Feb 17, 2013

Alan E. Nourse: The Universe Between

In the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Alan E. Nourse published “The Universe Between,” about a parallel dimension so unimaginable that anyone “crossing over” goes crazy, except for seventeen-year old Robert Benedict.  He began crossing over shortly after his birth, and he always emerges unscathed, though he can’t explain anything he experiences on the other side.

When the inhabitants of the parallel dimension suddenly begin slicing off large pieces of the Earth, like the lower third of Manhattan, only Robert can try to communicate with them and figure out what’s going on.  But crossing over is becoming increasingly unpredictable, disturbing, and dangerous; he returns screaming.

The gruff elder scientist in charge of the project treats Robert as a laboratory animal, ignoring his needs and safety, but assistant Dr. Merry takes a personal interest in him.  Not much older than Robert himself  – usually called “Hank,” and first introduced oversleeping and missing his college math class – the young engineer seems quite taken with the handsome teenager.  They smile at each other, joke, and enjoy a physical intimacy, with many touches of arm or shoulder.  When a crossover goes wrong, Hank rushes to Robert’s side much faster than his parents:

[Robert] stood shivering, literally blue with cold, gasping for air and looking so ill and exhausted that [his mother] stifled a cry and Hank leaped across to catch his arm before he fell. “Robert!  What happened?  What did they do to you?”  The boy shook his head numbly as Hank eased him to the floor and loosened his jacket. “Easy, fella,” Hank said softly.  “Just get your breath and rest a minute.”

So far this is a classic gay romance, requiring only a coda that shows the permanence of Robert and Hank’s relationship.  But when Nourse revised several of the parallel dimension stories into a novel, The Universe Between (1965), he added another sort of coda: many years later, Robert and Hank are business partners, transporting people across the galaxy via interdimensional shortcuts (it is perfectly safe as long as they wear blindfolds to avoid going crazy).

And the reader finally discovers, in a last-paragraph “tomato surprise,” that the parallel dimension is really our own world; Robert is the one who lives in a parallel world, where America never broke away from Britain, there were no Presidents Lincoln or Kennedy, and democracy was never invented, nor capitalism, nor freedom  On one of his crossing-over expeditions, Robert falls in love with someone from our democratic, capitalist, free United States, a girl named Sharnan, “beautiful, with violet eyes.”

He decides to cross over permanently to be with her.  He tells Hank “I’ll be in touch,” but no doubt he means that he will send an occasional postcard.  Hank has no place on the other side; only Robert has the capacity to look at the intertwining of democracy and heterosexual destiny without a blindfold. So he must reject his  buddy for the girl: “Sharnan was waiting for him there.  As he had known she would be.”