Book Review: Beyond the Barrier, Damon Knight (1964)

1/5 (Bad)

Damon Knight’s dismal Beyond the Barrier (1964) is all plot, lacks even the most cursory world development, makes no attempt to construct a “character”, and contains one of the single most ludicrous scenes I’ve encountered.  Knight is considered somewhat of a “master” of sci-fi but his supposed skills are not on show here (short stories?).  Yes, there’s adventure, intrigue, action, bizarre technology, green frog aliens, time travel, Earth core traversing oscillating field machines, and time barriers.

But…

142 pages of continuous action has never been so utterly dull.    Avoid unless you have a penchant for a character who tests a random girl’s knowledge of the English language with the question, “Did you know that you are a dirty slut?” (106).  Pathetic.

I guess I should have known if the selected positive cover quote proclaiming it an “absorbing and exciting story” came from the Edmonton Journal.  It’s kind of like asking fifty amazon reviewers to write a positive review for Spam — someone is bound to proclaim deep admiration for its “solid meaty nature.”

I apologize for my snide summary in advance but this book was awful…

Brief Plot Summary 

Professor Gordon Naismith is an amnesiac (Knight’s off to a great start!).  He has vague memories of an accident but no knowledge of his previous life.  During one of his classes an Indian girl mentions the mysterious word “Zug.”  It ends up that the Indian girl really isn’t from India but is actually an alien frog-like creature with lots of makeup — Naismith figures this out because the not really Indian doesn’t hang out with the real Indians who probably would’ve sense with their ultra-sensory Indian senses that she wasn’t an Indian.  And there’s another frog-like creature with tons of makeup running around as well with the “not really an Indian girl but really a frog-creature.”

Adding to the confusion, Naismith appears to have been framed for a murder — or, he could have committed it himself.  Frantically running around with no real sense of what is happening he meets up with the frog creatures (called Uglies) who tell him that he’s really from the future and a Shefth — a warrior class impervious to poison.

He learns from the frog creatures that Time Barrier was constructed in the future to prevent Zugs (think evil angel looking crazy-fast monster mutating sometimes illusionary monsters) from going into the future.  Think “genocide barrier.”  The future humans want a Shefth to go kill a Zug which survived the Time Barrier.

The Uglies take Naismith to the future where they hang out on a grounded spaceship.  Naismith begins to suspect things (vague not really real things) so he runs away and finds the ship’s library where he learns that most humans died during a plague.  The Uglies catch Naismith.

Naismith escapes onto a half-finished time machine which doesn’t go through time but oscillates its fields and spins widely into the core of the Earth before popping out the other side (the insanely preposterous scene mentioned before).

Naismith is rescued by a girl who takes him to the point in time when the Time Barrier is erected — he’s expected to kill the surviving Zug but has other ideas….  Silly ones…

Final Thoughts

This was downright terrible.

I’ll take one of  A. E. van Vogt’s (famously bashed by Knight) most incomprehensible novels any day.  At least they ask some interesting questions and don’t feature a main character whose sole characteristic is insulting random women.

Maybe I just read the wrong work.  What are your favorite Damon Knight pieces (short stories, novels, novellas…)?

Book Review Index

17 Replies to “Book Review: Beyond the Barrier, Damon Knight (1964)”

      1. I’m perfectly fine with quick/fun reads — Leigh Brackett for example. But, this one, was, well, hokey crap. At least Brackett tries to make convincing characters.

        If this was a pulp sci-fi parody it might have worked!

  1. “Beyond the Barrier” (originally published in F&SF as “The Tree of Time,” which is probably its intended title) is generally regarded as Knight’s weakest novel. Knight’s short fiction is pretty widely considered better than his novels, so I would not read too much into this Van Vogtian exercise.

    1. Gregory: It definitely felt like a Van Vogtian exercise — which is funny considering how much he hates Van Vogt’s works!

      Do you have a suggestion for a short story collection of his I should pick up? I’ll definitely check for some next time I’m at the used bookstore — a frequent occurrence.

  2. All of Knight’s collections are pretty good, with “The Best of Damon Knight” being likely the best. Alas, it will probaby be difficult to find many in non-specialty used bookstores; they were published mostly in the sixties and seventies, and are showing up less often.

    –Greg

  3. Thanks for the recommendation! Oh, I find Damon Knight and obscure 50s/60s/70s sci-fi (really the only sci-fi I read) in the used book stores in Austin. Virtually all the books on my Recent Acquisitions Posts come from the same book store.

  4. “Beyond the Barrier” is my favorite Sci-Fi story. I’m in my late fifties and have been reading sci-fi since before I was a teen. I have a science research background and so I always wondered why this story left such an indelible impression on me. It is one of the few books where the plot was never lost in the mists of time.

    For me this is a truly prophetic book and not really a fiction tale at all. Like many intelligent people I have been aware for some time that a Barrier is being built today and that most people are not going to make it through this obstacle.

    Demon Knight had insider knowledge and this book is the garbled warning message that could save your life. Very clever.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I agree, the concept of the barrier is fascinating — however, Knight barely touches on it and I hardly found his treatment prophetic. I’m not exactly sure what “barrier” which is “being built today” you’re talking about?

  5. I am so glad I am not the only one who couldn’t follow this book. I was terrified of looking up this book online and seeing that everyone loved it. I kept reading in the hope that there would be one of those epic moments where the author gives an explanation and everything falls into place perfectly, but for me it never came…Although I did like the twist ending, that’s about all I enjoyed.

    1. This was an excruciatingly stinky pile of cat crud… Hehe, you’re not the only one who hates it. Knight is supposedly a master of the short story form — I didn’t see any inklings of greatness in this work though. I’ve acquired a few more of his works and might give them a shot in the near future.

    1. I want his collection In Deep in which “The Country Of The Kind” is part of. But yes, I suspect his shorts are better. Beyond the Barrier was one of the worst SF novels I’ve ever read — and I’ve read quite a few!

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