An Ornament to His Profession

The Charles L. Harness series continues.

I have by no means read all of his work but, between this and the novels in Rings, you get a good sense of his work.

This is the only collection of Harness fiction and includes the short novel The Rose.

Raw Feed (2002): An Ornament to His Profession, ed. Priscilla Olson, 1998.Ornament to His Profession

“An Ornament”, Priscilla Olson — A brief but informative introduction to Charles Harness’ characteristic subjects and themes.
“Charles Harness:  New Realities”, David G. Hartwell — A brief and useful overview of Charles Harness’ themes and writing career and the influence and significance of Harness’ novels Flight Into Yesterday aka The Paradox Men and The Rose.  Hartwell makes the interesting observation that, like Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick, Harness put his own spin on the type of stories written by A.E. van Vogt.  I think that’s a valid observation and explains my like of all three authors.
The Rose — This is the second time I’ve read this short novel.  I didn’t think much of it the first time.  At that time, I was rather puzzled at Ruy Jacques quest for the rose, though he won’t acknowledge the quest to Anna van Tuyl.  This time it was obvious that his quest was for his art to not only maintain immortality but equal power to his wife’s Martha’s Scionmnia Equation.  It was also obvious that love has turned to possessive, bitter competition between the Jacques.  I was even more forcibly reminded of the van Vogtian elements of using artistic concepts in a systemized way as weapons.  I have no idea how true Harness’ examples are, drawn from music, art, and ballet, of art discovering scientific principles first.  Nor do I have any idea if the Oriental five-four rhythms of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony require special training by Western musicians to play or if Delcrozian eurythmics are real.  (Harness mentions Tchaikovsky in several stories.)  After this reading, I can spot the influence of this novel on Michael Moorcock. (Moorcock wrote a very favorable introduction to the novel in another edition.)  Specifically, you can spot Harness’ influence on Moorcock’s The Winds of Limbo.  Harness’ introductory notes were interesting.  John W. Campbell rejected this story, evidently because of his lack of knowledge about music.  Harness was, as you would expect, deeply influenced by the death of his older brother, age 26.  The brother was an artist and the inspiration for the imperious artist Ruy Jacques.  Harness also said that the story was built around a story beloved by his brother:  Oscar Wilde’s “Nightingale and the Rose”.  The story provided the theme and plot outline of the novel. In Wilde’s story the nightingale, provides the dye, with the blood from its fatal, self-inflicted injury, to turn a white rose red.  The Student needs a red rose for admission to a dance.)  At the end, Harness playing with the reader’s expectations by making us believe that it is Ruy who is really to die like the Nightingale and Anna is to be the Student.  I appreciated the story’s blatantly allegorical qualities this time.  It’s another Harness tale of transcendence.
Time Trap” — This is Harness’ first published story and has many of the themes and elements of his later work.  There are the two individuals, Poole and Jon Troy who turn out to be the same individual, existing contemporaneously due to time travel.  There is the mutation, in Jon Troy, looked for by shadowy groups.  Harness throws in a scientific explanation on how Troy’s power to prevent “devitalization” and general death from violence and poisoning.  It involves manipulation of carbon dioxide and oxygen cycles in hemoglobin and was evidently good enough for the story to be published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding SF.  Harness carefully doesn’t explain how physical injuries, like a rabbit being resurrected after its head is severed, are reversed in Troy’s “viton” field.  Harness also doesn’t come up with a good explanation as to how come Poole/Troy doesn’t remember all the times he’s been through this “standing wave” of time until he goes back in time one last time.  The systemization of even prison escapes bears the hallmark of 30s–50s sf where almost any human activity can by systematized and rationalized.  Harness, in his introduction, explains that the legal chicanery of Poole claiming his younger self, Troy, is innocent of murder because, at various times and locations, the intent did not match the actual act is drawn from a real case he studied in law school.  Specifically, an attempt to murder is unsuccessful.  The wouldbe killer transports the body elsewhere, believing the victim to be dead, and then cuts the head off.  The defense is that the initial act was only assault, unintended by the perpetrator, and the actual decapitation was intended to only be a mutilation of a corpse, not murder.  Of course, legal elements were also to become part of Harness’, a patent attorney, fiction.

