Review: Lewis Padgett - Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen

[Cover of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen]

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen is a 1951 Gnome collection subtitled "Two Science Fiction Novels" and credited as "By Lewis Padgett". These days, that's usually taken to mean "by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore" but I don't detect very much Moore in these - more van Vogt and premonitions of Harness and Dick, et al. Also, my estimated word count of "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" has it fall solidly in novella territory and even The Fairy Chessmen falls right on one side or the other of the 40K line which only technically defines novel length and is not anything most people today would recognize as a novel. Either way, they are very hard to find. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" was serialized in the January and February 1947 issues of Astounding and has only appeared in book form in the Gnome edition (and a facsimile) and a 1963 UK paperback while The Fairy Chessmen was serialized in the January and February 1946 issues and renamed to The Far Reality when it appeared in a companion UK paperback and to Chessboard Planet when it appeared in a 1983 UK paperback with three other stories.

This is an interesting collection because it could be argued that the stories would be better served if they were collected separately, given their similarity. But it can equally be argued that they are companion pieces and can be usefully compared and contrasted, so make a natural collection.

Though "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" was written last, it's presented first, so I'll deal with it first. The essence of the story seems to be that, after WWII and an abortive WWIII, the Global Peace Commission (a sort of souped-up UN successor) has taken control of the world and enforced a stasis regarding technological and social change to avoid another war. So now, in the vicinity of July 7, 2051, Joseph Breden is a guardian of Uranium Pile One, a symbol (and, to a degree, a fact) of GPC's power. He has been conditioned to see his job as one of the most important in the world. So, as if dreaming that shooting his coworker and causing an atomic disaster wouldn't be disturbing enough, he lives in terror that the omnipresent all-seeing psychiatric monitors will detect that he's no longer fit to serve. Meanwhile, Ilsa Carter and Philip Jeng are prime operatives in a conspiracy to upset the GPC's apple cart and start the human race moving again, though it cost the lives of millions. Included in their numbers is the Freak, a radiation mutant who they believe can see the future that they are working to build where people have great technology and live for centuries. (There are other mutants about, such as Joseph's brother, Louis, who is described as merely hyperintelligent and suffering from a minor blood disease.)

The story follows something akin to the van Vogtian method of throwing in a new character or more every chapter for the first few chapters and complicating the story at each step, sometimes shifting into overdrive via abrupt transformations, such as in the middle of chapter four. This makes the story very difficult to discuss without giving a misleading impression or giving things away. Suffice to say, there is an intense feeling of paranoia, lots of mutants and occasional acquisitions of superpowers, lots of people not being who we thought they were, conspiracies, recomplicating cosmic vistas, and more. Alas, there are van Vogtian lapses, too, such as those very superpowers leading to a "fiat plot" that still stumbles badly in at least one aspect at the end. It's an enjoyable read and has something to say and does many things well but is significantly flawed at the same time.

(For a fuller discussion, see the spoiler sections at the end.)

While not flawless, The Fairy Chessmen is a much better story. Again, we have shrinks and bureaucracy as Robert Cameron is Civilian Director of Psychometrics. Unlike Breden, he quickly retreats to the background (although he remains important) and center stage is taken by his second, Seth Pell, and especially his third, Ben DuBrose. Again, there is madness and conspiracy, as Cameron is hallucinating and DuBrose and Pell seem to be involved in a sort of conspiracy. Again, there are permutations in which things are not quite how they seem. But this is a different scenario, in that "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" was about an imposed stasis of all-out peace and this story is about an unstable equilibrium of all-out war. Eurasia has been partly taken over by a mixture of nations and races in the aftermath of WWII and on into WWIII. They call themselves the Falangists but it's unclear whether they're descended from the actual group or (more likely) just adopted the name. They are at war with the US and, in order to make (apparently very weak) atomic bombs as ineffective as possible, the US has become decentralized except for vast underground war cities. From these secret warrens, which are all accessible to each other by underground trains who twist and turn so that every city is 15 minutes from every other and no one knows where they are, a war of technicians controlling robot armies is waged akin to our own cybercommands and drones and whatnot. But, of course, it's not as simple as that. We're shown Duds, which are giant reflective bubbles that one day appeared over the landscape and gave off mild radiation and were utterly impenetrable. Eventually, they sort of decayed but their forcefields still exist. They're taken to be failed Falangist weapons. And a weapon that is succeeding is a magic equation that is driving all the techs and scientists who try to solve it insane. (I unfortunately can't help thinking of Monty Python's "Funniest Joke in the World" here.) But not just insane - it appears that people who can solve part of it or come close to doing so attain special powers and suffer special effects, such as case M-204 who levitates in a coma or the poor guy who laughed (there's that Joke again) before collapsing to a point and dropping to the center of the earth. My favorite line comes when two men are discussing the crazy nature of the equation and the bent, fractured, illogical universe it implies.

"Two plus two make five?" DuBrose said.

"Two and whee make diddle plus," Pastor corrected.

(One thing that does puzzle me, though, is that no one seems concerned that the attempt to solve the equation is the equation's purpose. In other words, if you're fighting a technical war and your enemy is destroying your best minds by making you try to solve an equation, maybe throwing all your resources into solving it is exactly what you should avoid doing. Whether this is true or not, it seems like a possibility that some character should have raised and it would even heighten the paranoia. Another stray note - despite approvingly quoting the lines above, a weakness in both stories is strangely weak dialog. It's not hard-to-say George-Lucas-style dialog but it just doesn't read as lively and natural speech from lively, natural people.)

