This article is available here by kind courtesy of the author. Originally published in "The Survey of Science Fiction Literature", ed. Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1979. Copyright Brian Stableford, 1979 - 1999.


Author: Barrington J. Bayley (1937- )
First book publication: 1978
Type of work: Short stories

Nine short stories of astonishing range and variety

The Knights of the Limits contains the best of the short fiction which Barrington J. Bayley wrote between 1965 and 1978. Seven of the nine stories first appeared in New Worlds, mostly from the period when it was manifest as a quarterly series of paperback anthologies. Bayley began his association with New Worlds when it was under the editorship of John Carnell; his stories of that period appeared under the pseudonym P. F. Woods, but he emerged from this concealment to do his best work under the aegis of Michael Moorcock. He did not appear frequently in the magazine while it was a large-sized publication specializing in avant-garde material, but was a regular contributor in the periods before and after that incarnation.

Bayley was never a ''new-wave'' writer - his ideas, though always offbeat and striking, clearly belong to the context of traditional science fiction rather than to the more introverted fiction of "inner space" customarily associated with New Worlds. The one other science fiction writer with whom Bayley has a close affinity is Charles Harness, several of whose stories were reprinted in early issues of Moorcock 's New Worlds, and much of his work falls within the same category of exotic romance spiced with eccentric ideas. Such novels as The Fall of Chronopolis and Star Winds are exuberant melodramas full of ideative flourishes, and The Knights of the Limits presents a marvelous display of strange and original notions.

"The Exploration of Space" (1972), which opens the collection, is the story of an opium dream in which a latter-day alchemist converses with a knight on his chessboard which has been temporarily animated by an alien intelligence The alien has modes of perception which probe far beyond the three-dimensional world accessible to human senses, and has traveled through many different space/time continua. Through the medium of the dream, the knight describes not only his superior view of our universe but also some of the other universes he has visited (limiting himself, necessarily, to those which lend themselves most readily to the imaginative grasp of human beings). He speaks of asymmetrical continua; "stereo spaces" which are interrupted by chasms of nullity; branched continua and continua where the principle of causality either does not apply or works in a different way. This is perhaps the one story in genre science fiction which actually sets out to fulfill the exhortation contained in the dedication to Edwin Abbott's Flatland, which urges the inhabitants of ''spaceland'' to launch forth upon imaginative adventures in the sea of dimensional possibility.

A more detailed exercise in alternative cosmology is found in "Me and My Antronoscope'' (1973), which is set in a rigid universe where life exists in bubblelike lacunae. A rebellious individual in one such lacuna challenges the reigning orthodoxy with his notion that the continuum contains other worlds, and sets off defiantly in his solidity ship in order to search for them. After a long journey he breaks through into a new cavity, and, though it is empty and lifeless, he feels that its existence vindicates his theory. He perishes, convinced that he has been the pioneer who will lead his race to the conquest of the universe. This little drama is perceived by the inhabitants of another world by means of an antronoscope, and their activities form a frame narrative offering the merest glimpse of the other wonders of the infinite universe which this marvelous device exposes to their eyes.

The third exercise in speculative cosmology in the collection is "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" (1976), a melodrama set in a distant future in which the velocitator has given men the freedom to roam the cosmos at will, synthesizing pseudorealities by means of the spitron and supporting themselves during their adventures by courtesy of the hylic potentiometer, or matter-bank. This ultraindividualistic era has seen a revitalization of ancient nineteenth and twentieth century myths and modes, and the hero, Oliver Naylor, plays private detective, pursuing the enigmatic criminal Corngold. His task becomes inextricably tangled with his obsessive fascination with the foundations of logic and the fallibility of Aristotle 's principle of identity (whose self-evidence is by no means indubitable in this eminently mutable world). In this story the miraculous gadgets of superscience not only provide limitless materialistic opportunities, but throw metaphysical questions about what is real into an entirely new light.

Three of the stories in the collection deal with alien life. The oldest story in the book is "All the King 's Men" (1965), in which an alien overlord who rules Britain in the distant future decides to make war on Brazil. His human subjects cannot understand his motives, nor can he understand theirs, but in the climax of the story there is a brief meeting of minds. Here, as in some of the alternative cosmology stories, the basic theme is differences in perception and consequent differences in goal-seeking.

