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Some Kind of Madness

The Path of Unreason

By George O. Smith 

16 Oct, 2022

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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George O. Smith’s 1958 The Path of Unreason is a stand-alone science fiction novel. 

Like so many brilliant physicists before him, James Carroll set out to solve the enigma of superluminal Lawson radiation.” Like so many before him, the quest led to a total mental breakdown. The former genius was reduced to near-catatonia, rejecting attempts at communication with a simple no.”

Carroll seems beyond help. But appearances can be deceiving. Perhaps it is the world that is beyond help. 

Dr. John Pollard has worked with other damaged survivors of Lawson radiation research. In his previous cases, he failed utterly to communicate with the survivors (all of whom could only say no”). This time the good doctor manages to provoke a single yes” from Carroll. This meagre positivity is enough to justify renewed efforts at rehabilitation. Which succeed … up to a point. 

Provided with an apartment, Carroll is free to act as he chooses. He chooses to take long walks, on a route that seemingly coincidentally takes him past the research institute focused on studying Lawson radiation. Carroll’s attention is first caught by Sally Forsythe, a young woman employed as a courier. Then he notes an inexplicable anomaly.

Ask Sally and she would describe a daily routine that she follows without significant deviation. Ask Carroll and he would agree that Sally’s habits are constant. However, where they would differ is on the details of what Sally does. According to Sally, she delivers the research documents with only a detour for a snack. According to Carroll, unknown persons consistently intercept Sally along her path. 

This could be a simple case of espionage. It isn’t. Not only does Sally claim no memory of the events Carroll describes, neither do any of the eyewitnesses. Only recovering madman James Carroll is able to see the truth that somehow eludes those around him. 

The answer to Carroll is clear. Obviously, some shadowy group — probably aliens! — are using advanced technology to hypnotize people into seeing what the aliens want them to see. Only Carroll is immune, and only intermittently. 

If the aliens’ purpose was friendly, there would be no need for subterfuge. Therefore, the stakes must be high. Carroll cannot rely on the authorities to assist him, as they are all too vulnerable to the alien hypnosis. Under alien mind control, the authorities’ ability to explain away all the damning evidence is unlimited. If the Earth is to be saved, James Carroll must save it. 


The effects of researching Lawson radiation on those foolish enough to take an interest reminded me of this remarkable introduction:

In the authorities’ defense, the evidence on hand does not support Carroll’s bold assertions and hypotheses: buildings in which Carroll claims to have been imprisoned do not exist, the supposed aliens appear human in all details, and Carroll’s principle antagonist (Kingallis according to Carroll and Kingston Ellis according everyone else) does a very convincing job of being a perfectly mundane fellow whose main concern is that his sister (Rhinegallis according to Carroll, Rita Ellis to everyone else) is being stalked by a lunatic. Furthermore, Carrol’s explanations for the discrepancies are most charitably described as increasingly dubious.”

Speaking of beautiful hypotheses cruelly slain by cold fact: this novel has all the earmarks of having been written with John W. Campbell, Jr. in mind. Unreason embraces many of the tropes of which Campbell was so fond: conventional science that dismisses new theories and evidence, heroic lone geniuses, the occasional reference to psionics, and lashings of super-science handwaving. If that was the intention, Smith failed: the original story of which this is an expansion, 1947’s The Kingdom of the Blind,” was published not in Astounding,but in the somewhat more down-market Startling Stories.

I had a beautiful hypothesis to explain how this very Campbellian tale ended up in Startling Stories. Smith rewarded Campbell’s editorial support by providing Doña Stewart (then Mrs. Campbell) with companionship and then love when Campbell’s attention was entirely engaged by Dianetics. The frequency with which Smith appeared in Astoundingnosedived after Smith and the soon to be Mrs. Smith eloped. Clearly, the publication of the original story in Startling was a consequence of the domestic breakup. 

Alas, the dates don’t line up. The Campbell-Stewart marriage did not founder on the shoals of Campbell’s delusions until 1949. It’s hard to put an exact date on the beginning of Smith and Stewart’s affair, but the evidence does not suggest anything early than 1948 (when a recently divorced Smith lived with the Campbells) and most sources say 1949. Once again, reality doesn’t live up to my expectations (shakes cane at clouds). 

An alternative explanation for which evidence does exist is that while the original story may have been intended for Astounding, even the authors attempt to engage with Campbell’s obsessions did not compensate for the fact that the story is utterly blah. There’s the seed of an amusing idea here — a madman whose claims seem not merely absurd but easily disproven, despite which the super-science products of his delusions demonstrably work. But the story doesn’t work and neither does the novel. Unreason isn’t particularly good1 along any axis: the characters are no better than you’d expect of the era, the romance is unconvincing2, and the conclusion is less than satisfying. It’s a whew, that’s over” moment. 

All of which may explain why while many Smith books have been reprinted; The Path of Unreason is out of print. 

1: I did like the bit in the novel in which Pollard considers teaching himself the advanced physics pertaining to Lawson radiation to see what about it drives men mad, then rejects the project because his specialty is medicine, not physics. He has no reason to think expertise in one field means he would be any good in another, unrelated field. Would that more luminaries had embraced this common-sense notion.

2: At least the romantic partner in the novel is Rhine/Rita, not the too-young-for-Carroll Sally.