“What Mad Universe” is a bit of an obscure science fiction novel but nevertheless, it is still a classic. The story first appeared in the September 1948 issue of Startling Stories, a pulp magazine which ran from 1939 to 1955 and is notable for eye-catching covers. It was written by Frederic Brown, a writer much more known for his short stories than his handful of novels. Unlike many classics of the era Brown uses satire and outright slapstick humor in the tale.
Keith Winton is the editor of a pulp science fiction magazine (much like Startling Stories) who takes a trip to his publisher’s estate in the Catskills. On the same day, an experimental rocket is launched to the moon but something goes awry, and the rocket crashes to Earth…right on the estate where Keith is visiting. The rocket releases a blast of energy which hurls Keith into an alternate dimension that is identical to his world in some ways yet very different in others.
Aliens walk this world on the street, side-by-side with humans and no one bats an eye. Women dress for work in skimpy, revealing outfits much like those damsels in distress seen on pulp magazine covers, and the city is cloaked in total darkness at night and haunted by beings known at the Night Men. Keith finds himself suspected of being a spy for an alien race, an accusation that could get him shot on sight. His only hope of surviving and getting home to his world is to track down a larger-than-life hero…sort of a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/Doc Savage all rolled into one…but the hero happens to be engaged to the doppelganger he is in love with back on this world.
“What Mad Universe” is a fun, farce of a story. Brown makes no attempt at any actual scientific principles. The explosion of the rocket and release of energy is merely a plot boondoggle to get Keith thrust into an alternate world filled with 40s stereotypes of aliens and pin-up girls come to life. Brown was actually more successful as a writer of pulp detective stories than Sci-Fi and you can see him utilize those skills in the creepiness and violence of the night time segments. These sections of the story have a strong crime noir feel to them contrasting the craziness of the bizarre alternate world.
While some might see the story as cheesy and dated I found it to be a nostalgic window into that era of pulp fiction. The novel has seen its fair share of new printings and editions over the decades and if you’re looking for something a little more bizarre and out of the box, this is a book you should definitely check out.