Beyond The Veil of Stars – Robert Reed (1994)
‘Cornell Novak spent most of his youth traversing the American heartland with his father, a fanatical. self-appointed UFO researcher who investigated strange sightings and odd manifestations. His young life abruptly changes one day when the night sky suddenly vanishes, to be replaced by a distorted mirror image of the Earth. But even as ‘The Change’ makes his father a celebrity, a gulf opens between them, leaving Cornell feeling alone and betrayed.
Years later, Cornell joins a secret government project and learns about ‘portals’ to alien worlds through which humans emerge as aliens. Cornell crosses a portal with Porsche, a beautiful and charismatic companion with whom he embarks upon a bizarre odyssey. When he finally returns to Earth, Cornell realises that his greatest challenge is yet to come, as he faces secrets more shattering than any of his encounters on the other side.’
Blurb from the September 1995 Tor paperback edition.
Reed begins in low key with this tale of Cornell, his father and his father’s friend Pete, driving across America chasing tales of UFO sightings.
Cornell believes that his father’s obsession with UFOs stems from the fact that his mother was abducted by aliens.
Suddenly, the three begin investigating reports of large circles of fused glass, burnt into the landscape across the country.
Shortly afterwards the world is forced to take Cornell’s father seriously when the sky disappears and is replaced by an ‘everted world’, a view of the Earth as though seen from the inside of a giant world-shaped balloon.
Later, Cornell (estranged from his father following the revelation that that his mother – far from having been abducted – abandoned them both when Cornell was a child) is recruited by a secret Government Agency. This organisation has discovered – or been shown – portals which lead to other worlds. Humans can travel back and forth through the portals but are physically transformed during the process into natives of an equitable intelligence level.
Cornell, passing through to the world known as High Desert, is transformed into a gestalt organism, composed of a central spherical mind, attended by six humanoid – but very alien – bodies.
It’s very much a novel of two halves, each being oddly pastoral in its own way. In the first half Reed skilfully paints portraits of the people of small town America, tolerant of the mild aberrations of their neighbours. There are echoes of Simak here, particularly when Porsche Neal later describes the Universe as merely a big neighbourhood, separated by picket fences, a metaphor which Simak may very well have been happy to use himself.
The natives of High Desert (or at least the recruits who have ‘gone native’ almost literally) also live a pastoral existence, living on grease nuts and using nothing more advanced than reclaimed spearheads which the original natives abandoned.
In his vacation periods back on Earth, Cornell confronts his mother and makes a kind of peace with his father who, it transpires, had been right all along in assigning such importance to the fused glass discs for whose presence no one could provide a decent explanation.
So what point is Reed trying to make, if any? Reed is puzzling in that many of his novels – at least before ‘Marrow’ were very different to each other while still exhibiting a richness of characterisation, and a need to explore the soul of the protagonist. What they may have in common is a ‘masked’ character, in this case Porsche Neal, who is discovered to be an alien transformed into human.
‘Exaltation of Larks’ sees Sally Faulkner exposed as an ancient individual who was trying to subvert the Turtles’ plan for the universe. ‘Marrow’ sees one of the near-immortal captains exposed as the mastermind behind a convoluted plan to take over the ship, while in ‘Sister Alice’ it seems that hardly anyone ends up being what they initially purport to be.
Here, Reed is following Dick in examining what it is that defines us as human, and in so doing, highlights the irrelevance of Humanity in the Universe.