Sunday, August 30, 2015

At The Narrow Passage by Richard C. Meredith

"I have only your word," I said, "and I'm sick and tired of taking other people's word for things.  I'm going to find out for myself."  

I think I bought At The Narrow Passage, Berkley N2730, a 1975 edition of the 1973 novel, over a year ago.  I bought it because I loved the cover painting by Richard Powers.  I like Powers, but often his work seems flat, physically and emotionally. Here was a Powers that had a strong sense of physical depth, and a terrible emotional power: it looked like the landscape that would confront you if you were assigned to explore a planet inhabited by feral vampires or sentenced to Hell by a merciless God. I had no idea who the hell Richard C. Meredith was, and the alternate universe soldier plot described on the back cover didn't particularly interest me, so I just put the book on my shelf and admired the cover occassionaly.

Then, back in June, Joachim Boaz reviewed Meredith's 1969 novel We All Died at Breakaway Station.  He only gave it a middling review, and complained about the book's characterizations and gender politics, but it sounded to me like it had some pretty cool ideas, and, if done well, the kind of bleak tone that would go along with the Powers painting on At The Narrow Passage.  This put At The Narrow Passage onto my radar screen, and I even kept it out of the moving cartons when I packed up my books for storage.  This weekend I finally read the novel.

Revised edition
(Tarbandu wrote about At The Narrow Passage and its sequels in January of 2014, but somehow I didn't make the connection until I had started reading this volume. Maybe because he read a revised edition put out in 1979 with a different cover.)

There are many different "timelines" in the universe, visualized as branches on a two-dimensional tree.  When the universe began there was just the one trunk, but when points of uncertainty are reached, decisive moments when something of consequence may occur (will the Roman Empire embrace Christianity or not?) the line will split into two lines.  By the 20th Century there are a "near infinite" number of lines.  In relation to each other, these lines are described as being to the East or West.  Far to the East of our own line are lines in which the Earth is inhabited by the Krith, an inhuman intelligent species that can't or won't manipulate tools or machines (they don't even wear clothes), but which can travel between the timelines (this is called "skudding") thanks to a special nervous organ.  The Krith become friendly with humans while exploring West, and warn them that in the 40th century or so hostile aliens are going to come to Earth, threatening the extermination of the Krith and human races.  So the Krith, Hari Seldon style, go to many human-inhabited timelines and scientifically predict what courses of history are most likely to produce a unified human civilization with the technological level to defeat the aliens. Then they try to push and prod the human race, more or less secretly, in order to get history to move in that world-peace/high-tech direction.

Our narrator is a human, known in his current timeline as Eric Mathers.  Mathers is a mercenary soldier, paid by the Krith to fight in the wars of various timelines on the side the Krith think more likely to lay the foundations of a civilization that will be able to resist those aliens in 2000 years.  ("Timeliner" mercenaries like Mathers can tip the balance of battles and wars because they bring with them special equipment, like rayguns and biological augmentations that provide them better eyesight and faster reflexes.)  In this timeline he is playing the role of a British Army officer; here the British Empire is in a war of attrition in Europe against the German Empire, a war roughly similar to World War One in our timeline.  Very few natives of this timeline know about the Krith and the timeliners, just people like the King of England and Britain's highest commanders.

Hardcover first edition
In the first 100 pages of the book Mathers is a member of a commando team trying to capture a German aristocrat who is in charge of an effort to develop atomic weapons.  Things go wrong and Mathers gets captured by mysterious allies of the Germans who turn out to be timeliners (they call themselves "Paratimers") from the West side of the Temporal Spectrum, lines the Krith have not yet visited.  These people claim the future alien invasion is a Krith fabrication, and that the Krith are manipulating people like Mathers and the British of this timeline for their own unknown purposes.

