Intrigue on the Upper Level by Thomas Temple Hoyne
Just recently, I had some words to say about Jack Williamson and Dr. Miles J. Breuer’s 1931 novel The Birth of a New Republic, in which a group of citizens (living on the Moon) rises up in rebellion against the despotic corporate forces oppressing them. Well, now I am here to tell you of another sci-fi book of the early ‘30s dealing with still another revolt against the powers that be. The book in question this time is called Intrigue on the Upper Level, by someone named Thomas Temple Hoyne. The chances are very good that you are unfamiliar with both this novel and its author (I know I was!), a state of affairs that is perfectly understandable, in both cases.
Intrigue on the Upper Level was originally released in 1934 as a $2 hardcover from the American publisher Reilly & Lee. It would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a solid 80 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it for a new generation in 2014. As for Hoyne himself, very little information can be gleaned about the man today, other than the following: He was born in Chicago in 1875 and spent most of his career as a popularizer of economics subjects. The 1934 novel is his only piece of fiction, released when Hoyne was 59, although he had previously come out with three volumes dealing with what I can only assume are business and monetary matters: Speculation: Its Sound Principles and Rules for Its Practice (1922), the curiously titled Myself and Fellow Asses (1923), and Wall Street Remodeling the World (1930). Hoyne would ultimately pass away in 1946, at the age of 71. So again, if you have not previously encountered this near-forgotten author and his only work of sci-fi, you can be well forgiven. Fortunately, this Armchair edition now gives us all the opportunity to discover one of the unfortunately neglected wonders of science fiction’s Radium Age. Consistently intelligent, fascinating, fast moving, unfailingly colorful, imaginative, and remarkably well written, this novel might come as a real surprise for today’s readers.
The book is set in the summer of 2050, not terribly far off from the era we are in today. But in Hoyne’s novel, the world is a far different one than our own. Shortly after the Great Depression, he tells us, the world’s economic plight continued to worsen, with corporations growing increasingly greedy and rapacious. By 1950, organized bands of criminals had begun taking over the capitalist system, quickly muscling their way into the strongholds of finance and business. By the time our story begins, the U.S. Constitution and the federal government have become mere figureheads, while the increasingly wealthy upper elite holds all the actual power. Mass unemployment is endemic, but the proletariat class is nevertheless cared for with free food, low-cost housing, and free education. (Cynically, those in power have embraced Schopenhauer’s famous quote: “Scholarship makes most men more unintelligent and stupid than they are by nature.”) it is a system that is fairly global in scope, and has been thus for decades.
And so, against this backdrop, we meet the novel’s two protagonists: Jimmy Manse, a 24-year-old college graduate, currently unemployed, and his companion, Dr. Finley Edgerton, a 60-year-old, ex-professor of philosophy and similarly suffering from want of a job. The two seem to spend most of their time on the shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan, sleeping there by night along with hundreds of others. But the fortunes of these two men change drastically one day when they see an elegantly dressed woman being mugged as she descends the stairs from the city’s Upper Level, where the entire ruling class lives and works. The two come to her aid and learn, to their astonishment, that she is no less a figure than Vivian Ransler, the daughter of George Ransler, aka “the Master” … the genius leader of the entire system. In her lustful gratitude, Vivian invites Jimmy and the professor to stay at her home, Ransler Castle, in the Upper Level, a region that of course is forbidden to the proles down below. With some trepidation, but with an idea that this just might be their ticket out of their squalid Lower Level existence, the two naturally accept their prospective hostess’ invitation, and in time get to meet the Master himself, who offers them a chance to join his team. Thus, we get to witness the manifold wonders of this vice-ridden yet luxurious Upper Level through their eyes, and get a tour of the sybaritic nightclubs, the futuristic banks and the underground laboratories. As their stay continues, Jimmy and Edgerton begin to realize that the Master, despite a willingness to ruthlessly assassinate his competitors, is actually not as horrible a man as they had imagined.
