The Quy Effect

The Quy Effect frontThe Quy Effect by Arthur Sellings
Berkley Medallion, 1968
Price I paid: 90¢

The Quy Effect

It was so powerful that in one instant it obliterated an entire building. Only the concrete floor and stumps of walls, like the evacuated ruins of some ancient city, gave any indication that there had been a building there at all.

The Quy Effect

Its implications were so revolutionary as to render all past scientific concepts obsolete…which only served to alienate the entire scientific community against its inventor, Adolphe Quy….

This is my second Arthur Sellings novel. I’ve had it sitting around for a while. In fact I think I picked it up at the same time I did The Uncensored Man, but for some reason I kept putting off reading it. I mostly read it this week because it was short.

I was quickly hooked. The jacket copy made it seem like it would be interesting in a different way, like maybe our hero would create some kind of bizzaro n-space that wrecks the known laws of physics, but, as you probably expected, this has little to no relation to the real plot of the book.

This was, like the other Sellings novel I’ve read, an interpersonal drama dealing with very human situations. The sci-fi element took a back seat to all that. A very back seat. Like, if the real plot is the driver and the science fiction is in the back seat, this book was a bus something like forty miles long.

A note on the pronunciation of Quy: it was actually a plot point. In particular, Sellings used the pronunciation as an efficient way of describing the distance between the main character, Adolphe Quy, and his son, Preston. Adolphe pronounces it “Kwie.” His son, in an effort to disassociate himself with his eccentric father, pronounces it “Key,” saying it’s “the original French pronunciation.”

There aren’t many books that will put a weird word in the title and then hinge part of the plot on the fact that that word is hard to pronounce. It was at this point that I started to think this book would be another good one.

Something else that points toward the quality of the book is just how quickly I was able to read it. The book was 144 pages and it took me two, three hours, tops. I’m not saying it was a simple book, just that it felt like it wanted to be read. This is such a difficult thing to describe outside of going “It was absorbing” or something along those lines. I didn’t have to fight this book to enjoy it. I recently talked about a book that I did have to wrassle with to get any enjoyment out of it (and succeeded), so I can’t really say that this is a true measure of quality for every book. I will still, however, point out that an obtuse book, or one that is just hard to concentrate on, has a lot going against it from the get-go. The opposite of this is also true.

So what we’ve got in this book is the story of a guy, Adolphe Quy, who has discovered something so remarkable that it will change the world. We learn about his discovery piecemeal until about the halfway point of the book before he tells us (through his grandson) and then tries the experiment again.

See, this discovery is utterly amazing but Quy can’t get any financial backing to help produce and test it. There are several reasons for this, the first being that he’s discovered something akin to anti-gravity and no self-respecting scientist is going to go anywhere near something as crackpot as that.

The second reason, the one that the story is much more about, is the fact that Quy is not a good guy. People will recognize that he’s a brilliant scientist and inventor, although it’s stated that he has a lot of trouble sticking with any one project long enough to make it profitable. His greater failure is that his most-used invention is apparently some kind of bridge-burning machine.

I don’t mean that literally, obviously, but it does help describe a lot of Quy’s problems throughout the book. He’s a dick. He was such an absolute bastard to his own son that said son changed the pronunciation of his name. The elder Quy is also being chased by various creditors and lawyers representing companies he’s worked for without producing anything he’d promised he would.

And now he’s old, he’s penniless, he’s isolated himself from most of humanity, and he’s genuinely come upon something that would get his name in the history books and change the course of history for the better if only he could actually do something about it.

That’s a pretty good story!

But does it need to be science fiction? I thought about this a lot throughout the book. Never once does Quy use the titular effect to save himself from danger or anything like that. It just exists. It’s pure MacGuffin. He does manage to show off an example to the media right around the middle of the book, but then it turns out that when those media outlets finally decided to show the story, they did it as essentially a “Look at what this crackpot guy thinks he can do” story.

Nobody in this book comes off as decent. Quy might be the worst of them, but nobody else is ever much better. Near the end there’s this bit where it looks like Preston might actually want to help his father, to put some salve on the old scars, but then it turns out it was a trick to get Adolphe committed so he can’t hurt himself or others. A jerky move? Yeah. Understandable from his point of view? Oh yeah.

