In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
On a cold winter night, engineering student Duncan MacElroy is sent on a beer run by the UFO Spotter’s Club, a colorful group meeting in the rooming house he calls home. He is accompanied by a friend named Jane, a rather nondescript young woman. Then she saves him from a murder attempt by a group of Neanderthals with ray guns, revealing that she is the agent of an advanced civilization from an alternate timeline, and they end up on the run. The Neanderthals, who have been struggling with Homo sapiens for control of the multiverse, seem to have knowledge that Duncan may be pivotal to that struggle. And so begins a tale full of thoughtful scientific speculation, and a whole lot of fun…
The Craft of Science Fiction
This column is built around rereads of books that I have found and liked over the years. Sometimes, I revisit the work of authors that many will recognize; however, I also look back at authors who are not as well known. This time, I’m focusing on the work of an author, Michael McCollum, who may not be a household name but is one of the most reliable craftsmen in the field—someone who has produced a body of work that is both interesting and entertaining.
It’s not surprising that I first encountered his work in Analog SF (formerly Astounding), which has long been a home to the craftsman’s approach to writing; a magazine that stresses the science in the fiction. As its submission guidelines have long stated, “We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.”
In McCollum’s case, Analog found not only an engineer who could produce solid scientific speculation, but also an excellent writer who knew how to craft a good story and keep the reader hooked with interesting characters and an engaging plot. You could rely on a book with his name on it to be both entertaining and thoughtful at the same time.
About the Author
Michael McCollum (born 1946) is an aerospace engineer from Phoenix, Arizona. He has worked on rocket engines, nuclear power systems, and a variety of aircraft and space vehicles. A Greater Infinity, his first novel, which appeared in 1982, is a “fix-up,” weaving together three related stories that appeared in Analog when it was edited by Stanley Schmidt. McCollum’s subsequent science fiction stories appeared in Analog, Amazing, and Asimov’s. Ballantine/Del Rey published eight of his novels in the 1980s and early 1990s. As the publishing industry retrenched and many mid-list authors were dropped by publishers—even successful ones like Mr. McCollum—he took the bull by the horns, and formed his own electronic publishing house, Sci Fi – Arizona. Those interested in the craft of writing will find that McCollum has been writing very entertaining columns on the topic for many years. I’ve always found his work entertaining, reading his stories first when I saw them in Analog, and later buying all his Del Rey books when they appeared. My particular favorites are A Greater Infinity; Thunderstrike!, a disaster novel involving an earth-bound comet; and The Clouds of Saturn, a book that describes a fascinating human civilization based in floating cities that circle the planet.
About Parallel Universes
A Greater Infinity is a story based on the theory of parallel universes. While there are some hints in quantum mechanics that a multiverse is hypothetically possible, the idea of parallel universes exists largely as a device within science fiction stories. These universes might be portrayed as diverging from ours by differences in historical events, or even a difference in natural laws. Many authors have constructed stories around the premise of characters developing a way to move between these parallel universes—Murray Leinster was one of the earliest to do so; others include H. Beam Piper and Keith Laumer.
Other authors whose work fits into the category of alternate histories simply present a world where history turned out differently and let the story spin out from there, with no communication or travel between the different universes. An example of this would be Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy adventures, which take place in a world where Richard the Lionhearted did not die as early as he did in our world, and magic was studied and developed in a scientific manner (I plan to visit Lord Darcy’s world in a future column). In A Greater Infinity, one of the characters even refers to science fiction stories from the 1960s when talking about parallel universes (I imagine that this tale by H. Beam Piper, which I have previously reviewed, might be one of the stories McCollum had in mind). And in A Greater Infinity, McCollum plays with the idea of parallel universes, and travel between them, in some very interesting ways.
A Greater Infinity
As I stated above, the book opens with Duncan MacElroy and his friend Jane out on a beer run. They are glad to get a moment away from the UFO Spotter’s Club, an odd group headed by Duncan’s landlord. Duncan does not consider Jane a beauty, but he appreciates her keen mind. On their way back, Jane tackles him, knocking him to the ground. She is holding an odd glowing ray gun, and uses it to kill a man who she calls a “Dalgir.” She tells Duncan that the Dalgir are from another timeline and are descended from Neanderthals; her people are at war with them. Duncan decides to trust her, she gives him another ray gun (or “beamer,” as she refers to it), and they hide the body in a ditch. They borrow a friend’s jeep and head to a cabin owned by Duncan’s uncle. In the morning, she says her people will be able to deploy a shuttle to pick her up.
