Reviewed by Steven H Silver
First of all, I would like to thank Mike Resnick for reminding me about What Mad Universe along with several other obscure SF novels. Without his suggesting the title, I would never have re-read it. I'm looking forward to the start of Mike's column on obscure SF which will begin running in F&SF sometime in 1997.
Although What Mad Universe was written nearly fifty years ago (1949), it remains as fresh a story and a satire today as it must have been on its first appearance.
The story opens with Keith Winton, the editor of a pulp science fiction magazine, standing on his publisher's estate while waiting for the first rocket to land on the moon. The landing will trigger a massive light caused by the potentiometer in the rocket's nosecone. Its not really revealing anything to say that the rocket instead crashed near Keith Winston (at exactly the same time it was supposed to have arrived at the moon? Brown never even tries to explain the physics of this, but then it's merely the mcguffin to start the real story.). When Keith picks himself up, he finds himself in a strange world in which much of what he knows has vanished.
Making his way to back to New York City, Keith finds the situation very different from the world he knew. Aliens from the moon walk among man, usually as man's servants. The human race is at war with a strange race from Arcturus. Although there is a Keith Winston editing his magazine, he is different from Keith himself.
What Mad Universe reads exactly like an old pulp story, although at the same time it pokes fun at the genre. The reason for this becomes apparent as the novel progresses. Reading What Mad Universe is, in many ways like watching Blazing Saddles. It manages to skewer many of the conventions of the genre, while remaining a worthwhile work in its own right. However, reading What Mad Universe is also like watching High Noon. Both are of the period of the genre to which they belong. Even while satirizing pulp science fiction, Brown's book belongs to that category. It does not suffer from belonging to the pulp era.