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  • Yehoshua Paul

1949 - What Mad Universe

1949. A year of many firsts. Israel celebrates its first birthday by holding its first elections in which David Ben Gurion becomes the country’s first prime minister. Chaim Weizmann starts his term as Israel’s first president, and the country joins the UN and becomes the 59th member (close enough).

In technology, the Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb. Albert II becomes the first primate to be launched into outer space. And, the first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark 1 is released. It weighs 5 tons and is housed in two spacious bays that are 5 meters long, 1 meter wide and 2.4 meters high. The Mark 1 comes with pre recorded tunes of the first computer generated music: “In the Mood”, “God save the king”, and “Baa Baa Blacksheep”.

In popular culture, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner make their first debut in the Fast and the Furry-ous and “Meep, Meep” becomes one of the most popular quotes of the year. “Baby it's Cold Outside” first becomes famous. Candyland is first introduced and silly putty is first sold in plastic eggs for a dollar. Finally, the first television western and science fiction series begin broadcasting: Hopalong Cassidy and Captain Video and his Video Rangers.

In weather, you have the first recorded snowfall in Los Angeles.

It’s a mad mad world and Fredric Brown captures this perfectly in What Mad Universe, a fanboy’s vision of a pulp science fiction universe come to life.

Fredric Brown (1906 – 1972) was a science fiction and mystery best known for his use of humor and mastery of the short short form – stories that are 1 to 3 pages long, often with ingenious plot devices and surprise endings.

According to his wife, Brown hated writing and would do everything in his power to avoid it: play the flute, challenge friends to a game of chess or tease his cat. If he had trouble writing, he would hop on a long bus ride and just sit and think. When he finally returned home and sat himself in front of the typewriter, he produced work in a variety of genres: mystery, science fiction, short fantasy, black comedy–and sometimes, all of the above.

Brown’s work has been very influential. He is one of the three people to whom Robert Heinlein dedicated his Stranger in a Strange Land. In the Danse Macabre, Brown’s short-story collection Nightmares and Geezenstacks is listed by Stephen King as being “Particularly important”. Also, one of his stories “Arena” was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top 20 SF stories written before 1965. It was later adapted into a Star Trek: The Original Series episode with the same name. What Mad Universe was named the best science fiction novel of 1949, and after reading the novel, I feel as if that’s kind of an understatement.

The story begins by introducing us to Keith Winton, a science fiction magazine editor, who works for the L. A. Borden publishing company. He is madly in love with Betty Hadley, the editor of the Perfect Love Stories magazine. Winton has just completed a visit to his publisher’s Catskills estate when a rocket launched by a Professor Burton to the moon crashes next to him and in a flash his entire world disappears.

When Winton wakes up he finds himself in the middle of the country far away from any civilization, and is forced to hitch a ride in an ancient model T. Ford to the nearest small town, Greenville where he discovers that no one has ever heard of his publisher, his name doesn’t exist in the phone book, and the operator has no record of Borden. When Winton orders a coke from the pharmacy, and pays with a quarter, the druggist’s eyes go wide with fear and he offers Winton two thousand credits to purchase it. The confused Winton accepts the sale. When he later attempts to pay for some magazines with a half dollar coin, the druggist pulls a gun on him, accuses him of being an Arcturian spy, and he tells the tall purple furry alien who had just entered the store to apprehend him.

This is just a small taste of the book which goes through pretty much every single pulp genre and rips it apart. Most of the humor stems from Winton’s constant culture shock as he tries to make sense of a world in which technology that makes absolutely no sense works (sewing machines that open holes in space), insane government policies are the norm (better 100 people die than 1 Arcturian spy escape), the savior is a young, swashbuckling genius who happens to be the commander of earth’s space fleet, but prefers to spend most of his time in his lab with his living computer sidekick who can teleport and communicate telepathically. Naturally his love interest has to be scantily clad because that’s how space girls dress. And of course there are post-apocalyptic scenes, daring heists and everything else in between.

This was the perfect book for ending Sefer HaOmer, and I loved every moment of it. I am used to reading about how the power of stories can shape reality. This is the first time, I got to experience how science fiction pulp magazines shape reality and the absolutely insane rules they follow. It takes a really twisted mind to imagine the universe Winton finds himself in and for me it felt like I was reading a fanboy’s wet dream. If you haven’t ordered any books from Bookdepository yet because of this series (what is wrong with you?!), this book is an amazing and insane place to start.

The Omer today is kingship in kingship. In the book, Winton receives the following warning:

“This is real; it is not a figment of your imagination. Your danger here is real and this world is real. If you are killed here, you will be very dead.”

That ominous warning carries within it a profound truth that every science fiction and fantasy reader knows to be true. The worlds we imagine, the stories we tell and share, they are all very real. It doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to the infinite universes theory, or use deep philosophical arguments like those that appear in Moshe Ratt’s Fantasy & Judaism book (my bad translation of the Hebrew title of a book I will be studying this Shavuot), these worlds are real: Middle-earth, Narnia, Krynn, or Earth 616. They are all connected to our earth, as their creators were born here and shaped here, and their experiences helped shape their worlds. Once created though, these worlds exist as their own fantastic kingdoms, and we get to explore them each time we open a book.

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