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August 29, 2006

What Mad Universe

A sci-fi magazine editor crosses over to an alternate dimension in which every pulp nightmare comes true
What Mad Universe
By Fredric Brown
First published in 1949
By Paul Di Filippo
Keith Winton has a nice life in the year 1954. He's editor of a pulp SF zine named Surprising Stories. He's in love with the beautiful Betty Hadley, a co-worker who edits Perfect Love Stories for the same employer, publisher L.A. Borden. And in fact, this very weekend, Keith and Betty are guests at Borden's elegant Catskills estate. Too bad Betty has to leave early, to get back to New York. That will certainly mean that she'll be gone when an experimental moon rocket crashes and explodes on the Borden property, sending Keith Winton through a dimensional rift into a strange and nearly incomprehensible world. A world made all the crazier because of certain deceptive similarities.
There are few funnier scenes in the literature than Keith encountering Betty for the first time in her "space girl" outfit.
 
Keith awakes on the blank piece of land that does not host the Borden mansion in this continuum. He bums a ride into town, where he finds that one of his familiar quarters is worth thousands of "credits" in an illegal deal. But when he tries to sell a second coin, he's accused for some reason of being an "Arcturian spy!" He manages to escape local authorities and make his way by train back to New York.

There he finds the nighttime city locked down in a "mistout," while deadly gangs of "Nighters" prowl. Barely escaping with his life, he survives till the safety of the dawn and begins to educate himself in the new universe.

Its history, apparently, deviated from ours in 1903, when a scientist fooling with his wife's sewing machine invented a spacedrive. Soon the habitable planets of the solar system were colonized. But voyaging beyond our sun brought mankind into deadly conflict with the Arcturians. Now all public affairs revolve around the stalemated war, with Earth's forces led by the polymath genius and warrior Doppelle and his mechanical sidekick Mekky.

Desperate to earn a living, Keith conceives of selling remembered and transcribed stories to his editor counterpart, this world's Keith Winton. But a visit to the offices of Borden Publishing reveals a disturbing sight: Betty, clad in skimpy "space girl" clothing and engaged to the charismatic Doppelle!

What's a fifth wheel like the extra Keith Winton to do?

SF's first recursive novel

"Recursive science fiction" is defined as science fiction that takes as its subject matter, at least partially, all the various themes, personages and history of the genre itself. It's a rarefied subset of the field, but irresistible to fans when well done—and Brown was certainly a clever and facile pioneer. The immense fondness SF fans had for this novel persisted for several generations, although Brown is probably better known today among mystery readers, for his many detective books.

Brown's first sale in the genre occurred only in 1941, and What Mad Universe was only his first SF novel. But already his appreciation for and knowledge of the field was deep, and his skills exemplary. Nor was he lacking in the ability to keep suspense going. The combination of all these factors resulted in a novel not deep or weighty, nor even acidly satirical, but one that remains a sheer pleasure to read, somewhat like Edmond Hamilton crossed with Thorne Smith.

Brown might have been influenced by Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue (1942), a mystery novel that utilized famous SF writers as characters. And perhaps also by L. Ron Hubbard's 1940 novella "Typewriter in the Sky." But Brown's stroke of genius lay in constructing a deliberately shoddy universe that actually mimicked pulp cliches but that was absolutely real to its inhabitants. (The explanation of how this universe came into being is the book's kicker.) There are few funnier scenes in the literature than Keith encountering Betty for the first time in her "space girl" outfit. And yet the book exhibits genuine creepiness in places—the attack of the Nighters, for instance—and a head-spinning sense of deracination.

Surely Philip K. Dick must have had What Mad Universe in mind when he wrote his Eye in the Sky (1957). And like all SF writers, Dick upped the ante, by creating not one shoddy cosmos, but multiple ones.

In writing my novel Fuzzy Dice, I had both Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles (1968) and this book as models. There's nothing like stealing from—excuse me, I meant being inspired by—the Grand Masters! —Paul