Captive Universe, by Harry Harrison

A theme running through many Harry Harrison (1925-2012) titles is the battle of an enlightened individual against an all-controlling state apparatus. His Deathworld and To the Stars trilogies feature a can-do protagonist attempting, and mostly succeeding, to “solve” the metaphorical puzzle of a planet his spaceship lands on. These books appear to include commentary targeting the inequalities of industrialized capitalism; the tyranny of the privileged and wealthy. This, as pointed out in the SF Encyclopedia, would seem at odds with the political views of his initial editor John Campbell, but their relationship went beyond cursory differences.

Captive Universe (1969) is another tale of the individual against the state, and has an arguably “Campellian” flair. Here, the actions of a young Aztec named Chimal get him in trouble with the priests who rule his village. Inhabitants of one village are strictly forbidden to interact with those of the other village, and both reside in a wide valley sealed off from the world by a rockslide.


Paul Lehr cover for Berkeley Medallion.

Attempts to escape the valley by climbing the mountains are also verboten, and Chimal starts CU in his mother’s care after receiving a beating at the hands of the authorities. His arguments with the priests seemed to have led to more punishment than his actions (we was claiming to have been looking for bird’s eggs):

“They did not remember the law and did not agree with me and they had to look it up in the book which took a long time– and when they did they found I was right and they were wrong.” He smiled, coldly. It was not a boy’s smile at all. “So then they beat me because I had argued with priests and set myself above them.”

[Chemal’s mother] “And so they should have.” She rose and poured some water from the jug to rinse her hands. “You must learn your place. You must not argue with priests.”

For almost all of his life Chimal had been hearing this, or words like it, and had long since learned that the best answer was no answer. Even when he worked hard to explain his thoughts and feelings his mother never understood. It was far better to keep these thoughts to himself.

We learn in the opening chapter that Chimal’s father is absent from his life, because he was a man from the other village. After a night with Chimal’s eventual mother, he was killed returning to his home by the monstrous Coatlicue, the embodiment of a death-goddess — replete with snake appendages, hands of the deceased and a skirt of writhing serpents. The Karel Thole cover art of the Italian translation does justice to such a beast:


Karel Thole cover art for Urania (#538).

Such a monster brings to mind the ideas of other Campbell — Joseph Campbell of The Hero’s Journey fame. Campbell was far from the first writer to describe the archetypical “hero’s journey,” which includes definitive stages of a heroic myth. The initial stages can be tracked by the events of CU:

  1. the call to adventure, shown by Chimal’s punishment by the priests and yearning for answers
  2. refusal of the call, where Chimal is intimidated by the clan elders to agree to marry a local girl
  3. supernatural aid, which happens after Chimal loudly (and perhaps drunkenly) refuses his planned marriage and gets hauled into the temple for a bout of re-education. He provokes an argument with the oldest high priest over the nature of truth, giving the old man a fatal stroke. Imprisoned and waiting for death, Chimal is rescued by his mother, who has somehow broken into the temple dungeon. She takes his place in the cell after freeing him. This sequence of events is arguably the least likely in the narrative, but the “supernatural” fashion of his rescue, as much of a miracle of kindness as anything else, fits the Campellian pattern.
  4. crossing the threshold, where Chimal, after several struggles with insects, pursuing villagers and the fearsome Coatlicue, enters a gap in the mountainside to find another world hidden within. He encounters technology for the first time.
  5. belly of the whale, where Chimal confronts the people in this second world, nearly gets killed, and learns about the relationship between the technology employed by the mountain-people and the hardship borne by the inhabitants of the valley.

Below the line, I describe the mountain-people a little more, which some may consider too much of a reveal…

The first person Chimal encounters in the mountain tunnels is a young woman named Watchman Steel, who had been on duty surveilling the area but is completely unprepared to deal with him. Dressed in black coveralls and wired with communications equipment, she tries summoning help at the sight of the Aztec.

“Over seventeen porfer staynet Watchmen Steel. There is an oboldonol lonen in tunnel one nine nine bay emma, can you read me…”

“What are you saying?” he broke in. “You can speak yet some of the words you speak do not mean anything.” Her actions baffled him.

