Card shark nerd and mafia lizards, Bayley’s underdog hero for humanity
Barrington J. Bayley was considered at the forefront of the New Wave of science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Alongside authors like Philip Jose Farmer, they looked for inspiration in the beat writers and especially William S. Burroughs than the Golden Age of Science Fiction being the logical approach to sci-fi genealogy. Science fiction was overrun with stories about space, interstellar travel, and galactic wars. It was time for a change, even if that meant a transference from “hard” to “soft” science.
Instead of plucking a book from the movement’s peak, I dove into Bayley’s book The Grand Wheel. Published in 1977 for DAW, the novel hit at a time when science fiction was all over the board. And this book was no different.
The book is about Cheyne Scarne, a professor of “randomatics.” He is selected to represent humanity in a card game that has widely varying results. The stakes are high with his life on the line. Bayley pushes the limits by making the villain the ultimate mafia who is in control of everything illegal on all of the planets under human control. That pretty much covers it for master villainery.
The DAW edition’s cover art is a mixed bag of a hot mess. With a book that sounds like the ultimate Vegas experience under the weight of high stakes and a Casino Royale coolness, Scarne should be this James Bond-like character. Yet, artist Don Maitz portrays Scarne as this weird Gary Shandling/Billy Crystal-looking creeper who looks like a stereotypical prog rock fan. Scarne is a professor, but Maitz does not even portray him as that. He looks like a referee at a Pee-Wee Soccer League who still lives with his mom. This is the guy who is supposed to save humanity? This is our hope? Maitz’s artwork is on a much higher level than what this cover insists.
Nonetheless, the book moves quickly, giving us the illusion of statistical science to provoke ideas in the plot just to make us feel Scarne’s intellect. The villain—a lizard in Maitz’s view—is powerful without presenting himself as so. It’s a card game based on random probability. Out of all the things in the universe, Bayley picks a card game for the book’s excitement. I give him credit for going out on a limb and creating a science fiction world that is original. It’s just hard to move past its own disposable story and surrealistic ending to make it memorable.