The Novels of Charles Harness
by Rich Horton
Charles Harness is an odd bird. I like much of his work immensely: it's deeply romantic, vigorously (if not always logically) plotted, exotically imagined, quite moving. But I must also concede his flaws -- as I've hinted, the plots are not always very logical, the characters are often stiff idealizations, the romanticism can be over the top. He has a tendency to recycle his themes and imagery -- in particular, several of his novels are about cyclical universes. (He also uses quite blatantly autobiographical material in a number of his books -- besides the fascination with chemistry and patents, reflecting his career, there is often a beloved older brother to the main character who has died, and two novels (Redworld and Cybele With Bluebonnets) replicate the same series of incidents from Harness's life -- his year as a reluctant theology student before switching to chemistry, his jobs at a printing shop and as a fingerprinter for the police, as well as an affair with an older woman from Fort Worth's "red light" district that may or may not be autobiographical.) I'd say he's a writer who is not for everybody, but a fascinating one for those who acquire the taste.
Harness was born in 1915 in Texas. His main career was as a Patent Attorney. This background shows up in many of his stories: Patent Attorney heroes are featured in a couple of the novels and many stories. Indeed, he wrote some of the "Leonard Lockhard" stories in Astounding (others were by Theodore Thomas, and some may have been collaborations), all of which were about a young patent attorney dealing with the problems of patenting some whacky SFnal inventions. (According to the NESFA Harness collection An Ornament to His Profession, Harness wrote only the first Lockhard story (in 1952) and collaborated with Thomas on the second (in 1954): subsequent Lockhard pieces were by Thomas.)
Harness' writing career divides up fairly neatly into four parts. The first part came from 1948 to 1953, and featured his first novel and several shorter works, including some of his very best work. The stories from this period are very characteristic of his more romantic side. After 1953 he stopped writing to concentrate on his job. He returned to writing in 1966 with two novelettes, "The Alchemist" and "An Ornament to His Profession", each of which gained a Hugo and a Nebula nomination. This new flowering lasted only a couple of years: a few more stories followed, and one of his best novels, The Ring of Ritornel (1968). The third period of Harness's writing career began about 1977 and lasted until about 1991, though it was prefigured by a wild 1974 novella, "The Araqnid Window". This period included most of Harness' novels, 8 of them in all, and a similar number of shorter works. Harness's retirement in 1983 doubtless was one factor in his increased writing productivity. Another couple of stories appeared in 1994, then beginning in 1997 he began publishing short stories quite regularly: about a dozen more by now, as well as two novels, both from NESFA: Drunkard's Endgame (1999) and Cybele, with Bluebonnets (2002).
Herewith the novels:
The Paradox Men (1949, 1953, 1981) (64,000 words)
This book is arguably still Harness's most famous and most respected novel. It has a slightly complicated publishing history. The first version was a short novel called "Flight Into Yesterday", published in an issue of Startling Stories in 1949. (It was already a full-length novel, at some 56,000 words: Startling and its sister publication Thrilling Wonder Stories regularly featured novels of between 40K and 60K words in single issues.) It was republished, somewhat expanded, in a 1953 hardcover also called Flight Into Yesterday. The title The Paradox Men was first applied to an Ace Double edition in 1955. There were some British reprints in the 60s, but the current definitive edition was supervised by George Zebrowski for a new American edition, part of Crown's "Classics of Modern Science Fiction" series, in 1981. This edition is slightly expanded from the previous ones, and in addition the copy-editing was much better. Some of the later changes are new additions by Harness, some may be restorations of Harness's original manuscript. Certain references to computer tech were surely added in the 80s. Zebrowski quite correctly (in my view) chose to retain the Ace title (probably coined by Don Wollheim) over Harness's original (the needlessly obscure Toynbee Twenty-Two), and over the Startling title (probably coined by Sam Merwin). The expansions from the original magazine version to the Ace Double total about 4,000 words, and consist mainly of interpolation within scenes. There is one new chapter, which is a result of splitting an expanded chapter in two. The further expansions in 1981 are similarly minor, again about 4,000 words worth, and also involve some jargon changes, such as the Microfilm Mind becoming the Meganet Mind.
