Archive for category Ace Doubles

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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Ace Double Review G-618

This book won my little vote of which Emil Petaja story to read first. For obvious reasons: Vikings in Space! We’re stepping away from space opera with G-618 and into the world of the fantasy double, two stories taking place on a forgotten earth of the deep past. Though first, I’ll warn you…there were no vikings in space. Sorry.

The Stolen Sun

He had to bridge 100 generations

Like an umbilical cord, the cortical hook-up linking Wayne Panu to his ship involved them in an unheard-of rapport, even in the ranks of the unique esper-pilot fleet that warred against the world-engulfing Mephiti.

In the outward surge into the far-flung galactic worlds for colonization Man had found but few habitable planets–but now even those few worlds were challenged. The Mephiti–dread, all-embracing fog forms–were Man’s match as they fought him planet for planet in the race for habitable space.

And only Wayne Panu, with his extraordinary ESP talents that went beyond the mind and the here and now–whose senses were strangely linked in the past to the heroes and legends of the ancient Kalevala–could retaliate in this fantastic war that devoured suns and swept across the ages of eternity.

Yes, I know what I just said about G-618 being a break from space opera and towards fantasy, then I post the summary from inside the cover and it’s a story about Mankind’s massive war against their dreaded alien enemy the Mephiti. And, yes, that is what the first act of the book is about. Wayne Panu is a specially trained military pilot who is psychically linked to his ship, and together they bomb planets, destroying all higher order forms of life. Often preemptively, without visiting the planet. Because in the end it’s easier to completely wipe out an entire intelligent civilization if you know nothing about it. Same reason you don’t name a lab rat you’ll need to one day kill and dissect, I suppose. It’s a job that Panu is good at, which troubles him deeply, especially when a young pilot learning from him is killed by the Mephiti. It’s a story that I really wish I read more of. However, act two open with Panu chasing a giant bronze ship, which results in him being thrown back into time and into Northern European fantasy.

That’s right about where the story lost me.

I understand that the man out of place, even the man out of time, is a common trope within the fantasy genre. However, creating such a rich and fascinating world, and keeping me in that world for so long before pulling the rug away, was a bait-and-switch that I never entirely forgave the book for as I read. I’ve heard tell of a fake Harry Potter book in which Harry is transformed into a Hobbit, and then the entire text of the Hobbit is copied before an epilogue where Harry once again becomes a wizard person, dear reader. I would not for a moment suggest The Stolen Sun was created in the same cynical effort to dupe readers, I give it far more credit than that, but just in the way that it presents one story then tells a completely different one…yeah, I wish I could disguise my frustration, but there it is.

That’s not to say the interior story wasn’t interesting, but it had several elements that felt like they were about to tie into the act one narrative that didn’t. The Mephiti have no sense of sight, and they engulf worlds in darkness. In the interior story the sun, as the title suggests, has been stolen. My expectation was always that our hero would end up fighting the Mephiti in the old north. Nope. Or that he might have to use his enhance psychic senses to solve the underlying problems. Again, nope. So I was torn away from a story I was quite liking to plop down into another story where the character has a fantastically identical name and otherwise doesn’t feel like the same character. Panu is a complex character in act one, through the rest of the book we’re presented with a character whose development includes making the decision to not rape the 16 year old girl he’s pinned to the ground, which I guess is a point in his favor, though not one I would have actively sought to award. He’s fantastic at figuring out his way through a series of three page-filling tasks assigned by a witch whom he is trying to impress to have a chance to marry his near-victim.

At least there was a cameo by the sampo, which cheered my inner Mystery Science Theater fan.

In the end, this was the book decided upon by the choose-based-on-the-cover poll I ran, which proves that it’s not the best way to judge a book. The story telling was strong enough, especially in act one, I just feel too betrayed to give it a good score.

Two out of five sampos.

The Ship from Atlantis

The epic sequel to King of the World’s Edge

When the warrior Gwalchmai set out from his homeland to bring world of new conquests to his father’s emperor, he sailed into perils more strange and awesome than even the King of the World’s Edge had known.

For Gwalchmai was cast adrift in a dread Sargasso where ships from all the world’s past were entombed, and there he found the enigmatic Ship from Atlantis, last artifact of a once-great civilization…and the beautiful Corenice, sorceress and woman of star-metal.

