I am ever on the look-out for deserving cases of "lost weirdness," those tales of the fantastic and the bizarre which have come before, worthy of enjoyable perusal, yet for one reason or another-- most likely just "the breaks"-- have fallen through the cracks of time and been undeservedly forgotten. The Sci-Fi novel Six Gates From Limbo, by the British writer J.T. McIntosh, represents a sterling example of what I have in mind. Strange, moody, and mysterious, it's a tale replete with astounding conceptions, warped surprises, peculiar twists and turns, its gradually unfolding plot full of unseen doors opening onto uncanny scenes. Published in 1968, I dare say the book has languished forlorn since then, a shameful situation which I here attempt to correct.
It is a curious fact of genre literature that science fiction seldom offers the devotee of the weird what he craves. Mind you, H.G. Wells knew how to deliver the goods, and his classic novels, plus a smattering of his short stories, still stand to the forefront of those thin ranks. Afterward, and up to H.P. Lovecraft's day, we see an explosion of original conceptions that push the bar of the unusual: his own brand, the romantic adventure tales of E.R. Burroughs, space operas and such. Subsequent to that outburst, however, an awful lot of Sci-Fi seems to have settled down to increasingly detailed descriptions of the effects of science and technology on society or psyche. Much interesting stuff, of course, but all too seldom outre.
Six Gates From Limbo breaks the mold. It manages to "click," almost perfectly. In this essay I critique the book, explain why it captures singular attention. For this purpose I utilize the hardcover edition published by Michael Joseph of London. I note, for the hard core types out there, that the story was also serialized in the magazine If, in two parts, a somewhat abridged version in some ways superior, in that it is not quite so "over-dialogued" and wordy. Despite this slight caveat the novel version, presumably the author's preferred, is well written and fast moving, definitely an entertaining read.
I. In the Beginning
A man wakes into a kind of wild paradise, a man naked and alone, unarmed, without name or memories. He wanders through the pleasant landscape as an animal, seeking food and water. Having acquired both, he sets out to explore and understand his solitary world. As he journeys about a pretty lake, across meadows and into woods, his largely vacant yet clearly keen mind observes and deduces. In short order he establishes salient facts: he is the occupant or prisoner of an artificial environment, a fabricated ecosystem of useful flora and fauna existing under a mysterious dome many miles across. Latent memories remind him that he's a citizen of an Earth-based galactic civilization, one theoretically capable of fashioning this Limbo for his benefit, or for some other purpose of which he knows nothing. He suspects the latter.
Exploring the inside edge of the dome during days of travel, he discerns barely perceptible openings high up on that apparently impenetrable surface, six of them, which he guesses are entrances or exits-- gates-- to... where? Their investigation must wait, for he has not completed the tour of his designated world.
II. A Bigger Surprise
Circling back close to where he awoke, the man discovers, hidden among trees atop a hill, a lovely house, its front door invitingly open, an invisible barrier repelling inquisitive animals. The man can enter, does, finds a magnificently appointed dwelling possessing all the advanced wonders of his age, which by now the reader realizes is far in our future. He finds nothing within the house proper to aid him in understanding the point of the whole set-up.
But wait: continuing with his delving, he discovers the entrance to an eerie, high-tech underground chamber, and this is when and where strange developments commence to pile up. One after another he sees what resembles a coffin, the first with lid thrown back, empty, inscribed "Rex"-- so that's where he came from-- a second, inscribed "Regina," occupied by a youthful blonde sleeping beauty-- okay, he quickly figures out their expected roles-- but wait again, there's more; a third box, containing a lovely woman, labeled "Venus." What is she doing there?
Presently Regina awakes, and life gets so complicated. They're meant for each other, but it takes a while to get things straight. Scarcely have they settled down domestically than the key bone of contention between them breaks: what to do about the gateways, those mysterious openings in the wall of the dome. Rex, having analyzed sources of information (including a really neat map of the inhabited galaxy, which shows Limbo's location on a planet far from Earth) found in the underground room, infers that, at the behest of a mysterious "Section K," they're supposed to explore via those gates. Regina, who possesses impressive extra-sensory powers, senses that something terrible will result. Rex insists on passing through the first gate alone.
III. Discoveries and Dangers
And arrives, as if by magic-- matter transference, he reasons-- at the city of Mercury on the planet Bullen, a bursting at the seams pit of misery and suicide, where signs proclaim "DOOMSDAY IS NEAR." Having come, Rex sees and observes, then departs to ponder the information gained.