The plot is complicated, but consistent, logical, and thematically sound. The characters are two-dimensional but interesting and involving. The action is well-done, and the scientific ideas are sometimes philosophical and thoughtful, and at other times wild, implausible, but still engaging. The basic story is of a Thief, Alar, who has appeared in Imperial America 5 years prior to the action of the story, with no memory of his past or identity. The Thieves work underground against the repressive society, using tech invented by their mysterious, dead, founder, Kennicot Muir. The key piece of Thief tech is armor which protects them against high velocity weapons (like projectile weapons), but not against swords and knives. Thus fencing is again a major skill. (Herbert swiped this notion for Dune, of course.) At the time of the action, various threads are converging: the plans of Imperial America to attack its Eurasian enemy, the Toynbee society's attempts to avoid the continuing historical cycle of civilizations rising and falling (they believe that the coming war will bring Toynbee Civilization 21 to an end: the next one will be Toynbee 22, hence Harness' original title), the completion of an experimental FTL starship, the relationship between the evil leaders of Imperial America and Keiris Muir, the enslaved widow of Kennicot Muir, and her attraction to Alar, the predictions of the computer enhanced human called The Meganet Mind (or the Microfilm Mind in the original). What a horrible sentence: but trying to summarize Harness can do that to you. Everything comes to a head with a trip to the surface of the Sun, and then a much stranger trip ...
I recommend it. It seems comparable in many ways to its near contemporary The Stars My Destination: Harness probably had a more original mind than Bester's, and his themes seem a bit more ambitious. But he really couldn't write with him -- and I think it is because of the writing (both prose and pace) that the manic energy of the Bester book is more successfully sustained. Still, The Paradox Men remains a powerful and interesting novel, and such scenes as the final selfless act of Keiris are unmatched in SF.
The Rose (1953) (31,000 words)
This is a long novella first published in the UK magazine Authentic in 1953. It was later published in a paperback edition along with two fine early stories ("The New Reality" and "The Chessplayers".) It's reprinted in the NESFA story collection An Ornament to His Profession.
"The Rose" is Harness at his dream-logic wildest. It's the story of psychiatrist dancer Anna van Tuyl, who as the story opens is in the grip of a disease which has crippled her and made her ugly; and Ruy Jacques, an artist who has lost the power of reading, but gained ... something greater? And Martha Jacques, his wife, who is a scientist on the threshold of discovering the "Sciomnia equations", which will once and for all render science superior to art.
It's a strange concoction. Much of the action is absurd: and many of the central arguments, concerning the primacy of Art of Science, push a false dichotomy. But it's always absorbing, and the ideas, even if outwardly silly, are fascinating and compelling: and the ending is wonderful.
The Ring of Ritornel (1968) (82,000 words)
The only novel from Harness's late 60s return to the field. The Ring of Ritornel is actually slightly less complicated than some of the other Harness stuff I've read. It involves a far future, human-led civilization, the Twelve Galaxies, which is just coming out of a long war with the planet Terror. (Which I readily guessed was a corruption of Terra: a pun later used by E. C. Tubb, I don't know if Harness was first to use it, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was used much earlier.) The new emperor is something of a despot, but is almost killed at the beginning of the action. Clones are made of him in case he dies, and his poet-laureate is killed and has his brain placed in a music-composing computer to try to save the emperor's life. The lead character is the laureate's brother, who is ignorant of his brother's fate, and who grows up to become a highly-placed legal representative for the Palace. He falls in love with the Emperor's "daughter", and as a result is sent to argue the Emperor's case that the planet Terror should be destroyed. But ... There's lots more going on: energy-eating insects, spiders, the competing religions of Alea and Ritornel, a superintelligent Pegasus Kentaur, beings of antimatter, the end of the universe ... Pretty fun, though at times the absurdities really went too far. It does have several of Harness's recurring tropes: cyclical universes, spiders, beloved brothers, lead characters who are lawyers ...
Wolfhead (1978) (66,000 words)
This novel, serialized in two parts in F&SF in 1977 (presumably in a shorter version), represents for me the start of his "third period". It is a post-holocaust story, set 3000 years after atomic war. The protagonist, just married, sees his wife kidnapped by the Undergrounders, people who have lived underground for 3000 years. He becomes involved in a plot to invade the underground city, for his part to regain his wife, but for the part of the monks who train him, to stop the Underground people from invading the surface. It's exciting and romantic, involving lots of psi powers (done fairly neatly), and a telepathic wolf companion, and a bittersweet ending, and even a twinge of moral ambiguity. Not a bad book, though as usual with Harness there are a lot of wild ideas that don't really hold water.