Together they face a menace as old as Atlantis itself, and fought to save the Earth’s peoples from the powers of ancient darkness.

First, I’m going to say I need to track down King of the World’s Edge. The Ship from Atlantis starts with a “Last time on Merlin’s Godson” chapter that includes King Arthur, Vikings, Merlin and Mesoamericans. The two books were later combined into a single title called Merlin’s Godson, prequel to Merlin’s Ring, which has a cover fantastic enough that it landed on Good Show Sir.

Shockingly, the fire-breathing swan makes sense.

The book can be seen as either the middle book of a trilogy, or the second half of a full-length novel. Either of those makes it an awkward entry point to the story. At least it has a distinct beginning, even if it does come with a catch-up infodump, and a distinct ending, even if it does come with a cliff-hanger to lead the reader into Merlin’s Ring. In many ways the story reminds me of video games.

Stay with me, it’s a two-part analogy.

Part one: In the sequels to Assassin’s Creed II, there was always a mechanism near the beginning of the game to strip Ezio of all the fantastic lethal gear he’d earned in the previous game, everything that made him far too deadly of a character to play at the beginning of a game. At the beginning of The Ship from Atlantis our hero sets out with a longship full of magical gear and capable men, just to lose his crew in a massive fight off the Florida keys, and his own memory while floating through the Sargasso Sea. Thus he ends up fittingly reset to start an adventure.

Part two: In video games, as well as movies and books, Nazis are a fantastic bad guy. They represent such an unmitigated evil that the media consumer doesn’t fret over them being dispatched by the hundreds, or even thousands. Such a force of pure evil is a well-traveled trope within fantasy. Orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai. They want our heroes dead, and we see them die in mass numbers without any moral quandary. The “ancient darkness” in Ship from Atlantis are characterized by watching passively as a mother beats her child to death. It’s an efficient way to set up the big evil, space is at a premium in these Doubles, but I can’t say it was an effective method.

The story strings together tropes in an inoffensive way. Fast-formed romances, harrowing battles fought while impossibly outnumbered, the promise of tragic lovers to find each other again in another lifetime, it’s the general construction of a fantasy story. Each element was well written, but none really set my world on fire. That doesn’t sound glowing, nor may the number score below, but at the same time I’ve already mentioned a desire to read the first book, which I understand is disjointed, and certainly the follow-up, which was nominated for the World Fantasy best novel award.

In the end, the two stories share some bits in common. They mix some science fiction in with their fantasy, Ship from Atlantis including ancient Atlantean interactions with aliens. They both present a fantasy secret history of the earth. They both are middle books in longer series. And they both feature their main characters running from fire breathing swan ships bent on exacting revenge.

Wait, no, that’s just this one.

Three out of five swan ships.

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Ace Double Review: F-108

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 StationSpacial 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.

The Sun Saboteurs

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.

The Light From Lilith

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.

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Help Me Judge A Book By Its Cover!

So far my Ace Doubles have come from a pair of collections, one donated to a library, one sold on eBay.  The library collection was time based, a near complete collection of the Sci-Fi doubles for about a 16 month release window.  The other collection feels more deliberate, someone just buying the novels he loved, then making sure to not only write his name in each one, but on each side of each one.  In this second collection I ended up with three titles from author Emil Petaja.  Petaja only wrote 15 novels, which means buying one man’s Doubles collection netted me 20% of them.

I can only make assumptions, but I think the previous owner of this collection was deliberately picking Petaja books, so that’s where I’m going to go next with my reading.  So I thought I’d open this up for general opinions.  Below are the covers, tell me where I should start!  I’m working through The Janus Affair right now, so I’ll probably be looking for my next read by Friday.

I have my guess which one y’all will choose, but I’m still curious.

