Welcome to a new feature of the blog. I’ve been meaning to get into reviewing the books I’m reading for awhile, and since I’m currently reading Ace Doubles, I’m going to start by reviewing those. I may review other material in the coming months, but this isn’t a step towards this blog being review-focused. The format of these reviews may change as this feature grows and evolves, but I am aiming at reviewing both halves of each Ace Double as a single entity.
˙ǝlqnop ǝɔ∀ ǝɥʇ ɟo lǝǝɟ ǝɥʇ uıɐʇuıɐɯ oʇ uʍop-ǝpısdn sʍǝıʌǝɹ ǝɥʇ ɟo ǝuo ƃuıʇsod ʇsuıɐƃɐ pǝpıɔǝp I pɐlƃ ǝq ʇsnſ
With that prologue out of the way, let’s slip into Ace Double D-479, original price 35¢, featuring Wilson Tucker’s To The Tombaugh Station and Poul Anderson’s Earthman, Go Home!
“Was his spaceship haunted — or merely booby-trapped?”
Kate Bristol was a born huntress. Her keen senses and steel nerves were infallible, and nobody knew it better than her superiors at Interworld Insurance. They took it for granted that when they put Bristol on the case she would bring back the man — and the facts!
But even Kate began to doubt her ability when they handed her the job of tracking a murder suspect on board the spaceship Xanthus. One, the ship was bound for the farthermost outpost of civilization. Two, there would be no one on board the ship but Kate and the suspected murder-pilot. And three, the trip would take at least two months!
For Kate this assignment was more than just a challenge — it was life or death. She had always to stay one step ahead of the suspect or she might never live to return from that trip TO THE TOMBAUGH STATION.
Right out of the gate I expected a roaring thrill ride from this novel. How could I not? There’s a potentially haunted space ship! Guys go into space with bare hands and frilly boots! It mentions an insurance company right there in the second sentence of the blurb! Alright, the third one is plainly unfair. This novel gets plenty of mileage out of the concept that any job is more fun when the words “IN SPACE” are tacked on to the end of it. Thus we have a story of Kate Bristol, Insurance detective IN SPACE sent out by her boss, an insurance claims adjuster IN SPACE, to determine whether Irvin Webb, long haul trucker IN SPACE, is a murderer IN SPACE. Alright, I guess potential murderer typically stands as interesting enough on its own without “IN SPACE”. She does this by securing a one-way trip as the freighter’s only passenger on the way to the Tombaugh Station, an observatory on the planet Pluto.
The setup is fantastic. Space is one of those rare ways to completely isolate characters together within a story. In this case we have the female detective and the male murder suspect locked in a ship, isolated together, for nearly two months. Unfortunately I didn’t get quite the drama out of the story that the premise promises. Even as she’s talking her way onto the ship, the bigger concern isn’t whether or not he’s going to kill her but rather whether or not there’ll be a door hung on the lavatory closet. There are those moments when Kate must sneak around behind Irvin’s back, no mean task with the confined conditions, but at no point does she strike me in the least bit worried about her life. Perhaps this is because at no point did I feel that Irvin was guilty of murder. A foul and cantankerous man who’d been into space one too many times, certainly, but not a murderer. We spend too much time in his head, and his thoughts are never “I could kill her like that last guy,” but rather “gosh I wonder what’s under that green plastic onesie.”
The world? Now the world I enjoyed. Within Tucker’s view of solar system travel, there’s a cost involved. The radiation is an absolute bitch, and those who have taken too many trips develop worsening skin cancer. It puts space travel out of reach for all but the determined or the fool-hearty, and is appropriate to the year, as we were still working out just how lethal space was. It also deepens the feeling of isolation. Oh, certainly, there are inconceivable distances between planets even at their closes approaches to each other, but coupled with a paucity of civilization beyond earth and it further ramps up the frontier feel of setting out into the nothingness aiming at a distant point with no help in between. Even when you get to Titan you find out it’s been entirely colonized by New Zealanders.
So the world was interesting, the plot wanted for more tension, and the ending weakened the story. The mystery plot wraps up well enough. I can remember all the details that Kate pieces together, even if I didn’t recognize them as clues, and there’s even just enough room in the 45000ish words for one red herring. The problem lies in the ending of the plot not being the ending of the story. And I’m not talking about a denouement. The plot ties up cleanly a chapter early. That gives plenty of time to tack on a more exciting ending as the Xanthus crash lands on Pluto, leaving Kate and Irvin marooned and waiting for rescue. It serves only to play one little card the novel was holding onto, an emergency rescue beacon hidden about Kate’s body. Where, you may ask? “Don’t be naïve” she answers as the last line of the book. It wasn’t a card that needed to be played in this way, however, since it was the cause of the radar echo early in the book, something she doesn’t learn until after the problem has fixed itself. Another lost chance for drama if she has to decide between shutting off her only lifeline to the world beyond the Xanthus and potential discovery of her true purpose on the ship.
Does the book utilize this drama? Don’t be naïve.
So it was a thriller with not quite enough tension, and an ending that felt tacked on to provide a requisite amount of excitement. This is largely what I expected out of the Doubles, though I’m not yet through enough of them to know if this is what I should expect or not. It’s getting a neutral score just because I have only itself and Earthman, Go Home to score it against.
