The Paradox Men – Charles L Harness (1953)
‘The Society of Thieves was the only organisation that flouted authority in America Imperial: they robbed the rich to buy freedom for the slaves. They were well equipped and trained for their job and had friends and informers in high places ready to reveal where the wealth of the nobles was hidden.
And Alar was the best Thief of them all – for he had senses not found in ordinary men, senses that accurately warned him when danger was near. But Alar had amnesia and did not know his true identity though sometimes he sensed that there was a purpose in his actions that was not entirely of his own volition.
When Keiris, wife of the Imperial Chancellor saw him, she sensed that he was something special and helped him to elude pursuit even though it put her own life in danger. And in trips to the Moon and even the Sun itself, Alar begins to see what part he is destined to play in the struggle for men’s freedom.
Blurb from the 1967 Four Square paperback edition.
Harness, like Bester, wrote far less than his fans would have wished. His style (as Brian Aldiss terms it in the introduction the Four Square SF edition) is Widescreen Baroque, and despite the paucity of his output, one cannot deny that his influence has been a major one on the genre. Twelve years before Frank Herbert gave us Dune we see Harness employing the idea of personal force-shields, which repel bullets and blasters but allow through the relatively slow-moving sword or knife. Thus Harness combines the swashbuckling sword-wielding hero with the Solarion ships, which skate the surface of the sun, and the experimental interstellar ship, which is at the centre of the novel’s mystery. One can see the influence of Harness in many authors’ work, not least Herbert. Echoes of his style and imagery crop up in the work of Moorcock, M John Harrison, Will McCarthy (Aldiss notes in the introduction that Harness ‘shares a weakness for regality (and female rulers) with Van Vogt’ which seems to be also shared by Harrison and also McCarthy – see ‘The Collapsium’) and possibly Brian Aldiss himself.
Far in the future, America is a feudal Empire, its titular head being the Imperatrix Juana-Maria, although in reality her ruthless Chancellor, Haze-Gaunt, controls the Empire. His wife, Keiris was once married to the revolutionary Kennicott Muir, who set up the Society of Thieves, a Robin Hood style organisation dedicated to robbing the rich and bringing about the end of institutionalised slavery. Muir is now thought to be dead.
One of the best of the Thieves is Alar, the central figure of the novel, a man with no past, since he can remember nothing beyond a few months back.
Alar begins a search for the truth, during which he meets Keiris, a woman who seems hauntingly familiar and the Microfilm Mind, a mutant who can deduce the future by memorising and analysing thousands of facts of the present.
Meanwhile a vast interstellar ship is being built, raising the hope that Mankind might now reach the stars, but Alar is beginning to suspect that the ship has already returned to Earth and crashed long before it was built, and that he might have been on board.
One can argue that the novel is no more than a chase in which relentless enemies pursue Alar, searching for the truth and his own memories, but it is far more than this. It’s a joyful piece of elaborate plotting, as complex and beautifully structured as an orrery, filled with bizarre and memorable characters and featuring a denouement both expected and unexpected.