The Universe Between (1965), by Alan E. Nourse

As I explained in previous posts, between 1970 and 1971 I read three science fiction stories which remained lost to me until the internet age. The first two were Second Ending by James White and The Eternal Now by Murray Leinster. Both were novellas featured in science fiction anthologies that I had borrowed from the local library during 1970. A year later, I encountered The Universe Between, a novel by American author and medical doctor Alan E. Nourse. It comprises three parts set several years apart and is a ‘fixup’ of two short stories, The Universe Between and The High Threshold, both published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1951.

By 1971 we had moved house to rural Buckinghamshire, and my journey home from school was no longer a simple bus journey. It involved catching a bus, then rendezvousing with my mother as she collected my brother and sister from their schools. In an era before mobile phones and texting, this was a somewhat haphazard procedure. Also, if school ended early due to sport being rained off, it could entail a wait of two or three hours. I typically passed the time in the library near my school. I could not borrow books from it, but there was a reading room where I could read them.

The library was well stocked with science fiction and it was on one such occasion that I read The Universe Between. I must have picked it up because I had read several books by Alan E. Nourse including Raiders from the Rings and Rocket to Limbo. What is odd is that despite this I retained absolutely no memory of the title or author of the book, despite clearly recalling two other titles on the shelves. These were In our hands, the stars, by Harry Harrison and The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner, neither of which I read (I have still never read the latter).

I also evidently never quite finished the book, because although it made a considerable impression, I have no recollection of the twist at the end. On the other hand, I do recall that as the time for the bus approached, I was skimming the pages in order to finish the book, so it is possible that I simply missed the twist.

Part One (3 November 1978) The Door into Nowhere
The novel begins dramatically with a screaming man being dragged from a chamber and sedated. Within minutes, the man is dead from shock – the fifth casualty of a low temperature physics experiment by Dr John McEvoy, a forty-year-old researcher at Telcom Laboratories, New Jersey. The dead man is holding a tennis ball – which has somehow become inverted, with rubber on the outside and fuzzy down on the inside.

McEvoy was researching the effects of low temperature on spacecraft components. His experiment involved cooling a cube of tungsten metal to temperatures very close absolute zero, but the cooling pump was so effective that the temperature hit and possibly even dropped below absolute zero. The cube vanished and was replaced by pale blue glowing area resembling a hypercube. McEvoy believed that he had accidentally opened up a ‘threshold’ – a portal into a universe with four spatial dimensions, rather than the three of our everyday experience. But attempts to investigate the threshold proved disastrous. Everybody sent into it had died; their nervous system simply unable to cope with something completely alien to their experience. In addition to the tennis ball returned by the last man, a pencil belonging to one of the earlier victims was also reversed, ending up with lead on the outside and wood on the inside.

Understandably, McEvoy’s employers want to shut down the experiment, but McEvoy wants to make one last attempt – with somebody young enough to retain sufficient mental flexibility to withstand the shock of entering a four-dimensional universe. Psychiatrist Ed Benedict recommends the troubled but highly intelligent and adaptable 17-year-old Gail Talbot. Gail takes an instant dislike to McEvoy, but she agrees to enter the portal.

Three perfectly parallel lines which met each other at ninety-degree angles to form a perfect square with seven triangular sides…

The 4-D universe is impossibly strange, but Gale gradually manages to make sense of it. She soon realises that by turning though a ‘strange angle’ she can return to her own world any time she wishes. She also realises that only a newborn baby, experiencing both sides of the threshold, could ever properly adapt to the 4-D universe. If McEvoy continues trying to send adults there, they will fare no better than the five who have already died.

Gail ‘turns the odd corner’ back into her own world; McEvoy questions her, but she remains silent. At first, McEvoy thinks she is in shock like the others, but he soon realises that she is holding back and begins to threaten her. Gale escapes by turning the ‘strange invisible corner’ back into the 4-D universe.

