The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness (Review)

A blend of hard science, historical philosophy, and “B” movie escapades that’s by turns fascinating, fun, and frustrating.
The Paradox Men - Charles L. Harness

My first attempt to read Charles L. Harness’ The Paradox Men occurred back in high school. I picked the book off the library shelf because the title sounded cool and the cover proclaimed it a classic of modern science fiction. Suffice to say, the novel went completely over my head. Something about it stuck with me for decades, however, and I’d occasionally try to find it at my favorite used bookstore or look it up on the internet.

Reading it now, decades later, I’m not surprised that The Paradox Men left me equal parts confused and fascinated — and not just because its prose and style of writing hearken back to an earlier era of science fiction. Harness’ debut novel is quite heady in places.

The novel’s science, no doubt influenced by Harness’ own background in chemistry, can be esoteric and fantastical, featuring the creation of new elements, the paradoxical (npi) results of time travel, hidden planets, and superhuman abilities, as well as some outlandish and suitably futuristic-sounding terminology (e.g., “galactarium,” “solarion,” “trans-photic”).

In addition, The Paradox Men incorporates the philosophy of Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian who attempted to create a model that explained the origin, evolution, and downfall of Earth’s greatest civilizations. As a result, it contains scenes where characters veer off into philosophical discussions concerning the nature, origins, and fate of society as well as “Toynbee Twenty-Two,” the utopian civilization that will supposedly be ushered in by humanity’s expansion into space and its related technological, spiritual, and social development.

By contrast, the current civilization — named “Toynbee Twenty-One” — is far from utopian. It’s the 22nd century and the world’s great superpowers are locked in a cold war, hemisphere versus hemisphere. America, now called “America Imperial,” has (de-)evolved into a technologically advanced state of feudalism. Slavery is widespread, dueling is en vogue amongst the depraved and decadent upper-class, and the imperial government is practically “Big Brother”-esque thanks to the “Meganet Mind,” a powerful human computer that oversees all and even seems capable of predicting the future.

Standing against this state of affairs is the secretive Society of Thieves, whose operatives rob from the wealthy elites in order to purchase and free slaves. The novel’s protagonist, Alar, is one such thief, and a very skilled one at that. However, he has no memory of his past, only that he was the sole survivor of a spaceship that crashed into the Ohio River five years before the novel’s events.

Unfortunately, while I was intrigued by Alar, I found it hard to truly care about him as a hero. For all of his memory loss and lack of identity, not to mention the looming threat of the imperial government’s efforts to capture and torture him, Alar never seems to be in any real plight throughout the novel.

One moment, he’s a Thief capable of incredible feats and derring-do, and the next, he’s revealed to be just as skilled and knowledgable in astrophysics, history, psychology, or whatever other talent or career path proves most expedient in the moment. By the time Alar develops honest-to-goodness superpowers — which he takes entirely in stride and masters almost instantly — it all begins to feel rather preposterous, and Alar feels less deserving of the reader’s sympathies simply because he’s growing so unstoppable.

Which is not to say that The Paradox Men is not an enjoyable read. The novel — which was originally published as a novella titled Flight into Yesterday in 1949 — moves at a good clip (it’s under 200 pages), and there’s a breeziness to Alar’s adventures around the globe and eventually, the solar system. And I’ll admit, it’s fun seeing Alar match wits with the sadistic imperial officials laboring to capture him — and occasionally outmaneuver them in dramatic fashion.

But at the same time — and this may very well be due to its brevity — The Paradox Men feels rather basic and skeletal. The characters are thin and barely sketched out (especially Alar’s government adversaries, who are so categorically evil and sadistic that it’s not hard to picture them mwahaha-ing as they twirl their mustaches); the various twists and revelations about certain characters’ identities and who is or isn’t an enemy prove so convenient that they possess little emotional oomph; and ultimately, it’s hard to tell just how seriously Harness takes everything he’s writing.

Is The Paradox Men intended to be a serious, philosophical exploration of time, existence, history, and society? Or are such things just trappings to make a glorified Robin Hood scenario involving spaceships, time travel, and out-of-body experiences seem less preposterous? As I continued to read the novel, thirty some years after my first attempt, it seems like Harness wanted it both ways — which makes The Paradox Men and its blend of hard science, historical philosophy, and “B” movie escapades by turns fascinating, fun, and frustrating.

In the end, I have to agree with Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, who described The Paradox Men as “witty, profound, and trivial all in one breath” — though I might place a bit more emphasis on “trivial.”