Monday, August 17, 2015

Worlds of the Wall by C. C. MacApp

Zeke, far less sullen than he might have expected to be, did what was demanded of him...

Driving back from a wedding in South Carolina (where they have lots of interesting amphibians and arthropods, I must say) the wife and I stopped in Davenport, Iowa, to check out a used bookstore, The Book Rack, where I picked up several wacky old SF paperbacks.  Among these was a heavily worn copy of Avon V2308, 1969's Worlds of the Wall by California chess champion Carroll Mather Capps, who wrote under the name C. C. MacApp.  Like the people at ThriftBooks.com, the staff of the Book Rack mar their wares with oversized labels, but I guess for 35 cents I shouldn't complain.

Worlds of the Wall, about 210 pages of text, is the adventure of Zeke Bolivar, pioneering astronaut.  Something goes wrong with Bolivar's little one man ship during an experimental hyperspace warp, and Bolivar finds himself near a bizarre planet, one which appears to have been cut in half--one half is actually missing.  The flat side of the remaining hemisphere is covered with a black substance that juts out beyond the planet surface to the limits of the atmosphere, forming a 400-mile high Wall.

Things get more bizarre on the planet's surface.  Bolivar should be the first Earthling to arrive at the planet, but he finds it inhabited by Earth plants, animals, and humans who speak a creole made up of various Earth languages.  There seems to be some sort of time travel business going on; Bolivar encounters human-crewed space ships more advanced than his own, and even meets men who appear to be older versions of himself.

A major theme of the book is that we lack free will, that our lives are driven by destiny or fate or just manipulated by other people.  Bolivar's picaresque adventures on the planet are not driven by his own desires or decisions; he does what others tell him to, again and again.  Almost immediately upon landing (in the second of the book's twenty-seven chapters), the advanced humans push him through the black Wall and into a medieval-like world called Gatkun where people believe in magic, and have no technology more complicated than a sword or an oar-driven ship.  Bolivar marches in the direction a sage tells him to, and is quickly captured and made a galley slave.  He participates in his owner's "bring 'em back alive" hunt for giant animals in a swamp, and is given the job of animal handler because the biggest beast, an otter-thing the size of an elephant, takes a liking to him.  Bolivar accompanies the otter beast when it is delivered to his owner's customer, a sort of wizard pope known as The High Seer.  

The High Seer has "foreseen" Bolivar's arrival and even knows Bolivar is from another world, a fact Bolivar has kept a secret from everybody else in this magical half of the planet. The High Seer tells Bolivar that he "is needed for the fulfillment of an important destiny" and that he and the giant otter "are somehow intertwined in more than one continuum...and upon what befalls them may hang the very existence of Gatkun!"

This "continuum" business somewhat undercuts the otherwise prevalent themes of prophecy and determinism.  We are told that, even though Bolivar has met a version of himself who is thirty years older than he is, he could still be killed in the next thirty years, because maybe that aged Bolivar and the Bolivar we know are from different continuua.  

Worlds of the Wall appeared in a French
translation in 1978; fun fact: the French
word for otter is "loutre."
In the final quarter of the novel the High Seer sends Bolivar on a mission to fight an evil wizard who, Bonaparte-style, has escaped from the island to which he was exiled after losing a major war.  Bolivar enlists the help of an amphibious race of people with duck-like bills to defeat the evil wizard, and then is given final instructions of where to go by yet another sage figure. In the very last chapter Bolivar, somehow, by wrestling with a version of himself from another continuum, while several other versions of himself watch, causes The Wall to vanish, reuniting the planet's two halves.  But then one of those sages appears to tell Bolivar that The Wall will be back in twenty years.

We never learn the answer to several of the novel's mysteries, like why the planet was cut in half in the first place, why there are Earth life forms there, and why magic works in Gatkun but machines, like a windmill Bolivar tries to construct, do not.  Maybe MacApp expected to produce a sequel?

I have a weak spot for these stories in which a guy gets stranded on a planet where people sword fight, but MacApp's Worlds of the Wall doesn't reach the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter books, or Jack Vance's Tschai books, or Robert Howard's Almuric.  For one thing, MacApp's writing is pretty flat; he doesn't have a distinctive writing style like Burroughs, Vance and Howard, and the book conveys little feeling. Secondly, Bolivar is a bland and uninteresting character.  We learn almost nothing about him, and he isn't driven by a sense of purpose or passion, he doesn't fall in love with a woman or join a cause or desperately try to get back to Earth or anything like that. He's sort of just along for the ride, doing what he is told.  

The book's emphasis on prophecies and destiny also inhibits how much fun it can be. Even if Bolivar's lack of free will accurately reflects the reality of our own lives, in which the laws of physics (you know, Spinoza-style) and/or the government, the market, and cultural traditions limit or eliminate our free will, it doesn't necessarily make for a good adventure story, in which we might hope to see people make decisions and triumph or fail due to their own character.  It is true that one of the greatest fantasy adventure characters, Michael Moorcock's Elric, is doomed by Fate, but Moorcock makes the Elric stories work by imbuing them with a sense of tragedy. (Needless to say, Moorcock also has a good writing style, and in the Elric books I read in the '80s, a set of the six silver Berkley paperbacks with the iconic Gould covers that currently reside with my brother back in New Jersey, Moorcock created a compelling character.)  

Worlds of the Wall is also somewhat shoddily constructed.  The evil wizard and the duck people are introduced in the last part of the novel without any sort of foreshadowing and without us getting any time to know or care about them.  Instead of learning about the villain and the duck people, we spend the first two thirds of the book getting to know the otter monster and two human friends Bolivar makes aboard the ship, but these three characters play no role in the climactic battle with the evil wizard or the fight that brings down The Wall.  Worlds of the Wall is an expanded version of a story that appeared in Fantastic in 1964 entitled "Beyond the Ebon Wall," and maybe this helps explain why important figures from some parts of the story don't appear in other parts, and why there are those loose ends I've mentioned already.

I have a lot of complaints about Worlds of the Wall, but I still think it deserves a mild recommendation.  It was never boring or annoying, I was curious to see how things were going to turn out, and there are some good scenes, like all the animal hunting scenes.  I liked the evil wizard's style of magic, and at times the setting was intriguing. Even though Bolivar was a boring character, MacApp tried to make several other characters interesting, giving them peculiar, faintly amusing, attributes (the High Seer is a neat freak, the evil wizard has nervous tics, one of Bolivar's comrades is a pessimist, etc.)          

Worlds of the Wall is not a classic by any means, but acceptable as a pastime.  I don't begrudge those 35 cents!

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