She kept talking, still looking at him wide-eyed. When she had finished speaking her incomprehensible mixture of words and nonsense sounds she put the object back at her waist, then slid very slowly to a sitting position on the floor of the tunnel. She put her face into her hands and began to sob uncontrollably and ignored him even when he pushed her with his foot.

“What are you doing this for? Why don’t you speak words to me that I can understand?”

Her bent head shook with the force of her crying and she took her hands from her face and clutched at something the hung about her neck, on a string that seemed to be made from small metal beads. Chimal pried it from her fingers, angry at her now for her incomprehensible actions and lack of intelligible response, and easily overcame her feeble attempts to hold on to it. It was black, like everything else about her, and just as baffling.

Steel is an example of most people belong to this technologically advanced but unimaginative civilization. Like the valley Aztecs, it is governed by a regimented theocracy, and ordinary crew like Steel live in constant fear of punishment. When her cohorts arrive, they unpack a laser gun in front of Chimal, trying to interpret instructions written generations ago.

As expected, the “guardsmen” are really no match for the enterprising Chimal, whose instincts net him the “killing thing” after one guardsman blasts two of the others. He evades capture while bringing Watchman Steel as a sort of hostage, continuing his attempts to pry information from her.

Eventually, Chimal negotiates a cease-fire with the Master Observer and begins to obtain the knowledge he needs about the true state of the mountain-people and the valley. The valley’s rain, and therefore food supply, is managed by these technician-acolytes, following the plans of a long-deceased Great Designer. Barriers of language and the time needed to understand scientific concepts are hastily pushed aside by Harrison, to service the speed of the story.

CU also lacks a component of the “Hero’s Journey,” the stage where the hero confronts his/her “darker half,” in order to grow as a person. There is an episode where Chimal uses technology to wreak havoc on the priests who tormented in the past, but how this adds to his character isn’t made clear. Instead, we get discussions on how adherence to religion in both civilizations has led to a life following illusion. Here, Steel admits to the manipulation of rain and waterways:

[Chimal] “And the river– it really ends in the swamp. Then what do you do with the water– pump it back through a pipe and over the falls again?”

“Yes,” she said, holding her deus in both hands and lifting her head high. “We do just that. We watch and protect and keep you from harm, by day and night through all the seasons of the year. For we are the watchmen and we ask nothing for ourselves, asking only to serve.”

There was no humor in his laugh. “You serve. You serve badly. Why don’t you make the river run strong all the time so we can have water, or bring the rain when we need it? We pray for rain and nothing happens.” … With sudden sorrow and realization he said, “Even there you have lied to us, everywhere. There are no gods.”

“There are none of your gods–but there is one god, the god, the Great Designer. He was the one who made all this, who designed and built it, then breathed life into it so that it began.” … “We are His children and you are His infants and we watch over you as He has ordained.”

Chimal was not impressed. The chant of words and the light in her eyes reminded him very much of the priests and their prayers. If the gods were dead, he did not mind seeing them go at all, but he was not adding any new gods that quickly.

This conversion to skepticism, which happens at the end of the first half of CU, is less of a character challenge than a permanent shift in Chimal’s worldview. Later exchanges with the Master Observer reinforce this newfound rationalism.

Done competently, the “Hero’s Journey” is always going to be an entertaining and layered read. The most commercially successful stories of the genre, Star Wars and Harry Potter, both conform to this pattern. CU adds a couple of (John) Campbell SF elements to the (Joseph) Campbell archetype in a compact and readable fashion. Hard SF it’s not, but it doesn’t have to be. This is another example of another solid effort from an author I’ve found to be exceptionally consistent. 7/10.



About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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7 Responses to Captive Universe, by Harry Harrison

  1. fredfitch says:

    I’ve always liked Harrison, but I’ve never even heard of this one. From your synopsis, I can make an educated guess about the big reveal, and of course variations of that theme are commonplace in SF. The world as not as it seems, and there is a larger world outside. (Or in the case of The Matrix, a smaller and much less comfortable one).