And this suspicion is only strengthened when the Master sends them off to examine his secret project somewhere in the wilds of (what we must infer to be) the Southwest: New City, a utopian community created in accordance with the Master’s vision of what a decent, well-regulated society should be. Yes, all seems to be going well for our Lower Level parvenus, but trouble inevitably looms. The millions of Chicago’s Lower Level denizens have finally had enough, and a bloody revolution is being planned. And who should be the leader of this revolution, but none other than 20-year-old Miriam Estley, the girl Jimmy had loved but left behind, and now the so-called Joan of Arc of the Lower Level’s desperate cause. But before all is said and done, the Master will reveal that he has any number of desperate tricks up his sleeve; tricks that will go far in plunging the entire world into chaos…
Now, I mentioned a little earlier that Hoyne’s novel is “consistently intelligent,” and this really is the case. Set as it is in a world in which any person has access to a free college education, Intrigue on the Upper Level is replete with highly literate people discoursing on any number of fascinating topics; heck, even the masseur in the Master’s castle is shown to be reading Aeschylus’ Agamemnon “in the original text”! The range of Hoyne’s literary and historical references is thus pretty immense here. Don’t know who Demosthenes, King Eglon, Madame Recamier, Hassan ben Sabbah, Rudolph Virchow, Raymond Lulli, Abou Moussah Djafar, Mother Shipton, Bernard of Thuringia or Druthmar of Corbie was? You will, by the time you finish Hoyne’s book. This is very much a novel of ideas, with plenty of discussions touching on philosophy, history, class warfare and, of course, economics. But lest you might be thinking that this is a rather dull and juiceless affair, please know that Hoyne sprinkles his discussions liberally with assorted murder, kidnappings, concealed identities and other exciting matters. The best of these thrilling sequences, of course, must be Edgerton’s kidnapping by the revolutionary sect known as the Chosen Clique; the Master’s kidnapping by that same group; the bloody revolution that comes near the book’s end; and the economic crash (much worse than the one in 1929) that completely decimates civilization.
But of all the terrific and fascinating sequences in Hoyne’s book, it is the 45-page tour of New City that is perhaps most germane; the one closest to the author’s heart. Here, Hoyne, through that utopia’s Senior Commissioner, gets to give the reader his ideas on how to improve farming practices, city planning, land leasing, elections, schooling, lotteries, the legislative process, jury selection, the laws pertaining to debts and bankruptcies, the issuing of bonds and stocks and currency (his idea of paper money that depreciates in value by 1% each month, thus encouraging spending rather than hoarding, is surely food for thought!), marriage, religious observance, prisons, and capital punishment. Hoyne may never have written another novel, but he sure did seem to get a lot off his chest with this one!
Like the best sci-fi novels, Intrigue on the Upper Level boasts some new colorful bit of business or imaginative detail on practically every page. And if you were wondering whether or not the book displays any of those futuristic wonders of superscience that readers back in the Radium and Golden Ages so highly esteemed, the answer would have to be a very big “yes.” Thus, we are told of hypnotizing pillows that murmur propagandistic messages to the Upper Level dwellers as they sleep; cosmic-ray machine guns (sadly, we never quite get to see one of those babies in action); a “net-ray” that effectively prevents enemy airships from approaching the city; helicopter planes; a transcontinental underground Tube system of travel; public suicide chambers; the ability to (finally!) transmute lead into gold; 3-D televisions (well, to be honest, the 3-D TV had been successfully demonstrated as far back as 1928); and the ultimate in planned-obsolescence products (to stimulate more production and employment, natch). So, yes … Hoyne, in his only work of fiction, managed to not only provide the reader with a work of ideas, suggestions for societal improvement, impressive imagination and wonderful action, but to do so in a hugely ingratiating manner. His writing style is eminently readable, and his ideas are set forth both cogently and lucidly. To read this novel is to regret that Hoyne never tried his hand at writing another, and indeed, this book would surely have been well served by a sequel.
Actually, I have very few quibbles to raise against Hoyne’s work here. Yes, those not familiar with the city of Chicago (such as myself) might be at a disadvantage, and a street map of the area might indeed come in handy. I might add that I never could properly visualize that darn Upper Level, except to equate it with an elevated subway with massive buildings instead of tracks. And, oh … it might have been nice to have been given some info on how Jimmy and the professor, a seemingly mismatched pair, happened to have gotten so close, and some more info on how Jimmy and Miriam met, as well. And while I’m at it, Hoyne, at one point, tells us that Pompeii was destroyed in “63 A.D.”; shouldn’t that be “A.D. 79”? He also tells us that the Huns invaded Europe in the 10th century; shouldn’t that be the 5th? Still, as I say, these are mere quibbles. Intrigue on the Upper Level remains an absorbing and highly interesting curio of its era, and one that I can unreservedly recommend to all readers…