Beyond the Barrier by Damon Knight
In Damon Knight’s 1953 novel entitled The Rithian Terror, the author presented his readers with a vaguely octopuslike menace, the titular Rithian; a spy with the ability to hide itself inside the body of any Earthling. But this was not the last time that the Oregon-born writer would give us a tale featuring a hideous, nonhumanoid alien hiding in plain sight! More than a decade later, Knight, in his novel Beyond the Barrier, presented his audience with an alien who was not only as difficult to find as the Rithian, but infinitely harder to kill. Sadly, the 1964 book was also infinitely harder for the reader to wrap his/her mind around, as compared to the 1953 effort. But more on that in a moment.
Beyond the Barrier was actually an expansion of Knight’s novelette “The Tree of Time,” which had appeared in the December ’63 and January ’64 issues of the 40-cent, digest-sized Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction … both issues, incidentally, featuring cover artwork for Knight’s tale. In 1964, the story was expanded to novel form in a Doubleday hardcover and retitled Beyond the Barrier, with cover artwork by Tom Chibbaro; it would receive another hardcover edition from the British publisher Gollancz that same year. In 1965, the book would be given the paperback treatment by the American firm Macfadden, with a cover by the great Richard Powers; a 50-cent affair that I was happy to find at the (now sadly defunct) NYC bookstore Singularity. The book has seen around a half dozen more iterations in the last 50 years, so laying your hands on a copy should not prove too difficult to accomplish … if, that is, you still wish to do so after reading this review.
Okay, now for the part that I’ve been dreading … giving you some idea of what Knight’s book is about. And that might just prove more easily said than done, as I’m not really sure that I completely understood the darn thing myself. But I’ll do my best. Beyond the Barrier starts off in the futuristic year of, uh, 1980, when we meet a 35-year-old physics professor, Dr. Gordon Naismith, who is teaching a class on “quasi-matter” and temporal energy, in an L.A. university, when we first encounter him. Naismith is an amnesiac, who can remember nothing of his past up until the time of crash-landing in an Air Force jet four years earlier. Thus, with his first 31 years a complete blank, Naismith is strangely startled when one of his students, Lall, whom he takes for a young Indian woman, asks him in class, “Professor, what is a Zug?” The baffling question is the seeming commencement of a series of highly unusual and increasingly nerve-racking events in the befuddled professor’s life. He is framed for the murders of his housekeeper and the campus bursar. A man named Churan, who he has never met, sends him a futuristic mechanical device that he cannot even open, and then Churan makes out an official complaint that Naismith had tried to kill him. The poor professor sees a vision of a reptilian monster in his bedroom, with some kind of weapon gizmo floating in midair. He dreams repeatedly of a beautiful city of the far future. His psychiatrist is beaten to death, with the incriminating signs once again pointing toward Naismith.
Eventually, the pieces in this bravura opening section begin to come together, and Naismith, on the run from the law, learns that Lall and Churan are actually aliens from the far future. Once their makeup is removed, they are revealed to be green-skinned, toadlike beings from 82 Eridani, and we learn that Lall’s real name is Miko, and Churan’s, Gunda. The two aliens tell Naismith that he is in actuality a Shefthi; one of a warrior caste from the distant future who had been/will be specifically created to fight the hideous, mutated “ortholidans” known as the Zugs. With nowhere left on Earth to run, Naismith agrees to accompany the couple in their “shadow-egg” time device. It seems that the Earth civilization known as the Lenlu Din, in the far distant future, has erected a “time barrier” to prevent the Zugs from coming forward, but somehow, impossibly, one has managed to do so anyway. And now, Naismith is needed to do what he was designed for … namely, kill the Zug, a winged, scaly, fast-moving creature that also has the ability of creating bewildering illusions. Surely no simple task, especially for a mixed-up academic who can’t even begin to figure out who he really is, or what is what…
Well, as you might have inferred, when it comes to this particular Damon Knight book, there’s both good news and bad news. Let’s take the good news first, shall we? First, Beyond the Barrier does boast a thoroughly intriguing opening section, as matters grow increasingly strange for Naismith and he wonders what can possibly be going on. At least three more well-done sequences follow. In the first, those toadlike alien beings bring our hopelessly confused hero to a wrecked spaceship on the Earth’s surface in the 111th century for their own mysterious purposes. While there, Naismith spends weeks exploring the interstellar liner, and learns why Earth is a barren wasteland at that time. In the next remarkable segment, Naismith, even farther up the time line, grips a machine that sends him plummeting through the Earth, through the core (!), and up to the other side! He fetches up not in what would be China, as might be expected, but elsewhere, improbably calculating just when he might reemerge