Stalemate in Space” — This is a tale of romance and adventure and intrigue without a lot of science (mostly just some vaguely atomic energy terms thrown about — this story was published in 1949) which explains why it was published in Planet Stories which had a reputation for low class adventure.  It’s still an entertaining story.  Its appearance in Planet Stories might explain the fairly generous, for the time, dollop of sex.  Protagonist Evelyn Kane is implicitly threatened with rape and sexual servitude by the Scythians.  She dances for Scythian noble Perat and eventually falls in love with her and vice versa.  The final revelation of a time loop — thus explaining why Evelyn looks like the “widow” the unmarried Perat supposedly left at home along with a son — in which it turns out Evelyn will be saved the globes’ demolition and go back five years in time, was not a surprise because this is Harness and he’s fond of temporal paradoxes and secret identities convoluted by time.  I did like the idea of huge globes, essentially spherical battleships that have forests and artificial lights, being used to fight an interstellar war and their collision with each other that takes a very long time to untangle.  The unlikely love of Perat and Evelyn was sketchily depicted but that was all that was necessary for the story.  (They are not exactly Everyman characters, but Harness is more interested in setting up his temporal paradox which ends the Scythian-Terran war.)  Her having to kill her father to maintain her cover was a poignant scene.
The New Reality” — This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve read this classic story about reality being altered, a la the Cophenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, by observation.  This time I noticed Harness’ typical cunning use of real scientific history in the service of, basically, a shaggy god story where the villain turns out to be Lucifer and the protagonist a new Adam and his boss, the conservative E (note the pulpy initial) the new Eve.  Once again, we get a rather tyrannical future with Adam Prentiss working for the Censor, an office dedicated to repressing dangerous areas of scientific research.  I thought the weakest point was that the Censor’s governing committee seemed surprised by Prentiss’ ontological speculations that reality can be altered by scientific paradigms.  But why did they suppress the original paper he wrote unless it dealt with something similar?  What research does the Censor seek to suppress?  I believe the idea of destroying a photon violating Einstein’s saws is correct.  The idea of such a photon being personified as a person in a crowd was a bit weak too but seems a valid metaphor for the statistical behavior of a group of photons.  I liked the idea of the noumenon undergirding reality, that Luce’s experiment will strip away the current perceived reality (the current created reality) to return to the universe that man evolved in.  Harness’ narrative sleight-of-hand is particularly evident when he glosses over the inconsistency of a basic reality existing apart from human observation but also has layers added due to human notions.  This is certainly a classic quantum mechanics story and also, probably, a classic sf story despite the shaggy god ending.
The Chessplayers” — Fun story about the peculiar worldview of chessplayers.  Here, they don’t comment that a rat has been taught to play chess or about the skill of the physicist who taught him to do so while an inmate of a concentration camp.  They just rank the rat’s skill — in this case, very high.
Child by Chronos” — Not only does the title tip off the end of this story, but anyone familiar with the prevalence of temporal cycles and paradoxes in Harness’ work, would know what to expect in this story.  In sort of a variation of Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” — combined with the Electra Complex, the narrator’s lover and father and mother’s lover are all the same person.  And the narrator is her own mother.  A well worked out story but certainly not a surprising one.
An Ornament to His Profession” — I always like Harness’ patent attorney stories since I find the details of the profession fascinating, and I liked this story despite its rather vague ending.  It has very typical Harness motifs:  a patent lawyer, roses, chess (a patent attorney lets a patent examiner win a chess match in hopes he’ll be favorably disposed to granting his patent application), literature and the arts (in its epigraphs and the protagonist’s use of a Francis Bacon story which gives the story its title), and plenty of interesting science and technological trivia.  Surprisingly, this story was printed in John W. Campbell’s Analog even though, despite the presence of a rationalized devil (perhaps he’s a very powerful alien who eats mental energy), it’s a fantasy story with a contract with the devil (drawn up by the attorneys at a patent office at the behest of a brilliant chemist who must be placated) and ghosts.  The intrigue is very Harness-like, here directed to the machinations of patent law and the internal politics of the chemical manufacturer where the patent attorney protagonist works.  The ending is a little bit too vague.  Is the protagonist horrified that he was or is about to help get a patent granted to the company that is based on the work of his beloved, dead wife?  She’s dead so her work could be acknowledged and a patent still granted — at least, there’s nothing in the story that indicates otherwise.  He doesn’t seem to have anything to do with her death.  At one point, protagonist Prentiss says the prior art represented by his dead wife’s college thesis must be found to file any sort of patent claim so suppression of her work seems an unlikely course of action after the close of the story.  Yet, as deal-with-the-devil Fast indicates near the end, Prentiss will only see the need to write when he feels very guilty about something.  At story’s end, he finds it easy to write an article on college thesis’ as prior art in chemistry patents.  Perhaps, he simply feels guilty about not remembering his wife’s work during the patent application.  The ending is puzzling and vague, and I don’t think, because of it, Harness wrote a successful story despite the fascinating setting and plot details.