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Cover Art: Ed Valigursky

I just finished The Sun Saboteurs, half of F-108, a story written by Damon “To Serve Man” Knight and previously published as The Earth Quarter.  This isn’t the review, I still have The Light of Lilith  to finish first, rather it’s looking at some rather interesting similarities with To The Tombaugh Station.  Not in the story, in the cover:

Fortunately I found a site that lists the artists behind many of the Ace Double covers, which confirmed what I thought.  These are both from the same artist, Ed Valigursky.  According to the site, he also drew both covers of the last double I read, Delusion World and Spacial Delivery.  In total, he drew the covers for at least 100 Ace Doubles and Singles between 1954 and 1965.  He wasn’t their only prolific artist, he’s just the one I’ve first noticed as odds would have it four of the first five books I read featured his cover art.  Ace wasn’t his only client, either.  He also did trading card series and numerous magazine covers during that period.

Since I picked my first batch out based on covers, should it surprise me that one man was involved with so many of them?

What really strikes me, though?  See those two covers above?  Both of those scenes happen in the book.  The cover for Spacial Delivery?  Represents a scene that happens throughout the book.  Delusion World wasn’t a specific scene, but did match the overall feel for the book.  As I’ve worked my way towards publication, I’ve often seen the warning that an author, especially a new author, should count themselves lucky if the cover artist even reads the blurb of the book.  Much less the whole thing.

That Sun Saboteurs cover?  The scene is from the last 10% of the story.  Even if Valigursky himself didn’t read the entire story, someone involved in the process of making the cover cared enough that it represented a scene in the book, and picked a powerful scene both emotionally and visually.  Someone picking up the book is presented with an intriguing cover, then can get to the scene itself and say “oh damn” when they realize what, exactly, is happening.

Valigursky’s career strikes me similar to many of the authors he drew for.  He just worked.  He kept producing and made his mark on a series of books that are collected as much for the work of the cover artists as for all those words sitting in between.  He worked commercially until the 1990s, and still painted on commission for years after.  He passed away in 2009 at the age of 82.

I suppose, in the end, this is my nostalgia for a different era in cover art, the hand painted covers that occasionally even cared about the contents of the book.  The covers that made collectables out of books sold for 35 or 40 cents, a pittance of a price point even adjusting for inflation.  I can’t say that modern cover are will never be collectable in the way these stories were.  In fact, we may be in the last great age of cover art due to the rise of the eBook.  It’s an appreciation of an artist I’d never know about except for finding that box of old Doubles in ziplock bags at the back of a library sale.

It’s a shame I’m learning of many of these writers and artists only after they passed, but it’s nice that the books and covers live on to a new generation.

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Ace Double Review: F-119

It’s time for another Ace Double review.  This time up it’s serial number F-119, a double dose from author Gordon R. Dickson, better known for his Childe Cycle, inspired by the same poem that inspired The Dark Tower.  Some of these Childe stories appeared in the Ace Doubles, but not in F-119.  Instead we’ve got giant bears and quasi-imaginary people as we look at Spacial Delivery and Delusion World.  Published 1961.  Original price: 40¢.

Spacial Delivery

“Rendezvous with a double-sized Goliath.”

Posted to a monster’s mailbox.

The Dilbians were humanoids with a difference.  They were over nine feet tall and built more like bears than like people.  But they weren’t bears…and it was important to the Ambassador from Earth to see that they and their planet remained good friends.

So when one of that feuding race of highly rugged individualists kidnapped an Earth girl, the problem called for a trouble-shooter with the patience of a saint and the agility of an acrobat.

John Tardy, who hadn’t thought of himself as having either of those qualifications, learned them fast when he found the only way to reach that monstrous criminal was to be sent to him by mail as a registered packaged marked SPACIAL DELIVERY

As these reviews evolve, things will change around.  For example, I’d actually like to start with the covers on these two books.  Largely because they combine to be my least favorite pair of covers in the bunch.  Which is odd, as an online database of Ace Doubles suggest they are both by the artist of the Tombaugh Station cover I was enamored with in my last review.  I’ll talk more about him next go round, as he’s also drawn the cover of the Double half I’m currently reading.  Spacial Delivery’s story offers little by way of the exciting cover imagery, because this really is the book.  It’s a guy riding around on the back of a giant bear-like alien.  That’s a good 60% of the book.  40% is him sleeping, and 10% is him engaged in the actual political undercurrent of the book, which is never quite thrilling enough to be called a “thriller,” but does underpin all the action.

