(The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2015)
In the early 1930s, physicists discovered something in nature that, even now, seems to me to be completely absurd. They called their discovery the positron, or antielectron, and it was the first evidence ever recorded of the existence of antimatter. Positrons, the pesky brats, exhibit many of the same characteristics as the electrons we know and love, except for one: they have a positive electrical charge, compared to the electron’s negative charge. Though the technical details of this difference may seem slight, the larger ramifications are almost beyond imagination: the building blocks of our lives, it would seem, comprise only one of the many faces that matter might wear. The physical world we see, the universe we experience, is but one fiber in the vast tapestry of existence. That so much of that tapestry—perhaps the majority of it—eluded human perception for millennia is humbling and unsettling. But in 1932, science showed us that other fibers are out there. So what strange knots might exist all around us, waiting for our gaze to fall upon them?
It is against this historical backdrop that William Sloane’s The Rim of Morning must be considered. Comprised of two separate but thematically interrelated novels (To Walk The Night, first published in 1937, and The Edge of Running Water, from 1939), Sloane’s work is a snapshot of speculative fiction during a time when the boundaries of the physical world were expanding as rapidly as ever before. This snapshot, though, has forfeited none of its vivid luster to the intervening years. Taken together, these novels are both a vindication of science’s quest for knowledge and a bleak warning of the horrors inherent to it.
Each novel relates the complicated and ultimately tragic story of man’s attempt to reach beyond itself—to pull and tear holes in the tapestry, as it were. In To Walk The Night, Berkeley “Bark” Jones tells the story of his friend’s bizarre suicide and its connection to a mysterious woman whose inexplicable behavior draws his suspicions. The Edge of Running Water concerns itself with Professor Richard Sayles, who is invited to rural Maine to assist his friend, a genius electrophysicist attempting to construct a device that can peer beyond the veil of death itself and reveal the true nature of the afterlife.
But even when dealing with subject matter that is fantastical and strange, Sloane’s eye remains fixed on ordinary details and basic human emotion. Indeed, one of the most persistent themes in The Rim of Morning is the belief, held by the principle characters, that they can come to terms with the outrageous events that occur, can perfectly understand their significance, if only the precise details of the scene—the arrangement of all the relevant information—could be brought into clearer focus. In contemplating the mysterious suicide of his friend, Bark muses that
[the] pieces of the puzzle were all lying in my mind, of so much I was sure. I felt that if I looked at them, thought about them, they would slip together into a picture of the truth, and the feeling frightened me.
The response from his adoptive father, who is Bark’s partner in deciphering this puzzle, functions as the catalyst to drive the novel forward. “‘Whatever it is you’re afraid of,’” he tells Bark, “‘we’ll find the answer to it. There’s nothing the human intelligence, properly applied, can’t cope with.'” What more can you ask for from the protagonists of speculative fiction than confidence in the innate power of the mind?
And yet, it is regarding this pivotal assertion that the narrators of the two novels diverge. Whereas the impetus for Bark’s journey is a relentless evaluation of all that he has experienced, and is characterized by cautious faith in his ability to find answers through such searching, Richard Sayles narrates his story in order to warn others of the mortal danger that such unrestrained inquisitiveness can create. He is, we might say, the antiBark: engaging in similar behavior and witnessing similar results in a tale of similar structure, but contemplating the experience from the opposite perspective. Sayles even addresses his narrative to an unnamed, unknown person who might conceivably try to repeat the experiments that have brought him so much suffering. His warning to this scientist-in-waiting is almost a direct response to Bark and his father:
A year ago it would have seemed to me ridiculous to assume that there are some facts it is better not to know […] But this one thing is best left untouched. It rips the fabric of human existence from throat to hem and leaves us naked to a wind as cold as the space between the stars.
This difference between the two narrators is the reason these novels must be read together. Just as science did not truly comprehend the electron until the discovery of its antithesis, a clear understanding of Sloane’s ideas on science and the limits of human understanding can only be achieved through experiencing both vantage points.
And the picture he creates is not only a fascinating portrait of what a speculative mind envisioned just beyond the night’s dark horizon 80 years ago, but a timeless inquiry into the nature of man’s place in the universe, as resonant and relevant today as it was upon first publication. The Rim of Morning proves once again that the best science fiction revels not in the black shadow of the void, but in its eternal penumbra, where there is just enough light to show that our mortal terrors are indeed well founded.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.