while he plummets: “Call the radius of the Earth four thousand miles – about twenty million feet, for convenience. Gravity at the surface of the Earth, thirty-two feet per second per second. The square root of twenty million over thirty-two would be two hundred and fifty times the square root of ten … times pi … about twenty-five hundred seconds. Call it forty-two minutes…” Got all that? And in the next mind-boggling segment, which transpires in the floating bubble city of the Lenlu Din, with its truly bizarre and decadent populace, Naismith goes up against the Zug, in a surprisingly short but exciting battle. That floating city, I might add, filled with various robots, outre costumes and psychedelic backdrops, is a great work of the imagination, to be sure. Kudos also to Mr. Knight for all the technological wonders on display in his book. Thus, that time travel device, the wristband “directors” that help propel the Lenlu Din in their gravityless environment, the “mind helmets” that can read another person’s thoughts fully, the “total-access clothing” that some of the city’s women wear (basically, curved metallic plaques on the body that can wink in and out of existence!), an unending assortment of robots, and, of course, that time barrier itself. And the book is wonderfully readable, as would be expected of the author who was also the co-founder of the Milford Writer’s Workshop. The fact that my favorite word in the English language, “chthonic,” appears (in the bizarre juxtaposition of words “chthonic ourobouros”) is another item to this novel’s credit. Anyway, that’s the good news.
As for the bad, I regret to add that although Beyond the Barrier sports any number of colorful, imaginative and exciting sequences, all those pieces just didn’t add up for this reader. The book ultimately feels like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing more than a few pieces. Or perhaps Knight, rather than giving us not enough information, has given us too much? It’s hard to tell. Is the plot here half baked, or does the reader need to get fully baked (if you get my drift) before making any sense of it? If this novel is the expanded version of “The Tree of Time,” I wonder what that earlier story must be like to decipher! Here, the reader is not given nearly enough background information on that time barrier, the future Earth, and especially the Zugs. As to those latter, Knight fails to tell us their history, how they came to be on Earth, or precisely what that word “ortholidan” means. His descriptions of the creatures are nebulous at best: winged, scaly, up to 30 feet long, man-eating, and eager to lay their eggs in a human host. The dreams that Naismith suffers are inadequately explained; the “Entertainer” Dar-Yani, who figures largely in them, is never even mentioned again. Also never explained: the paintings that had been mysteriously torn from their frames in that wrecked space liner. Gunda and Miko disappear from the book at its 2/3 point, never to be mentioned again. And as regards those two, the reader is left with the nagging question of whether or not they in fact knew Naismith’s full background; one must read between the lines, I suppose, to divine the answer to that one. The book also introduces several of those temporal paradoxes that, as I have mentioned elsewhere, often give me a near migraine as I endeavor to suss them out, and the ones brought up here are no exception.
And yet, despite all these issues, as I made my way through Knight’s book, I kept expecting the author to make everything clear, and to resolve all my many questions. When only 10 pages in the book remained, I was still hoping that the author would miraculously bring his work in for a nice three-point landing; that he would tie things up with a neat bow. Sadly, quite the opposite lay in store. On the front cover of my Macfadden edition there is a blurb from the Edmonton Journal that reads, in part, “The final twist is well hidden and adds spice to the conclusion.” A fair enough statement, but unfortunately, that twist also serves to upend everything that we had believed before, rendering much of the book even more confusing that it had been up until then! I am trying to be coy here, so as not to spoil any surprises for the prospective reader, but have to add that this twist raises more conundrums than it serves to clarify. It was, for me, a most disappointing conclusion. Again, by the final page, the whole story line ultimately comes off as being insufficiently developed. This is a book with lots of good ideas and set pieces, but they just don’t cohere seamlessly. And the more one thinks about Knight’s plot here, the more frustrating it becomes. Trying to figure out Gunda and Miko’s actual motivations was giving me a throbbing head last night, and that comes way before the final upending twist. (I do believe I’ve actually riddled that part out … at least, to my satisfaction.) Unlike The Rithian Terror, which was a breeze to follow and was ultimately a modestly satisfying affair, Beyond the Barrier must be deemed something of a failure. I am giving it a generous 2 ½ stars for its pacing, color, and imaginative and atmospheric sequences, but do feel that this renowned author has let his readers down here. I guess all his books can’t be winners, right? If only I had a “shadow-egg” time device so I could go back to 1964 and ask Damon Knight some questions. Or better yet, use a mind helmet on him…