Part Two (13 March 2001) The Universe Between
It is now more than twenty years later. The Earth is now critically short of iron ore, uranium, and fossil fuels. All of these are available in abundance on Mars, Venus, and the Moon – but although space travel has existed since the 1960s, the technology does not exist to build space freighters capable of bringing mineral resources back to Earth in sufficient quantities [in the 1950s, when the two short stories were written, it was believed that Venus resembled Earth’s Carboniferous period, though by 1965 results from the Mariner 2 flyby had shown that this view was incorrect]. Earth’s economy – booming since the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the International Joint Conference – is facing collapse.

Dr Hank Merry is part of a team led by the now elderly McEvoy at Telcom that is attempting to build a ‘transmatter’ – a Star Trek style transporter. The team is facing an ultimatum from the Joint Conference – get the device working or the project will be axed, and efforts will be focused on developing space freighters. The prototype is several weeks away from completion when for no apparent reason it starts working. An aluminium block vanishes from the transmitter plate and instantly reappears on the receiver plate thirty feet away. But the device doesn’t work very well. A pencil comes back reversed, like the one from the Threshold project two decades earlier. A lightbulb explodes. Some objects don’t come back at all. Then news comes in that Lower Manhattan has completely vanished….

Gail, now married to Ed Benedict and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a 17-year-old son, Robert who – as Gail intended – been familiar with the Threshold from birth. She has rebuffed all attempts by McEvoy to make contact, even threatening to invoke Privacy Laws. Robert has long been in contact with the Thresholders, but he has learned very little about them. Matters are not helped by his inability to describe the synaesthesia-like sensations he experiences in the Thresholders universe, such as his hand ‘feeling green’. Nevertheless, the Thresholders seem friendly – but now, he senses that something is very wrong.

The Benedicts believe that there is a connection between Merry and McEvoy’s experiments, the unease in the Thresholder universe, and the disappearance of Lower Manhattan. When Robert visits the Thresholder universe again, he returns with a pencil marked with the Telcom logo. After trying unsuccessfully to phone McEvoy, they travel by ‘aircar’ (yes, that twenty-first century cliché, a flying car) to the Telcom Laboratories in New Jersey to persuade McEvoy to halt his ‘transmatter’ experiments. In the meantime, there are more disappearances, in Philadelphia and in upstate New York. McEvoy is sceptical but Merry is more sympathetic and wants to shut down the experiment. Robert provides a demonstration by picking up an aluminium test block, entering the Thresholder universe and re-appearing thirty feet away with the cube. He suggests that the transmatter is having a similar effect to the earlier low temperature experiments in opening a portal to the Thresholder universe – but unlike his own movements through it, the transmatter is causing devastation there.

McEvoy is then notified that Ed’s call to his office was traced by Security, ‘somebody in Washington’ has now connected the old Threshold project with the disasters, and the Benedicts are wanted for questioning. Accompanied by Merry, Ed, Gail, and Robert try to get away before Security arrive to arrest them. They make good their escape via the Thresholder universe, holding Merry’s hands and telling him to keep his eyes closed to protect his sanity. McEvoy subsequently contacts the group via a scrambler to tell them he has tried to turn off the transmatter – but the device is continuing to operate. Meanwhile, the disappearances are continuing with a theatre in New Jersey. Merry suggests that the Thresholders are simply trying to take out the transmatter before it destroys them completely. Their aim is not very good, but they are gradually zeroing in on their target.

After some arguments, Security agree to guarantee unobstructed passage, and the Benedicts return to New Jersey. Robert uses the transmatter to enter the Thresholder universe in the hope of determining why the device is so destructive. All this accomplishes is to give the Thresholders an exact fix on the transmatter, which vanishes just seconds after Robert’s return. McEvoy blames Robert for device’s disappearance and demands that he re-enters the Thresholder universe to ask for its return.