The Alchemist” — A delightful story.  It is a sequel (at least in terms of publication date — there is absolutely nothing made of the events of the earlier story) to “An Ornament to His Profession”, also set at Hope Chemical Company, but here the protagonist is Director of Research Andrew Bleeker and not head patent attorney Con Patrick.  This story is less of a fantasy than the earlier story since there are no deals with the devil (Fast, the chemist who had the contract with the devil, is briefly mentioned in this story but not his diabolical concerns or connections) or ghosts.  Here the fantasy elements are more science fictional, specifically the speculations that alchemy and astrology may, in fact, be legitimate sciences.  And, of course, the main plot element of using telekinesis to provide the necessary energy for certain chemical reactions goes a long way to explaining why this story was published in John W. Campbell’s Analog (and the vindication of astrology and alchemy and voodoo is rather like some of the stories from another magazine he edited, Unknown).  There are several things I liked here.  I liked Patrick explaining how a good piece of patent legal advice should seen to be true no matter what subsequent events take place legally, that legal writing shows the inverse relation, in all writing, between readability and clarity.  (I suspect Harness makes this point tongue-in-cheek; he makes his point by comparing his brief to the vague, but very readable and memorable, opening lines of Samuel Coleridge’s “Xanadu”.)  I liked the hidebound reaction by some of the company’s scientists to the suggestion that alchemy be pursued to yield trade secrets.  They ignore the moneymaking potential and concentrate on how it will upset (as Einsteinian physics did classical physics) the “ordered imagination” (a good description of science) of conventional chemistry.  They don’t claim alchemy won’t work, doesn’t work — only that it will complicate the conceptual aspects of their profession.  This reaches its climax when a Nobel-winning chemist is called in to sincerely ridicule the workability of the silamine producing plant built in a Communist country which has reneged on its licensing payments.  His sincerity aids the curse put on the plant by a voodoo doctor — now on the company payroll.  I also liked how much gold alchemist Pierre Celsus (a name pretty obviously picked to evoke the famous alchemist Paracelsus) disposed of (it’s a byproduct of his work) to keep his technique secret.  As a matter of scientific and legal trivia, it should be noted that the reaction necessary to produce silamine is, in this 1966 story, a bit like cold fusion in that telekinesis is used to produce a nuclear reaction in a chemical process.  Also, Harness mentions a 1930 court case which ruled that plants could be patented.  (One possible project of the new Alchemical Research Group at Hope Chemical is the telekinetic manipulation of plant chromosomes.)
The Million Year Patent” — Fun story about an inventor, with the aid of his son, revenging himself on the company that fires him after a lab accident.  He gets a patent that, due to the Einsteinian time-dilation aboard ships going about sixty percent of lightspeed, will probably last many thousands of years Earth time.  Adding to the deliciousness of the revenge is that the patent basically uses the additive sums of spaceships traveling less than lightspeed to get relative supralight speed — the speed is achieved by the new spacedrive the hero invents for the ungrateful company.
Probable Cause” — I appreciated the look at the workings of the law in this story just like I like his patent attorney stories.  I think this 1968 story captures the process of how the Supreme Court reaches its decisions:  fanatical commitment to abstract principles; commitment to constitutional principles; desire to set legal precedent that will be final or, at least, not cause too many more cases for Supreme Court review; sheer intuition (though, to be fair, that may have been more of a factor in this case since it involves psi powers); and a desire to maintain the dignity of the Court.  I liked the citations and history of cases involving wiretapping and clairvoyance.  I appreciated how Harness manipulates the story’s ending using the inherent (and, until they begin discussing the case, largely unrealized) psi powers of certain of the Justices.  However, the story didn’t move me as much as I hoped it would.  I think it is because the transition between some of the scenes, starting with the meeting at Justice Nord’s home, were a bit abrupt as Harness begin setting up the threads for his ending.  An interesting look at the law and how it works in America’s highest court but not all that compelling as drama.  )
The Araqnid Window” — This story, originally published in Amazing, seemed, at first, a change of pace for Harness.  It’s an adventure story set not in a baroque, urban future but against the backdrop of an archaeological dig on a unpopulated planet, a search for a race of vanished aliens.  There is humor in protagonist John Thorin’s destruction, in his inexperience, of valuable archaeological evidence about the Araqnid’s.  Reiter Speidel, the old archaeologist obsessed with getting his name in the history books as the discoverer of the lost Araqnid city on Ferria, chides him by saying that “archaeology is a process of destruction” — informed destruction.  Harness creates an interesting race in the Araqnid’s, literally parasitic riders on the less intelligent Llanoans who, nevertheless, have their own culture.  The Araqnids, or, at least, one Araqnid is still alive and possesses Thorin’s wife.  Thorin, conveniently a student majoring in “instrumentation” rather than archaeology, has a clever bag of tools which helps him pursue the Araqnid and his wife into the maze of the lost Araqnid city.  That story was involving but, at the end, when it is revealed that Speidel is the Death-One who a line of Araqnid sentries have been waiting for on Ferria for 3,000 years, the story reveals a typically Harness time paradox.  Speidel goes through a time portal to the Araqnid past and the cold virus he carries wipes out their race — a good thing since their expansion would have brought them to Earth about 1,000 BC and resulted in humanity’s enslavement.  Speidel fufills his destiny by both wiping out the Araqnid race and becoming famous.  The story has both a humorous and pointed end.  Coret, Thorin’s wife, now knows how to read the Araqnid library discovered in the city.  After the rest of the student diggers decide not to carry on Speidel’s Araqnid work (only one is an archaeology major and even he refuses), the Thorin’s decide to carry it on and reap “… fame, fortune, and maybe an A+”.  For Speidel’s epitaph on a monument on Ferria, the Thorin’s choose “Archaeology is a process of destruction.”  Speidel destroyed the very race whose ruins he spent a lifetime studying.  That’s a very Harness ending.
