What Mad Universe?
Reviewed by Carl Cipra
By Frederic Brown
Rating: none given
It’s usually Michael C. who reviews the “golden oldies” for the LSF
newsletter - he frequently reviews little-known Gothic fiction, and a couple
of months back he reviewed a couple of classic fantasy novels: A.
Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar (1924) and Henry Kuttner’s The Mask of Circe
(1948). I figure it’s my turn now! So here’s a short review
of What Mad Universe? (1949) by Fredric Brown. I first heard about
this particular novel - among others - in Mike Resnick’s “Forgotten Treasures”
column (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Feb. 1997); and I was intrigued
by Resnick’s comments.
Fredric Brown was a classic SF author from the pulp era. He sold
dozens of short stories and over 50 vignettes (500-word short stories)
to various pulp magazines. In fact, What Mad Universe? itself was
first published in a “condensed version” in Startling Stories in 1948.
With those credentials, I guess Brown could be considered an expert on
pulp-style SF. Well, he took that expertise, gathered up a bunch
of those tired old pulp clichés that were “tired” and “old” even
back when he was writing, and fashioned one heck of a tongue-in-cheek,
pulp-style, golly-geewhiz sci-fi adventure. The main character, Keith
Winton is the editor of a pulp science-fiction magazine; and he’s unexpectedly
hurled into some sort of alternate universe where reality is actually based
on those tired old pulp clichés. In this alternate version
of 1948 America, everybody uses “credits” as money (instead of dollars),
BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) roam the streets, space travel has been common
since the early 1900s (based on some sort of improbable technology), and
bikini-clad “spacegirls” are wandering around the cosmos. This novel
really is a hoot! Yes, it’s a deliberate send-up of the pulp sci-fi
genre; but Brown manages to pull it off without being too cutsey or “wink-wink,
nudge-nudge” about it all. Resnick even thinks that What Mad Universe?
may be the first recursive SF novel - that is, an SF novel about SF.
I recommend What Mad Universe? - it’s a fun read. The only problem
you’ll probably have with this novel is in finding it. “Forgotten
Treasures” like this one aren’t exactly as easy to find as Resnick’s column
would lead you to believe. I was finally able to dig up a copy of
this one at a specialized dealer’s table at Philcon ’97. This treasure
was, however, worth the hunt.