Friday, May 22, 2015

Escape Across the Cosmos by Gardner Fox

"Hannes Stryker gave you a body for one reason.  To destroy Ylth'yl.  Do that and I'll make you the richest man--outside myself, naturally--in the Empire."

I'm the kind of guy who relishes a challenge.  I mean, you won't find me climbing mountains or wrestling alligators, but when Joachim Boaz suggested that Gardner Fox's Escape Across the Cosmos might not be very good (on Fox's birthday no less!), I was all "unto the breach!"  I'm content to let other men fly experimental planes and battle Al Qaeda--reading a 160-page novel from 1964 by the guy who created DC Comics' The Flash and Hawkman is an MPorcius-sized challenge!

Soon after opening my copy of Escape Across the Cosmos I realized that another explorer had blazed this trail before me: Lori Flanagan, who acquired this novel in 1982 and has the world's most adorable bookplate!

Fellow SF fan Lori Flanagan, we salute you!
Planet Dakkan is a vast desert with a eleven moons and a sun "twenty-four hundred times more luminous than Sol of old mother Earth so far away."  The Empire drops off their worst criminals there--nobody is expected to live on the waterless world more than a day or two.  The latest resident of Dakkan is Kael Carrick, formerly the Empire's number one war hero!  On a successful commando mission Carrick's body was totally mutilated, but the Empire's greatest scientist, Hannes Stryker, built Carrick a bionic body for his still-intact brain to inhabit.  Sounds good, but then Stryker turned up dead, and Carrick was framed for the crime!

After wandering the barren lifeless planet for 18 hours or so Carrick finds it is not quite so barren and lifeless after all!  Than Lear, the space pirate, was sentenced to Dakkan a few years ago, and, thanks to his connections, a ship smuggles in the food and water he needs to survive.  Lear has been rescuing all the criminals landed on Dakkan, and is now king of the planet, with a court of fifteen people.

Carrick (and his new girlfriend) hijack one of the smuggler ships and escape Dakkan.  Like in a detective story, Carrick travels from planet to planet, talking to lowlifes and corrupt bazillionaires and studying documents relating to his trial, looking for evidence of who framed him for the murder.  Reading Hannes Stryker's diary he learns some facts that, despite their being foreshadowed earlier, shake his view of the universe and of himself!  1) Stryker built a portal to another dimension, Slarrn, where reigns a horrible monster, Ylth'yl the Eternal, that lives by devouring the life forces of human beings. 2) Stryker designed the body Carrick is in to battle Ylth'yl to the death!  Carrick's super-body is silicon-based because Ylth'yl can only absorb the life force from a carbon-based body. Ylth'yl has almost exterminated the human race in Slarrn, and thanks to Stryker's portal, Ylth'yl will soon be paying our dimension a visit and we are all on the menu!

In the last 35 or so pages of the novel Carrick and his love interest go through the portal to Slarrn.  In Slarrn, Carrick gets posthypnotic messages, left in his brain by Stryker, that allow him to use psychic powers that Stryker installed in his silicon body. Carrick's final battle with Ylth'yl (who appears as a white cloud) is like a fight between Jedi, with lots of telekinesis, hypnotism, lightning, etc.  Ylth'yl even says "Why should we destroy one another?  You could rule two universes with me."  This battle is way too long, like ten pages, and probably the most boring parts of the book. After Ylth'yl is disposed of, Carrick returns to our dimension to exact justice on Than Lear and his other enemies and unravels the mystery of who killed Hannes Stryker.

This plot is crazy, of course, but I kind of like it.  The issue is in the execution.  It would be easy to imagine somebody like Jack Vance, who does detective stuff in his novels, or Kuttner and Moore, who are often sending people between dimensions, making this plot work well.  But as Escape Across the Cosmos sits, it feels rushed, like it wasn't edited, and has too many distracting problems.  For example, why does Fox have the girlfriend accompany Carrick off Dakkan?  Fox doesn't develop an interesting relationship between her and Carrick, and she doesn't seem to have any role in the plot beyond Dakkan; Fox tells us repeatedly what clothes she is wearing and how pretty her hips are, and that's about it.  If Carrick were totally alone on his journeys through space and between the dimensions it might have added some oppressive loneliness, added to the "one man vs the universe" atmosphere.  

According to isfdb, some vile creeps
published this pirated copy of  Fox's
text under this title and author in 1978
The writing style Fox employs in this novel is not very good.  Some sentences are hard to understand ("The only city on Dakkan planet, it held no undiscovered secrets except for the fact of its own existence,") some sentences are laughably dumb ("Carrick thought his [Than Lear's] mouth betrayed a man fond both of philosophy and plunder.")  I encountered more than one sentence in which commas seemed to be in the wrong spot.  There are weird verbal tics, like how everybody says "Dakkan planet" instead of "planet Dakkan" or just "Dakkan." Nobody says "gun" or "car," it's always "implositron" or "blipper" and "sandsled" or "monowheeler," which is fine, but after Fox makes up all these futuristic words for everything he distractingly tosses in a mention of "Bristol board," I guess a winking acknowledgement ("Hey, Mom!") of his comic book background.    

The names used by Fox in Escape Across the Cosmos gave me pause.  One villain is named Felton Pratt, and another is Alton Raymond.  Are these jocular references to SF writer Fletcher Pratt and comics creator Alex Raymond, both of whom died in 1956?  Did Fox have some kind of feud with Pratt and Raymond?  Felton Pratt is described as "a rat of a human being" and we are reminded again and again that Alton Raymond is fat.  And of course "Hannes" makes me think of Hannes Bok.

I've got to give Escape Across the Cosmos a thumbs down, but it is not so terrible that I wouldn't recommend it to fans of Fox's comic book work, who might be curious about this other facet of his creative output.  I've never actually read any Flash or Hawkman comics; maybe they include concepts or devices Fox used here.

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