THE HOUSE OF MANY WORLDS
Mentions of flying cars are clichéd background details in scores of science fiction stories. Only one book I know of makes the flying car a vital plot point. Sam Merwin Jr. pulls off the feat in his first science-fiction novel, The House of Many Worlds.
Born in 1910, Merwin was the son of another writing Samuel Kimball Merwin, who produced books, biographies, and plays, acting in some as well. He rated an obituary in the New York Times when he died of a stroke in 1936 at the Players Club, the famed actors social club founded by Edwin Booth. Well-to-do and well educated at Princeton and the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, Merwin smacked into the Depression and landed a job as a reporter. Later in the 1930s he switched to genre editing and writing, By 1951, he had published a half dozen mystery novels and a handful of f&sf short fiction. Mostly, though, he was sick of editing three magazines simultaneously: Fantastic Stories Quarterly, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories (plus Wonder Stories Annual).
Not by coincidence, The House of Many Worlds appeared in the September 1951 Startling Stories, the first issue after he stepped down as editor. Earle Begley did the cover art; Virgil Finley contributed some of his trademark gauzy nudes as interior art. The bubbles are worlds, many of them. Not that Finley needed an excuse to draw nudes, but unusually for 1951 f&sf, Merwin's book had two main female characters, the blonde lead and a somewhat younger bombshell redhead. Why Begley made her an older severe brunette on the cover is puzzling.
The deal must have already been struck, because mainstream giant Doubleday published the book in hard covers before the end of 1951. (They also issued it as a selection of their subsidiary Science Fiction Book Club in 1953, probably with the same cover since that was their policy at the time.)
Horace Gold then reprinted it as #12 of his Galaxy Science Fiction Novel series at the end of 1952. Not only did Gold use Startling as the farm team to call up stories from, but Merwin had just joined him as a part-time assistant editor at Galaxy magazine. Ed Emshwiller got the cover coloring right on the redhead and added for the first time the fillip that Merwin used as a centerpiece for his plot: a flying car. Karl Stephan's version in the 1969 German reprint at the top of the page has the wings coming properly off the top. How Emshwiller's wings would fold up underneath the car without jacking it up is a feat beyond the capabilities of origami, much less real-world metals.
Elspeth, the blonde, and Mack, the photographer are sent by their newspaper to find a story in a backwater town in Carolina. Rumors of "odd things" draw them to a mysterious mansion on an island off the coast. Odd is a many-world-class understatement. The mansion is a portal between parallel timestreams and they have been recruited into The Watchers, a force for good that keeps the worlds from tearing themselves apart in war. Juana, the redhead, is a Watcher who is to be their contact. Merwin wisely wastes no time explaining how the Watchers came to be or the black bubble used to transport people across time streams. The next morning Elspeth and Mack are in an alternate time America, driving down a badly maintained two-lane highway in Mack's Pipit.
A pipit is "a small, slender, drab bird of open country." That's a clue. At a moment the spies are surely doomed to being caught, "the Pipit's wings, hitherto on this strange world slotted neatly inside the top, slid rapidly out and into flight position. When [Mack] felt their tug the photographer pressed the superdrive button and the sturdy little English vehicle seemed actually to leap ahead with a new freedom. Its wheels left the gravel and automatically the engine pan dropped slightly to become a jet vent." Jaws drop, as they would even today if somebody did this in our America.
This America is a mixture of ultramodern marvels and backward hangovers from the past, much as Merwin's world was in 1951. Here he takes the contrast to an extreme. Flying machines are unknown, save balloons and some rockets. The military has rocket-powered vehicles (which you might think would require extremely good, smooth roads for high speed travel, but let that pass) and a disintegrator gun. An inn Elspeth and Mack stay in apparently has no refrigeration. Cities have electricity but "not once was the skyline broken by the pylons of a high-tension line." They see cars on the road and stop at filling stations to get kerosene. They pop a hood on "a large six-wheeled touring vehicle," which has "an engine that looked to Elspeth [a poetess and wildly unmechanical] like any other engine. It runs on ammonia. Yet later on we learn the concept of an internal combustion engine is unknown. When asked about the wierd styling on the Pipit, an easy answer is given. "It's British," Mack explains, much as Beldar and Connie Conehead claim to come from France. Merwin truly made it up as he went along and nobody bothered to ask questions later.
The use of a flying car to invisibly get the concept of powered flight to the rebel leader and good guy, Reed Weston, is one of those irresistible notions that writers fall in love with, and stick with beyond all reason. Wouldn't it have made more sense to fly a military aircraft directly to him? Surely this age-old many-worlds-spanning superorganization could swing that. Nobody would be looking for one and they would have no way of shooting it down if they did. Merwin starts plausibly with the premise that Weston is moving around as he negotiates to gain support. That too is thrown out later. He's easily findable: Juana turns out to be his secretary and everybody meets at his spaceport headquarters. Yes, spaceport. He plans on fleeing the Earth with a small band of supporters rather than give in to tyranny.
Science fiction too often makes itself a hard genre to love. It simultaneously purports to be the brainiest of all genres, tackling the biggest issues and deepest philosophies, while requiring readers to turn off their brains and accept the laziness of cheap adventure plotting and the craziness of wonders that contradict each other. Merwin happens to be a good writer, a pleasant companion on his badly maintained roads. The House of Many Worlds drops sociological bombs all the way through. Elspeth, not Mack, is the viewpoint character. A black man is a major character, and has a top-level job. He falls for Elspeth and she reciprocates, made poignant by her knowledge that she is now home in no worlds and will stay in any one only briefly. Encountering a female lead in a contemporary f&sf novel was rare; a black character as much a surprise as a flying car. Putting them together may be unique. As flying car novels go, The House of Many Worlds is tops. And will stay that way until I find a second one.