Robert agrees. Unable to communicate directly, he tries to project his thoughts – and finally gets through. The Thresholder universe was indeed being torn apart by the transmatter – but when Robert explains the problems his world is facing, they agree to help. The Thresholders can guide humans and cargoes between any two desired points, simply by taking a shortcut through their universe. To demonstrate the technique, they send Robert to Mars and back. He returns to McEvoy’s laboratory and confronts the incredulous scientist with a handful of Martian iron ore.

Part Three (five years later) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
It is now five years later, and thanks to the Thresholders, humans have spread across half of the galaxy. The system Robert Benedict has set up with the Thresholders entails a network of stations where humans or goods are sent through into the Thresholder universe, rotated through minute angles, and hence returned to any desired point on Mars, Venus, or anywhere else.

There is a thriving city, Ironstone, on Mars, and interstellar colonies on many worlds including 61 Cygni and Rigel [the former now thought to lack planets; the latter incorrectly described as a red star]. But not all is well: both humans and cargoes are periodically going astray. An exploration party bound for Saturn has disappeared, and a large consignment of steel piping destined for Ironstone has arrived in a molten state 850 miles away. Hank Merry is catching a good deal of flak over the latter and recalls Robert from Rigel for assistance.

Robert, who has been working as a trouble-shooter, admits that he feels like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, unable to control the technology he has released. Shortly afterwards, a new crisis looms as three men return from 61 Cygni, all of whom are running high fevers. They claim that they returned to the colony after attending a conference on Earth, only to find the settlement had gone. Soon afterwards, all three had begun to experience fever symptoms.

The problems appear to stem from an inability to communicate anything beyond broad concepts with the Thresholders. The resolution to the story explains how this was achieved, with a twist on the final page.

Did I want to finish the story or simply reread the last section which I had been forced to hurry? I don’t remember, but on the last day of term, school finished early, and I headed straight for the library in eager anticipation. To my considerable disappointment, the book wasn’t there. Nor was it when I next had a free afternoon the following term. From time to time, I’d go to the library, but it never came back onto the shelves and I never saw it again. I looked for it at my own local library without success – at which point it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the title or the author.

The years passed, and many times I puzzled as to the identity of what I now termed ‘the Book’. As a student in London in the mid-1970s, I looked for it without success in Foyles. In the late 1980s, I borrowed the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction from the local library and speculated (correctly as it turned out) that both the author and title were probably contained therein – but none of the sections on interdimensional travel referenced it. As previously described, with the coming of the internet I identified and sourced copies of the other two stories, but with The Universe Between I remained hampered by lack of both author and title. Early in 2000, I posted an enquiry on a science fiction forum. Somebody claimed to remember it and posted the ending (of which I was still ignorant) but they never gave the author or title, leaving me none the wiser. It began to look as if the mystery of ‘the Book’ would never be solved.

Then, one evening, late in 2003, I decided to try a search with the still fairly new search engine Google; in 2000, I had still been using Yahoo and Excite. I carried out the same searches I had done on previous occasions – ‘tungsten cube’, ‘hypercube’, ‘absolute zero’, ‘four spatial dimensions’, etc. Immediately, I hit on a ten-year-old thread where two physicists were discussing low-temperature physics, one of whom claimed to be reminded of “a science fiction story by Alan E. Nourse”. It was a breakthrough moment. A book by Nourse would have immediately attracted me back in 1971. After pulling up his full bibliography, I took a guess that The Universe Between was the long-lost title, and a further search soon confirmed that this was the case. The thirty-two-year long quest was over, and it took just minutes to locate and order a second-hand copy on line. It was sheer luck: a few weeks later, the thread could no longer be found and nothing else came to light. However, repeating the above search now (just over fifteen years later) readily identifies ‘the Book’.

As a postscript, a few years ago I ordered an old copy of another book I had read as a boy – The infinite worlds of Maybe, by Lester Del Rey. As was a common practice at the time, the dust jacket contained a list of other science fiction stories for consideration. Among them were five Alan E. Nourse titles, including the following:

THE UNIVERSE BETWEEN Alan E. Nourse
A scientist conducting experiments on low temperature inadvertently trespasses on another universe – and the results are startling. 18s net

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