Wednesday 27 February 2013



(1958, Avalon Books, then paperback Ace Double, 1959)

‘They Had Created A Miniature Universe.
But Could They Control It?’

‘David Grinnell’ was Donald A Wollheim, the all-round SF-activist who donated his initials to found ‘DAW Books’. That he was also an inventively useful novelist is evident from this weird and unusual tale. And it explodes up from the opening line – ‘William Bassett had just returned to his tractor when the dinosaurs appeared’, before hurtling pell-mell into the breathless narrative. Bassett is a dirt-farmer ploughing his field in upstate New York. The dinosaurs, complete with their own slice of primeval jungle, have appeared in his back forty. Terrified, he races his tractor back towards the house with his plough gouging an untidy zigzag furrow all the way. But turning, the prehistoric vista has vanished. This is the latest in a series of bizarre visions seen in this remote rural area.

Very much like a fifties version of Mulder and Scully, Warren Alton and Marge McElroy are despatched to investigate these strange occurrences. Except that they’re a news team from national picture weekly ‘People’. And he’s a writer who’s at first shocked to discover that his designated photographer is female, after all ‘it was embarrassing to send a girl unescorted with him’. With his objections firmly slapped down he sullenly sets out with her in his three-year-old Dodge, on their way to the back of the beyond. And a strangeness that would tax even the comprehension of the two ‘X-Files’ agents.

Although largely known as a pioneering editor, anthologist, essayist and critic, New Yorker Donald Allen Wollheim (born 1 October 1914) sporadically contributed short fiction to the pulps following his early debut with “The Man From Ariel” in ‘Wonder Stories’ (January 1934). By the early fifties he’d already published a handful of series-novels as ‘Martin Pearson’, and a couple of others under his own name. There is also one earlier ‘David Grinnell’ novel – ‘Across Time’ (1957), about jealousy and revenge between two brothers, hook-lined ‘a quest in the year one-million’, a year earlier. Then came ‘Edge Of Time’ which was largely well-received by reviewers at the time, but has been subsequently overlooked, and largely forgotten. Its extravagantly wide-eyed sense-of-wonder scarcely accords with the more dour experimental trends that reconfigured the genre over the following years. But it still makes for a hugely enjoyable read, leaving a residue of teasing speculation.

Alton and McElroy chart a map of strange visions across the Appalachian Coningo County – flights of pterodactyls, mysterious cities in disappearing valleys, even sudden soundless eruptions where previously – and afterwards, there was no volcano. Plotting the hub of the events, they calculate their point of emanation to isolated Thunderhook, where, after a hair-raising pursuit up unmade mountain tracks they are captured and led into a secure installation. There are threats and bluffing, but eventually it is decided that their writerly credentials make the duo ideal for recruitment to the secret ‘Project Microcosm’, and they are given responsibility for documenting its progress. In this capacity, the scientific activity causing the region’s mysterious appearances is revealed to them.

Donald Wollheim called his exhaustive academic study of the SF-genre ‘The Universe Makers’ (1971), and that’s precisely what the scientists at Thunderhook have become. In a domed building adjacent to the main complex they have created a pocket galaxy, held in place by powerful atomic stabilisers. Using a cyclotron – a kind of progenitor of the Large Hadron Collider, beginning with the detonation of a primordial super-atom, ‘the achievement of bringing a particle of matter to infinite mass and infinite length at absolute zero was the creation of a thing which could not exist in our universe’, the resulting miniature bubble-cosmos has evolved through gravitational whorls into star systems and planets on which life-forms are in the process of evolving. Due to its relative size, time is accelerated within the contained realm, enabling the scientists to observe and analyse the entire sequence through an array of telescopes. It is sympathetic vibrations from here that have accidentally thrown up the odd visions seen by the baffled people of the surrounding countryside. Although, once Alton and McElroy are embedded within the establishment, all reference to these mirages ceases. Perhaps Dr Steiner’s attempts at ‘using additional magnetic blocks to channel them’ succeeds, or maybe they continue, in increasingly complex and scary ways. Either way, the reader is no longer privy to them.

