Anything is possible. Everything is possible. Somewhere in God’s infinite universe there may be a system of planets sharp-edged and square-faced as ice cubes. There may be a solar system where worlds are hollow and illuminated by tiny interior suns. There may even be a family of spherical planets as solid as baseballs! Who can say? All we know is that there’s no reason to assume the planets of other suns are flattened toroids just because our sun’s planets are so formed. Think of it! Somewhere, an earth like our earth, complete with a Minnesota and a Morocco, a Pennsylvania and a Peru, an Emperor of Australia and a President of Japan. And yet that world is as round and solid as a baseball! Everything is possible.
Richard A. Lupoff, Circumpolar! (1984)
Richard A. Lupoff published this pair of novels in the 1980s, in the middle of a writing career that has spanned six decades so far. He started out editing a science fiction fanzine, Xero, during the early 1960s; he published an autobiography, Where Memory Hides, in 2016. Between-times, he produced a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a series of detective novels, stories set in the worlds of Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, mysteries, police procedurals, pastiches of various science-fiction authors written under the pen-name Ova Hamlet, and a not-inconsiderable output of science fiction / fantasy novels and short stories. Lupoff’s writing style is protean, shifting in tone from novel to novel, and gleefully adopting the tropes of other writers when it suits his purposes. And he clearly relishes originality, seldom doing the same thing twice. Both these traits have counted against him in developing a loyal readership for his multifarious science fiction and fantasy works—Robert Silverberg has described Lupoff as one of the most underrated writers in science fiction. The problem has been compounded because Lupoff kept running into difficulty with publishers (through no fault of his own), which has led to many of his books going quickly out of print. That situation has to some extent been remedied by Gollancz’s SF Gateway, which has now made many of his works available in e-book form at very reasonable prices.
The Twin Planets novels are complex pastiches, channelling the rollicking “planetary romance” stories of the 1920s and ’30s, with a cliff-hanger or a surprise at the end of every chapter. There’s more than a little Burroughs in there, certainly; but there’s a hint of Edgar Allan Poe, too, some E.E. “Doc” Smith, and a perhaps even a bit of W.E. Johns’s “Biggles” novels. At times the stories are reminiscent of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, if that film had taken itself entirely seriously throughout.
My first encounter with Lupoff came in 1984, when I read Circumpolar! I was amazed—I had never read anything quite so madly inventive, and (apart from its sequel Countersolar!) I’ve never read anything remotely like it since.
The books could be superficially classified as Alternate History—featuring a world like our own, with characters who are recognizable personalities from our own history, but for whom historical events have taken a different course. In the case of Twin Planets, the Jonbar Point, the moment of critical difference, occurs when presidential candidate Howard Taft is killed when he falls from a mule into the Grand Canyon. This clears the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s run for re-election as president in 1912, when he defeats Woodrow Wilson. The appointment of a president given to overseas intervention pressures Kaiser Wilhelm II into starting a war in Europe in 1912, before Germany is fully prepared. Roosevelt immediately throws US forces into the fray, and Germany is defeated in 1913, after what is called the One Year War. The Communist Revolution then fails. In 1927, when Circumpolar! opens, Europe still has a kaiser in Germany (but not Wilhelm), a tsar in Russia and an emperor in Austria-Hungary.
So far, so good. But in another respect, this alternate Earth is not like our planet Earth at all—it is disc-shaped. (I know, I know.) One side of the disc has the same geography as our Earth, albeit necessarily distorted by the reprojection from sphere to plane. The other side of the disc is, as the first novel opens, terra incognita. People from “our” side of the disc can, in principle, access the other side by two routes—either by travelling around the edge of the disc, which is blocked by an apparently impenetrable barrier of ice corresponding to the location of our own Antarctica; or by passing through a hole in the middle of the Arctic Ocean where the north pole should be (I know, I know). So Lupoff’s world is shaped a bit like a vinyl record, with our Earth and almost all its history reproduced on the A side, and somewhere else on the B side*. The moon, planets and asteroids are all similarly flat.
Just let all that rattle around your head for a bit, and then the quotation at the head of this post may begin to make a little sense. Lupoff inserts these words at the start of Circumpolar!, and attributes them to “Stanley Grauman Weinbaum, December 14, 1946”. In the real world, Weinbaum was a science fiction author who died tragically young, in 1935.
Circumpolar! is the story of a circumpolar air race, with a prize of $50,000 offered by Victoria Woodhull Martin. The winner must complete a circumnavigation of the disc, passing through the Arctic hole, across the other side of the disc, around the Antarctic rim and back to the starting point (or follow the same route in reverse). The north polar hole is referred to as “Symmes’ Hole”, a reference to the Hollow Earth “theory” of John Symmes, who in Lupoff’s world is a visionary thinker rather than a fantasist.
