Barrington J. Bayley had a most delightful skill at taking traditional space opera and adventure plots and spinning them in unique directions like nobody's business. The Grand Wheel is no exception. It's a story whose theme is chance, set against a future backdrop where human civilization is governed by a benign but inept body called the Legitimacy, but actually ruled by a vast gambling syndicate called the Grand Wheel. The Grand Wheel have perfected a new mathematics called "randomatics," by means of which they are able to predict seemingly random events with greater and greater certainty. The immensity of their gaming operations means practically the whole of humankind's economic infrastructure is under their influence.
Fearing for their power — especially at a time when they are also waging war against invading aliens from deep space — the Legitimacy has an unwitting spy, a randomatics expert named Cheyne Scarne, work his way into the Grand Wheel's ruling hierarchy. There are suspicions the Wheel are working on all-new "luck equations," by which they can not only predict the most improbable of circumstances but control and manipulate them as well. Scarne becomes inducted into the Wheel after scoring a virtually impossible jackpot at one of the Wheel's casinos, an event he is unsure was either planned or truly pure chance. What's more, the jackpot — which ordinarily would take the form of some sort of direct stimulus to the brain's pleasure centers — gives Scarne an alarming vision of "the gulf of pure randomness that underlay all of existence." Poor guy.
Scarne, whose hallucinations into this underlying universal chaos seem to be coming more frequently, becomes the protegé of Marguerite Dom, the most prominent and ruthless member of the Wheel's ruling "mathematical cadre." Dom has found that the alien Hadranics, who are currently mopping up the galaxy with the Legitimacy and moving closer and closer to conquering Earth, have a Wheel of their own, a gambling network that is truly interstellar in scope with stakes and possible winnings that are almost incomprehensibly huge. Dom wants in on this racket — and not only in. He wants to gamble all of humanity, quite literally, in the biggest game of them all! And he is grooming Scarne to help him in this.
I'm no mathematician (he said, being far too kind to himself), so I don't really know if there's anything the least bit valid in the concept of randomatics in the first place. But dramatically, Bayley certainly pulls it off. Indeed, I can't think of the last time I read a book this small tackling concepts this enormous. Chance, causality, non-causality, infinity itself. Bayley juggles these ideas as if doing so is the most natural thing in the world, and he does it within the framework of what could be, given a slightly less nebbishy hero, a James Bond thriller of the old school. Throughout, the story is richly compelling, thanks to Bayley's effortless talespinning and the originality of his premise and plot. Bayley also conjures up memorable settings that haunt you long after the tale is told, such as the gambling world of Chasm, whose Vegas-y pleasure halls line a five-mile deep fissure and whose bright lights and kitschy luxury are regularly contrasted by the nightmarish sight of falling bodies. Another scenario: the Cave, a bleak region in space in which supernovae occur with inexplicable frequency, and whose few remaining worlds bear the eerie remnants of once-proud civilizations. Most writers today would need 800 pages to pack in so many dazzling ideas. Bayley gets it done in less than a fourth of that.
The Grand Wheel is just a tremendously satisfying reading experience. I'm starting to think that one of SF's great crimes is that Barrington Bayley's mantlepiece isn't buckling under the weight of multiple Hugos and Nebulas. Hopefully I can do a small part in encouraging a new generation of readers to, at the very least, track him down and see what the heck they've been missing. If you're just now hearing of Bayley for the first time, well...consider yourself lucky.