated by totally unexpected moments of insanity.  I think it just boils down to Joachim and I having different tastes.


Thanks to Joachim for bringing this book to my attention.  Hopefully I will find the rest of his Wall of Shame titles equally congenial!

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