Saturday, January 9, 2016

Across Time by Donald A. Wollheim (as David Grinnell)

Carl turned hastily to his brother.  "You don't know what you're doing! Stop him!"
But Zack was standing at the visual ball, watching the development of events.  Sylvia stood a little behind him, fascinated by the scene.

I recently enjoyed some horror stories written by Donald A. Wollheim, the famed editor of science fiction and fantasy.  When I realized I had a novel by Wollheim sitting right there on the shelf, hiding under the pseudonym "David Grinnell," I quickly moved it to the top of the "to-be-read" pile.  My copy of Across Time is the 1968 Ace paperback edition; the novel first appeared in 1957 in hardcover.  My copy includes a fun "checklist" of "recommended Ace science-fiction" in the back, which consists of ten pages of ads.

Across Time starts with some relationship drama.  Military pilot Zack Halleck was fighting for freedom in the skies over Korea (or, as your college professor might put it, serving as a dupe of Wall Street bankers in their ruthless efforts to preserve the U$A's access to the lucrative Asian market) when he was shot down behind enemy lines. When Zack finally got back to America he found that his girlfriend, Sylvia, thinking him dead, had married his older brother, Carl, the physicist and engineer!

Zack threw himself into work as a test pilot in order to put this Claudius-style treachery out of his mind.  When his experimental plane was brought down by a UFO, Zack was assigned to work with a research team investigating just such UFOs, one lead by Carl and Sylvia Halleck!  As the novel begins Zack is riding a train bound for the Oregon town where he and Carl grew up in a big farmhouse which Carl has converted to a radar research center.

I was worried that all this soap opera jazz might overpower the science fiction and adventure aspects of the novel, as interpersonal histrionics took over two SF novels by big names written in roughly the same period as Across Time, Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon and Judith Merrill's Tomorrow People.  So I was relieved when Sylvia and Carl vanished during a UFO encounter twenty pages in.  Five pages later Zack, in a flash, is transported one million years into the future where he meets our descendents! (Well, maybe your descendents; I don't have any children.)

One million years in the future, humankind has evolved into a race of creatures of pure energy, globes which float serenely from star to star, getting all the sustenance they need directly from "the cosmos."  Most globe-people are aloof from material concerns and refuse to interfere with the galaxy's material-based civilizations, but a minority of them, the Quoxians, have set themselves up as gods and rulers of a small portion of the galaxy, where they are worshipped by various nonhuman races of differing technological and social development.  The Quoxians and the majority of humanity are involved in a sort of cold war (cold war is a major theme of the novel) which the Quoxian dissidents are destined to lose unless they come up with some advantage over the majority in short order.

It seems that the Quoxians have recently come up with just such an advantage.  Zack is told that the Quoxians have figured out how to send robots back in time and are trying to meddle with the history of the 20th century!  To this end they kidnapped Carl and Sylvia, and tried, but failed, to kidnap Zack. The representatives of the majority of the globe-people take the last space warship (it was commissioned in the year 237,000 A. D.) out of mothballs and provide it to Zack so he can sally forth and rescue his brother and his former girlfriend.

Perhaps in order to extend his story to novel length (my edition has 145 pages of text), Wollheim includes an interlude in which, before blasting off to rescue Carl and Sylvia, Zack spends some months among the nonhuman intelligent species which evolved from primates to take over the Earth after humanity abandoned it.  These people, the seroomi, have a technological and social level similar to that of 20th century humans, and are even engaged in a cold war of their own.  The seroomi know nothing about the human race, and the appearance of Zack causes a ruckus.  Some think he is a dangerous space alien or a spy from the other side in the cold war, and demagogic politicians rouse angry mobs against Zack.  The globe-humans spirit Zack away before he can be lynched, and Wollheim uses one of my least favorite SF literary devices to clear up the whole seroomi plot: the globe-people erase from the minds of every seroomi in the world all memory of Zack!

The appearance of Zack could have revolutionized seroomi civilization--causing a paradigm shift in seroomi thinking, touching off an atomic war, something interesting like that.  Instead Wollheim makes us think the 30 or 40 pages we spent among the seroomi were a waste of time because the seroomi don't even remember Zack was there!  Annoying!

1957 hardcover that surprisingly focuses on the
20th century scenes instead of the space ships
and weird life forms of the far future
The robot starship takes Zack to the corner of the Milky Way where the Quoxians are worshipped as gods, and the ship easily finds Carl and Sylvia, who in fact are neither hidden nor under guard.  Carl has been pampered by the Quoxians, and resents Zack's "rescue."  Carl explains that the majority of globe-people are "individualists," while the Quoxians realize that the way to achieve ultimate power, to reshape the galaxy and achieve the final goal of science, is for humans to link their minds together. Carl is eager to add his genius to the effort to achieve this mass galaxy-wide mind, but Zack is having none of it, and Sylvia sides with Zack in short order. The three head back towards Earth, the Quoxians and their worshippers' war vessels in hot pursuit.