Yes.  I’m aware those percentages add up to more than 100.  That’s not a failure of math, it’s a recognition of the fact that occasionally he’s sleeping while riding around on the back of a giant bear-like alien.  John Tardy is just that kind of crazy multitasker that he can be passively involved in the story in two different ways.

The bits of the plot not involved with riding on bears and sleeping center around John Tardy, human decathlete, being drafted as an ambassador to Dilbia in an attempt to open up relations with the massive ursine creatures of this world.  Working against the humans are the Hemnoids, squat muscular creatures from a high-gravity world that are more physically similar to the Dilbians.  Tardy is sent to rescue a human who is being held captive by a Dilbian with a nasty personality and the name Streamside Terror.

That’s the fun of the book right there.  Streamside Terror.  Dilbia is, in many ways, an inherently silly place.  The society is based entirely around nicknames.  John Tardy becomes Half-Pint Posted to the Dilbians.  The woman he is sent to save is Greasy Face due to the Dilbian confusion over make-up.  He is sent out by Little Bite.  His escort through Dilbia is the Hill Bluffer, and one of the prime antagonists of the story is Streamside Terror’s girlfriend Boy Is She Built.  Dickson clearly enjoyed the world he’d built, as he revisited Dilbia two more times in his novels Spacepaw and Law-Twister Shorty.  All three have since been published together by Baen under the title The Right to Arm Bears.

Between naps and bits of bear riding, the plot of the story is about humans showing Dilbians they can be strong, while learning at the same time that the Dilbians can be crafty.  It’s about saving the damsel in distress, who really ends up with no defining characteristic other than damsel in distress.  But the fun in the story is seeing John Tardy with his implanted knowledge of Dilbian society trying to make his way among the bear-like creatures.  I’m seeing a real pattern in these books.  It’s the third story I’ve reviewed, and it’s the third one where I’ve fallen back on the world building when the story line left me a little flat.  In this one it’s hard not to.  The book exists as an excuse to show off this inherently silly culture, and the ultimate conclusion isn’t about saving the girl, it’s about how these apparently simple creatures were the actual chess players within the story.  Which I  gather is the underlying theme of the entire Dilbian series.

It felt like a story written with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  I suppose in the end I wanted either a little more or a little less out of the story.  It exists in an odd middle ground, and thus gets a middle grade.

3 out of 5 giant space bears.

Delusion World

“If you don’t look, she’ll go away!”

The disintegrated damsel and the disbelieving spaceman.

There had to be a reason why that isolated human colony had been able to survive right in the heart of the stars held by mankind’s implacable enemies.  But nobody had been able to get to the quaintly named Dunroamin to find out.

If they had a secret defense, it could be the answer to a hundred planets’ prayers.  And Feliz Gebrod realized as he came in for a crash landing that he’d know the secret sooner than he’d expected.

Except that what he encountered was a life-and-death riddle that had nothing to do with stellar defense.  It was this: how can two mutually irreconcilable Utopias occupy the same space at the same time.

I’ll admit, that might no be the best scan of the cover.  I bought this book in slightly worse shape than the other Ace Doubles I’ve gotten my hands on.  It suffered a little water damage, which you can see in the crinkling.  However, the cleaner versions of the cover still don’t grab me in the way that giant floating heads and chessboards in space do.  Yes, I know, don’t judge books by their covers, but part of what has drawn me to the Doubles (and I’m not the first) are the fantastic covers.  I picked this particular Double up to read on my wife’s insistence because both halves are Gordon R. Dickson.  So I tucked in.

Delusion World is a fantastic example of what I like to call the in-and-out story.  No, that’s not a sexual reference, nothing like that.  The story is just 95 pages long, which means it gets in, it stirs around an interesting premise that wouldn’t work for a novel, and it gets out again having not over stayed its welcome.  This story is what I’m looking for when I said above I could go for a little less out of Spacial.

We’re back to another world lost during humanity’s expansion into empire.  This is a trope that I’ve never come across before reading these Doubles, but has now shown up in two of the first four.  I don’t know if that’s coincidence, or if I’m going to come across more of these lost planets.  They make for good story settings, as their isolation allows for odd cultural evolution within a technologically advanced culture.  In the case of Dunroamin, our hero Feliz Gebrod comes across two societies that occupy the same plot of land while each seemingly unaware of the other.  One wears only black, the other is dressed in bright colors.  Gebrod is compelled to stay by the psychic nature of the leader of the color-wearers, so the book follows his attempt to escape.

