One of the jokes about Ace Doubles is how the two halves rarely had any cohesion. I’ve already seen that internal themes between the stories isn’t all that important. Earthman, Go Home had little to do with To The Tombaugh Station. Spacial Delivery and Delusion World were connected thanks to their shared authorship. F-108, intentionally or accidentally, does have a shared theme between the two stories. Both halves explore a universe where humanity came rushing out from earth without considering that they were the new species on the block. In short, humanity needs to check itself before it wrecks itself. One succeeded admirably, one…didn’t. In the order I read them, let’s jump into The Sun Saboteurs and The Light of Lilith.
Exiles From a Hostile Universe
Lazlo Cudyk, Seu Min, Father Exarkos — their names suggested vastly different ancestory [sic], dissimilar backgrounds. But on the Niori planet where they lived, those names also suggested an important common denominator: all of them were immigrants from Earth.
For Earth, having been spent on war and destruction, was no longer capable of supporting anything more than the most primitive agrarian society. And men of intellect and learning, if they were to find any kind of existence at all, had to find it on alien planets.
It wouldn’t have been a bad life, either, had there been any rapport between the Earthmen and their hosts. But the Niori had no understanding — or trust — of a people that could kill and destroy. And the Earthmen were not sure that they could prove their new-found maturity quickly enough to keep from being banished forever to a home-world gone backwards in time!
Typically I start with the covers of these books. I’ve already discussed this cover in my post about the artist, Ed Valigursky. While not representative of most of the story in The Sun Saboteurs, it is a scene that takes place late in the book…and is a very dark scene. In that way, perhaps it is representative of the book at large, which is a fantastically dark story. Strictly speaking they are not exiled to a hostile universe, but rather exiled in a pointedly non-hostile universe. But I get ahead of myself. Oh, and if that giant crease running through the cover breaks your heart, it’s my own fault, and breaks my heart, too.
The Sun Saboteurs, which has also been published under the name The Earth Quarter, presents a series of episodes in the lives of humans living in what amounts to a ghetto on an alien planet after a disaster of a largely unexplored nature has reverted earth to a pre-industrial state. In the end, the disaster doesn’t matter, those humans who escaped the planet have no real interest in returning, and those who do want a home world seek not to repatriate the earth but rather to set up their own planet in the galaxy.
A galaxy that largely distrusts humanity, as we are the only hostile race. This part of the premise is a stretch, but the rest of the story gripped me too much to let this bother me. Original sin means only humans have discovered violence? Alright, fine, let’s get on with the story.
If I’m enjoying a book, I’ll often think about how it would be adapted as a movie in my head. It’s just one of those things I do. While reading The Sun Saboteurs, I kept coming back to it not as a movie, but as a television series. It wasn’t until the third chapter that I understood why. We’re presented with a rather set cast of characters existing within a premise, and then shown slices of their lives. Between chapters the story jumps for months, which was disorienting at first, but as I realized just what story Damon Knight was telling, it made sense. We’re experiencing the changing emotions in the earth quarter after Rick, a rogue pilot flying the colors of the former earth navy, announces he is setting up a new earth and cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who stays on the Niori planet.
In the end it’s a story of people forced out of their home, trying to create what sort of a community they can in an alien land, then being presented a fresh mandate to leave.
I like the occasional dark slice of science fiction, and The Sun Saboteurs piled the dark up nicely. It tells a very personal story amid a massive conflict. Billions of lives may be lost off camera, but Knight makes us care very deeply about the select few lives that we revolve around on the Niori planet. Somewhere out in the blackness we can see a massive space opera is happening, and in one chapter we go witness it, but in the middle of that regular people are trying to live regular lives.
FIVE out of five total-conversion bombs.
Trapped in Time’s Vortex
In the strange light of the planet Lilith, Mason saw the future:
“Man was being scorched off the face of the Earth, and burned like a pestilence off the other neighboring planets. For now was the time of the end of his sun.
