Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The House of Many Worlds by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Elspeth decided she was getting blase.  Inter-world travel seemed to involve some very high living.
My copy
Sam Merwin, Jr. was editing Startling Stories when it published Raymond F. Jones' The Cybernetic Brains and Edmond Hamilton's The City at World's End, and editing Thrilling Wonder Stories when it published Leigh Brackett's Sea-Kings of Mars and Jack Vance's Son of the Tree, all novels we have enjoyed this year here at MPorcius Fiction Log's Middlewestern HQ and arthropod sanctuary.  But Merwin didn't just buy SF novels--he wrote five or six of them!  And today we take a look at one of them, 1951's The House of Many Worlds.  I own the 1969 paperback from Curtis Books; I like the face and moon in the cover illustration, and the blurbs from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle really sell it as a fun adventure caper.  Let's check it out!

Elspeth Marriner is a snob and a poet who misses New York!  (Tell me about it, lady!)  She's stuck in a hick town of dirt roads, dingy fly-infested restaurants and dilapidated quays on the Carolina coast, sent there to write about "the Hatteras Keys" by the editor of Picture Week, who has partnered her with photographer Mack Fraser--Fraser is a former prizefighter and he has the crooked nose to prove it!  When one of the "natives," as Mack and Elspeth call him behind his back, tells them that a secluded mansion on an island owned by the reclusive Horelle family is sometimes visited by queer lights in the sky before major world events, the journalos (as Kmele Foster might style them) think they've finally found the story they need if they are to return to Gotham in triumph! 

Elspeth and Mack hie to the Horelle estate, where they meet dignified old Mr. Horelle and beautiful young Juana.  Horelle explains that when a turning point in history occurs, like the first flight of the Wright brothers' plane or the disappearance of the colony at Roanoke, a new time stream is created, branching off from the time stream in which, say, the Wrights' machine failed or the Roanoke colony survived.  The Horelles' magnificent house lies on a "tangential point" from whence people can travel between these alternate universes, and the Horelles, who are "Watchers" charged with protecting all these different dimensions, have chosen Elspeth and Mack for a very important mission!

When our heroes get back to the mainland they are in a version of the USA called "Columbia" that is less democratic and less capitalistic than our own.  As a result, the economy is weaker, politics is less stable, and technological progress has not taken the same course--there are no internal combustion engines or airplanes, for example, but there are railroads and boats powered by rockets.  Merwin spends several pages detailing the convoluted alternate history of this world, which features a Columbian Civil War in which New England was defeated by the rest of the country, a British Canada and French Mexico larger than in our own world, and a Columbian capitol is New Orleans.  When Elspeth and Mack arrive a rebellion is underway, led by Reed Weston, an idealistic politician and genius scientist who wants to extend the franchise to all men and liberate private property from excessive government regulation.  Mr. Horelle favors Weston, and has given E&M the task of helping him in his struggle to liberalize Columbia.  How can a poet and photographer help Weston?  Well, they have a car that can fly, which will provide a valuable advantage in a world with no aircraft.

E&M travel to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and then Texas in their quest to hook up with Weston, spending a lot of time in fancy restaurants and hotels doing spy and detective stuff.  (Wikipedia is telling me Merwin wrote more detective stories than SF stories, but doesn't offer any clues as to why he spends so much time in this book describing fashion and interior decorating.)  People try to capture them and they escape.  A character whom they thought was a bad guy, a sympathetic and admirable African-American named John Henry whose perfect body and noble soul ("Here, she thought, was a man close to God") receive lavish and loving descriptions, turns out to be a good guy.  An effeminate fop with an affected English accent who presented himself as a good guy turns out to be a bad guy--Elspeth realizes he's a villain when she sees a tattoo behind his ear.  Halfway through the book they meet Weston, who has invented and built a rocket ship and is planning to take the sixty finest human specimens to colonize Mars.  (Weston wants to bring John Henry, whom Elspeth thinks of as "an ebon demigod," to Mars, but Henry insists on staying Earthside to fight for freedom!)

