Ten of the Best. #4: Pointillist School vs Police School

When Charles L. Harness burst onto the SF scene in 1953 with his novel Flight Into Yesterday (aka The Paradox Men), it was arguably the only thing that could stand comparison with Alfred Bester’s masterpiece of the same year, the winner of the first ever Hugo award – The Demolished Man.  Yet Harness stuck to the day job as a patent lawyer and did not deliver another novel until The Ring of Ritornel (1969), which together with Firebird (1981) comprised his three great odes to galactic cycles, underpinned by the theories contained in historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s twelve volume A Study of History (1934-61).

Any number of Harness’s conceits could make it into my top ten.  I almost went for the forensic spider in Ritornel, that when fed the poison, constructs a web of its chemical structure. But topping that even, is the iconic scene in Harness’s novella The Rose (1966), in which the enigmatic artist Ruy Jacques helps fugitive psychiatrist Anna van Tuyl evade the authorities in the Park of the White Roses.

The impending crisis:

Out in the Via an ominous silence seemed to be gathering.  The Security men were probably roping off the area, certain of their quarry.

The set up:

He began to untie the bundled purple dress… …He tossed the gaudy garment at Anna, who accepted it in rebellious wonder.

The proposition:

The pointillists knew how to stimulate white with alternating dots of primary colours… …[They] could even make white from just two colours: a primary and its complementary colour.  Your green dress is our primary; Violet’s purple dress is our complementary… …daub them on the canvas side by side, stand back the right distance and they blend into white.  All you have to do is hold Vi’s dress at arm’s length… 

Ah yes but…

She demurred: ‘But the angle of visual interruption won’t be small enough to blend the colours into white, even if the police don’t come any nearer than the archway.  The eye sees two objects as one only when the visual angle between the two is less than sixty seconds of arc.’

Fortunately the artist relies more on the suggestibility of the mind than the mechanics of the retina, so that’s all right then.

…if our lean-jawed friends stared in your direction… …they’d see you as a woman in green holding out a mass of something purple.  But… …I’m going to stand over there, and the instant someone sticks his head through the archway I’m going to start walking… …normal people in western cultures absorb pictures left to right.  So our agent’s first glance will be towards you and then… …[He’ll] be distracted by the fountain in the centre. And before he can get back to you, I’ll start walking, and his eyes will have to come onto me...

Ruy heads off while Anna at first watches, then closes her eyes…

He was past the fountain… …Now he must stop…only he didn’t.  His steps actually hastened.  That meant…

I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as I write this.  What pure, priceless SF gold.

 

 

 

 

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