Blinded by the dark
Followed Ariadne’s clew of thread.
Has ceased her spinning
And all doors lead to the Minotaur.
The societal consequence of instantaneous matter transportation is a recurring science-fiction theme. No one has ever done it better than Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination, though many have tried. (Or have not tried, as with the matter transmitters of Star Trek.)
John Brunner came closest to out-Foyling* Bester with his little-noticed novel, The Webs of Everywhere. Unlike Brunner’s The Infinitive of Go, published six years later, Webs concentrates on the social and political implications of the transmitter, called a “Skelter.”
In the mid-70′s, with the horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders still fresh in everyone’s minds, the name was evocative. And like the “helter skelter” cult, the result of the Skelter technology’s free access to everywhere was murder, explosive plagues, terrorism dwarfing 9/11, and the collapse of civilization. A “puerperal fever” kills 80% of the world’s women, leaving many of the rest sterile. Only the invention of the “privateer,” a method to lock the Skelter doors against uninvited guests, and a strict law against using unauthorized Skelter codes, has managed to salvage what remains of civil society.
Hans Dysktra is a deeply unsatisfied man. He is married (a rarity in this post-Skelter world), but his wife is shallow, vain, stupid and fat. He works exploring the nuclear-ravaged Skelters of Europe under the aegis of a world-wide government headed by the inventor of the privateer, Chaim Aleuker. But secretly he explores unauthorized locations, documenting the state in which he finds these abandoned houses and the restorations he applies. His secret work, he tells himself, must not be revealed until after his death.
His partner in these efforts is Mustapha Sharif, a blind poet with a method for discovering Skelter codes. Sharif is the opposite of Dykstra in many respects; he lives calmly in a non-Skelter community, he is respected, even revered by many of the world’s leaders, and he deeply appreciates what he has. Despite Sharif’s disability, it is Dykstra who is blind, and Sharif who leads him.
Dykstra’s dark-room work on his latest “find” is ruined when his wife opens the door before the photos are developed. To punish her, he takes her “treasure hunt” invitation to a party at Chaim Aleuker’s house, and solves the puzzle himself so effectively, he comes to the attention of the world leaders. When the party is overrun by local terrorists, he grabs a young “wild girl” guest and flees with her. Like trying to grasp a cobweb without breaking it, his attempts to have the things he believes he wants lead Dykstra only to destroy them.
The action in the novel is physical as well as mental, but the webs that unite each place to everywhere else serve also to bind people together. Cobwebs in unused dwellings echo the threads of connection that link people to each other. At the center of all these webs dwells Mustapha Sharif, a Way of Life believer whose household is Muslim, a respected elder who directly abets Dykstra’s crimes, a peaceful man whose former partners met violent deaths, a blind man whose observations are sharp and precise.
Once I met a man
who every day
went around the planet counterclockwise.
He said by this means
he gained a day
and would therefore live for ever.
Unluckily for him
Death measures time
otherwise than with clocks and watches.
You’ll have to watch for it in used bookstores. Ignore the cheesy cover art. This is a story that deserves a wider exposure.
*Gully Foyle is the central character of The Stars My Destination, an unwitting champion of mental trans-mat jaunte energy who has succeeded in breaking the planetary barrier to jaunting. Even after 50 years, this novel is still the starting point for many science fiction readers.