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.

Continue reading “An Ornament to His Profession”


I’ve exhausted my existing Robert Silverberg material for now, so I’m moving on to a new favorite: Charles L. Harness.

Harness was a patent attorney and many of his works are legal and courtroom dramas, but that is not the case with the novels in this omnibus.

Raw Feeds frequently feature spoilers and that is definitely the case here.

Raw Feed (2002): Rings, Charles L. Harness, 1999.Rings

“On Rings of Power”, Priscilla Olson — Very brief and perfunctory introduction listing Charles Harness’ major themes and tying this omnibus of his work to an early short story collection, An Ornament to His Profession. (Yes, that will be reviewed in a future post.)
“Charles Harness:  Wielder of Light”, George Zebrowski — The most interesting part about this introduction to the omnibus is the phone interview Zebrowski conducted with Harness.  Harness says that each of the four novels in the omnibus are tributes to certain people.  The Paradox Men was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt, a major influence on Harness.  The Ring of Ritornel is a tribute to Harness’ brother Blandford Bryan Harness who died at the age of 26 when Harness was only 19.  Firebird is a tribute to Richard Wagner and the story of Tristan and Isolde.  Drunkard’s Endgame is a tribute to Isaac Asimov.
The Paradox Men — It’s a curious book in that it is one of my favorite sf novels but that I can’t remember the plot until about half way through rereading it.  However, I always remember one of my favorite sf lines:  “The beastling had joined the drama as a full-fledged member of the troupe, with lines to speak, and a death to die.”  I probably caught, on my other readings, the obvious van Vogt influences of powerful, hidden manipulators and mutant superman.  But I don’t think I caught before the influence of the Cold War on this 1953 novel.  There are East and West Federations poised to start a nuclear war.  Arnold Toynbee’s influence is obvious, of course, since his theory of civilizations rise and fall is alluded to.  The latter always comes after a time of “universal state” and “universal peace”.  Harness also seems to engage in a bit of political commentary with his Toynbean historians stating that no civilization can stand the continual aggrandizement of its ruling class.  Here that aggrandizement is shown by slavery being reintroduced as the penalty for going into debt.  Indeed, a nasty sort of slavery since some are sold to the “charnel-house”.  Indeed, Harness wanted to name the novel Toynbee Twenty-Two, the same as the ship that takes Alar on his journey of transformation.  I was again impressed with the almost hard sf working out of relativity theory to make his time cycles plausible.  I am impressed by the ways Harness does plot in obvious ways.  There is no happy ending for Keiris (who loses her arms in the novel) and Muir.  Muir-Alar is not the avatar of a new race.  Rather, he travels back to prehistory to alter man’s very nature to make him less warlike.  Harness puts temporal cycles inside temporal cycles.  Muir leaves to return five years earlier and then, returning to a point shortly after his crash (and the destruction of civilization), he is transformed.  I wonder if the idea of a superman being created by the deliberate application of lethal stresses inspired the method of superman creation later used in Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection.
The Ring of Ritornel — This reading added little to my earlier reading of the novel.  The introduction to this omnibus edition does confirm the influence of Fred Hoyle’s steady-state theory.  The crystomorphs reminded me of elements of cyberpunk fiction where computers are used to model people’s reactions to various stimuli.  (It was never totally clear whether Vang and his Aleans manipulated Oberon with a bogus prediction of Andrek’s attempted assassination of Oberon or if it was a legitimate prediction.  If the latter, it is another example of the book coming down on the side of free will.  Paradoxically, by using such the crystomorphs, the Aleans are practicing a type of Ritornelean determinism.)  This time around I appreciated more the Master Surgeon being the founding Ritornelism — a religion modified by its later practitioners.)  I also caught the irony of Omere being the disembodied (at least, not housed in a human body) house for Oberon’s emotions (though Oberon does, at the end, seem to be fearful) but begging for his own death because he is not human.  The final melding of Andrek-Omere was another example of Harness’s love and continual concern and memory of his beloved dead brother, the inspiration for Omere.
