Archive for August 30th, 2012

Ace Double Review F-149

I first bought Ace Doubles from a library sale, where they were clearly donated by a single collector. Later I bought a lot from eBay, all signed with the same name. Both of these collections shared F-149 in common with its fantastic covers. So, I figured I should read it.

King of the Fourth Planet

The god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine

John Rolf fled his own guilt when he abandoned the corruption of Earth for a life of meditation on the many levels of Mars’ mountain, ruled as tradition had it by a king with amazing powers. In this serene climate, Rolf perfect an invention that would explore the human mind–and thereby unearthed a menace that threatened to annihilate the ancient Martian culture.

The discovery confronted Rolf with the crisis of his loyalty and his past. To defy Earth, to save Mars?

Yet only the KING OF THE FOURTH PLANET would have the power to do so–and everyone believed the king to be a myth.

I love stories of an inhabited Mars, and I’ve made no secret about that. Why I waited so long to pull out a book that has “…of the Fourth Planet” I’m not sure, especially one that’s clearly about men in white fright wigs plugging into machines to fight ghost soldiers. On the fourth planet!

This novel serves as a sort of origin story for the classic science fiction trope of a civilization evolving beyond the need of their physical bodies. In his attempt to build a mind-reading machine, John Rolf instead builds a machine that completely divorces his awareness from his body. The result is a book that has an excuse to break a lot of recent writing rules. It slips from third person limited to third person omniscient, and at the same time starts a lot of head hopping. Largely because Rolf spends several chapters being omniscient and hopping from head to head through both the human and Martian citizens of the fourth planet.

Mars is always different in these books, always some form of metaphor. In John Carter they’re noble savages needing a savior. In War of the Worlds they’re savage invaders. In King, they’re a highly stratified people, both figuratively and literally as the higher and more civilized Martians live on successively higher tiers of the great holy mountain of Mars, with the vast plains suited only to the basest among them. These lowest plains are also largely the homes of humans on Mars, with Rolf being the rare exception allowed to live on the fourth of seven tiers and even visit the fifth on occasion.

So what happens when you’ve got a self-stratified Martian population who are willing to peacefully work to secure positions for themselves and descendents at higher levels of the mountains? Humans come and dick it all up. Sure enough, the primary drama revolves around a human-led uprising from the lower levels, where it’s made quite clear the citizens of the first and second levels are fighting out of fear of the humans than out of a legitimate desire to overturn the hierarchy. This mixes in with two plot points clearly intended to be twists. First is Rolf himself creating the voluntary sex slavery that lets young women (including his daughter) come to Mars as “secretaries.” Second is the inevitable twist that the most obviously “non-obvious” member of Martian society is the King.

That I enjoyed the story in spite of these telegraphed twists is a testament to the writing and plotting. Rolf isn’t the typical pulp hero I’ve read. No, the typical pulp hero is the one at the bottom of the mountain couching an insurgent uprising in terms of egalitarianism while keeping a private harem back at the ship. Things are, perhaps, a little pat. The book certainly falls in the good-not-great territory, and I’m not going to bust out a five rating, but it lived up to the fun of the cover admirably.

4 out of 5 I-machines.

Cosmic Checkmate

10,000 worlds against one.

“I’ll beat you the second game,” was the Earthman’s challenge to the planet Velda–whose culture was indeed based on a complicated super-chess of skill and concentration. A Human and a Veldian could meet over a game board, but was there any other ground for understanding?

For the code of Velda was strange and savage, based on a concept of honor no Earthman could comprehend. The men were warriors and the women were–mysteries.

One world was challenging a galaxy, as one man was challenging that world. And in the contest for a universe, would there be a second game?

Some of my favorite mysteries are ones I don’t recognize as mysteries until the solution is spread out in front of me. There’s no murder to solve, no theft to uncover, no kidnapping to correct. Instead there’s one human risking his life by visiting the hostile world of Velda and learning the complex board game at the heart of the society. To that, I must give the book some credit for degree of difficulty. Much of the drama surrounds an entirely fictional game which, as Quidditch proves, is not the easiest plot point. This is done by using mostly chess terminology.

The mystery hidden in the book is how best for humanity, in spite of its presence on 10,000 worlds across the galaxy, to combat the threat posed by the relatively small planet of Velda. As with any good mystery, all elements of the solution are hidden in the pages of the book. Nothing is hidden, save that the book is written in the standard mystery format, and there are no cheats.

Well. There’s one cheat. In a book where the pacing was a few hours per chapter for the majority, the pacing suddenly becomes weeks, months, or even years per chapter for the conclusion. This is all really a protracted epilogue showing the results of the solution in action. Also, some might consider it a cheat that humans and Veldians can interbreed, a trope that I know isn’t popular, at least it does provide one of the puzzle pieces that come together for the solution. No throwaway details here, Ace Doubles, they’re short and they need to get shit done. I do have one of the yellow spined “mystery” doubles, and I might actually give it a try if this is the pacing they use.

As to this, hiding a mystery, implementing a game, and being damned readable in the progress?

4 out of 5 Veldian-Human hybrids.

I haven’t been posting averages, but anyone following my reviews will note this is the highest average rating I’ve given a double. It didn’t contain my favorite individual story, but it’s been my favorite pairing. For now, at least.

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