aka Reality Doll
Novel, first published: Worlds of Fantasy, Spring 1971
as Reality Doll (excerpt)
A band of adventurers are marooned on a strange planet, outside a colossal white city. The company includes Captain Mike Ross, fugitive and planet hunter; Sara Foster, rich big-game huntress bankrolling the expedition; Friar Tuck, a phony religious; and George Smith, a blind man who leads them to the planet by receiving a telepathic signal. They have come in search of another earlier explorer who landed on the planet with a telepathic robot and mysteriously disappeared. Other ships have been similarly disabled as theirs, and they wonder what happened to all the other visitors.
The band is greeted by hobbies, robots in the form of hobby-horses, who warn them to get inside the city before darkness. In the city, they discover a "doorway" to other worlds, and they are all shanghaied to a desert planet where they find a strange but powerful alien called Hoot. By combining their mental powers as if in a séance, the five are transported back to the city.
The five companions traverse the planet, through desert and badlands and into the mountains, looking for other visitors. They encounter plenty of exotic and dangerous flora and fauna in this Land of Oz ...
The band come upon a battlefield littered with piles of bones, grisly evidence of the Raveners' attack on the humans who brought the hobbies. Early in the quest, Tuck finds a crudely carved doll - in its face a heart-wrenching sadness and the "misery of existence" - for which he develops a Madonnalike obsession. The companions finally locate the explorer, trapped and completely happy in an "enchanted" valley resembling ancient Greece, with absolutely no desire to leave.
One by one, each of the humans, following his or her own "destiny," drops out: the blind man simply vanishes, Sara returns to the valley, and Tuck, leaving the doll, fades away. Hoot, after joining minds with Ross, reminiscent of the alien contacts in earlier novels like Time and Again and Time Is the Simplest Thing, metamorphoses into his "third self' and is gone. Only Ross and the explorer's telepathic robot, Roscoe, are left to return to the city, narrowly escaping the ugly Raveners.
Safe in the city, Ross tries to tie up all the loose ends and explain the company's disappearances. The trees were really "thought receivers" that stored the knowledge of the galaxy in seeds, but when will the alien orchard keepers who planted the trees come to reap the knowledge harvest? ...
Sara returns and Ross, in a mystical moment of epiphany (and just as they are about to be attacked by the Raveners), has the answer. The planet is a "many-layered reality," a jumping-off place from which the others were able to will themselves into alternate worlds, and the doll is the symbol of the shock of recognition that
"There were many universes and many sentient levels and at certain time-space intervals they became apparent and each of them was real, as real as the many geologic levels that a geologist could count. Except that this was not a matter of counting: it was seeing and sensing and knowing they were there (Chapter 28). "
Sara and Mike join the rest of the company. Not knowing how, but "filled with mystic faith," all took the step "out into the infinite unknowing" and found a familiar Simakian pastoral paradise, "a place that was everlasting and unchanging with room for everyone."
Ewald, Robert J.: When the Fires Burn High and the Wind is from the North, p.95-96