Adolphe Quy has two things that remotely approach relationships. The first is with his grandson, Alan, a wide-eyed boy of 16 who idolizes his grandfather. He’s got a lot of a standard 16-year-old’s problems. For a long while he’s the only person who believes his grandfather can actually produce any results on this antigrav thing, and so helps him out as much as he can. This all comes to a head when, in a fit of anger after one more failure, Adolphe says something cruel to his grandson and loses him too.

Adolphe also has a friend named Maggie, although at the start of the story it’s apparent that it’s not any kind of healthy friendship. Basically, Maggie is a wealthy woman that Quy knew from way back when, so in desperation he goes to her to ask for money. She agrees and then, because Quy is a total narcissist, he doesn’t think anything about her for many long pages. He runs out of money again and goes back to her. She says she doesn’t have the money this time, but instead offers to take care of him. She genuinely cares about him, for some reason, and is even willing to marry him (she’s a widow) so that she can provide for him and keep him safe. Quy is actually moved by this proposition, but declines.

One thing I like is that Quy is a pretty standard s-f character—the brilliant scientist who is totally committed to his work—but he’s in no way idealized. In some ways this book seems to be asking what it would be like if this kind of stock character actually existed in real life and suggests that the answer would be that he would be totally isolated and unliked and a failure because, well, social skills are actually critical to success.

You can compare it to something like House, M.D., where plenty of times the titular character’s brilliance is overshadowed by the fact that he’s a complete monster to other people. Both characters seem to view other people as tools to their own ends. I’d say that Quy is handled more realistically even than House. A show about Quy would last about a half a season before he died, destitute and friendless, in a ditch.

That’s not what happens in this book, though. I’m not sure what’s up with the ending, but I wasn’t thrilled by it. After many, many failures, Quy learns that his own son is trying to have him committed. He flees and doesn’t make it very far at all before being caught and loaded into a car. He thinks that this is it. He’s finally ticked off somebody so badly that they’re going to kill him or put him in prison or any one of a bunch of nasty things that he no doubt totally deserves.

But no, it turns out that somebody wants to offer him a job. This somebody is the Israeli government, who heard about his discovery and is trying to get a space program off the ground and thinks that his anti-gravity discovery might just be the thing to do it. So he goes to work for them, gets proven right, and becomes famous. Right at the end he marries Maggie for reals, and everybody lives happily ever after.

That ending seemed a little strange to me. It came out of nowhere and was perhaps a little deus ex machina. I’m not especially fond of it.

The rest of the book was great, though. I’m still convinced that it was only barely a science fiction novel, but for what it was it was splendid. It was very English, for one thing, but it was also a good tale of a guy trying to do something great and failing every inch of the way, not because of a conspiracy against him or bad circumstances, but because of his own failures as a human being. Of course, he thinks that his failure is due to the stupidity of everybody else, but that just makes it all the more apparent that it’s not.

And yet, Adolphe Quy wasn’t totally unlikable. He was an irascible old man who occasionally said some things that bordered on racist, but in that adorable way that is a hallmark of English fiction. A lot of the worst things he did were long in the past, and we only hear about them from other characters who might well be exaggerating a bit, particularly when it comes to Preston’s recollection. I got the feeling that while Adolphe was nowhere near a model father, Preston has been dwelling on it so long that the tales have grown larger in his head to the point where Adolphe is just this towering monster in his memory. Or maybe that’s just me.

If I had to catalog this book, I’d definitely put it under the heading of literary fiction instead of science fiction. I can’t stress how little of this book actually hinged on Quy’s discovery. It could have been anything. A new kind of chocolate. A better mosquito spray. Anything.

Well, I say that, but I suppose that the fact that his discovery was so out there does contribute to the story. Part of the reason Quy fails so often is that he comes across as the sort of crackpot who claims to have a Perpetual Motion Machine or something along those lines. The only difference is that Quy has actually discovered something extraordinary, but he doesn’t have the personal skills to convince anybody of it, which, to be fair, would have to themselves be extraordinary.

For such a light, breezy read, it does seem that there is a lot to get out of this book, and for that I have to give it a great deal of credit.

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