Summer Solstice” — Sort of an alternate history in that Greek scientist Eratosthenes gets an accurate world map from an alien.  However, it is very unclear at story’s end, shortly after he gets the map and the alien leaves, if world history will be changed.  Certainly the course of the First Punic War, going on during the story, hasn’t changed.  Most of the story involves court intrigues with fanatical priests of Horus objecting to Eratosthenes saying the world is a sphere.  The story is fairly involving, but its strong point is the descriptions of Egyptian technology the downed alien space traveler calls on to fix his craft.  Another strong point is an explanation (I don’t know how accurate) on why, while surprisingly good for the time, Eratosthenes measurement’s of the Earth’s size were off:  the land measurements he used didn’t account for plots kept off the books for the use of the Egyptian priests.
Quarks at Appomattox” — This story has a similar premise as the Harry Turtledove’s later Guns of the South:  a time traveler, in order to favorably affect history, offers Robert E. Lee some advanced weaponry from the future.  In Turtledove’s novel, the time travelers were white supremacists from South Africa who offered him modern assault rifles.  Here the time traveler is from further in the future, specifically a West German (the story was published in 1983) of 2065.  He offers a gun that eliminates the attractive force associated with down quarks thereby causing metals to lose their binding force and not be able to form crystals.  He hopes to weaken America so that it does not intervene in WWI.  The Kaiser stays in power; there is no WWII, and Germany is not divided.  Lee, as in the Turtledove novel, proves noble.  Here, he reveals that the South could have won, but for odd accidents, the Civil War a number of times.  He thinks God does not want the South to win.  The time traveler tries to tempt him with the knowledge of the relative humiliation and deprivation he and his family will (and already have) suffered because of the war.  Lee still refuses, even after hearing about Reconstruction and Lincoln’s death, to accept the weapons of the future.  Then the time traveler reveals that the first interstellar spaceship will be named after him.  What is unspoken is that the time traveler, part of an organization dedicated to reunifying Germany, also seems to be performing his duty but secretly hopes Lee will refuse his offer.  Harness brings in an interesting bit of trivia when talk turns to space travel.  Lee’s aide, Major Potter, is from Cape Canaveral.
George Washington Slept Here” — I’ve always enjoyed Harness’ courtroom stories even if I can’t always remember their plots.  And I also very much enjoy his historically based stories; therefore, I liked this story a lot which involves a corrupt court and a beautiful “woman” (actually, an alien device) who knew George Washington.  Harness does a lot with Washington and the turmoil of the year 1795.  The most interesting part was having the manufactured “woman” — the lawyer protagonist’s client — Sena inadvertently sterilize Washington.  He therefore develops strong father-son relations with his young officers during the Revolutionary War and comes to see himself truly as the Father of His Country.  I also liked how the protagonist had a perverse reputation for always losing his cases — though his opponents seem to only win pyrrhic legal victories.  The one flaw, hardly unique to Harness, was the unrealistically quick way that lawyer Oliver Potts fell in love with Sena.  I accepted the widely romantic, wholly unfounded lucky guess of Potts in predicting the alien Dhorans will rescue Sena.  It was also interesting to see, in this 1985 story, to see a sort of proto-Internet. (It’s much faster, better organized, and more detailed than our current one.)