Which, oddly, resembles building a fountain in the center of town.  Because that’s what most escape plans typically look like.

The secret to the coexisting societies comes from a political disagreement generations before the book took place.  The two sides simply refused to acknowledge each other, then fully ignored each other, and finally grew up with a mental block that wouldn’t let them even see their opponents.  Which let the authoritarians be comfortably authoritarian, and the anarchists to be anarchic.  The built in delusion even allows for the complete disintegration of people.  Those who are cast out are ignored and never seen again.  It’s one of those things it’s best not to think about for too long, because it becomes more and more horrific.  We only see one disintegrated individual, our requisite silly woman to run through the book allowing the male lead to show off how above frivolity he is.  She’s a character I didn’t come across in the first Ace Double, but found in both halves of Dickson’s writing.  She ends up being a trope, an archetype, or even just a prop, rather than an actual character.

Both halves of this Double feel like stories that exist entirely to show off the worlds Dickson created.  Each throws an outsider into the insanity and watches them cope.  I like the execution better in Delusion World.  Perhaps its because both the world and the lead character’s goals are inherently sillier.  The world survives internally by lying to itself, and externally by refusing to acknowledge that they have any enemies.  Gebrod survives by building a fountain to power a device that will vaporize everyone’s clothing in an instant, making them see each other and creating enough confusion to escape the psychic bonds holding him.  It’s a suitably ludicrous plan for a ludicrous setting.  It’s also the first of the four halves I’ve read that I would consider re-reading, largely to see if my positive opinion of it holds up as I read more of these Doubles.

4 out of 5 nude bombs.

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Ace Double Review: D-479

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!

To The Tombaugh Station

“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.

Earthman, Go Home!

“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.

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Ace Doubles

I’ve been to the used book sale at the local library several times.  Never walked away with much, largely because not much ends up speaking to me.  When I go into any used book store, I beeline to the Science Fiction section.

I will stop here so you can be suitably shocked.

Lately what I’ve looked for is old pulp.  What I sometimes call the “skinny novels,” the ones that fill the narrow gaps in between the inch-wide spines that dominate the shelves.  My local used book store, Hole in the Wall Books, has a fantastic selection of these.  The spines of Daw books give the entire room a yellowish tinge, and I dig through the titles, looking for authors I’ve never read or even heard of, but who are represented with a dozen titles.  I keep my smartphone on, looking up starting points in series.  Because of this I have books like Dorsai! sitting on my night stand, and am currently reading Destination: Void.  I don’t end up liking all of them.  That’s almost part of the fun.  They’re short, they’re cheap, so I feel better about not liking them.  When they end up corny fun (Dinosaur Beach) I enjoy the ride.  When I don’t (Assassins from Tomorrow) I start picking apart what’s going wrong.

When I go to the twice a year library book sale, I wander the shelves of intermingled fiction looking for these titles.  Nothing is sorted out.  Lord of the Rings sits next to Tom Clancy.

This last time my wife called me over to the hobby and craft section.  There, sitting in three cardboard boxes, were little paperbacks in Ziploc bags.  If they’ve always been at the book sale, I can tell why I’d miss seeing them.  Who’s going to look for pulp science fiction in the hobby and craft section?  Perhaps someone thought they fell under the header of being collectibles so they were shunted away with books on collecting.  Perhaps they’ve never had these books at the sale before.  I’m not sure.  All I know is they were there and I started to dig through them.

Among them were hiding the Ace Doubles.

I knew they’d printed books like that before, two short novels printed back to back, one upside down so that there are two front and no back covers.  All with the fantastic artwork that graced pulp fiction in the 40s and 50s.  All priced at $2.50 or $3.50 for the sale.  I maintained some composure, held myself to just six books, four doubles and two standalone titles.  I wasn’t picking authors, I wasn’t picking titles, I didn’t recognize most of them.  I was picking artwork and taglines.  How could I turn down a man in a white fright wig hooked up to a machine, with the tagline “The god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine”?  Flip it over and two men stand on a chessboard with rockets flying behind them.  Sold!