A more elaborate story with a similar idea is "Mutation Planet" (1973), Bayley's only story to date to appear originally in America (in Roger Elwood's anthology Tomorrow's Alternatives). This features a life system capable of Lamarckian evolution. In such a system, Bayley reasons, there would effectively be only one compound individual with one mind. In the story , the individuals on a visiting spacecraft struggle with their own problems as the thinking identity of the life system, Dominus, tries to solve the puzzle of their behavior and presence. Dominus has, of course, no concept of the individual, and thus mistakes their nature, but there is an ironic propriety in the conclusion which it actually reaches.

The third and most recent of the stories of alien life is "The Bees of Knowledge" (1975), a brilliant account of the adventures of a lone human marooned among the intelligent Bees of Handrea. It recounts his strategies of survival and his partially successful attempts to comprehend and communicate with his "hosts," with partial success. Science fiction writers have always been fascinated with hive society, since a beehive (and its analogues, the formicary and the termitary) provides the most convenient model for other-than-human social organization. In this story Bayley provides the most convincing image of hive mentality so far produced, taking his viewpoint character inside the hive to observe at first hand its operation, without permitting himself to lapse into an anthropomorphic view of the bees's mental processes.

The three remaining stories in the collection deal with the human world and with social possibilities, "Exit from City 5" (1971) is perhaps the most conventional story in the book. It details an individual rebellion against an insidious totalitarianism whose power is assured not only by the customary psychological techniques and methods of surveillance but also by the fact that its domain has been removed from the universe in order to escape a disastrous process of metagalactic shrinkage.

In "An Overload" (1973), the lower strata of a highly developed technological civilization (the Under-Megapolis) are dominated by a group of Magisters which includes Burt Lancaster, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Dutch Schultz. All save Schultz are masters of ipseity, possessors of a special charismatic appeal by virtue of the special qualities of the holovisual medium through which they present themselves to their subjects. All of the Magisters save Schultz are artificial constructs, fictions of the ''cybration system"' which regulates business in the city, but this does not prevent them fighting out their own power-struggles against one another. Nor does it prevent the people they rule from plotting revolution, attempting to coopt the power of ipseity for themselves. Unfortunately, there is more to the charismatic empathy than there appears to be - ipseity works both ways, and the feedback proves to be too much for the would-be usurper.

"The Problem of Morley's Emission" (1978) is a rather different story. It presents a mock scientific report on the nature and action of a hypothetical "social energy field," a concept derived by the philosopher Isaac Morley as part of a theory which transposes models from electromagnetic physics into sociology. Among the consequences of the theory are such oddities as the Social Black Hole and the possibility (already, it seems, realized in the world where the report is being written) that an extraterrestrial intelligence might assume control over humanity's social energy field.

These nine stories constitute a parade of ideas which is unparalleled in modern science fiction. They are drawn eclectically from an astonishingly wide range of sources: from analytical philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology, and psychology. They demonstrate that Bayley possesses an extraordinarily fertile imagination, and a talent for combining the absurd and the abstruse with a dramatic flourish. He is a writer who delights in novel ideas and their exploration, a lover of bizarre juxtapositions. The range of his literary strategies extends from carefree space opera to stylishly satirical mock-intellectualism. Though his melodramas are magnificently surreal, he is perhaps at his best when he is at his most casual, affecting an earnest attitude of scrupulous reportage which throws his inventions into sharper relief. His powers of characterization are limited and his dialogue is frequently weak, but in the kind of fiction which he writes these faults are almost inconsequential, and they do not detract from the force and entertainment value of his fiction.

There are in contemporary science fiction all too few authors whose work regularly and insistently plucks at the strands of the web confining the imagination. The demand for innovation within the field is a difficult one to satisfy, especially in view of the fact that it is not altogether compatible with the strategies of mass-market publishing; mass-production demands standardization and stereotypy, and there are many readers whose demand for new ideas is strictly limited to a fairly narrow range of minor variations within standard plots. There is, however, always room for a writer whose idiosyncratic bent will continually take him into imaginatively unexplored territory. Bayley is such a writer - perhaps one of the best.

- Brian Stableford, 1979