Back to similarities with "Tomorrow and Tomorrow", we again have mutants with special powers such as Billy Van Ness and his "ETP", or extra-temporal perception - he sees the 4D timeworms of all things. And, again, things turn out to be not so simple as a war between the US and the Falangists but discussing the nature of the conflict would spoil it. Again, see below if interested.

The essence of solving the equation is given in the title. Fairy chess is an actual thing, in which chess is played with some or all of variant boards, pieces, and rules. People are going crazy because of their rigid world views crumbling in the face of this equation and it takes a Lewis Carroll-like game-playing, flexible, unorthodox mind to have the skills to solve it and the mental resilience to deal with the results.

Thus the plot, but a core thematic element is responsibility and madness, along with flexibility and inflexibility. The reason Cameron is off-stage for much of the story is that Pell and DuBrose are trying to protect him from full knowledge of the situation and a crippling sense of responsibility. But responsibility can have a wider scope and it's not always clear who should be responsible for what. In this, I feel like the plotting (still made of high-grade van Vogtian silly putty) and the theme are much better than "Tomorrow and Tomorrow", not to mention that the manifold weirdness of this tale is even weirder. I haven't even mentioned that Mr. Diddle Plus becomes God, for instance. Both stories, but this most of all, are great edge cases for anyone trying to define "science fiction". This story brilliantly anticipates the incipient Cold War and, as I've said, even the cyberwars of technicians of today. It's even full of neat touches like the opening scene with its motion-sensitive "window" of a beautiful sunny field which turns out to be a video display piped from the surface while we are deep underground, yet really is a window when it slides back into the wall to reveal the nightmarish abyss of the underground city beyond. But, in the general scheme, there's really no science here at all and it's pure fantasy. Yet the magic equation and all the fantastic things that derive from it are approached with a purely rational, scientific world view.

Whatever genre it may be, it's recommended.

If using a graphical browser, highlight the "invisible" text below if you want to read the spoilers.

Spoilers for the middle of "Tomorrow and Tomorrow": It turns out that the Freak is not seeing the future but is seeing probability continua. Worlds that do or could exist alongside the world of this story. This world is designated Alpha while Beta has had a similar history but has gotten moving again earlier and Gamma is a place ruined by plague and other worlds have been vaporized by hyperatomic accidents and Omega is the primary continuum the Freak is in contact with. The person at the other end, bizarrely, is John Van Buren, descendent of the President. The only think I can think of here is that Van Buren seems to have gone to great lengths to avoid war and I guess his ancestor is supposed to have learned better, but I'm not sure.

Spoilers for the end of "Tomorrow and Tomorrow": Where the story most falls down, IMO, is that the first character we're introduced to and who maintains the focus throughout the vast majority of the story and who is supposed to have the critical task of causing the atomic disaster and even becomes Instinct Man with mutant superpowers of his own, ends up failing in his task, sort of consciously making his mutation recessive, and being carted off by the GPC to be interrogated off-stage. So Ilsa, Louis, Jeng, and Van Buren thrash out the idea of magically setting off the disaster via a directed charge differential when Alpha and Beta's continua are brought into contact, using the entropy differential to trigger the pile. It could be argued Kuttner was trying to make a point about "instinct is not enough" or something but I don't really see this and it's still a dramatic failure regardiing Joseph and complete handwavium regarding the final plot solution.

Spoilers for the middle of The Fairy Chessmen: Daniel Ridgely shows up as a minion of Secretary of War Kalender but turns out to be a time traveller from an era of an even more war-oriented culture than the story's present and he has supplied the Falangists with the equation. Incidentally, this why Cameron is going mad: magic rays are connected to him and the Falangists are zapping him with equation madness. But even that is not the whole story.

Spoilers for the end of The Fairy Chessmen: Ridgely has given them only a partial equation and not only knows the complete equation, but has a "counterequation" as well.

Continuing to spoil the story generally, I feel this story handles the "disappearing initial character" element much better. Breden is the intro character; is almost always at the forefront; has the critical climactic mission; and fails and is removed while the real finale occurs. I can't see this as anything but a mistake. Cameron is the intro character but quickly recedes into the background for the most part while DuBrose (along with Pell for a bit) becomes the protagonist. This is for Cameron's protection, so makes sense, and he never completely drops out. And then the finale doesn't involve him in a critical sense but just as part of the whole thing, and then we focus on him for thematic purposes at the very end. So this is a success in that regard. And while this is a silly putty plot, the magic equation is given through the bulk of the story and even the counterequation is introduced before the end and the ETP was in the background all along but its application is reasonably non-obvious to the characters and requires preparation which takes time to set up so it seems slightly less handwavingly preposterous compared to the last-second "should have been obvious to Van Buren" continua-charging of the Pile. And, while both stories have something interesting to say (not to mention saying it in a fascinating way) I feel like the "war as a state of being" story has even more to it than the "peace stasis" story. Ironically, we live in a world with aspects of both, but the "war" resonates more.

I do wonder who was right, though. The Fairy Chessmen ends with DuBrose maturing and viewing things flexibly and thinking perhaps the future has been changed and so it's a "happy ending" for him. But Cameron views the future as set, sees himself as responsible for creating it, and descends into a self-triggered madness. If the future that produced Ridgely is the future we'll have, I feel Cameron is right about his (and our) responsibility. But I can't help but think that DuBrose is right in having the flexible attitude our story has been promoting all along. Perhaps both are necessary statements to make.