As I was digging out my wallet at the checkout, the volunteer mentioned that everything would be half price on Sunday.

Yes.  I went back.  I set a budget of $20, and I gobbled up Ace Doubles.  Ten more, bringing the total haul to 14 books and 28 individual stories.  It’s overwhelming, and I hardly know where to begin.  No, that’s a lie, I don’t know at all where to begin.  Among books picked at random I ended up with the first edition of a Hugo winner (Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters), a story by the author of Dinosaur Beach (Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium), a story by one of the first major female science fiction writers, and screenwriter of the first draft of Empire (Leigh Brackett’s The Nemesis from Terra) and even a title just obscure enough that I got to add it to Goodreads (Robert Moore Williams’s The Darkness Before Tomorrow  paired with Keith Woodcutt’s The Ladder in the Sky).

So here’s a quick breakdown.  I don’t have cover scans of all of these, sorry, and I will likely read both halves of each Double before moving on to the next.

  • D-335.  Poul Anderson The War of Two Worlds (Earth must choose — The Martians or the monsters!) and John Brunner Threshold of Eternity (All time and space was their battlefield!)
  • D-479.  Wilson Tucker To Tombaugh Station (Was his spaceship haunted — or only booby trapped?) and Poul Anderson Earthman Go Home (This quarantined world resisted change.)
  • F-108.  Damon Knight The Sun Saboteurs (Exiles from a hostile universe) and G. McDonald Wallis The Light of Lilith (Trapped in time’s vortex.)
  • F-119.  Gordon R. Dickson SpAcial Delivery (Rendezvous with a double-sized goliath) and Delusion World (If you don’t look, she’ll go away!)
  • F-123.  Leigh Brackett The Nemesis from Terra (Caught in the web of the fourth world) and Charles N. Fontanay Rebels of the Red Planet (Was he man, mutant, or Martian?)
  • F-127.  Keith Laumer World of the Imperium (His deadliest foe was his own Alternate World self) and Marion Zimmer Bradley Seven from the Stars (Secret war of the space castaways)
  • F-141.  Robert Moore Williams The Darkness Before Tomorrow (Were all humans their guinea pigs?) and Keith Woodcutt The Ladder in the Sky (Black magic or unimaginable superscience?)
  • F-145.  Robert Silverberg The Seed of Earth (If your number is up, you go to the stars) and Next Stop the Stars (Exciting stories of wonders in new worlds)
  • F-149.  Robert Moore Williams King of the Fourth Planet (The god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine) and Charles V DeVet & Katherine MacLean Cosmic Checkmate (10,000 worlds against one)
  • F-153.  Marion Zimmer Bradley The Planet Savers (One body, two minds, and a world in the balance) and The Sword of Aldones (All lines of cosmic force met in their hands)
  • F-161.  John Brunner Times Without Number (Beware the masters of “if”) and David Grinnel (aka Donald A. Wollheim) Destiny’s Orbit (He sought an empire in the stars)
  • F-177.  Robert Moore Williams The Star Wasps (Cybernetic men versus the invisible monsters) and Terry Carr Warlord of Kor (Backwards world — or secret outpost to another galaxy?)
  • F-185.  Jack Vance The Dragon Masters (Which was master, which was monster?) and The Five Gold Bands (Find the five keys to earth’s freedom)
  • H-59.  Louis Trimble Anthropol (Secret mission to save a hostile world) and Philip E. High The Time Mercenaries (What port awaited the end of their thousand years beneath the sea?)

I’m probably going to put together reviews of them as I read them, just because I’ve been meaning to get into reviewing something on this blog.  So if you want my views on a specific one, let me know in the comments.  If you really need the covers to make a decision, Google image search for “Ace Double” and the letter-number combination I listed. Oddly, my inclination would be to not start with the Hugo winner, because I don’t want to potentially start with the best of the lot.

Wikipedia lists 224 total science fiction doubles (and several hundred more western, mystery, and non-genre doubles).  That means I now have just over 6% of them.  I’m not going to go super crazy.  I’m not going to buy things like this lot of 104 currently going for over $400 on ebay.  But I’ll keep my eye out for them in the future.  If you see them in and around the DC area, going for under $4 each (or especially under $2 each) let me know.

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