(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1962 edition)
4.75/5 (Very Good)
“Beyond a doubt, Joenes himself was an actual person; but there is no way of determining the authenticity of every story told about him. Some of the tales do not appear to be factual accounts, but rather, moral allegories. But even those that are considered allegorical are representative of the spirit and temper of the times” (vii).
Robert Sheckley’s third novel Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962)—after Immortality, Inc. (1959) and The Status Civilization (1960)—is a wildly successful episodic novel that plays to his strengths as a short story author. In a similar but less radical manner as George Alec Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me (1972), Sheckley subverts the notion of narrative truth and by so doing explores the complex nature of storytelling.
In the “introduction” to the account of Joenes’ journey across America in the 21st century the “editors” of text describe how it is culled together in the future from sparse and fragmentary records—“these are: ‘Lum’s Meeting with Joenes’ from the Book of Fiji, Orthodox Edition, and ‘How Lum Joined the Army,’ also from the Book of Fiji, Orthodox Edition” (viii). But the account is not limited to written texts but also the oral traditions transmitted by five Pacific Islanders, Ma’aoa of Samoa, Maubingi of Tahiti, Paaui of Fiki, Pelui of Easter Islands, and Teleu of Huahine (viii).
Each of the episodic fragments differ drastically in telling: each contain “various viewpoints, idiosyncrasies, moralities, styles, comments, and so forth” (viii). They range from first person accounts that read as if they are straightforward narratives to finely wrought Borgesian allegories in highly metaphoric environments.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
Sometime around the year 3000 A.D. the editors of the volume transcribe the oral legends and gather the remaining text fragments about the life and journey of a young man named Joenes that occurred around the year 2000 A.D. Joenes lived on an atoll near the island of Tahiti where his parents managed electricity generating equipment. After the death of his parents Joenes decides to travel to his parents’ homeland, “there to see with his own eyes the wonders about which he had read, to discover if his destiny lay there” (11).
Joenes himself is a well-meaning but incredibly naïve about the workings of the unusual America he experiences… He encounters Lum, a guitar playing, peyote ingesting beatnik who later ends up in an asylum. Their encounter is told through Lum’s eyes, who does not remember all the details of their fateful meeting that ended with Joenes’ arrest: “But Joenes then made a speech [to the police] which was a beauty, and I cannot recall it word for word, but the idea was that laws are made by man and thus must partake of the evil nature of man, and that true morality lies in following the true dictates of the illuminated soul” (16). Soon Joenes is carted before a McCarthey-esque Congressional Committee where he is accused of being a Communist.
In following chapters Joenes is granted a pardon by the Oracle, enters the Hollis Home for the Criminally Insane where the doctors attempt to cure their patients by recreating their delusions, becomes a faculty of Pacific history at a University that runs a secret utopia with disturbing secrets, decides to join the government but gets lost on the way in labyrinthine Octagon government complex whose floor plan changes at the whim of the higher echelons who order the creation of fallacious maps, and travels to Communist Russia…
The oral legends that comprise many of these chronologically organized episodes are told by Pacific islanders cut off from the rest of the world. Hence, fragments of unrelated western culture, for example Greek myth and historical figures such as Rousseau, are interwoven into the narrative. The political history of America is combined with Classical Greek history (Athens, Sparta, Corinth). Joenes encounters Edwin J. Minotaurus and Theseus inside the maze-like Octagon.
Some episodes are constructed as moral allegories for the edification of the the audience of the storytellers: for example, the story of “Joenes and the Three Truck Drivers” where the first truck driver tells of how he questioned science and found religion, the second truck driver questioned his idealism of good government and found science, and the third truck driver questioned religion and found the idealism of good government (and of course none of them listen to story told by the others) (32).
Journey Beyond Tomorrow contains Sheckley’s single most brilliant sequence I have yet encountered: the story of how Joenes entered the Government and his adventures inside the Octagon. I wonder if Sheckley read any of Borges’ fiction–some was translated into English in the 40s but more obvious models, such as “The Library of Babel” (1948) did not appear in translation until 1962.
The Octagon, a vast government complex, is mapped by cartographers who attempt to create the perfect fake plan. Ostensibly to trap spies who think that the plan is actually a cypher for what really exists. In a tale within the tale we learn of a spy who tried to decode the map, “First, I know that the map is important. Everything about it, and everything that I have ever experienced, leads me to this premise. I also know that the map does not seem to represent the building it is supposed to represent. Quite obviously there is a relationship of some kind between the map and the building” (99). Joenes, in an attempt to find his new office, naturally gets lost and infuriated by the fake plan. But then again, no one else seems to know where anything is. And the walls and rooms and numbers all seem to change. Unusual dramas take place in the hallways…
The cumulative experience generated by the various modes of telling, stylized environments is highly rewarding. Sheckley’s wit and invention that characterizes his short story collections—for example, Citizen in Space (1955), The People Trap (1968), and Store of Infinity (1960)—is successfully integrated into the novel format. For all fans of science fiction… A touch of the New Wave before the New Wave…
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Uncredited cover—I would wager Josh Kirby—for the 1966 edition)
(Jerome Podwil’s brilliant cover for the 1969 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)
(David Bergen’s cover for the 1979 edition)