And it’s not as though the microverse was exactly a new concept in SF. The discovery of the atomic structure, and the fact that its nucleus plus orbiting protons and neutrons resemble a miniature solar system, irresistibly enabled writers to take that similarity literally. With fiction involving various heroes shrunk down to visit the worlds within the elemental sub-particles of matter, experiencing the usual array of extravagant adventures, frequently involving beautiful princesses. Tales such as Ray Cummings’ enchanting “The Girl in The Golden Atom” (in ‘All-Story’ magazine, March 1919), Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man In The Atom” (‘Science And Invention’, August 1923), RF Starzl’s “Out Of The Sub-Universe” (‘Amazing Stories Quarterly’, Summer 1928) meeting inhabitants of the miniature worldlet Elektron, and Captain SP Meek’s “Submicroscopic” (‘Amazing Stories’, August 1931) adventuring in the sub-world of Ulm. Wollheim was an original ‘Futurian’, and as an avid student of SF history he was obviously aware of these fantastic tales. But his concept is significantly different in a number of ways. Not least as an early-adapter to the ‘Big Bang’ which was a theory by no means firmly established, and still fiercely contested within the astrophysics community (although he dates it to a mere ‘four-and-half billion years ago’, whereas modern science prefers 13.77-billion). His closely scrutinised contained experimental galaxy constitutes an original slant on the idea. And it is a single galaxy, a subjective hundred-thousand light-years across, not a universe.

Alton soon finds the history of the project fascinating, researching the formation of planetary systems, then the emergence of early life-forms that stumble through their various stages towards sentience. That, in itself, forms a masterclass in evolutionary biology. But what is even more intriguing is the potential for the miniaturised future within the pocket worlds. To enable closer scrutiny a means of hypnotically projecting members of the team down into the bodies of people within the microverse is devised. Relativistic time effects determine that subjective months can pass within the experiment as a matter of moments occur within the external world. Gaps of days between projections span thousands of years in the historical development of the tiny planets they visit.

As a teenager I first encountered this book as a second-hand 1966 Ace paperback, with the haunted green Kelly Freas jacket illuminating an eerie alien planetscape, and the sky-maid ‘Oracle’ reaching out to envelop the White Star. I was impressed. It had trace-elements of that vast mind-blowing immensity which acted as my litmus of good SF. And yes, my mind was blown. But this is a 1950’s novel. As such, it betrays 1950’s attitudes. Although in many ways Marge McElroy is an aspirational career-woman, full of ingenuity and respected for his skills as a photographer, she still insists on her hair and lipstick being right before she goes into a ‘projection’. Warren Alton has many of the hard-bitten attributes of a pulp hero, who also finds time to puff contemplatively on his pipe as he reflects on aspects of his mission. And, maybe as a hidden literary reference, one of the scientists is called ‘Dr Weidekind’. These characters gaze up at the night sky over Thunderhook with maturing respect, while never taking it that next logical step – is all of this, our universe, merely a bubble-microcosm in someone else’s yet vaster experiment? Even RF Starzl got there in 1928 speculating about ‘the constituents of the infra-universe beneath us and the super-universe above us are only links of a chain that stretches into infinity’.

Instead, there are Cold War elements too. One of the anticipated benefits of the project, justifying its funding, is that as the contained worlds achieve, and then ‘when these micro-civilisations surpass us’ by evolving beyond contemporary levels of science and technology, its advances and ‘super-inventions’ can be filched. ‘Not merely space flight, but star flight, the secrets of tapping cosmic energy, the secrets of harnessing sun-power direct, the architectural plans for redesigning planets, blueprints for manipulating gravity and the forces beyond gravity.’ The weaponisation applications will give the global power-balance a decisive kick. Hence there’s an espionage sub-plot with suspected infiltrations by a double-agent spy of a foreign nation. But beyond such contemporary preoccupations, there’s also the kind of consensus that earlier SF writers had painfully worked out about the pattern the future will assume. So far the Thunderhook crew have watched history unfold, across an array of basically humanoid species, through essentially similar stages, ‘savagery, nomadic society, agricultural communities, slave-keeping societies, medievalism, the rise of industry, electric and atomic energy’, war and revolution. Various competing confederations then merge into a single global unity. Projected into the future, the pattern continues. Planets seed colonies that grow into star-empires. Inevitably they encroach into each other’s spheres of influence, leading to space warfare, then reconciliation, and larger unified federations. Isaac Asimov and his ilk had already charted out such a future. As though there is a deterministic manifest destiny for the human race out among the stars. Wollheim generally accepts the rough contours of this future.