“And knowing that, for an instant Mason knew also how far he had traveled. Not some thousands of light-years through space, through swirling galaxies and suns; that, yes, but not only that. He had also traveled into time, some ten thousand million years into the future to witness the end of the world.
“Not all the resources of the heavens, racing faster than the speed of light, could save the enormous population from its fate…”
But somehow Mason realized that he had been granted this vision for a purpose. In his foreknowledge lay the hope that this thing might not come to pass. Somehow, someway, on the eerie world of Lilith, there was a by-pass to that far-off doom. Would he know it when he saw it?
This cover is everything I love about old grindhouse science fiction movie posters. Which, I suppose, is fitting. Pulp and grindhouse are logical playmates when we’re discussing genre fiction. Both were produced cheaply and given garish artwork to draw in the largest audience possible. A green man with his skeleton visible, glowing purple. Some odd sort of polyp on the ground. Characters posed to tell us this is clearly a Bad Thing what is happening? Awesome.
Yeah. So. That basically exhausts what positive impressions I have of this half of F-108. While The Sun Saboteurs stands out as the best Ace Double half I’ve read, The Light of Lilith is easily the nadir of the first half dozen. It wasn’t one single issue that kept me from engaging with this novel, the problems I had with the story came at me from every direction at once.
First was the underlying issue of the planet Lilith itself. The goal of humanity on the planet is to play with the different colors of light that exist only on that world. Experimenting with them. Combining them. Applying them. Colors that can be powerful, spur evolution, or even kill. Colors. I’m fine with stories that postulate the occasional existence of a color we’re not aware of, whether it’s Octarine in the Discworld series or H. P. Lovecraft’s The Colour out of Space. I’m even okay with species that experience a different visible spectrum than humanity. Even the old canard of deep childhood philosophy: what if other people see colors differently than I do. But I could not, no matter how hard I tried, suspend my disbelief to allow for a planet where the color spectrum was different to the point of lethality.
We’re also exposed to a theory that advancement of a species’ evolution is directly tied to the number of fingers it has. The primitive life on Lilith has just four, the aliens far more advanced than humanity have six. This isn’t me reading into things, it is actively pointed out by the narrative. I was disappointed with how late the aliens appeared on page, even though they were mentioned in passing at several points. And in the end of it all, the whole plot is solved by odd twin deus ex machinae, as we are presented with a cataclysmic event with no foreshadowing and with the main character certain of exactly when it will happen through what is only a series of guesses.
It’s an odd paring with The Sun Saboteurs, as it feels that everything Wallis does wrong is everything Knight does right. There’s none of the subtlety about the message of humanity needing to correct its course before going out into the stars. The main character is given a vision of a far distant future where the last dregs of humanity are bemoaning their inability to evolve and be accepted by the galactic community, and perhaps if they had they would not be stranded on earth as the sun burns out. Where Saboteurs is a personal story taking place is the background of an epic, Lilith is every attempt to make an epic out of what would be better framed as a very personal story. Perhaps the two stories are unfairly paired, as it demands a direct comparison of the two, but as much as I try to consider Lilith on its own without the overshadowing Sun Saboteurs, I am left with the same weaknesses and same issues.
There are points where I considered giving this book only a one out of five, however I have to acknowledge two basic facts. One, I tend to withhold that only for books I abandon reading. Two, I did get some enjoyment out of this book. Just not for the reasons I was meant to. I enjoyed harping about it to my wife. Reading the occasional passages out loud. I enjoyed it, basically, as I would a movie on Mystery Science Theater.
Two out of five fingers.
A note for those following me on Goodreads. These reviews will serve as my scores over on that site. As I’m more comfortable with the thought of reviewing, I may even include them over there. I figure it’s important to note that I will use the higher of the two scores in all cases, rather than using some form of average. Oh, and over there I guess I’ll just use stars, because that’s all they offer.