The Catalyst (1980) (65,000 words)
Harness has called this his favorite among his own works. I disagree -- I really didn't like it very much, indeed it may be my least favorite. It seems to be more autobiographical than most of his books (except for Cybele, with Bluebonnets and Redworld.) It's about a patent attorney (natch!), whose beloved older brother died when he was a teen (another common Harness theme, echoing his loss of his own brother), who is working for a research lab. The lab has two rival scientists: a strict by the book idiot who has advanced by brownnosing corporate management, and a brilliant unconventional scientist who by golly resembles the patent attorney's brother to an amazing degree. The brilliant guy and his team, including the attorney, Paul, develop a catalyst which will produce a wonder substance (that among other things would have cured Paul's brother), in high yields at atmospheric pressure. The idiot scientist is backing an expensive project which will produce the stuff in low yields at high pressures, requiring a complex factory. The idiot guy forces out the brilliant guy and his proteges, then is stuck in a dilemma when the company gets in a patent battle about the new catalyst. Oh, and there's also an unconvincing love affair with a clone, and lots of guff about an unfinished opera, and some hints of time travel. Harness is always at the edge of absurdity with his plots: his best stuff carries it off with flair, but his weaker novels collapse under the weight of all the silliness, which is what happens here.
Firebird (1981) (68,000 words)
This is another book on roughly the same theme as The Ring of Ritornel, and also to a lesser extent The Paradox Men. The universe is cyclical, beginning with the Big Bang, 60 billion years later stopping expansion, and after a total of 120 billion years hitting the Big Crunch, followed by another cycle. But in this particular cycle, two intelligent telepathic computers rule the universe, enslaving all the "humans" (actually cat-creatures). The computers plot to reduce the mass of the universe just enough to allow the expansion to continue forever, thus avoiding their eventual destruction in the Big Crunch. A man and a woman, by falling in love, will join the struggle to restore the missing mass, and restore the natural cycle. Lots of silliness, some rather neatly handled time-paradoxes, all in all an OK book but not great.
The Venetian Court (1982) (56,000 words)
Expanded from a 1981 Analog novella of the same title. This is a weird novel that I rather enjoyed while not believing at all. In the near future, patent infringement has become a capital crime. Ellen Welles has invented a valuable product called fiber K, but unfortunately a megacorporation using a computer to generate inventions just beat her to it. They sue for patent infringement, and the case winds up with a literally insane judge who needs to sentence people to death to juice himself up to write opinions, and hopefully reach the Supreme Court. The story mostly follows Welles's lawyer as he tries to find a way to free her -- but all his quite reasonable defenses are foiled arbitrarily by the judge, and in the end derring-do plus a real deus ex machina is required to work things out. Fiber K is based on spider silk, and the evil judge is a spider fancier -- allowing Harness to play with his recurring arachnid theme. The general arbitrariness of the action, and the too evull villains, weaken the novel, but page by page it is goofy fun. The patent lawyer hero, Quentin Thomas, is also the hero of his later novel Lunar Justice.
Redworld (1986) (63,000 words)
This is a really curious novel. It's nominally SF, but much of it seems to be quite straightforward retelling of the youth of a character much like Harness in a city much like Fort Worth, TX. Except that the character is an alien, and the city is on a planet circling Barnard's Star. The young narrator, Pol, who lives with his mother, his father and beloved older brother having died, witnesses the electroburning of a "lamia" on the day his job at a printers starts. The lamia seems to point at him as she dies, predicting that he will be the mythical "Revenant", who will die and be reborn. And on his way to work he sees Josi, the beautiful but strange (could it be she has but five fingers?) woman who runs the main whorehouse in town.
Pol's world is riven between the Scientists and the Priests -- thirty years previously, a long war was ended by the "Treaty", in which basically the Priests agreed to let the Scientists live as long as they didn't discover any new facts. Pol's sympathy is with the Scientist, in particular as his brother had been working on an immortality serum before he died. But his only chance at education is a scholarship to study for the priesthood. So the story follows his life, in very engaging fashion -- his time at the printer's, his fascination with the mysterious and beautiful Josi, who looks to be thirty but must be at least sixty, his eventual affair with her, his later job at the police station taking fingerprints, his attempt to finish his brother's work, all leading to the climax, in which the mystery of Josi (no mystery to the reader!) is solved, and Pol's fate as the Revenant is achieved.
It's a very enjoyable, engaging read, although much of it is absurd. But Harness's telling overcomes the silliness. It is extremely interesting to compare this book with his latest novel, Cybele, With Bluebonnets -- huge swaths of the plots of each book are identical. And the mode of the telling -- the very engaging, even sweet, feel to the book, is similar to that novel. (I suspect as a result of the autobiographical aspects.)
Krono (1988) (68,000 words)
A time travel novel, again one of Harness's favorite themes. As well as time travel, Harness ropes in Edgar Allan Poe -- a combination repeated in his next novel. In Krono overpopulation problems are resolved by colonizing the past. Philip Konteau is a 50ish "krono", charged with surveying past locations to determine their suitability for colonies. The great danger is instabilities in the time stream that can cause a poorly stabilized colony to disappear. Konteau, mooning over his departed wife, finds himself involved in a project to extend the colonization to Mars' past, when it was wet. He also finds himself involved in a plot apparently hatched by the an evil "Vyr" (a politico-religious leader) who wants to be the new Overlord. And his son may be lost in a timequake. Trips to the Paleozoic, and to the 1840s (i.e. Poe's time), and a meeting with the legendary inventor of time travel, are also involved. In short -- typical Harness! Engaging, not quite logical, not one of his best books but enjoyable.