This sets the pattern for the heart of the novel. Regina grudgingly join him in his next adventure, to the dying colony of Cresta, an outpost devoid of resources, its inhabitants desperate for aid from elsewhere, aid notably not forthcoming from Earth. Eventually Venus awakes, even more mentally endowed than Regina, subtly hinting that she knows more than either of her companions, though she refuses to explain herself. The three of them, with varying degrees of eagerness, explore what lies beyond the remaining gateways. Their combined adventures are revealing, also perilous, even life-threatening.
What they find, in sum, is a civilization in collapse: worlds of anger or apathy, fury or despair, the worst case being Chuter, a colony immolated through suicide. Among these hopeless societies stride the Twentymen, special individuals who endeavor to hold back Doomsday; for it seems that the entire galaxy is hurtling toward destruction and, possibly, human extinction.
Rex has deduced the secret of the Limbo project: the creation of one man-- himself-- a man without ties who, provided with the necessary information, may decide how to save the galaxy. In the end he contrives to travel to Earth, the source of the cancer afflicting civilization, and there he fits together the final pieces of the puzzle, thus allowing him to arrive at his shocking decision.
In this age of, as we learn, the 37th Century, man has spread throughout the stars, in a sort of galactic empire based on Earth. Unfortunately, this vast civilization is disintegrating, with Earth possibly the worst case of all; Regina calls it "a noisy, overpopulated, screaming madhouse like nearly everywhere else." Earth doesn't want to govern this mess, can't take care of itself, much less these many other decaying worlds. All look to Earth for succor, fall into fruitless rage or self-destructive hopelessness when they don't get it. The planets must stand alone, which they refuse to do, so they're dying.
The premise is problematic, I suspect more a reflection of our modern world than the author's prediction of a real future. McIntosh posits a kind of collective insanity, a vision of the most verminous mob psychology run wild, on a galactic scale. "There is a sickness in mankind." Maybe it couldn't actually happen that way, yet given the premise the events of the novel, and its stunning climax, flow with remorseless logic.
The various societies investigated by our trio are beautifully-- which is to say, horribly-- described, come across as real places. Interesting to visit, each one, briefly, but one wouldn't want to live there.
Limbo itself is a marvelous creation, a believable paradise as constructed, for ulterior purposes, by the great minds among men on a distant, poisonous planet in the far future. It isn't perfect, as no scheme of man could be, but it constitutes a fair and generous haven amidst the tumult and disorder of that imagined universe. In a decently restructured galaxy, it might make a great vacation spot.
McIntosh knows how to wring the most from a fanciful story. Six Gates From Limbo is meant, I gather, like most upper class science fiction, to be a novel of ideas, which needn't mean dry polemic. Not at all: the author fosters mood and mystery, nor does he stint on excitement. There are thrills galore in these pages. This novel would stand filming, perhaps deserve the mini-series treatment. Several of the set pieces of gateway exploration generate choice "visual" scenes. My favorite is the hair-raising tale of Regina's solitary adventures on Landfall, where "all the nastiness of humanity went naked." Attacked by gangs of thugs, callously imprisoned by the police, facing murder, enslavement, and humiliation, she struggles to survive long enough to escape back to Limbo and, in the meantime, discern another facet of the dark mystery she unwillingly confronts. It's good stuff, fun stuff, and scary too.
McIntosh, by only slowly revealing the nuts and bolts of his Sci-Fi landscape, maintains the eeriness of it all in a manner that suits me well. There's always something spooky or unexpected around the corner, always a sense of vast, vague forces at work, which doesn't arise often enough in science fiction. Many of the novels of Andre Norton (about whom I need to know more) strike me the same way; I say that of few other contemporaries.
Seeing as how the novel contains only three main characters, each gets plenty of page-time, with their images painted in fine detail. As a rule McIntosh draws well, creating a trio of starkly contrasting, realistic and sympathetic individuals. The place of Venus in the story, her connection to the other two and the reason for her mysterious behavior, is ultimately explained, and we come to understand her with sadness. Regina comes across as oddly troubled and awkward for someone supposed to be so special, but in the end McIntosh justifies this in an interesting and satisfactory manner. The character of the brash and adventurous hero Rex, oddly, gives me pause at times. He often seems rather less than he later proves to be-- a whole lot less-- and the apparent disparity is never adequately explained. McIntosh, perhaps in order to make Rex connect more with the reading audience, makes him out too much the "regular guy." If so, it doesn't stick, but I actually found it harder to suspend disbelief on that point than any other in the book. Fans of mainstream fiction would undoubtedly laugh at this statement.
