The People Beyond the Wall by Stephen Tall
DAW Books, 1980
Price I paid: 75¢
The original premise of science fiction—the foundation stone—was the tale of the discovery of a lost land or an unknown civilization. From Plato’s Atlantis and Swift’s Lilliput, Butler’s Erewhon, and the beloved works of Haggard, Burroughs and Merrit, “Lost Race” novels have been the favorites of millions. But time and exploration seem to have abandoned this engaging theme.
Yet here is a new one, written with all the color and feel that marks the work of the masters, which manages to place the lost land within the context of today and get away with it. Stephen Tall’s tale of two Alaskan explorers who burrowed beneath a vast glacier to find themselves beyond the maps of today, where a strong primitive people made life free from crises, wars, and social disasters.
THE PEOPLE BEYOND THE WALL will delight everyone who loves a good adventure—and especially those who yearn for a new Alan Quatermain, a new Tarzan, a new Gulliver.
Wow, y’all! This book was pretty good! I really wasn’t expecting that. I figured any book that is attempting to restore an old genre has a lot going against it. I find they usually come across as stale, rehashing a bunch of tired clichés that are probably the reason the genre went out of style in the first place. Plus, the highest praise the publisher had for this book was apparently “it gets away with it,” which isn’t a huge vote of confidence to me. But I was wrong!
The writing was crisp, the characterization was decent, the setting was interesting, and the story was…well, the story wasn’t the best part. It was okay, I guess. Could have been worse.
The worst thing, though, probably couldn’t be helped. This book was written by “Stephen Tall.” I put that in quotes because it’s a pseudonym. Oddly enough, the author’s note comes right out and says that. The guy’s real name is Compton N. Crook, Ph.D., a biologist. Books by scientists haven’t fared particularly strongly here on this blog, so that was worrisome at first. But what was worst is the fact that the guy’s chosen name was “Tall” and the cover art features…a really tall guy. I just find that hilarious.
But what really made me worry was the fact that the author’s name rhymes with the book title. I’d never seen that before and something about it just made me cringe. I really don’t know why. I feel like maybe another title would have sufficed? Like maybe someone should have had the same reaction I did and maybe decided against it? Why does it bother me so much?
What it did get me thinking about was what if other, more well-known, science fiction writers had book titles that rhymed with their names.
- Walking a Fine Line by Robert A. Heinlein
- Space Dogs Can’t Bark by Arthur C. Clarke
- What Makes Things Tick by Philip K. Dick
- Shakespeare 2000: New Adventures of The Bard by Orson Scott Card
- He Wasn’t Big, But He Was Ballsy by John Scalzi
This is fun! Join in!
Also, nothing rhymes with Asimov.
But anyway, despite the inexplicable botheringness of a rhyme scheme, this book turned out to be fairly decent.
Our first-person narrator and protagonist is a guy named Vin. I assume it’s short for Vincenzo but I could be wrong about that. He and his friend Denny (the diminutive form of Denworthmanston) are exploring in Alaska. They are hikin’ men and they won’t apologize for it. In their travels they find a gigantic fissure in one of the Alaskan glaciers and decide that the logical thing to do is to climb down it.
Sometimes characters do exactly the opposite of what I would do in a given situation.
Upon reaching the bottom, Vin and Denny find out that there’s a tunnel leading deeper into the glacier. They decide to follow it and encounter some weird and wonderful stuff. Among other things there’s a mammoth frozen inside one of the walls of this tunnel. That’s a pretty cool visual. They also run across some bones, some quite large, but one particular set turns out to be itsy-bitsy. There’s a tiny coffin near it, too, and Vin decides to collect them for investigation once they get back to civilization.
It comes up again.
They keep going until they find themselves outside again. Instead of the Alaskan outback, though, it turns out they’re in some kind of idyllic paradise.
Pretty much this entire book is all about wonderfulness, so get used to it.
They meet a dude! The dude looks like some kind of primitive savage, but it turns out he’s very polite! He even speaks English!
The guy’s name is Elg and he fills us and them in on some back story.
