Monday, June 14, 2010

"Escape to Chaos"

Sometimes, John D MacDonald could be too smart for his own good.

Take, for example, his 1951 science fiction novella "Escape to Chaos." What is basically a sprawling space opera becomes bogged down by some of the most mind-numbing science I've ever encountered in a s-f piece, requiring repeated re-readings and head-scratching. Combining quantum physics, statistical probability and multiple dimensions of reality, the premise for this saga is so confusing that even after you've read it you're not really sure of what happened. Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps MacDonald was padding a basically-simple adventure story to garner a higher paycheck -- who knows? And it's not as if one can just gloss over the difficult passages, because they are essential to understanding the basic premise of the story. Thankfully most of JDM's science fiction is far more readable than "Escape to Chaos."

Appearing in the June 1951 issue of Super Science Stories, this 18,000-word story would mark MacDonald's final appearance in that venerable pulp, as the magazine would publish only one more issue before folding. In any event, the author was winding down his work in s-f and would write only a handful of subsequent stories. One gets the feeling from "Escape to Chaos" that he was tiring of the genre and was looking for a way to keep it interesting, but unfortunately his method put enjoyment of the story out of the reach of all but the most dedicated and learned readers.

At its most basic, "Escape to Chaos" is MacDonald's favorite science fiction construct, the same premise used in his two early s-f novels and in several of his stories: aliens of superior intelligence and technological advancement surreptitiously manipulating the direction of civilization's social evolution. In Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies, it was aliens working to change the people of Earth, but in "Escape to Chaos" Earth is the advanced culture, or at least one of them, working to secretly advance the peoples of other planets in various different dimensions, here called Eras. The science of "Symbolic Probability" has made possible the discovery of 26 separate Eras, all in different stages of advancement. Through a principle called the "Oxton Effect" a government agency known as the "Bureau of Socionetics" has begun sending teams of trained agents into these different Eras in order to bring about a more rapid level of evolution. Since open involvement would cause a greater deviation and a lower probability of success along the lines desired, everything is done in secret. Once a certain level of advancement is reached the Oxton Effect allows these different dimensions of reality to co-exist, affecting each other's "languages, the mores, even the fads and fashions." The ultimate goal of all of this? Unity.

The action of the story follows the efforts of one particular team, a male and a female, working together in a fairly advanced civilization that has nonetheless fallen into a state of social decay. Ruled by a despotic emperor named Shain, this empire controls an entire galaxy from the central planet of Rael, and it rules it with an iron fist. Shain's third son, the big, handsome hunk known as Andro, has taken a look around the empire and he doesn't like what he sees.

"He had seen the prancing perfumed artists, claiming an ultimate reality in incomprehensible daubs. He had visited the slave markets of Simpar and Chaigan, and had been sickened. He had seen that the ships were old ships, the weapons old weapons, and the old songs forgotten. He had seen the dusty rotting machines that had been the hope of man, while ten thousand laborers built, by hand and whip a temple to the glory of the House of Galvan...And he had said, 'This is the dark age of Empire. We have had enough.'"

For five years Andro has led an open revolt against his father's empire, and for five years he has made several miraculous escapes, thanks to the hidden work of the Field Team of Calna and Solin. Calna (the female of the team) has gradually become emotionally attached to Andro and his work, and after a sixth near-death-experience saved by Calna, the team is call to the office of the Deputy Director to explain themselves. It is determined that a.) Calna needs a vacation, b.) Andro will be left in a permanent state of suspended stasis and, c.) a distinctive tattoo on Andro's arm will be removed and somehow delivered to his father's top agent Deralan, who has been in charge of hunting down the rebellious son, as proof that Andro is dead.

Calna pretends to go along with the plan but at the first opportunity steals one of the Team ships allowing her to travel between dimensions, saves Andro and goes into hiding with him in one of the twenty-six dimensions. All of the other Field Teams are pulled from their assignments in order to hunt her down. Meanwhile, Deralan has received the tattoo and has shown it to Shain in order to prove that he has at last accomplished his task, but he has his own secret doubts and begins an undercover search of his own for Andro. Calna and Andro fall for each other and Calna begins working for the rebellion, knowing that she can never return to the Bureau of Socionetics.

What could have been a halfway-enjoyable, pulpy, adventuresome joyride is undermined by MacDonald's insistence on bogging down the narrative with overly-technical passages that bring the story to a dead halt. It would be one thing if this "science" was understandable -- perhaps it is, to some readers -- but it borders on the indecipherable for a reader like me. Like most of JDM's loyal readership, I enjoy his forays into science fiction only when the "science" doesn't undermine the "fiction," and when he's more concerned about the characters he has created than the make-believe world they inhabit.

"Escape to Chaos" has been reprinted once, included in a 1976 anthology titled Galactic Empires (Volume Two), edited by Brian Aldiss. Used copies appear now and then.

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