When Weston sees the flying car he decides to stay on Earth and fight the Columbian government and begins manufacturing flying cars of his own.  Gorgeous Juanna reappears to take E&M to a different version of Earth, one where they trade Weston's rocket blueprints to President Roosevelt (the third of that name) for an asbestos-bakelite armor which Weston's troops can use to counteract the Columbian government's heat guns.  We spend more time in restaurants and well-appointed lodgings and chasing that Anglophile "swish," as Elspeth calls him.  After the problem of Roosevelt's world--international tensions caused by overpopulation--is solved by access to space and the political crisis in Weston's world is resolved via negotiation--the Columbian government balking at fighting a fleet of heat-resistant flying cars--E&M return to their own world, where we get the sense-of-wonder ending that Merwin has been hinting at.  E&M's world is not our own, but one in which flying cars are normal and the United States is part of the British Empire.

I'm afraid the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle have sold me a pig in a poke--The House of Many Worlds is not good at all.  The adventure plot is boring, slow and unconvincing--I couldn't care less if Weston took over Columbia or Mars or anywhere.  Just a third of the way through this thing's 200 pages I felt like abandoning ship.  The narrative is larded with passages that I guess are supposed to be evocative but which just waste the reader's time, like detailed descriptions of people smoking ("Henry paused long enough to flick a three-inch ash from his cigar into a hole with a metal rim set in the corner of the desk itself") and long stream of consciousness sections in which Elspeth composes poems ("It should rhyme tidily, she decided further, and consist of three quatrains with an unexpected little rhyme break in the middle of each line.")

The human plot is equally lame, "opposites attract" bilge like something from a light women's romantic comedy film (the kids call those "romcoms") or a slowed-down version of one of those irritating fast-talking screwball comedies from '30s-'40s Hollywood.  Elspeth is a hypocritical feminist who thinks of herself as a woman who can hold her own in a man's world but at the same time expects men to treat her gallantly--they are supposed to carry her bags and open doors for her and offer her cigarettes (this book is full of smoking) without her asking. Being a sensitive artiste, she hates machines and looks down on Mack as an uncreative type who loves machines; this causes her some angst as Mack's aggressive quick thinking and machinery keep saving their lives. The House of Many Worlds is very repetitive, and many times we are confronted with a paragraph in which Elspeth starts admiring Mack and then condemns herself for it.  Here's a particularly stupid one which I was too lazy to type (don't be ashamed if you are too lazy to read it):


Mack dallies with Juanna, the perfect woman, and Elspeth dallies with John Henry, the perfect man, but we know that flawed Mack and flawed Elspeth are meant for each other, not that we care what happens to these two pills.

The plot and characters of House are outlandish and absurd, but the book is never funny.  Am I supposed to think Elspeth's idiotic snobbery, the ridiculousness of sending a poet and photographer to do the job you'd expect commandos or intelligence operatives to do, or the effete mannerisms of a caricature of a gay man are funny?  I guess in theory these things could be funny, but Merwin's writing is too repetitive, too broad, and too lacking in cleverness or surprise to elicit a laugh.  The funniest thing about the novel is the extravagantly and embarrassingly overdone portrait of John Henry as the ultimate man, but presumably this is Merwin's sincere effort to fight racism and not an intentional lampoon of white fetishization of black people or the "magical Negro" trope or a writer who goes overboard trying to assuage his "white guilt."  (The gushing about Juanna after she gets disintegrated by the swish's heat pistol is almost as bad.)     

House fails as an adventure story, and as a humor piece.  Does it succeed as an SF story (if we are considering SF to be a literature of ideas which speculates on how different life and civilization might be under different conditions?)  No, it does not.  Because of all the alternate history and time stream jazz we've endured before (even if, in fairness to Merwin, lots of it was published after House) the novel does not feel fresh and none of its ideas is compelling.  All the talk about rocket-powered trains and flying automobiles and all the long descriptions of alternate histories of North American politics are sterile decoration at best and leaden burdens that weigh down the narrative at worst.

I try to be a generous reviewer who looks for good things in books, even those which have serious weaknesses, but I can't find much of anything good in The House of Many Worlds.  The negative verdict is inescapable. 

Bad!

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