O Lyric Love” — A wonderful story where once again Harness demonstrates an erudition which reminds me of Charles Sheffield in that both writers know their science and literature and history.  Here Harness mostly demonstrates a knowledge of literature and biography.  Harness sort of does a variation on the old, hoary notion of either stealing, via time travel, a famous writer’s work to pass of as your own or inspiring a famous writer.  But this is Harness, so he does a lot more with the notion.  As the introductory notes say, Harness’ story was inspired by his adoration for an English teacher he had, a teacher that gave him an A for a paper on Robert Browning he never turned in.  The narrator of the story is in love with his college English professor, a scholar of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and, like Harness’ teacher, she gives the narrator an A for a paper he never turns in so that he may get a scholarship in physics.  He repays her five years later with, via a time travel device he invented, a way to make Robert Browning more than an obscure Victorian poet only mentioned in connection with Elizabeth Barrett (the story starts out in a world that is an alternate time track).  He sends back a forged manuscript, based on real history, that inspires Browning to write The Ring and the Book.  History alters, and Browning becomes the renowned poet, Barrett the obscure one.  In the process of time travel the narrator and the English professor meld temporarily with, respectively, Browning and Barrett.  The narrator hopes to have Browning write a poem to the professor.  He does, sort of, but it becomes the dedication to The Ring and the Book and read by many women and not just the professor.  However, at story’s end, she does seem amenable to a romance with the narrator.
The Tetrahedron” — The improbable and implacable plot machinery of this story is recognizable early on, and, given Harness’ skill I didn’t care that the misogyny of his story was rather unrealistic in the hatred protagonist Elizabeth experiences from male attorneys, her being a patent attorney despite impressive linguistic and historical knowledge, the quickly obvious conclusion that she would become the Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting.  This is in some ways the archetypal Harness story:  patent lawyers calmly proceeding to win their cases despite the incredible nature of the case (time travel technology), time travel, chess, time paradox, and romance.  Only evolutionary transcendence is missing.
Lethary Fair” — A wonderful melange of typical Harness elements (though no chess and no time travel here).  This is a lawyer story set in a post mini-apocalypse of about 200 years in the future.  (A nuclear accident on board a submarine in New York City harbor took out the city and a big chunk of New Jersey.) Border wars are fought between Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, and one character is even a baron though it is made clear that’s more of an archaic title for the local political boss than anything else.  This story reminded me very much, in its humor and setting (the only real futuristic technology is skill implants you can buy), of a Ron Goulart story.  There is the wacky inventor Fahrni who sells devices to help you laugh in awkward situations were you just can’t seem to get started.  There is the private investigator, or, at least, his ghost, who basically promises to arrive at any conclusion you want, fake any evidence desired.  There is the physicist who finds it convenient to retire to a Buddhist monastery but won’t oblige the organizers of the July 4th Lethary Fair by dying as scheduled.  They’ve sold tickets to see him cremated and his soul ascend from the flames.  The local militia is in California making some mini-series and don’t really want to come back to help the baron stay in power after he’s divested of his fortune by a legal technicality (his heir was conceived in vitro one minute after he died thereby invalidating his will).  There is love here.  The narrator loves an android geisha working at the local Bar-Del-O.  The local two-headed woman (Harness postulates two headed mutants as the next step in human evolution — a theme common to Harness — because each skull passes through the birth canal separately but the total brain capacity, telepathically linked, is doubled) seems to plot with a two-headed alien to destroy the local baron’s power, give the narrator his rightful fortune and love, and mankind the means and metal to go to the stars.  Quite a fun story.
“Celebrating Charles L. Harness”, George Zebrowski — Useful critical overview of Harness’ career by Zebrowski who has long been a champion of Harness.  He wrote the afterword to the corrected 1984 edition of Harness’ The Paradox Men.  He gives some useful information on the publishing history of Harness’ work and its reception by critics and writers.  He notes that the version of The Rose included in this collection is the complete version of the story published which may explain, at least in part, why I liked it more this time.  He also compares Harness to Alfred Bester, maintaining that The Paradox Men may have influenced Bester’s The Stars My Destination (as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan).  He makes a brief, but not outlandish case.  I certainly agree that there are similarities in Bester and Harness, that the former had more style but the latter more substance.  Zebrowski notes that, despites Harness’ public pronouncement, he’s obviously motivated to write by more than money.  He’s been writing sf for more than 50 years and continues into his eighties.  And, Zebrowski says, is periodically rediscovered by fans and writers.  (Even the relatively traditional “Time Trap” by Harness was reprinted and championed — along with other Harness’ works — in Michael Moorcock’s New Wave New Worlds.)
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.
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