Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Destiny Time Three

I recently reread Destiny Times Three, by Fritz Leiber. Given that Leiber is my favorite science fiction and fantasy writer, and DT3 is possibly my favorite of all his longer works, it may not require explanation as to my purpose in the endeavor. However, given that I don't even mention DT3 in my long essay on Leiber, "Sleeping in Fritz Leiber's Bed," I may have some 'splaining to do. Moreover, there was at least one ancillary purpose that bears exploring.

In his autobiographical writings, Lieber says that his original conception of Destiny Times Three was grandiose. He intended a work of around 100,000 words at a time when "complete novel in this issue" meant a novella of maybe 30-40,000 words, and 60,000 words was the standard length for a book.

But DT3 was a victim of the WWII paper shortages, and, by editorial demand, Leiber cut it down to the more standard "short novel" length, so that it could fit into two consecutive issues of Astounding, losing, by his own account, all of the female characters and a great deal of the richness of the worlds he'd created. I had something similar happen to me with the magazine version of "SunSmoke," but I got to make up for it somewhat when I expanded it to book length. Leiber's full version of Destiny Times Three is lost forever.


The general story of DT3 is that there are parallel worlds, but not due to the natural workings of physics, etc. Instead, sometime in the late 19th Century, an alien device was found by a fellow who fancied himself a scientist. He enlisted the assistance of seven other individuals, because it took eight minds to operate the thing, and they used it to slowly create a "utopia," by splitting the world at crucial decision points, observing which world was most to their liking, then "destroying" the "experimental control" worlds. Very scientific.

In fact, they had not destroyed each of these worlds, but merely placed them beyond their own ability to access them, "swept them under the rug" as it were.

The protagonists on Earth 1, the utopian world, are Thorn and Clawly, who rather closely resemble Fahfred and Gray Mouser, or, more accurately, Lieber and his friend Harry Fischer, at least in their imagined incarnations. It's also not a great leap to consider the duo as Thor and Loki (or Loke, as Leiber spells it), given the former's name and the latter's specific comparison to Loke as the tale unfolds. Also, Norse imagery is an ongoing motif throughout the story.

On Earth 1, the power of "subtronics" has been harnessed, subtronics being a Campbellian trope for a sort of "unified field theory" that can also be found in Heinlein's Sixth Column/The Day After Tomorrow, itself a reworking of material supplied by John W. Campbell. All have access to its power, and the unparalleled freedom that results, anti-gravity cloaks and almost total environmental control (the book begins with a description of a "symchromy," an optical symphony on a grand scale) being throwaway mentions in the first couple of pages.

On Earth 2, subtronics was kept as a secret by "The Party" and a totalitarian state was created. Later in DT3 an Earth 3 is discovered to exist, where an attempt was made to suppress the discovery, with a resulting war that destroyed most of humanity and ripped open the Earth's crust to such an extent that rapid geological weathering removed so much CO2 from the air as to produce an ice age. This may be the first mention of the "greenhouse effect" in science fiction, incidentally.

There are versions of Thorn in all three worlds, and versions of Clawly on at least Earth 1 and Earth 2. But on Earth 1, they are fast friends, and Earth 2, they are bitter enemies, the difference being primarily Clawly's personalities. On Earth 2, he is a Party member, while the Earth 2 Thorn is part of the Resistance, such as it is.

But despite the fact that the connections between the worlds has been severed by the "experimenters" who now live outside of normal time, the worlds are not totally separate. There remains a connection between individuals who have duplicates on other parallel worlds: They dream each other's dreams. The dream visions of utopia are a grinding torment to those who live in the totalitarian dystopia. And as a result of this desperate yearning of millions of minds, the barriers between the worlds are beginning to blur. Sometimes, someone goes to sleep in one world, and awakens in another.

So the plot thickens, events transpire, and eventually there is considerable resolution. You can find DT3 in various versions on either Amazon or ABE books. Wildside Press seems to be promising a release, but it doesn't appear on their website, so caveat emptor. I have both the Binary Star reissue (which also contains Spinrad's "Riding the Torch," it's printing as Galaxy Novel #28, and the two original issues of Astounding. I told you I liked it.

Lately, I have been haunted by that initial vision from Destiny Times Three, the portrait of a world of people yearning so profoundly for something better than what they have that the walls of reality have begun to crumble. Or, if you will, think about people who are so enamored by a dream life that they cross over and take up living there.

A minor point in the book, it's true, but still…

We have news items that World of Warcraft gamers have died from devoting so much time and energy to the game that they neglected such matters as eating and sleeping. Second Life seems to sometimes create an almost religious fervor and perhaps a Ponzi scheme in those who choose to spend a lot of time there. Such things are hardly new, of course. Many of us recall the guy who got into Dungeons and Dragons just a little too enthusiastically, or the fellow who tried to use his SCA credentials for something out in the real world. There are "RenFaire" bums, just as there are those who have tried to spend their entire adult lives surfing. Sure, I get that.

I also get that we seem to have switched "autobiographical fiction" with the "fictional autobiography." The former is pretty inevitable; the latter seems a lot more fraudulent, doesn't it?

Then there are the "reality shows," made so very omnipresent by the writers' strike. Most such fair is just new variations on old game shows, but some of it shows a new sort of creepy voyeurism for voyeurism's sake, where the old line about a celebrity being "famous for being famous" gets too close to the truth.

What is the result when millions of people yearn for fame as the only thing they can imagine that will fill their emptiness? Do the walls of reality begin to crumble when everything becomes a reality show?

Ah, sure, I'm just being dyspeptic here, or maybe even dystopian. It's still possible to live a normal life. But I do get a little peep of horror when I consider how extraordinary an effort that can take.


Anonymous said...

Lately, I have been haunted by that initial vision from Destiny Times Three, the portrait of a world of people yearning so profoundly for something better than what they have that the walls of reality have begun to crumble.

Sort of a complementary form of denial. 'Course all us postmoderns have damn near willed reality into a complementary role, the medium through which my brilliance burns. Yet the book I drop hurts if it lands on my foot so I'm still betting on reality.

This dyspeptic dystopianism seems to me a natural byproduct of paying attention. While we obsessively focus on things of the social imagination, Morals and Economy, reality's clock keeps counting. Rust never sleeps.

James Killus said...

So many things never sleep. It hurts my head sometimes. At least I think it's my head...

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