Quite a ways back another guy came in from the outside, a guy named Smith. Smith taught the natives English and a few things about the outside world. So that solves that mystery.
Apart from that, these folks have been separate from the rest of humanity for…well…forever? It’s never really quite explained what’s going on, or even if this place is on Earth at all. It definitely seems to be separate from Earth in some way or another, mainly for reasons I’ll detail in a minute, but the gist of the whole thing is that these are untainted humans. They’re pure in some way or another, and that makes them great (to the characters).
See, their whole society is based on the virtues of honesty and hard work and freedom and mutual respect and honor and all sorts of things like that. It’s pretty much perfect.
And thus I spend most of the book thinking “Oh, it’s all a little too perfect. This is going to be a book about discovering the dark side of these people.”
I was wrong! They stay amazing and perfect and wonderful throughout the entire book!
Here are some examples of how their culture works:
- You’re chopping a tree and some guy comes along. He helps you chop the tree and stack the firewood. You thank him and he leaves without asking anything in return.
- A bit of road needs repair. The next guy who comes along fixes it and goes off to do whatever it was he was doing.
- You’re pretty good at what you do. Something like climbing trees or whatever. There’s a contest to see who is the best at it. You win and everybody congratulates you and there are no sore losers.
This was my main problem with the book. It’s just so sickly sweet all the time.
Denny and Vin are welcomed into this culture. They meet a guy called the Primate, who doesn’t rule so much as dispense wisdom. He is also a human. For an all too brief moment I thought maybe he was a very wise gorilla or something. That would have been cool.
They also meet a young lady named Oo-ah. To the author’s credit, one of the characters straight up says “I can certainly see why.” Of course all the people of this land are physically perfect, but she’s the most physically perfect, which doesn’t make grammatical sense but stick with me here. For a while it looks like she and Denny are going to hook up, but it turns out she likes Vin and they eventually get together. Everybody is SUPER HAPPY FOREVER.
Well, no, not quite yet. It turns out there’s one aberration among all these wonderful people. There’s a dude named Apt. He’s enormous and likes to wrestle, but unlike anybody else he doesn’t do it to have fun and bring glory and honor to his name, he does it because he likes to hurt people. This is wrong and bad but nobody knows what to do about it. He wants Oo-ah and tries to fight Vin over it, which is against the dating rules of this society. In the scuffle, the little coffin thing comes out.
Oh, I forgot to mention the very very most important thing about these people! They don’t grow old! They grow SMALL!
After a certain point, a person realizes that they are getting old. They realize this, I assume, because they start to shrink. And they continue to shrink until they get to about six inches tall. At this point they go to a different part of this idyllic utopian land. This is the titular “beyond the wall” and it’s where the little people live until they die.
So, the tiny coffin Vin found at the beginning of the book? He basically forgot he had it, but once it came out, everybody was super pissed at him.
They don’t have much in the way of rules, see, but there are two extremely important taboos. The first is about the passage Denny and Vin came through. You’re not supposed to go there. The second is that big people can’t go to across the wall. However Denny got that coffin, it broke one of those taboos in a bad way.
Vin and Oo-ah flee. Denny holds off the other people. The couple escapes back through the tunnel, which by an amazing coincidence opens right when they get there. Then, by another amazing coincidence they get spotted by a plane on the other side. They escape and that’s the end of the boo—
Wait! That’s the halfway point? What the crap?
Vin and Oo-ah, now called Marya, eke out an existence for seven years. She obviously misses her home very much, but she’s a good sport. Basically she’s the most amazing woman ever. Together they have the most amazing kid ever, whom they name after Denny.
After a while of civilization, the trio decide to explore the Alaskan wilderness. Instead of diving into glaciers, they instead go canoeing up some river. I don’t know Alaskan geography at all, and the author was no doubt very familiar with it but seriously it’s like if I met some random guy from out-of-town and I was like “where are you from” and he was like “England” and I was like “where in England” and he was like “Jones Street” I’d be like NOT HELPFUL
Camping out in the woods, Vin and Oo-ah and Denny II meet a strange woman wandering alone in the wilderness. They also have their dog, Fang. Fang treats this woman like an old friend which is odd because he’s a trained watchdog. My thought was “the key word is dog” so he’s going to treat anybody like an old friend because he’s a dog. I guess he’s supposed to be different and more suspicious.