    The Deathworld books, as you say, are more about somebody coming from a larger world into a smaller more limited one, and transforming it in some way–another theme Campbell talks about, that is common in world mythology. The Outsider can see things others can’t.

    My own feeling about the first novel is that it’s a metaphor for settler societies–Israel, certain African nations, Roman Britain–that essentially create the monsters they fight, which makes them strong, but also blinds them to the fact that it’s their own aggression and desire for control that is making their new world reject them. Doesn’t matter how strong the Pyrrans get, how much technology they have, they must assimilate or leave. You can do that kind of thing in SF, and most people don’t even consciously perceive it. The other books are basically just finishing the first story, and posing a few new problems for Dinalt the Outsider.

    The Stainless Steel Rat books are very lighthearted, but again pose problems for a lawless renegade–a thief who gets forced to be a cop, and ends up liking it. His boss used to be a thief. His wife used to be a thief. They solve problems together. I liked the one about how all these disgusting BEM type species straight off the cover of old pulp magazines team up to wipe out humanity because we’re just so revoltingly normal. The solution is to convince the aliens we’re disgusting too. And there’s an evil plot, but there always is.

    Make Room! Make Room! is rather atypically pessimistic dramatization of Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population. I wonder sometimes if Harrison approved of the way the movie changed his ending. I mean, how would that even work? Crops are failing, so feed the population to itself, then breed them like cattle to feed the overlords, but livestock have to eat something too, so how…….? Malthus crossed with Swift.

    And that’s all the Harrison I’ve read, to date.

    Does Star Wars really count as this type of story? Luke already knew about the world outside, they get news about it–he just didn’t know his own place in it. Ben tells him he’s taken his first step into a larger world when he first senses the Force. Which turns out to be—

    Campbell loved the renewed attention he got from Lucas calling him an inspiration, but I’m not sure he’d have approved. 😉


    • pete says:

      I missed that point in my review about Harrison’s “enlightened” protagonists being well-travelled, or at least from a larger and more complex society. In that sense they’re enlightened but they consistently express themselves in pragmatic terms, never (as I recall) in expressions of disgust towards the other inhabitants.

      Chimal here demonstrates the process by which one becomes enlightened in the heroic sense, by following that path into the unknown. It’s well done, old-fashioned adventure science fiction. The overt criticism of religious control over social norms is Harrison’s addition to it.

      I just got done writing about Michael Bishop’s Eyes of Fire, where a protagonist crosses through multiple societies, following a path very different from the Campbellian “hero’s journey.” It seems the more difficult task, and Bishop gave his hero the name Seth to show the nebulous nature of that character. Harrison’s book appears to have a cleaner, though no less complex, journey from beginning to end.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Harrison had a much better delineated plot template to work from here. He was just trying to improve on something that had already been done, and there is a logical conclusion to this type of story, to a greater extent than somebody just wandering and learning as he goes.

        Though SF has antecedents for that kind of story as well (for every kind of story)–Edgar Pangborn’s Davy comes to mind, as does Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrology.

        And I’m just now re-reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, of all things. You send someone out on a journey, and make the world for him or her as you go. Or you create the world, and then come up with somebody worth following around through it. Works either way–if you do it right.

        I’ll have to read the book sometime, but I would think the problem is not religious control, specifically. It’s rigidity of practice, stemming from rigidity of belief–makes no difference what the sources of those beliefs are. Adapt or die is the whole of the law.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    Shoot, messed up the coding. Sometimes italicized titles don’t really seem worth the effort.


  3. fredfitch says:

    Just found this very well done piece on the basic type of story Harrison was telling here (spoiler alert)–and it specifically singles out Harrison’s treatment of this by then well-worn theme for praise. It’s good to do something first. But the goal should be to do it best.


    • pete says:

      Yep, that article covers a lot of the same ground as our discussion of Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (I still maintain that Aldiss’ Non-Stop is the best of the bunch). You mentioned Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but the SF Encyclopedia did not. It would be interesting to see if any significant novel in this particular trope subgenre was not also a “Cave story.”

      Liked by 1 person

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