The American team of aviators consists of Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, flying an aircraft called Spirit of San Diego. The opposing team is formed by German air ace Manfred von Richthofen and his brother Lothar, along with a Russian princess, Irina Lvova, who has no counterpart in reality—her in-narrative father, Georgy Lvov, was childless in the real world. The Americans are (of course) fair-playing, resourceful adventurers who are handy in a fist-fight; the Germans are (of course) superlative aviators, but will cheat and kill if they feel it is required in order to win the race. The Russian alternates between haughty ice-maiden and superstitious coward, and her role in the story eventually peters out. The Americans cross the southern ice, and encounter a race who call themselves the Muiaians—apparently descendants of a South American civilization who fled the conquistadors, arriving on the other side of the disc after descending through a lake bed. They are benign and scientifically advanced, and the Americans infer that they have some connection to the story of the Lost Continent of Mu, retailed by James Churchward.
The Germans pass through Symmes’ Hole, and find themselves in Svartalheim, which has a mixed Nordic/Germanic population who are (of course) warlike and intent on World Domination on their side of the disc. (Although Lupoff doesn’t say as much, there’s a clear connection to the Svartalfheim underworld of Norse mythology.)
So conflict ensues. There are fist-fights and sword-fights and dog-fights, paralysing rays, levitating platforms, what seems to be some actual magic, and nuclear-powered, robotic, flying horses piloted by Valkyries. (I know, I know.) It all rattles along, and it’s probably giving nothing away if I tell you that good old American pluck and know-how triumphs after many vicissitudes and hair-breadth escapes.
Countersolar! features another race, but of a different sort. In this one, two spacecraft travel across the solar system to investigate a planet that orbits on exactly the opposite side of the sun from Earth. This Counter-Earth theme has a long history outside Lupoff’s work. In Countersolar! Lupoff’s characters attribute the Counter-Earth hypothesis to someone called Charlie Avison—apparently a reference to the hero of an obscure short story from 1916, written by Edison Tesla Marshall: “Who Is Charles Avison?” You can read it here. (Lupoff’s work is in fact full of references to the work of other authors.)
One team consists of Albert Einstein, the aircraft designer Jack Northrop, and two American athletes, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Josh Gibson. The opposition comes in the form of German aircraft designer Reimar Horten, Argentinian soldier Juan Perón and his partner Eva “Evita” Duarte, and the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The race this time is a political one—the American expedition is attempting to thwart their opponents’ effort to form an alliance with fascist elements on the Counter-Earth.
The Counter-Earth turns out to have been identical with the Earth of Circumpolar! until 1912 (for reasons too mind-mangling to relay here), after which their histories diverged. A fascist government is now in place in Counter-Earth America, under the presidency of William Dudley Pelley, allied with the Aryan supremacists of Svartalheim. The story plays out as the members of the two expeditions seek out their counterparts on the Counter-Earth, and form alliances with either the American fascists or the resistance movement led by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It’s impossible to do justice to the detail of Lupoff’s imaginings, here. The story is populated with so many historical characters, playing out slightly distorted versions of their real lives. There’s a side-plot involving a race of ancient Egyptians who have withdrawn to the asteroid Ceres (I know, I know). More connections are drawn between the peoples of the Other Side and mythological or fictional “lost lands” of our own world, including a nod to the Yu-Atlanchi of Abraham Merritt’s 1931 fantasy novel The Face In The Abyss (which you can read on Project Gutenberg here). And there are passages of disconcerting magic realism, when Evita seems to merge with the goddess Isis, when Einstein glimpses God, and in the distinctly strange denouement of the novel.
I love these stories for their mad imaginings and stacked weirdness, though they’re pretty evidently not to everyone’s taste. And there are occasional wobbles when it feels like Lupoff might just, for a moment or two, have been puzzled about how to move the story forward.
If you’re at all favourably disposed to Lupoff after reading my reviews here, I’d suggest you take a look at his 1996 short story collection Before 12:01 And After, which is cheaply available as an e-book from SF Gateway. It gives a broad sample of his styles and themes, and contains an insightful introduction by Robert Silverberg, together with biographical and story notes from Lupoff himself.
* Well, actually, Lupoff’s world is like a flattened torus with a small central opening—narrow around its central hole and rim, thicker in the region that would correspond to our Earth’s equator. In cross-section it would look something like this, to judge from some figures given in Circumpolar!: