Binary Star No. 1: Destiny Times Three, by Fritz Leiber and Riding the Torch, by Norman Spinrad

Over the weekend I managed to read one of my new acquisitions, Binary Star No.1.
The idea is similar to the older Ace Doubles series, two books in one, but without the cool novelty of having two different covers and people asking you “Why are you reading that book upside down?” The series was short-lived, and I’d guess relatively unsuccessful. I’m sure the boring covers didn’t help.

Volume 1 combines a reprint of an old Fritz Leiber story “Destiny Times Three” with a reprint of the comparatively newer Norman Spinrad novella “Riding the Torch”.

Destiny Times Three suffered from some turgid prose in the early chapters, but the real disappointment is the feeling one has while reading this that the finished work was not able to match the grandiose scope of Leiber’s initial intent, a feeling that is confirmed by Leiber himself in his afterward. Leiber laments that the wartime demand for shorter serializations forced him to scrap all but the bare-bones of the story. Nonetheless, enough of Leiber’s genius and vision can be seen at work to enjoy what we have while mourning what could have been.

Destiny Times Three is the story of a world whose time-line has been shattered by meddlers from earth’s distant past who have discovered and misappropriated a Probability Engine, an advanced relic of an unknown and powerful race of cosmic beings. Acting as benevolent gods, the extra-temporal meddlers have been using the Engine to “split” realities at critical turning points in human history, seeing how things play out, and only allowing the ‘best of all worlds’ to move forward. Only they HAVEN’T destroyed the ‘sub-optimal’ worlds but created parallel worlds, setting up the threat of a mass-migration of consciousness from one world to another. The two scientists who have foreseen the dangers of this mental-migration are up against the skeptics in their utopia, the nihilists and paternalists from dystopia, and hyper evolved cat and dog monsters from the savage world.

The “split” that led to the crisis pertained to use and accessibility of a superpower source that can be viewed as an analog of nuclear power. In World 1, the power was democratized and turned the world into a lazy unprepared world of geniuses and thinkers; in World 2, the power was held contemptuously by the ruling class to only be used for the ‘good of all’ by “the Servants” resulting in a world filled with poor and suffering workers trying to keep their heads down lest they be taken by apparats in the night; in World 3, a war was fought over the power and destroyed civilization completely.

Probably what Leiber best achieves in Destiny Times Three is capturing the horror of benevolent authoritarianism.

…the Servants of the People looked in no way malignant, villainous, or evil.

But looking at them a second time, Thorn began to wonder if there was not something worse. A puritantic grimness that knew no humor. A suffocating consciousness of responsibility, as if all the troubles of the world rested on their shoulders alone. A paternal aloofness, as if everyone else were an irresponsible child. A selflessness swollen to such bounds as to become supreme selfishness. An intolerable sense of personal importance that their beggarly clothes and surroundings only emphasized.

You’d better believe that if these guys weren’t busy organizing a transdimensional invasion they’d be flagging stuff on Onebookshelf. The Servants also reflect the cultists who stole the Probability Engine in the first place; they’ve done all of these things because they see themselves as benevolent god-like beings who are doing what they do with the best interests of humanity at heart. The worst tyrants are those who justify their tyranny as being for the people’s own good.

Spinrad’s story “Riding the Torch” is a very different beast. It’s a “trek” story in which all of humanity is on an endless journey through space in search of a new world because Earth is wrecked. Riding the Torch begins with a Warholian revelry on one of the trek ships to celebrate the premier of the main character’s latest “senso” vid. On the trekships, most of humanity is interconnected cybernetically and wallow in shared experience while a few “voidsuckers” go out on scoutships at the vanguard of the trek to look for habitable worlds. After showing his rather nihilistic piece in which the Flying Dutchmen and the Wandering Jew meet and discuss their crimes and wandering as a metaphor for the predicament humanity has gotten itself in, the director protagonist accepts the challenge to go on one of the voidsucker scout missions and experience the emptiness of space with them. The result is a strange cinematic experience re-enacting the trials of Job a billion fold as God and the Devil torment humanity until having driven them to self-sufficiency, masters of their own destiny, etc.

I found “Riding the Torch a bit more of a challenge to get into.  The opening sequence is a bit of a trip; we’re plunged right into the weird party of psychedelic cyber-drugs, collective experiences, and senso-vids (described in 2nd person narration).  While this was all very beautiful and fascinating, it was one of those cases where the first chapter made more sense re-reading it after having read the second. There is lots of lovely imagery throughout, but much of it verges on navel gazing. Of course, the point is to portray a society that has lost itself in navel gazing to distract from the doom mankind had inflicted upon itself by destroying its one Eden. The message is a bit confused, as Earth’s habitability is almost explicitly miraculous, though the protagonist’s conclusion is to deny god and proudly proclaim that mankind has no need of miracles that it cannot create on its own. Of course, the protagonist’s final film may merely be propaganda to keep the spirits of the trek up while knowing that mankind had lost its home forever. The ending is left open, but the protagonist doesn’t strike me as having moved past his own cynicism but rather justified his own demi-solipsistic worldview.

Perhaps the most worthwhile part of this little volume comes in Spinrad’s afterward of Destiny Times Three. There he offers a defense of soft science fiction, essentially pointing out that by telling the human story and making it a part of our collective mythology, one is able to convey more powerful and timeless messages than if one got lost in the weeds of particular scientific minutiae. Of course he offers this as justification for why Fritz Leiber is so great. It’s hard to disagree.

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One response to “Binary Star No. 1: Destiny Times Three, by Fritz Leiber and Riding the Torch, by Norman Spinrad

  1. Pingback: Blog Watch: Forbidden Knowledge, the Letter of the Law, Owl Bear Variants, and Formulaic Genre Writing | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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