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What Mad Universe?
By Frederic Brown

Reviewed by Carl Cipra
Rating: none given

It’s usually Michael C. who reviews the “golden oldies” for the LSF newsletter - he frequently reviews little-known Gothic fiction, and a couple of months back he reviewed a couple of classic fantasy novels:  A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar (1924) and Henry Kuttner’s The Mask of Circe (1948).  I figure it’s my turn now!  So here’s a short review of What Mad Universe? (1949) by Fredric Brown.  I first heard about this particular novel - among others - in Mike Resnick’s “Forgotten Treasures” column (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Feb. 1997); and I was intrigued by Resnick’s comments.
Fredric Brown was a classic SF author from the pulp era.  He sold dozens of short stories and over 50 vignettes (500-word short stories) to various pulp magazines.  In fact, What Mad Universe? itself was first published in a “condensed version” in Startling Stories in 1948.  With those credentials, I guess Brown could be considered an expert on pulp-style SF.  Well, he took that expertise, gathered up a bunch of those tired old pulp clichés that were “tired” and “old” even back when he was writing, and fashioned one heck of a tongue-in-cheek, pulp-style, golly-geewhiz sci-fi adventure.  The main character, Keith Winton is the editor of a pulp science-fiction magazine; and he’s unexpectedly hurled into some sort of alternate universe where reality is actually based on those tired old pulp clichés.  In this alternate version of 1948 America, everybody uses “credits” as money (instead of dollars), BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) roam the streets, space travel has been common since the early 1900s (based on some sort of improbable technology), and bikini-clad “spacegirls” are wandering around the cosmos.  This novel really is a hoot!  Yes, it’s a deliberate send-up of the pulp sci-fi genre; but Brown manages to pull it off without being too cutsey or “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” about it all.  Resnick even thinks that What Mad Universe? may be the first recursive SF novel - that is, an SF novel about SF.
I recommend What Mad Universe? - it’s a fun read.  The only problem you’ll probably have with this novel is in finding it.  “Forgotten Treasures” like this one aren’t exactly as easy to find as Resnick’s column would lead you to believe.  I was finally able to dig up a copy of this one at a specialized dealer’s table at Philcon ’97.  This treasure was, however, worth the hunt.

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