Part of the strangeness emanating from the novel revolves around this relatively small band of determined upholders of civilization-- peaceful soldiers-- the Twentymen. A curious term, that, with a curious meaning that ultimately comes clear. Consider: this future empire is fraught with suicide. Its technicians have found a means of extracting social benefit from same. Via sophisticated technology, the mental essence of nineteen suicides is united with the strong mind of a host; the combination of these twenty minds produces an individual superior in intellect and morality, often possessing useful psychic capabilities. These Twentymen look the same as anyone else, but one can "read" their power in their eyes. The worst brutes can not openly face them, thus granting these non-violent supermen the ability to act as tenuous strands binding together the remnants of civilization, delaying the approaching disaster.
The masters of Earth, carrying forward this experiment, have dared push the program to its limits. Regina, we eventually learn, is a Twentymen, an important plot point as this fact saves her life on Landfall; Rex and Venus, on the other hand, are Millionmen, the only two, and only in Rex's case does his incredible enhancement achieve its goal. As commonplace as he initially appears, he stands above and beyond the rest of the human race. Only he can make the dread decision that will save the galaxy.
While carefully avoiding "la grande" spoiler, I must come to grips with this devastating plot element. At long last the point of this staggering expenditure of money, effort, and know-how comes clear. Limbo has been designed to invent a man-- Rex-- capable of making the decision that the originators of the project know must be made. This alone is a dazzling revelation: they already know the answer, but can't bring themselves to take the irrevocable step. Venus, we discover, is in on the secret, in some ways the prime instigator, but is paralyzed by self doubt. When Rex finally reaches Earth, to meet John Hilton, the current controller of the project and head of Section K, they can't even discuss the matter openly. Their critical exchange is as follows:
"All right," said Rex. "Assume I've decided what to do. Assume that, simply as a hypothesis. Assume, and I assure you it's more than a mere assumption, that I'm going to do what I believe has to be done. Can you manage that?"
"I think so. Possibly I can even guess the course of action you plan to take."
"I hope not."
"I hope I'm wrong."
Hilton isn't wrong, doesn't believe it for a moment. He knows. What they have in mind is monstrous, yet they consider it, given the loathsome circumstances, the sole viable solution. Are they right? One may draw parallels to the most disagreeable episodes of human history. I think readers may come to the culmination of this novel with wildly varying responses. Nevertheless, Regina proves farsighted when she predicts, "I've got a presentiment about this. Go on as you're doing, and something fearful is going to happen. I know it."
I've employed the words "mysterious," "eerie," and similar terms numerous times during the course of my discussion of Six Gates From Limbo, with deliberate intent. It is the weirdness of the story, its moody atmosphere of expectancy that lures me in far more than the novel's ideas. Something gigantically strange is going on, and I keep turning the pages to find out what it is. Even on re-reading I feel this way, an impressive feat on the part of J.T. McIntosh. The initial set-up alone thrills me: imagine waking, without memories, into a strange new world, undertaking to divine the purpose behind the situation; oh, juicy stuff. At this stage of my literary life, that is what science fiction must offer in order to move me. I am a devotee of the weird.
As a kid, just about any element of the fantastic served my undemanding tastes, and I gobbled up masses of typical magazine Sci-Fi with their darting spaceships, blasting ray guns, and stock company aliens. Later, bowing to the emotional-intellectual onslaught of Lovecraft and other imaginatively lugubrious authors, I came by degrees to desire my masses (gelatinous and sentient, of course) quivering with malign or unfathomable motivations; I wanted them strange and creepy. So I reached where I am today, craving the fantastically weird. McIntosh delivers, despite the fact that he, in the end, devises logical explanations for everything he throws at the reader.
In my occasional forays into science fiction writing, I've taken a different tack, choosing to treat the universe "out there" as a place wholly strange, peopled by entities entirely disconnected from what we might consider normal or even logically possible. Indeed, logic often plays little role in my SF productions. In several stories this is at least partly due to the fact that my own dreams have commonly provided the anecdotal nuggets from which I have refined a story.
Cases in point:
"The Advent of the Exterminators," published in the anthology I, Executioner, describes in searing detail the annihilation of the Earth by an alien space fleet. Told from the alien point of view, the tale deliberately eschews explanation of motivation. The fleet exists for this purpose-- genocide-- without apology, justification, or questioning. The alien leader narrates in brisk, matter of fact fashion; whatever his reasons for his frightful actions, to him they aren't worth mentioning.