At the cabin, Duncan starts up the generator, and returns to find that Jane has removed her disguise and is not at all the “plain Jane” he thought she was. She explains how parallel universes work, and that time in different timelines can run slower, faster, or even backwards. Some timelines are connected by portals on a continuing basis, while others are connected only intermittently. Our own world has only been accessible to Jane’s people, the Taladorans, for about five years. Earth is one of the rare timelines that is unaware of the multiverse, and accordingly, its technology and society has advanced in some unique ways. Jane tells him that she is tired of the celibacy forced upon her by her disguise and invites him to bed.
In the morning, Jane reveals the fact that her name is Jana, and the Dalgir suddenly show up to take them prisoner. Duncan realizes that their beamers are in the coat that he hung in the shed when starting the generator the night before. Jana overhears the Dalgir calling for one of their cruisers, a warship that can destroy the Taladoran shuttle when it arrives. When the generator runs out of fuel Duncan seizes the chance to get to their weapons, and he kills the Dalgir that accompanied him to the shed, then takes out the others. Jana explains to him that the Dalgir did not come to Earth to find her; rather, they came from the future, on a timeline in which time ran in reverse, to assassinate Duncan—which means he is important to the war effort. And he now knows too much about paratime (as they call the alternate timelines) to be returned to his former life without his recent memories being erased.
Given the choice between accompanying a beautiful woman on an adventure, and returning to his mundane life, Duncan choses the former. While I can’t find the issue it appeared in, I am pretty sure this opening was the original story I read in Analog, appearing under the title “Beer Run.” The title caught my eye, and the way the story barreled along from the mundane to the fantastic was entertaining, so I resolved to look for the name Michael McCollum in the future.
In the next segment of the book, Duncan travels to Talador and begins to train as a Time Watch agent. He witnesses incredible sights, such as a Taladoran naval base, full of all sorts of odd time traveling vehicles. After a short vacation together, he and Jana go their separate ways. She explains that agents cannot become too attached, because they never know if their duties will bring them together again.
He goes off to the Time Watch Academy to learn his trade, and the narrative picks up again two years later. Duncan has a new understanding of paratime, and a new girlfriend, Haret. They are off in the mountains when they witness a nuclear attack near the Academy. This should be impossible, as the institution is on a timeline that is a cul-de-sac, not reachable from any but the most secure Taladoran timelines. Duncan and Haret find the Academy being evacuated. There is fear that the Dalgir may have developed a way to open portals between timelines on demand. If that is the case, then the war is lost.
Duncan is attached to a mission to find the Dalgiran base that launched the attack, as they work to try to figure out exactly what happened. On one of the interim timelines, their shuttle is destroyed, and the team must fight for survival. They make contact with the indigenous people from the timeline, who have been harassed by Dalgir invaders. Joining forces, they assault the Dalgir base and capture a shuttle. Because of Duncan’s unique background on Earth, he is able to put together what has happened and why, and soon sets the Taladorans on a new course to defend their territory.
I won’t reveal exactly what Duncan found and what his discovery led to, because if you’re planning on reading the book, it would spoil the surprise. In the course of Duncan’s new duties, he and his coworkers discover a stolen Dalgir shuttle, and the two people who stole it; one of whom is the most beautiful woman Duncan has ever seen. Her people have access to another advanced technology that the Dalgir are using to gain an advantage in the war, and once again, Duncan finds himself on a team that sets out to uncover that secret. And the beautiful girl, Felira—who Duncan is becoming quite fond of—will be part of that team. Duncan is starting to believe that maybe he does have some sort of destiny to impact the long war between the Taldorans and Dalgir.
A Greater Infinity follows in the footsteps of many other books and storyes that have explored the idea of paratime and parallel universes, but it takes those ideas and examines them in new and different ways. The book moves right along, as Duncan finds himself going from one fast-paced adventure to the next. I only have two criticisms. The first is that, while three different love interests may have worked in the three separate stories that were assembled into the novel, and while multiple girlfriends may serve as male wish fulfillment, in such as short work, it makes Duncan appear kind of fickle and promiscuous. Also, there is one scene where he looks back at his experiences and considers how they feel like the plot from a fairy tale. This moment is so close to the truth that it comes close to breaking the fourth wall and undermining my suspension of disbelief, as a reader. But overall, these are minor criticisms in a book that has a so many good things going for it.
As I’ve said above, all of McCollum’s books are entertaining, well-paced, and worth reading. If you poke around the local used bookstore, or find the works on line, you will enjoy what you read. McCollum may not be as well-known today as some of the other authors discussed in this column, but he deserves wider recognition as a careful craftsman who has produced some excellent work.
And now, as always, it’s time to hear from you. If you’ve read A Greater Infinity, what did you think? Your thoughts on any other works by McCollum would also be appreciated. And what other authors do you think have not gotten the attention they deserved?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.