I love the covers of these books too much to not talk about them as part of the review. First, as to the question in the teaser, “was his spaceship haunted?” No. Absolutely not. The word “ghost” is used several times in the first half of the book, but it’s very clear every time that it’s purely a metaphor for the radar echo caused by Kate’s concealed radio. The scene in the illustration happens, but I do love the absolute attention to detail. This book came out in 1960, a year before the first manned space flight, but I think even by then we knew you might want to put some gloves on when you leave your spaceship. If nothing else so you don’t catch your death of explosive decompression. That scene does happen, Irvin the suspected murderer saves a man from a disabled ship, but only because it’s convenient and pays well. It’s perhaps the only visually interesting scene to depict. You know, unless you want to use the exciting hanging-a-door-on-the-lavatory scene.
3 out of 5 lavatory doors.
“This quarantined world resisted change.”
When Captain Sir Dominic Flandry heard of Unan Besar, he thought carefully of the possibilities the planet might offer. It had been a Terran settlement, but in the vast confusion of galactic colonization, it had been lost in the shuffle.
Lost? Well, perhaps not so much lost as kidnapped. For a civilization can develop in strange ways over three hundred years — and it looked as if this one had deliberately withdrawn from the rest of the universe.
It was the kind of situation that Flandry liked. And because he knew there was profit in intrigue, he decided to invade the planet — alone. But as soon as he had landed he found himself playing a game for his very life — with all the rules made by his world-wide opponents!
Few of these doubles have obvious A-sides and B-sides. This one does. Earthman, Go Home! is the only of the two titles listed on Goodreads, suggested for rescue on Save the Sci-Fi, or included in any later digital releases, though by the alternate, less pulpy title A Plague of Masters (cover of dubious work safeness). It falls near the middle of Anderson’s Terran Empire series, and near the end of the timeline for main character Dominic Flandry, after he’s been apparently promoted to captain and knighted. It was my first exposure to Anderson, Flandry, or the Terran Empire. Yes, that’s the sort of secluded literary life I’ve lead.
Captain Sir Flandry, as I’ve gathered from Wikipedia, was influenced by James Bond, whose first appearance predates Flandry by two years. He’s not quite James Bond IN SPACE (really, I’ll stop that now) but he does exemplify several elements of the Bond character. Which…is not so much a good thing. I’ve made a few attempts at the original Bond novels, and the character on the page is not the suave and debonair Sean Connery being charmingly Scottish all over the world. Or even the more world-weary modernized Daniel Craig. No. Bond is a bit of a dick. And Flandry? Yeah, also a bit of a dick, at least in terms of this story. He exemplifies why a main character needs a flaw.
Alright, he has a flaw, but not in the modern literary sense where a character has some element of his character he needs to overcome. No, Flandry’s flaw is just flat out narcissism, which the novel makes very clear is entirely justified. It’s hard to go a chapter without Flandry thinking just how awesome he is at one skill or another, or otherwise expounding how he’s the only one who can deliver this poor backwards world from its oppressive oligarchy. At no point does he fail. Even when he gets captured, he’s captured nobly to save others.
So not only do we get the personality flaws of James Bond, we get the broader John Carter theme of a single earthling being awesome enough to enact global change.
Just a moment, let me back the hell up here. I’m getting harsh on this book, and in many ways it deserves it, but there is some good. The story is set on a planet colonized by humanity as it went through a hyper expansionary phase throughout the galaxy. It was then lost as the Empire slipped towards decline. The atmosphere harbors a deadly bacteria that every man, woman, and child is protected against by a monthly pill, thus providing control over the population (I was convinced the pill would end up being a placebo, I was wrong). The planet is an odd mix of the classic backwards world like Barsoom, right down to universal toplessness, and modern technology as the pill dispensary system includes a world-wide computer network with biometric inputs. I love this planet! Notice a theme already of me liking the world building better than the stories?
And that’s what carried me through the noble tree-living savages, the savior from the stars, the narcissism, and the love-em-and-leave-em attitude. Well…that and the campiness of all those elements. It’s why I watched Mystery Science Theater, it’s why I’m reading Ace Doubles: the expectations of a certain level of campiness. Earthman will likely serve as my barometer for the time being, so the score of three below defines this book as being exactly as good as itself. I only hope I don’t decide this book should have been my five.
To the cover! The world isn’t exactly quarantined, that implies that a conscious decision to leave the people to their own devices. They were forgotten, and I think the phrase “forgotten colony” is so much more intriguing than “quarantined planet.” The illustration is another faithful rendition of a scene in the book, as Flandry escapes with the help of the mugger-with-a-heart-of-gold Kemul. Yes, Flandry falls in with criminal elements in the story, one who delightfully doesn’t so much have a heart of gold and ultimately doesn’t give a shit about anyone. It was the right lust interest for Flandry, because “love interest” implies his interests go beyond the physical. And for god’s sake, the title. At no point is he called an “earthman” he’s very clearly called a “Terran,” as this is the point in science fiction where “Terra” and “Terran” were all the rage. But now I’m just splitting hairs.
3 out of 5 earthmen, going home.
Next time F-119, a Gordon R. Dickson double-header with SpAcial Delivery and Delusion World.