Beyond the Barrier by Damon Knight

Anthony G Williams

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Damon Knight was an American SFF writer who was at the heart of the genre throughout its golden period. The first of his four dozen or so short stories was published in 1940, and seventeen novels followed in the period 1955 to 1996, the last appearing six years before his death. As his Wiki entry says, as well as winning the Hugo Award, he was "founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), cofounder of the National Fantasy Fan Federation, cofounder of the Milford Writer's Workshop, and cofounder of the Clarion Writers Workshop." His most famous work is probably the short story To Serve Man, which I read long ago and still remember vividly for its shock ending.

I have to say that in general his writing didn't strongly appeal to me, except for the one novel I have kept: Beyond the Barrier, originally published in 1964 as The Tree of Time. I hadn't read it for more than thirty years so decided to refresh my memory.

Gordon Naismith is a professor of science at a Californian university, a former air force crewman who had lost his memory in a plane crash four years earlier. His life is routine to the point of boredom when he is asked a question by one of his students: "What is a Zug?" He finds this a strangely disturbing question and is thrown further off-balance by a series of events which suggest that his forgotten past holds a secret – one that is known by some people of dubious origin who are determined to manipulate him for their own ends. He is forced to question who – and what – he really is. As a result, he finds himself travelling into a far future in which humanity is about to implement a drastic measure to rid itself of its most deadly enemy, and he plays a crucial role in determining the outcome.

In the fashion of the time, the book is short at 150 pages. There is no padding, no leisurely scene-setting or background character development, the story hits the ground running and doesn't slow down at any point before Knight's characteristic terminal twist. I found it an irresistible page-turner and read it at one sitting. Recommended to all fans of SF of this period.

(An extract from my SFF blog: http://sciencefictionfantasy.blogspot.co.uk/)
 

Vertigo

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My take:

First published in 1964, Beyond the Barrier, does feel a little dated now but still makes for an interesting read. In the last years of the twentieth century (should have gone for twenty first century but hey ho!) an amnesic physics professor finds a series of inexplicable events channelling him towards surrendering to the will of a couple of strange characters from the future.

This is a short book of around 150 pages which, though pretty typical in the sixties, would probably be marketed as a novella today and, as always, I find myself less drawn into such a book; there’s too much that gets glossed over that an author today would expand with far greater detail giving, for me at least, a much more satisfying and immersive experience. It is also a time-travel book, a subject that seems to have been more popular back then. I suspect the modern sceptical reader is far more likely to dismiss time travel as fantasy now rather than science fiction and I must admit I tend towards that feeling. Knight does address some simple paradox elements but shies away from any really significant ones which was probably wise. In fact although time travel is central to the whole plot of the book it actually spends very little time examining it beyond what is absolutely necessary to the plot.

The writing is fluid but we really only get to know the main character, there simply aren’t enough pages to give any depth on any others, and my biggest complaint is that throughout the book that character pretty much only ever reacts to events and almost never drives them himself and when he does I simply found his actions so out of his character that I struggled to accept them.

I do seem to struggle to get my head into the right frame of mind to read these older books despite them being the sort of books I was brought up on and loved to death at the time (I was born in 1957). So I always feel a little harsh marking them down now but I can only play it as I feel it and overall this wasn’t one of my best recent reads.

3/5 stars
 

Extollager

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Sounds interesting to me. Myself, I tend to favor sf novels that have a neat idea, in which some intriguing atmosphere is evoked, and the author goes in there and tells the story and it's done in no more than 200 pages or so. This sounds like a story that, if it were written today, might be drawn out over several thick novels loaded with dialogue, multiple viewpoint characters, etc etc.
 

Vertigo

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Sounds interesting to me. Myself, I tend to favor sf novels that have a neat idea, in which some intriguing atmosphere is evoked, and the author goes in there and tells the story and it's done in no more than 200 pages or so. This sounds like a story that, if it were written today, might be drawn out over several thick novels loaded with dialogue, multiple viewpoint characters, etc etc.
You are probably quite right about that! It is a neat idea and it's certainly compact but I did struggle with some of the character's plausibilities. However I often find that when reading older books today!
 

Extollager

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I think the older sf writers often focused on ideas and atmosphere, and probably sometimes neglected "character development" when it would have enhanced the work. But "character development" isn't always needed; it's something that some stories require and that other stories don't. So, to use a couple of works probably most Chronsfolk have read: in Wells's Time Machine, we need little development of the Time Traveller. His romantic relationship with Weena is an element that helps to keep the story from being just a catalogue of strange sights seen, but we don't need to be much interested in it -- but, on the other hand, in The Invisible Man we need a fairly strong sense of the man's character, because (as I recall) much of the interest of the story comes as we seen how the ability to move about unseen and "get away with things" reveals the man's moral deficiencies and perhaps makes us wonder if we are sure we would behave much better than he does.

My impression is that -- perhaps influenced by Stephen King -- many sf writers think that it's automatically good if you deploy a whole bunch of characters, with their various domestic problems, their conflicted pasts, etc. A novel needs to be long so that readers have time to lose themselves in it for several days -- Really?

I'm drawn to older sf in no small part because those jolly old paperbacks tend to be free of such elaboration. You open one up and much of what you see is plain narration and description. But you open a new sf novel and you are likely to see pages and pages of dialogue, almost real-time (granted, without the ums and uhs, false starts, etc. of actual transcribed speech). I don't have the patience.

Yet I can enjoy novels with a seemingly leisurely and subtle unfolding of character. But I think, often, that is something better suited to non-genre novels.
 

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