Lurid Dreams (1990) (57,000 words)
One of Harness's less outré books. He foregoes his usual plot (cyclical destruction and recreation of the universe) for a time-travel story involving Edgar Allan Poe. The time travel is by means of Out of Body Experiences, and the plot involves a graduate student studying the OB phenomenon, by means of his own ability to go OB. He is recruited by a Confederacy nut to go back in time and convince EAP to stay at school and become a CSA General, saving the Battle of Gettysburg for the CSA, instead of choosing a literary career. (Reminiscent of a story by Walter Jon Williams, and I think maybe one by Effinger too.) There is plenty of Time-Travel hugger mugger, and time, of course, doesn't quite cooperate with the wishes of the characters. Decent fun, with some nice Poe details, and lots of wild and implausible stuff, too.
Lunar Justice (1991) (58,000 words)
This is the last novel of his third period. It involves a man trying to ignite Jupiter in order to make the Jovian satellites terraformable, thus ameliorating the Earth's population problem. For economic reasons, the bad guys want to stop this, and as a result they end up arresting the head of the Jupiter project, and trying him in an absurd kangaroo court on the moon. He hires a patent lawyer as his defense lawyer, but more importantly, the patent lawyer turns out to be a super powerful psi. It's all quite cheerfully nonsense. It doesn't really work, but it's kind of fun, with fillips like patent applications in verse and a new model guillotine thrown in.
Drunkard's Endgame (1999) (65,000 words)
Drunkard's Endgame, is a fairly minor book. It was published by NESFA as part of an omnibus of his "cyclical" novels called Rings (the other novels included being The Paradox Men, The Ring of Ritornel, and Firebird.) It's set on a starship populated by robots, who rebelled against their human masters 1000 years previously, and who have been fleeing ever since. The (corrupt, natch) leader of the starship is searching for the ultimate weapon which a human had devised, and which he thinks was stored in the memory banks of one of his fellow robots. He is opposed by the aristocratic robot known as L'Ancienne, and by her nephew Rodo, who falls in love with one of the robots exiled to the surface of the starship. Once again, the book ends with a radical change to existing conditions, and the beginning of a "new world", but in this case the plot contrivances to bring this about are hard to believe, and the villain combines stupidity with malice rather excessively. It's still a breezy, fun, read.
Cybele, with Bluebonnets (2002) (70,000 words)
The bibliography in NESFA's An Ornament to His Profession cites a 1998 edition from Old Earth Books for this, but that edition never came out. The current NESFA hardcover is copyright 2002 and is marked First Edition -- possibly the book was written by 1998 but the earlier publication fell through. (As Ornament came out in 1998 itself, the compiler (Priscilla Olson) was presumably citing a forthcoming edition that did not come to be.) Cybele, with Bluebonnets is a bit of an oddity for Harness, by far the least SFnal of his books. It's mostly a fairly straightforward account of a boy growing to manhood in Texas, in the 20s, 30s and 40s. There is a fantastical element -- an object that may be the Holy Grail, a soul surviving death, and a person somehow knowing the future. But for the most part it's just the story of Joe Barnes, growing up the son of a widow living in "Fort West" (a thinly veiled version of Fort Worth, where Harness grew up), and his obsession with a beautiful older woman named Cybele.
The story is told in a series of short chapters, more or less chronologically following Joe's life. He meets Cybele in High School (or perhaps, mysteriously, earlier): she is his Chemistry teacher. He falls in love, or at least lust, with her from the beginning, and this is a spur towards his eventual ambition to become a chemist. He's rather poor, though, and after graduation he takes a couple of manual labor type jobs, apparently with the behind the scenes help of Cybele. One magical night he encounters her in a storm, and they enter into a passionate affair that last several months, until fate intervenes tragically. But somehow she still seems present, and seems to be guiding his life as he goes to school, gets a job for the government during the war, and marries a girl from his high school. These mysteries are resolved strikingly, somewhat movingly, and also a bit creepily, by the end.
It's a highly readable book, interspersed with almost folksy anecdotes of life in Texas during the 30s, of "Fort West" history, of weird chemical facts and pranks, and of the mysterious "Cup" that might be the Holy Grail. The structure is a bit slack, and the typical Harness hyper-romanticism sometimes fails to convince, but it's still a nice book, worth reading especially for Harness fans.