This review is available here by kind courtesy of the author and Edward James. Originally published in "Foundation 18", in January 1980. Copyright Colin Greenland, 1980-1999.THE GRAND WHEEL by Barrington J. Bayley. Fontana, 1979, 160pp, £0.80, ISBN 0 00 614863 8.
reviewed by Colin Greenland
Bayley dashes off one for the market: DAW Books, 1977, but who would have thought it? This book would have been old in 1957, and the Syndicate fantasy dates from a lot earlier. You remember - the green baize, the marked deck, the bourbon, the moll, the rival mob, the raid, and the evil but fascinating aura of the criminal mastermind entertaining himself in his paranoid backgroom. Period stuff, but all thoughlessly relegated hundreds of years hence so that period feel is lost in transit and Bayley misses his last chance of an appeal to imagination. The Grand Wheel is as void of atmosphere as a deserted asteroid.
For the first chapter, which contains one of the book's two jokes and its one idea, it looked as though Bayley was trying, at least a little. The empire of men throughout the universe is in the grip of two organisations. The legitimacy, which runs it, consists of the politicians and the police and manifests what Burroughs calls "the control of habit". The Grand Wheel, its opposition, is a secret criminal cartel of gambling fiends with hooded eyes, brains like computers, and the fevered urge to stake their grandmothers - heck, other people's grandmothers - on the flip of a card. meanwhile the whole intergalactic caboodle is under threat of war from the Hadranics - aliens from outer space! Our hero is Cheyne Scarne, or rather ought to be, but a hero ought to b at least interesting. Cheyne Scarne, his stand-in, is a master gambler pressganged into spying for the Legitimacy, who aren't so legitimate after all (did you guess?) because they've hooked him on a drug only they can supply. Scarne is also a professor of randomatics, which is Bayley's one idea in the good old tradition of sf ideas; viz. below a certain number in the billions, numbers generated independently are not random, but conform to runs and groups that can be analysed and predicted by the new randomatics calculus. "The mythical system once sought by cranks and eccentrics became, therefore, a scientific fact". Yes! Glimmer of interest! Mathematical nonsense, of course, but that wouldn't matter in a science fiction story, would it?
What does matter is that the idea is entirely underdeveloped. The only function of randomatics in the plot is to provide for the fact that games have got much more complicated in this future, which we might have expected anyway. Muggers, the equivalent of one-armed bandits, operate by tracking the movement of sub-atomic particles and the like, to push the variables down below the predictability threshold. Scarne's professorship doesn't give him any special advantages, or even any particularly different attitudes, to games or to life. Recalling Bayley stories like "Four-Colour Problem", "The Exploration of Space", and "Me and My Antronoscope", I'd expected something very much more cerebral, playing off philosophies on a chessboard of stars - the stochastic, the calculable; the anarchic, the controlled; Life is random, Life is determined - the sort of thing Charles Harness used to do. There's an interesting vision in chapter six, based on the Tarot picture of the Wheel of Fortune: the material world of chance and change is afloat on an infinite sea of "pure randomness", below the quantum level, "where no physical laws obtain". But apart from a few dizzy spells and a few inexplicable fits of righteous protest, the revelation doesn't seem to influence Scarne at all. The metaphysical version of the book is latent, somewhere here, but I expect Bayley didn't have the time or the urge to write it. Instead he gave DAW this listless spy story, leaden with explanation, dressed up as sf, with a plot you don't need a degree in randomatics to predict.