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The Unicorn Girl

the-unicorn-girlThe Unicorn Girl by Michael Kurland
Pyramid Books, 1969
Price I paid: 75¢

BLIP!

It wasn’t exactly a sound. It was more like a feeling―a gut-wrenching, universe-shaking, giant blip of a feeling. Then came the changes.

The legendary powers of Mike and Chester―fearless explorers of a thousand legendary worlds―are no help in handling the extraterrestrial perspective where time, space and sanity all find new meanings.

A perspective you too can discover with the help of

the unicorn girl

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. This isn’t my first Michael Kurland book, and when I look back on the other one I’ve read, Psi Hunt, I see that I was really nasty about that one. I don’t take it back―I really didn’t like that novel for a variety of reasons―but it may be that I’ve misjudged the author because of it.

It also turns out that I didn’t realize I’d read this author before until I looked this book up for preliminary research. I felt vaguely like I recognized his name, but if you’d have asked me from where, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Once I figured it out, I thought that this was going to be another torturous journey into half-baked psychic stuff that I’d hate. It turns out I was wrong! I liked The Unicorn Girl.

This is the second book in a trilogy. Starting a series partway through because I didn’t know any better is one of those things that seems increasingly common whenever I find a book to read, but there’s something special going on here. It turns out that the Greenwich Village trilogy was written by three different authors. The first book, The Butterfly Kid, was written by Chester Anderson and picked up a Hugo nom in ’68, losing to Zelazny’s Lord of Light.

The Butterfly Kid, as I understand it, features Chester Anderson himself as the protagonist, working alongside his friend and roommate Michael Kurland to deal with the fallout from some kind of new drug with reality-changing powers.

I jumped in on book two, which is where Kurland takes over the reins and, as the protagonist alongside his friend and roommate Chester Anderson, starts world-hopping and has to figure out what’s going on.

Books where the protag is explicitly the author tend to be…less than good, at least in my experience. When I realized what was going on, I expected the book to be some kind of masturbatory thrill-ride that would leave me cold and angry. Again, though, I turned out to be wrong.

The book plays around with the late sixties counterculture movement, something that tends to be a mixed bag in sci-fi but for some reason I also tend to enjoy it. If that’s not your thing, this book might not be for you, but there are other good things going for it.

It’s pretty solidly New Wave. One of my things about the New Wave is that its authors, like many of those of literary fiction, had Important Things to Say. While that’s not a bad thing unto itself―there are lots and lots of extraordinary books and authors working to say Very Important Things and they do it very well―both of those genres also tend to attract the kind of author who seems to think they have Something Important to Say, but it turns out that they produce a 250-page agglutination of run-on sentences, pointless weirdness, and incomprehensible plot, wherein it turns out that they might have had Something Important to Say but they took a very long time to say absolutely nothing.

I’m not running down literary fiction or New Wave sf. Every genre has its crap. Sturgeon’s Law and all that. It’s just that since I delve into the less-than-savory elements of science fiction anyway, it turns out that when I hit a New Wave book, I usually find it to be pretentious. I’m intentionally as far away from the Le Guins and Delanys as I can get, although sometimes I end up reading a Lafferty or a Spinrad just to clear the palate.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Unicorn Girl turned out to be New Wave that didn’t have its head up its own ass. It was lighthearted. It was very readable. It had personality. I enjoyed it very much.

The protagonist/author, Michael Kurland, starts the book a year after the previous one ended. The action starts right away. He’s approached by a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who says that she’s lost her unicorn, named Adolphus. Chester Anderson is also there. The two of them take this announcement in stride. After all, they’re hanging around with hippies and Greenwich Village elements anyway, so having someone come up and talk about unicorns is anything but weird.

This section had a lot of “miladies” and “fair damsels” and words like that strewn around, as well as a page that was literally sheet music, and I was prepared to not like this book for those reasons. I’m glad I stuck around.

Michael and Chester agree to help the woman, Sylvia, find her unicorn. She says some odd things that our protagonists don’t understand, but again, hippies, so no worries. They learn that Sylvia is part of a circus, and they even meet some of her fellow performers. They are a cyclops and a centaur. Sylvia explains that they are from other planets.

It’s not long before the first blip happens.

The blips indicate that something is going weird with the timeline, and when they happen, they take up an entire page. That is to say, the word blip takes up the entire page. Or most of it, anyway.

There are two main components to this book: the blips and the UFOs. It would seem that the two are somehow connected, but our protags spend most of the book just trying to survive to try to do anything about it. It turns out that they aren’t the only people affected by this turn of events. Lots of people are turning up in timelines where they don’t belong.

While the author and the protagonist are both Michael Kurland, a lot of the thinking and acting are on the part of Chester. He does things like casting the I-Ching to help figure out what to do, making philosophical speeches, and so forth. He’s a character that normally I’d expect to find annoying, but in this case I thought he was likable. I can’t exactly tell you why. The best I can say is that he had a personality that I liked. If the character presented in this book is anything like the real Chester Anderson, I think I would have liked to meet him.

Kurland plays the straight man in this book for the most part. He quickly falls in love with Sylvia, who turns out to be more than just a MacGuffin slash MPDG. She’s quite competent throughout the book. There’s one fight scene with a group of people who I think were conquistadors, and she handles herself very well in it. Michael spends a lot of time ogling her, and I might have to check my privilege here, but it didn’t get too icky.

It’s made clear that Sylvia and crew are from a different timeline from Chester and Michael. Together, they visit some other timelines and some wacky stuff happens. There’s this Victorianesque time track where everyone is so prudish that they literally cannot see naked people, so thieves just go around in the buff and steal things. At another point they meet some travelling hippies who call themselves Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. With them is a girl named Owl who once got stoned and memorized a library.

