What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown (book review).

William Tenn in his introduction to ‘Of All Possible Worlds’ especially ranked ‘What Mad Universe’ by Fredric Brown as one of the finest SF novels. That, I thought, deserved to be checked as I had never heard of it. Originally released in 1949, this copy was its 4th printing in 1954.

Keith Winton is editor of the SF story magazine ‘Startling Stories’ and in 1954 it is the even of a rocket crashing into the Moon to generate a lightning flash so it can be seen from Earth. He’s been invited to his publisher’s estate to watch the event but when he arrives in the local town, can’t locate it and things have suddenly changed.

Dollars are no longer used and cents are collector’s pieces. One of them is exchanged for the new Credits currency. He’s also accused of being an alien and attacked by one. He gets away and finally manages to get to New York. There, with a need to get some sort of income, Winton goes back to writing and trying to sell his stories to his counter-part gets the problem that they are identical plotwise and in a lot of trouble. Winton is also told by a metallic ball AI called Mekky to stay safe until it returns from a war happening around Saturn when it will sort things out. Of course, events change and Winton has to escape Earth to find it for answers. The rest is spoiler.

Think of the date this book was written again: 1949. Alternative realities hadn’t been given its trope name at the time. The first, by my research was in 1931, a short story called ‘If Or History Rewritten’ by J.C. Squire. As you get to the end of the book, there is a realisation that it is less about alternative realities and more a multiverse with all choices considered.

This story has a certain ‘Twilight Zone’ feel to it although this is over 20 years before that TV series. It is also very intense and gives some insight into America back then. Brown is principally known for his more comedy-like books like ‘Martians, Go Home’, but shows he’s more than competent doing something more dramatic here.

There’s a little touch of convenience plotting in getting the right people to meet at the right time but there’s a lot to pack into 184 pages.

GF Willmetts

February 2023

(pub: Bantam Books, 1954, 4th edition. 183 page paperback. Price: there are other editions out there so price is variable. ISBN: 1253)

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