Space battles between Zack's invincible ship and swarms of alien craft ensue.  Carl sabotages the ship, but this only causes a temporary disruption.  When the Quoxians attack with their most powerful unit, a mass of linked minds, it is revealed that the individualistic globe-people updated the year 237,000 ship with year 1,000,000 technology to counter just such a threat.  The final explosion even has been calibrated by the globemen to throw the protagonists and the ship back to the 20th century, where they can destroy all the Quoxian robots and foil the Quoxian effort to change history.  Carl, loyal to the Quoxians, steals a lifeboat and tries to join the Quoxian robots, but the robots mistakenly blow him away. The human race is saved, and now Zack and Sylvia can get married.    

I have mixed feelings about Across Time.  I liked the robot starship and the space battles; Wollheim vividly describes the ship and all its futuristic functions and abilities, and actually gives it a fun personality.  The ship is actually the most interesting and likable character in the book!  But the novel also has real problems.

Readers of this blog have perhaps heard me complain about fiction in which the main characters are spectators instead of drivers of the plot.  Across Time suffers severely from this problem.  Zack listens to page after page of science and history lectures from Carl and the globemen, he's carried hither and thither against his will by tractor beams and energy fields, he's a passenger in a space ship run by a robot who does all the navigating and fighting for Zack.  There is scene after scene of Zack looking out a window or at a viewscreen, observing instead of acting--the very first page has him looking out the window of a train.

I can't recall any scene in which Zack grabs a weapon and fights somebody, seizes a tool and fixes something, figures his way out of a puzzle or convinces somebody to do something to help him. Just about every time there is trouble it is a deus ex machina that gets him out of it--the globe-people or the invincible spaceship defeat his enemies or whisk him away from danger again and again.  The rivalry between Zack and his brother Carl isn't concluded by a physical or intellectual struggle between them, or by any decision or action of Zack's, it is solved by the villains killing Carl by mistake. Zack's abilities or decisions don't matter to the story, it is always some godlike force which directs him where to go or pulls his fat out of the fire.

(The few times Zack does hold the controls, things tend to go wrong, like when the experimental aircraft he is flying crashes, or when he is at the radar controls in Oregon when Carl and Sylvia get captured--Zack thinks maybe he could have prevented his brother and sister-in-law from being captured if he had chosen to turn off the radar as the UFOs were closing in.)

1958 paperback printing as one component of an Ace Double
Wollheim tries to do some psychological stuff about how Carl was insecure even though he was a genius and was driven by jealousy of Zack, but this part of the story falls flat.  The novel doesn't convey Zack's or Carl's emotions, even though it sets up obsession-with-science and tragic-love-affair elements.  What Sylvia sees in either brother was also beyond me.

An interesting way to look at Across Time is as an artifact of or commentary on the Cold War.  As a Korean War veteran Zack personally played a direct role in the struggle between the liberal West and the communist regimes based in Moscow and Beijing.  The unsatisfying interlude among the seroomi is an obvious allegory of Red Scares and McCarthyism in America (the seroomi society Zack spends time in has private property, a free press, elected government and an independent judiciary, so makes sense as a stand in for the US or the West generally.)  The struggle among the energy-based humans of the Year One Million is between an individualistic "hands-off" faction and a collectivist tyrannical faction, and Zack compares the Quoxians to Stalin (as well as to Hitler and Napoleon.)  And the conflict between Carl and Zack, an emotionally consuming rivalry which doesn't quite escalate to violent physical confrontation, is also much like a cold war.  

While all these references to the Cold War are there, Wollheim doesn't do much with them.  Wollheim purposefully avoids ideological issues, both in the 20th century and in his imagined future.  Words like  "Russia," "Soviet Union," "communism" and "socialism" don't appear in the book, and the other side in the seroomi cold war receives almost no description.  Zack and Carl both are lectured (off screen) by globe-people about the conflict between the mainstream energy humans and the minority Quoxians, but both Oregonians admit to being unable to comprehend the dispute:
Exactly what the nature of this debate was, Zachary was unable to ascertain.  The philosophy of beings half a million years ahead of his own time, whose knowledge was infinitely greater than his, was something that Halleck could not grasp. [63]
Carl paused, concentrating on his words.  "Now it wasn't easy for the Quoxians to make clear to me just what the root of the difference is."  [102]
Maybe Wollheim is simply avoiding the issue, but could it be that he is suggesting that conflict between people is inevitable due to human nature and that the ideological differences that appear to trigger such conflicts are actually not that important, may even be mere rationalizations of elites which ordinary people aren't even equipped to understand?

I'm beginning to suspect that the true theme of the novel is that most or all of us are at the mercy of forces beyond our control or comprehension, that the course of our lives is not determined by our own decisions or abilities at all.  Carl is driven by mental illness and Zack just does what he is told and succeeds due to the (repeated) interference of incomprehensibly powerful allies.

I'm afraid I have to give Across Time a (marginal) down vote.  Long stretches of it are boring (lectures) or inconsequential (the seroomi.)  The robotic space warship is fun, but the novel fails as an adventure story because there is no tension and the main character has no agency.  The psychological drama and political/social elements are underdone.  Across Time is a disappointment.    

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