Friday, June 6, 2014

Review of The Alchemist by Charles L. Harness

Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, Olaf Stapledon's Odd John, Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, basically anything by Philip K. Dick—and on and on goes the list.  What do they have in common?   Psi powers.  A big enough boom in the Silver Age to warrant its own entry into the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, telekinetics, psionics, whatever you want to call the reality altering  properties of thought was a popular idea.  The 50s not enough, Charles L. Harness penned his own tale of uber-mental powers in 1967’s The Alchemist.

Hope Chemicals is a firm that has built itself up from a brick farmhouse to one of the largest chemical researchers and producers in the US.  Run by Andrew Bleeker, he runs a bet with a Russian competitor that a new compound, silamine, can be created in their lab by a rogue chemist Pierre Celsus.  Watching the experiment take place, everyone is amazed when Celsus is indeed able to do what Bleeker bet he could—including Bleeker.  But it isn’t the new compound that has Hope Chemicals talking in the days that follow.  Celsus’ report containing more than a few anachronisms, Bleeker sends his patent and legal departments to investigate.  What they find turns the science of the company upside down.

Structurally, The Alchemist moves forward with the purr of a brand new engine.  Harness pushes the narrative consistently, drawing in each of the relevant characters, and analogously, moving the plot forward at a steady pace.  But the narrative also makes a major transition—not at a certain point, rather an escalating one.  To describe in detail would spoil the story, but suffice to say what starts as a hard science look at the intersection of the legal, commercial, and research methods inherent to the chemical laboratories of Harness’ time exceeds the bounds of realism in a manner more than any philosopher’s stone. 

It’s thus possible to interpret The Alchemist in a handful of different ways.  The obvious perspective is one of overt story: what you see is what you get, enjoy it or not.  It’s also possible to postulate Harness thought such possibilities existed, and the story is in turn a vehicle for his beliefs.  Another possible view into the story is one of strictly commercial proportions: the heights of greed men strive for to make a buck.  None certain, it is up to the reader which direction they take the novella, if any at all.

I do not know Harness’ biography, but given the perspective of the chemical industry presented, the story has a very realist corporate feel.  The narrative captures well the chaos due to quickly developing technologies, new patents, increasing legal attention on products as they go public, and the overall dynamism of a burgeoning laboratory seeing millions and millions of more dollars invested in it each year.  Though feeling dated given the state of complexity chemical research has evolved to today, Harness nevertheless appears to have more than two fingers on the pulse of commercial industry in the 60s, and for its realistic presentation, deserves recognition.

In the end, The Alchemist is a peculiar tale of the US chemical industry that slowly twists into the bizarre.  Ending on a note that leaves the reader to work out the meaning, one thing is sure: there is an authentic feel to the corporate structure and people who populate it at Hope Chemicals.  Algis Budrys’ The Silent Eyes of Time the closest work of science fiction I can think of, even it fails to capture the unique presence of Harness’ novella.

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