They talk with this woman and earn her trust and find out, surprise of surprises, that SHE’S FROM PARADISE LAND TOO
The final fifty pages of this book are just one huge coincidence after another, folks. It’s maddening.
Of course it took a while before that bit of news was finally dropped. There was a lot of “What’s your story?” answered with “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” Either it was hackneyed or I’ve read too much because immediately I knew what the deal was when she said that.
A little bit later on we find out that she’s not just some random woman. She turns out to be Oo-ah’s MOM.
If the book had even commented vaguely on fate or psychic ties or something I wouldn’t be so mad. Like there was some kind of fantasy explanation that no one could grasp but felt indistinctly. Anything. I would accept it. Instead it’s just a bunch of “Oh weird! You too!”
Oo-ah’s mom is shrinking, but since she’s in the outside world she can’t get back to the wall to join the other small people. Everybody’s worried until the next random coincidence happens.
Remember how the guys entered via the hole in the glacier? And then the couple got out via that same hole? You know how it kinda feels like that’s the way in? Well, it’s apparently not! Apparently the other entry method is RANDOMLY FOR NO REASON
They’re just heading up the river, a storm happens, and then boom, they’re back in whateverland.
They make their way back to civilization, meanwhile discovering that they showed up on the tiny people side of the wall. This is bad, because big people aren’t supposed to be there. Also, a moose came with them. The moose is trampling tiny people houses. Vin kills the moose and everybody’s happy and they go about their merry way.
Oo-ah’s mom departs when they reach the wall, which is really something like three feet tall but to the people on the other side it’s an impassable barrier. I kind of like that.
The book’s winding down now. They get back to “town” and find out that they needn’t have left. Didn’t they realize that everybody here is just and wise and wonderful? They weren’t going to do anything bad! They just wanted to talk. Silly Vin, assuming that people might want revenge for violating their cherished beliefs.
We learn that in the seven years they were gone the old Primate went beyond the wall and somebody new took his place. They go to visit him and learn what to do about all the wackiness. It turns out to be Denny Prime!
Or is that the bell tower at the University of Alabama?
Whatever. With a complete lack of any kind of climax or denouement, they are accepted back into society and the book ends.
Okay so that leaves me with just one question, though. We never learn about what will happen to Denny II. He is a genetic hybrid of the shrinking people and regular people. Which will he do? Will he do both? Neither? Is he immortal? I actually sort of want to know.
Apart from that, the book was actually pretty good. It hinged on the characters, who I thinly described here but actually had things like emotions and motivations and traits that I don’t often see in books like this. I liked that.
And all throughout the book, the writing was quick, clean, crisp, and other monosyllabic words that mean good. The book was a touch over 200 pages but it didn’t feel like it. I moved along at a nice clip and finished the book in about an afternoon with nary a look at what page I was on so I could roll my eyes at how little I’ve covered in the past hour. That’s almost my definition of a good book. I could get lost in it. It had problems with story, to be sure, but the setting was marvelous. Even if the people were altogether a bit too squeaky clean and perfect, they were still fun to read about. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with reading about an idealized wonderful culture with no problems. After all, the features that the author described as so good were, in fact, features I agree are good.
It’s like this: if a book is described as utopian and is all about how wonderful a society is, it certainly helps if I can agree that it’s actually a utopian society. If I read a book and it’s all “Look how wonderful this land is! There are no minorities and all the women know their place!” then we have a problem. In this case, the wonderfulness was just a nice little mixture of helpfulness, wisdom, and decency. So yeah, it’s sickly sweet at times. But you know what? I drink a lot of Dr Pepper. Sickly sweet is sometimes just the perfect thing to make the day brighter.
3 thoughts on “The People Beyond the Wall”
Cool! I’ve never heard of this author — I should look him up!
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