|In 1984's 'Circumpolar!' (Click here for review), Richard A Lupoff sent Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart on a competition flight through the center of a doughnut-shaped Earth to traverse the unseen other half and return over the ice mountains at the edge. Three years later, he took a fresh trip to this fantastic world for another novel, 'Countersolar!' but, as the title suggests, it goes a lot further than just revisiting the same territory.
It's now 1942 on this alternate Earth and the success of the Spirit of San Diego in that original competition opened up the two hemispheres to communication and commerce, not to mention politics. The Muvians were able to build an alliance against the expansion tactics of Svartalheim and... well, we don't get a whole heck of a lot more on the planet because Lupoff is about to take us off it.
Strange messages are being received from another Earth, one that appears to be situated on the exact opposite side of the Sun to the one we know and love. The only thing for it is to put to use the newest technology that will allow a ship to fly between the planets, using velocity enough to make a story like this viable, and help out the good guys on Counter-Earth against the bad guys who threaten them.
Following the template of 'Circumpolar!,' Lupoff populates this good guy spaceship with historical figures, but sets a bad guy spaceship with its own historical figures on the very same path to fight with them all the way and the playful rewriting of history is just as engaging.
Leading the way is a fictional version of the aircraft designer Jack Northrop, the founder of the Northrop Corporation, who had really been building flying wings in the late thirties like the City of Santa Barbara, the fictional one away from whose flight across the Atlantic he's called into action at the beginning of this book. Incidentally, the real Northrop died in 1981, three years before 'Circumpolar!' and six before he himself would be immortalized in fiction.
Also on board is the N-M1, the Manta, an experimental Northrop craft using the newest Muvian inspired magnetic technology, and it's the Manta which he promptly launches on a journey to Counter-Earth from the deck of the Titanic, the nearby ocean liner still crossing the Atlantic the old way, after decades.
Joining Northrop on this quest are two real sportsmen and a real scientist. The sportsmen are Babe Didrikson and Josh Gibson and the scientist - no less a name than Albert Einstein.
Didrikson was a versatile talent, winning two gold medals and a silver at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in track and field events, before earning a name at basketball and eventually golf, the sport with which she's most associated today. On Lupoff's world, she's best known for baseball, having become the first woman to play for the major leagues. Also playing in the major leagues on this doughnut-shaped Earth is Josh Gibson, who was black and thus prevented from doing so on our version of the planet, even though he was known in his day as the 'black Babe Ruth' (or, to be fair, in some places, Babe Ruth was known as the 'white Josh Gibson'.) Einstein, of course, is well-known to almost everyone and Lupoff has special fun with his character, eschewing the social comment he reserves for Didrikson and Gibson and playing up his eccentricities.
Just as in 'Circumpolar', the opposing ship is populated by bad guys. Here, it isn't a German/Russian alliance, as they've been somewhat reduced in stature after the events of the first book. This time, the Patrilandia is flown by Juan Peron, accompanied by his actress girlfriend, Eva Duarte, and the leader of the English blackshirts, Sir Oswald Mosley. This sets up a whole new dynamic in nation against nation, one that becomes even more important when these ships reach Counter-Earth and find how that version of their world evolved differently since its accidental creation in 1912.
Frankly, all this is enough imagination to fuel a few books, but there's plenty more here from Lupoff's fertile brain. The first sign that something is going on beyond just Earth and Counter-Earth is when these ships traverse the hole in the middle of the moon to gain speed and discover the pristine avenue of Egyptian pyramids and sphinxes lined up on the dark side. A miscalculation on Einstein's part (he was a great scientist, but notoriously bad at sums) leads the Manta to the asteroid belt where they find out much of the what, when and why about the Moon and, indeed, about the Counter-Earth.
After 'Circumpolar!' I very much wanted to traverse that hole in the Earth at least once more to find out how the world was progressing since the Hughes vs. von Richtofen competition of the first book. I still want to do that, but I wasn't unhappy at where Lupoff went instead. He does bring back a couple of those old characters in minor roles, but for the most part he moves on. Ratcheting up the concept to new heights, there's a lot here that makes little scientific sense but still plays wonderfully as pulp entertainment.
There's as much joy in the apparent asides, where characters learn something important or even level up in a way that owes much to E. E. 'Doc' Smith, than the main thrust of the story. In many ways, I think Lupoff realized that too, because he spends a lot more time building towards where these characters are going than actually writing about what happens when they get there. If everything surrounding it wasn't so much fun, the actual finalé might seem a little disappointing.
I appreciated the choice of characters for much the same reason as I appreciated the similar choice in the first book. Gibson and Didrikson make a lot of sense, given where the story takes us and how it compares possible futures of the Colossus in the North or, as we know it, the United States. However, being an Englishman by birth and upbringing, they were relatively new characters to me. I'd heard of Didrikson but not of Gibson and knew next to nothing about either, let alone Northrop, so their reimagining here made more sense after I'd done some reading up about who they really were. I knew more about the bad guys, which gave them more life in my eyes, even if they were less interesting as characters than the von Richtofens and the fictional Russian princess of 'Circumpolar!'
Of course, after not following up with a more obvious sequel to that book, Lupoff didn't follow up with the more obvious sequel to this one. There are novels waiting to be written out there in the asteroids and on the dark side of the moon, let alone everywhere else we stop on the way to Counter-Earth, but he hasn't written any of them thus far and, at this point, presumably won't.
He has, however, written many other novels, only a few of which I have and only one of which I believe I've read, but having thoroughly enjoyed afresh this duology with its pulp fantasy romps through an alternative but recognizable Earth and its mirror image on the other side of the sun, I feel the urge to explore some of them. ~~ Hal C F Astell