Firebird — A much better book than I expected.  Its style is rather different than the the preceding novels in the omnibus, The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel.  The book opens with an engimatic list of terms and their definitions.  It refers (in the novel’s first words) to “The matrix within which all things move, but which defies definition.”  Three of the eight terms show up just once as synonyms of the mysterious emotion of love.  One word is “kaisch”.  It is a rather chess like game (chess is something that shows up fairly frequently in Harness’ short fiction) in its pure form, but psi-kaisch seems, like the Alerean twelve-sided dies of The Ring of Ritornel, serves as both a model (though the dies are not used in that way often in the story) and predictor of future action.  Here Dermaq and Gerain use it as a predictive model of their future and to military tactics.  Three of the other eight terms don’t seem to ever be mentioned in the text; their significance unexplained.  While a since of looming fate and predestination figures in The Ring of Ritornel (it’s a central thematic question and plot point there) and the end of The Paradox Men, it is manifested in those novels as temporal paradoxes or as impersonal fate.  Here, the conversations between the two-headed, utterly callous and evil computers, Largo and Czandra, have a feeling of gods talking.  They are known jointly as Control.  There is a feeling of destiny unraveling as Dermaq and Gerain wonder how the Wine of Elkar will be irradiated, how the woman wielding it knows to show up and who she is.  Volo, when Dermaq and Gerain visit the silent quarter, tells them that Control has driven them there.  The same feeling hangs over the book as Dermaq and Gerain, Harness’ version of Tristan and Isolt, are driven to their fate.  Indeed, Dermaq eventually realizes he has (and will) killed himself.  Another difference in style is that the protagonists in this novel are all non-humans.  Dermaq and Gerain belong to a race of cat-like humanoids.  The prose has more emotion and description than The Paradox Men or The Ring of Ritornel.  All three novels feature characters of hidden identities.  Gerain, it turns out, is the old woman of the first chapter.  However, there are also similarities.  The themes of temporal loops and regenerating universes (the Diavola hope to close the universe so that another Big Bang can lead to the evolution of life without the bane of Control) are here as befits the themes inherent in the omnibus title Rings.  All three novels feature plots of hidden manipulators (here courtesy of a temporal paradox), temporal paradoxes (as in The Paradox Men) or regeneration (the Ritorneleans in The Ring of Ritornel want to ensure the transplantation of sentience to a new universe — here the Diavola seek to remake the universe without Control), and the remaking of the animal that carries sentience in each universe (ancient man is retooled in The Paradox Men, Amatar and Kedrys as mutants in The Ring of Ritornel, the emergence of homo sapiens to replace Phelex sapiens here).  All three novels feature speculations using cosmological ideas:  implications of special relativity in The Paradox Men, Fred Hoyle’s steady state ideas and antimatter in The Ring of Ritornel, and more relativistic ideas here as well as the idea of the oscillating universe.  Firebird is a more mystical novel in tone and plot.  Not only is Control very god-like, but no real explanation is given for how the emergence of  homo sapiens can be predicted — right down to the emergence of another Tristan and Isolt.  (This is Harness making a statement on the mystical, perennial mystery of love.)  Harness does some interesting things with Firebird traveling at near light speeds.  Its mass disturbs oncoming ships and missiles.  Its huge mass means ramming is possible.  The winding down of the universe means little fuel is available.  I also liked burning Firebird’s furnishings for their hydrogen atoms.  I also liked the telepathic communication of Largo and Czandra and the biosilicon implants enabling them to control the bodies of their subjects.  However, there are some problems.  Largo and Czandra seem like cruel gods, but they don’t seem much like computers.  Also, for people supposedly educated in cosmological matters, Gerain and Dermaq seem rather ignorant of the implications of relativistic flight.  Their conversations seem there to provide explication to the reader.  One thing that seemed to be a problem — the notion of a lag between the disappearance of matter and its appearance as energy — is explained at the end.  Cor will re-engineer the universe (what is to become ours, thus explaining the alien protagonists and different physical laws).  Cor is another mystical element.  A portion of Cor’s mind, seemingly an intelligence that survives the universe’s oscillations and can guide its evolution, seems to inhabit Firebird.  Another unexplained plot device is how Control expects to get energy in an ever expanding universe.  I liked the shrunken descendants of the Diavola who have kept the faith through millions of years, ready to give their life to defeat Control for eternity and beyond.  There sacrifice is like Dermaq willingly going to his death.  The latter was an interesting time paradox:  killing a time traveling, future version of yourself.

Continue reading “Rings”