"Realization: a Tale of the True Theory," published in the collection Science and Sorcery, may only masquerade as Sci-Fi, but the mounting madness of its narrator creates a mental landscape of conspiratorial spookiness. He imagines and dreams his way to murder and doom.
"The Report From Hansen's Planet," published in the anthology Outer Reaches, incorporates a bizarre premise, that vision is evolutionarily determined to such a degree that, outside of one's home planetary environment, seeing is difficult, even if what you don't see is a horrible monster creeping up on you.
"The Discovery of the X Force," published in Science and Sorcery, posits a scientific discovery so exciting to the popular imagination that the mere knowledge of it destroys the world.
"The Old House on the Hill" came to me almost in toto from a dream, a genuine nightmare in which, exploring said structure, I discover alien invaders swarming within an underground complex where they manufacture passable human forms. All I did was add a frame to what was virtually a complete story already.
"Expedition ZB-12," published in Bizarrocast, relates the first adventure of Captain Avatar, explorer of a peculiar cosmos. With its English manor of mystery improbably plunked down on a distant planet, the story takes its warped elements straight from a dream.
"The Palace in the Land of Ice," another virtual transcription, is a dream (of sorts) told from a dream. A man wakes into a mysterious world, faces alien peril, then wakes out of it.
"The City at the End of Time," published in the anthology The Temporal Element, is a Jacob Bleek story, which usually means fantasy, but it's set in the far future, amidst the perfectly preserved and functioning relics of the extinct human race. It's stranger aspects are on loan from a dream.
"The Diary of Philip Wyler," published in Sonar4, brings to life the kind of covert alien conspiracy imagined in "Realization." Practically the entire tale springs from a dream.
"The Return of Vanek," published in Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, might seem a fairly conventional menace from space story (with guest appearance by Professor Anton Vorchek), except for a curious segment involving a lurid alien breeding program. I snipped that bit from a dream.
"The Saturday After the End of the World," published in Nihilist Sci Fi, marks my creepiest stab at science fiction, my ultimate alien invasion tale. They're here-- they're taking over-- or are they?-- how to know before it's too late? It's also ripped from a particularly disturbing nightmare.
"My War Against the Invisibles," published in Short-Story.Me!, can be accepted as a good old, rip-roaring Sci-Fi yarn of one clever, gung-ho chap besting alien invaders. Note, though, that nasty scene of the fellow being eaten alive by his own hand. Where did that come from? Out of a dream, of course; no other way!
"In the Box," published in Fantastic Frontiers, describes a perfect world-- meaning one ghastly beyond conception-- and how its controlling force decides to fix its single apparent, tiny flaw.
"One Day, Complete With Aliens" is as close as I'll come to science fiction comedy, with its life-harried hero who can't be bothered by the fact that evil aliens are out to destroy him. It's pretty much a transcription from a dream.
"In the Dragoon Station Annex," a Vorchek story published in Quantum Realities, a Frankenstein-type experiment opens the gates to invaders from another dimension.
"Planet KX-17," published in The Fifth Di, brings back Captain Avatar for another glorious adventure on an impossible planet. Within that gigantic artificial mesa he discovers seemingly normal terrestrial families going about their business among malevolent potted plants; I kid you not. Avatar owes it all to dreams.
"The Enemy From Nowhere" posits alien invasion via unique method: they are gradually replacing portions of our world with chunks of another! Yet again, this Vorchek story relies on the strangeness of my sleeping mind.
I justify this big self-serving digression, in that it shows I have given mega-thought to introducing the weird into science fiction. Not all of the stories listed above definitively prove the point (and I've concocted a couple of others of more routine nature), but most exhibit a tendency toward atmosphere and mood over simple, "factual" narrative.
Not that McIntosh does it my way, nor is that required. Everything in Six Gates From Limbo eventually makes "real world" sense, but you have to read a long way to learn that, and in the meantime weirdness abounds. I would love to find more science fiction of that kind, striking past the logical centers of the brain into the primitive, emotional core of the mind. Some of the Lovecraftians have done so, by their own lights. The Great One himself, Clark Ashton Smith at times-- and don't forget the earlier William Hope Hodgson-- yes, there are examples, and surely many more than I've mentioned. The Campbell revolution of the '30s, perhaps, turned SF away from that avenue; yet he penned "Twilight" and "Who Goes There?" I suppose it keeps popping up here and there. It's just a matter of tracking it down.
Forget this theorizing, while we speed back one last time to J.T. McIntosh. I praise Six Gates From Limbo, advocate it to fans of science fiction. It's a great story, well told, that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way, exclaiming "Ooh!" as well as "Wow!" What more do you need?
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