A large part of the book consists of little vignettes like this.

About halfway through the book, the crew meets some Nazis. They’re driving tanks. Before a blip can save them, the tanks open fire. Sylvia and Michael manage to escape, but Chester and his ladyfriend, Dorothy, are killed grotesquely. I thought that was an interesting turn for this book to take, writing a friend as a character and then killing him off.

There’s no time to mourn, and Michael and Sylvia continue hopping timelines. They wind up at a circus, which is useful because that’s what Sylvia already does for a living. She knows the lingo that lets them get in with the circus folk, hopefully earning a little scratch and figuring out what to do with themselves. I guess it’s fortunate that circus lingo is the same across all timelines, because this works.

It isn’t long, though, before Michael meets up with an old friend of his, a guy that disappeared at some point. Maybe in the first book, or maybe outside the narrative? I wasn’t sure. Anyway, his name is Tom Waters and he is a magician.

The third book in this series, The Probability Pad, was written by T.A. Waters, a magician and writer-about-magic. Just thought you’d want to know that.

The Michael/Tom relationship has a lot of fun to it. They recite old vaudeville routines at each other and stuff like that. I enjoyed their interactions.

One final blip puts Michael, Sylvia, and Tom in a land of fantasy. I didn’t pick this up from the narrative, but several sources point out that they wind up in the Lord Darcy universe, written by Randall Garrett. I haven’t read that series, but the summaries on Wikipedia make me think that I would enjoy them. Again, this is a bit odd, because the books I have read by Garrett were ones I didn’t enjoy.

The folks of this timeline are well-aware that weird things are happening. Our heroes are taken in for questioning but treated very well. They are asked to describe their experiences with all the time hops and whatnot. Eventually, someone explains that they are now in a universe where magic works.

What I liked most about this bit, and the book in general, was that the characters were all really savvy about what was going on. Michael Kurland, as a character, is also a science fiction writer, so he adapts quickly to weird stuff. There isn’t a lot of wasted space going “What’s going on here? Magic? Really? That’s impossible!” that you’d expect in most books. Even the pseudo-medieval folks that our heroes meet in this section are all, “Yeah, we know, in your universe there’s no magic. You use technology. We use magic. Let’s get on with the story.”

Man, I liked that so much. Light and breezy as it was, this book assumed that we, the audience, would be able to follow the action. This is something I think you’ll understand, so let’s not waste time, it seems the author was saying to us. And let’s have some fun with it.

The court magician character has a team working on figuring out what’s happening with all these time-and-space hops. The team has determined that the UFOS, spotted occasionally throughout the book, are indeed the source. There’s also some science-sounding stuff about probability particles and whatnot that basically explained the deal without actually having to make sense because this is goofy and fun.

In fact, there’s an appendix at the end of this book that’s these scientifico-magical formulas talking about six dimensional probability that didn’t make a lick of sense to me, but maybe if I were better at deriving formulas or such, they’d have been funnier.

Oh, and at one point Chester and Dorothy come back. They’re from a timeline that was slightly different from Michael’s. In their time track, Michael and Sylvia got killed, see, so it all works out that the universes are collapsing. Nobody seemed to find this as existentially problematic as I did.

The four of them learn as much magic as they can in four days, and then go to get abducted by a UFO. The book ends rather abruptly after this. The team explores the UFO a bit, finds out that the crew is all “dinosaurs” who are going to fire a large probability laser to finally destroy all the human timelines. Chester jumps in front of the laser as it fires and it’s destroyed. The timelines are reset and everybody goes home, although because Michael and Sylvia were holding hands, they get to be together. The end.

For a paperback of about 160 pages, this book packed a lot in there. A lot of twisty-turny laffy-taffy stuff that might not have always pushed the plot forward in a meaningful way, but was nonetheless breezy and fun to read. I didn’t give you all the details, so I encourage you to check this book out for yourself if you get a chance.

I can’t say there was much about this book that I found annoying or wrong. I guess the plot was thin as paper, but that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would. The book is pretty dated in many ways, but it’s that kind of dated that sort of wraps around and becomes fresh and new again because it’s been almost fifty years instead of, say, five or ten. I might be in the minority here, but I enjoy reading works that are thoroughly enmeshed in their time period. I feel like it gives me insight better than a straight history text. It’s the bulk of the reason I love watching old Saturday Night Live sketches where they bash on Ford or Carter. I learn so much more about the time period that way. Having something be dated isn’t a turnoff for me.

This is probably why I enjoy reading things from before I was born instead of fresh off the presses. It’s not that I think things were better back then, it’s just that I like having that window into a past I’ll never get to see personally. I think that’s a major reason I like to read in general. That’s just my thing, though. I’m not saying it’s better or more valid than anyone else’s thing. I just think it’s valuable to analyze and understand your thing, you know?

Anyway, I’m sure you didn’t come here to read about my personal Philosophies of Things. I recommend this book, I retract any previous bad things I’ve said about the author, and I’m going to do my best to find Chester Anderson’s The Butterfly Kid.

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1 Comment

  1. sydlogsdon says:

    This books sounds like great fun. I’ll certainly check my local used book stores. You said, “ I enjoy reading works that are thoroughly enmeshed in their time period. I feel like it gives me insight better than a straight history text.” Absolutely. I had a favorite library when I was a kid that was full of books that were fifty years old. Now I have a favorite, underfunded library that still has books back to about eighty years old. Cheap time travel.
    The Darcy works are excellent. I recommend them. FYI, Too Many Magicians is the only novel. All the rest are short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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