Much of the groundbreaking head-spinning novelty of all this has long since been ‘Star Trek’ked into a dull kind of Xbox conformity. Until such future-history has become merely another stock galactic-empire scenario for war-gaming and wedge-thick dynastic fantasy trilogies. For Wollheim it was still a little more than that. It was speculation about the nature of time and destiny. Albeit in a cheap fast-turnaround pulp-fictional sense. ‘Edge Of Time’ is not a great novel. Even among its genre contemporaries. But there is a real questioning at work. Although only days are passing in Thunderhook, like a time-traveller the projectionists dip in and out of time across centuries and thousands of years in short sharp vignettes – precise short stories that take place through the ages of galactic expansion. From the first Komarian space-shot to the Ice Moon where two astronauts from competing powers must cooperate, cannibalising each others wrecked crafts so that they can return home together. Then the first star-drive voyage, utilising cosmic-sails, to reach the savagely hostile neighbouring SSW19 system. The evacuation of extra-solar colony Morlna threatened by its sun going nova. Through to first contact with another expanding star-empire from another sector of the galaxy. Into the advanced utopian Galactic Congress and all-embrasive League of Planets. So what lies yet further ahead? Events, and expectations accelerate…

Wollheim knew nothing about the interaction of dark matter and dark energy. But he knew that the universe must end. And when his microverse reaches the limit of its expansion, it goes into its contraction phase. It’s hereabouts that things get a little blurry. As the galaxy within its artificial enclosure had gone through all the evolutionary stages of existence from cooling planets with the primal spores of igniting life, all the way up to sentience – ‘three-hundred million year compressed into one of our years’, so logically it would devolve over a further span of subjective billions of years before condensing down to its eventual entropic heat-death. In that way ‘we shall see what will happen when our own system grows old, when our own sun cools, and when our own galaxy comes eventually to old age and to some sort of cosmic death’. We, in the real universe, all live quite comfortably with that knowledge. While Science Fiction writers, from HG Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’ on, through Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, John Campbell (as ‘Don A Stuart’ with “Twilight”, in ‘Astounding’, November 1934), to contemporary writers such as Stephen Baxter, have all strained at the limits of imagination to envisage that strange and distant end. But it could be argued that Wollheim ducks that mind-stretching challenge. As soon as the inhabitants of his miniature galaxy detect evidence of its tilt into contraction, they panic. With the personnel of Thunderhook, intermittently visiting the realm across centuries, documenting the process.

Although initially glimpsed only as the eternal ‘Oracle Of The White Star’, Marge now asserts her presence in a very positive way, using her time within projections to influence events. As things move towards a climax both internally and externally, the mysterious agents of the foreign power launch their attack on Thunderhook. And taking advantage of the ensuing confusion Marge releases the dampening field around the micro-galaxy, enabling its micronaut exodus-fleet of world-ships, constructed over generations by stripping entire planets for materials and consuming stars as energy-sources, to burst free and escape into the infinite real universe. Our universe. Perhaps this is a cop-out? A way of resolving the plot’s internal conflicts and bringing it all to a satisfactory close? It’s only a genre novel, after all. Perhaps to ask more would be unreasonable? There’s even a romantic resolution as Warren Alton looks at Marge McElroy with new respect, and growing love. Not only ‘an eternal priestess with miraculous insight’ but ‘the sweet smiling face of a young girl, vibrant with youth, whose eyes had witnessed glory even as had his’. They kiss in the closing line.

Wollheim died 2 November 1990. By then ‘Edge Of Time’ was overlooked and largely forgotten. Or perhaps not, not completely. In ‘The Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror VII’ (Season: 8 Episode: 1, October 1996) there’s a quaint little sequence called ‘The Genesis Tub’ in which Lisa’s school science project accidentally produces a rapidly-evolving miniature civilisation in a glass retort, in which through shrinking herself down she’s able to participate as a god-figure. Whether that’s coincidence, or if creator Matt Groening or writer Dan Greaney drew directly from this novel, is open to conjecture. Meanwhile Wollheim’s legacy was being reactivated elsewhere. His story “Mimic” (from ‘Astonishing Stories’ December 1942) was transfigured into a high-grossing shock-horror cockroach-crawling movie by director Guillermo del Toro around the same time (1997).

As it is, ‘Edge Of Time’ still makes for a hugely enjoyable read, leaving a residue of teasing speculation.


Andrew Pullen said...

Great review of one of my favourite sci-fi novels. What I love about 'Edge Of Time' is the mind-bending premise of a bunch of scientists (and the investigating journos)linking up and living whole lifetimes as inhabitants or 'avatars' of the microuniverse - certainly the author was ahead of his time since James Cameron only flirted with similar subject matter a few years ago in his movie 'Avatar'. It's interesting to note that with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN emulating the early universe fractions of a second after the big bang, it is wonderful to think that Grinnell was thinking about it back in 1958. I actually own an old copy of the novel with the illustration you describe. Every so often I just have to go back to it and read it. It's a story I will never get tired of. Maybe it's time Hollywood turned it into a film?

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