Mathers spends the middle third of the book as a prisoner in a secret underground city in Florida, where American revolutionaries are plotting to overthrow the British Empire (which in this timeline still rules all English-speaking parts of North America.)  The Paratimers try to get Mathers to switch sides.  This section of the book reminded me of bits and pieces from Robert Heinlein's work (Mathers has sex with lots of women, reminding me of parts of Glory Road, and witnesses pro-independence political meetings, like those portrayed in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Between Planets and Red Planet) and from George Orwell's 1984 (Mathers reads books purporting to be the true history of mankind's relationship with the Krith, like how Winston Smith reads The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.)  Unlike Heinlein and Orwell, however, Meredith doesn't discuss any kind of political philosophy or seem to have any particular political axe to grind. (Tarbandu suggests that he gets philosophical later, in the sequels.)

Meredith's treatment of minorities and women also reminded me of Heinlein's; there are non-whites and women in leadership positions, Mathers specifically condemns racial prejudice, and there are inter-racial sexual relationships--Mathers, who is white, thinks a black woman is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  It is also made clear that there are timelines in which sub-Saharan Africans developed modern industrial civilizations and colonized Europe instead of the other way around.

(While I'm talking about possible connections to other works, I should note that Meredith's dedication to this book, and tarbandu's discussion of the series, make clear that Meredith owes a lot of this timeline business to H. Beam Piper, but that I personally haven't read any of Piper's own work in this vein.)

Mathers escapes from the secret base and in the final seventy or so pages of the 250-page novel tries to figure out the truth behind both the Krith and the Paratimers.  He learns that both of these groups have been lying to and manipulating humanity--the alien invasion scare is a hoax, while the Paratimers' leaders are ruthless inhuman killers in disguise.  After a climactic ray guns and machine guns blazing confrontation in a desolate timeline where the Earth has been sterilized by Paratimer nuclear weapons, Mathers escapes both his Krith masters and the blue-skinned Paratimers. Safe in our own timeline, Mathers resolves to do something to protect humankind from these two sinister groups.  What the inhumans are ultimately up to, and what Mathers can do about it, I guess we learn in the sequels.

At The Narrow Passage seems to be designed to appeal to history buffs, particularly military history buffs.  There is a lot of talk about firearms and lots of long expository passages in which one character or another describes how his or her timeline got to be how it is.  (For example, in the timeline in which most of the book takes place the British were able to quash the American Revolution in the 1770s and make France a British satellite during the 1790s Revolutionary crisis there thanks to widespread adoption by the British Army of the Ferguson rifle.)  On the intellectual history side, the guy who is credited with figuring out the Krith are lying about the aliens and writing one of the Paratimer propaganda books is an analogue of Martin Luther named Martin Latham, while many of the Paratimers come from a timeline in which the Cathars came to dominate Europe.

There are lots of action and battle sequences: firefights, ambushes, artillery and aerial bombardments, burning towns and so forth.  As we almost always see in these adventure stories, plenty of people get captured and plenty of people escape capture--sometimes I feel like every book I read has multiple scenes in which people get tied up and at least one scene in which somebody gets knocked out with a blow to the head, only to wake up just fine a few hours later.  There is also a strong lascivious element to the book: Mathers meets lots of beautiful women and we receive descriptions of all their breast sizes; the topic of rape comes up several times; and it is normal for characters of both sexes to be naked, because they come from nudist societies or because they have been caught in dishabille during a sneak attack or because somebody needs to use their clothes as makeshift bonds to tie somebody up.

I like sex and violence as much as the next guy, and Meredith handles that material well enough, and all the science fiction stuff, while not believable, is adequately explained for an adventure caper.  And I'm a history buff myself, so all the references to Ferguson rifles and Albigensians were interesting.  On the negative side, the characterizations are pretty thin, and the book feels a little long and slow.

The best thing Meredith does is keep you in the dark as to whether you are supposed to sympathize with the Krith and the British or the Paratimers and the rebellious Americans; both sides put forward arguments that don't hold water, and both count among their members some admirable figures and some creepy suspicious figures. This is more interesting than those stories in which one side is racist or exploiting the environment and so you know right away they are the villains, and have to trudge through half the story to the "surprise" of the main character switching sides to join the multicultural tree-hugging side.  Meredith kept me guessing and wondering through the entire novel.

I enjoyed At The Narrow Passage enough that I plan to read the sequels; I am genuinely curious as to where Meredith is going to go with these ideas.  So call this one a positive review!  It is not for everybody, but it does what it sets out to do creditably.

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