Enigma From Tantalus – John Brunner (1965)
‘THIS MILLION HEADED MONSTER HAD A SINGLE-MINDED MISSION
WHAT MAKES A MAN? WHAT MAKES A MONSTER?
‘We won’t be landing anywhere just yet,’ Waters said to the other passengers on the spaceship ‘Fulmar’. ‘I was pretty mystified by this story of mechanical breakdown, so I’ve been checking up.’ He hefted his little box. ‘I’ve spent the past half-hour successfully tapping your subspace circuits, Captain, so I know the truth and I propose to share it with everyone.’
Captain Wong’s face crumpled, like a child’s about to cry
The others, paying no attention to Wong, waited breathlessly for Waters to continue.
‘We’re not to land. We’re to orbit in space, indefinitely.’
Beloved Sister Dorcas’s screams pierced the quiet.
‘You see,’ Waters continued, holding up his hand for silence, ‘this is being done on the direct orders of Master Brand… You don’t know the name?’ He glanced inquiringly around. ‘No? Well, he happens to be one of the Powers of Earth, and there is nobody in the galaxy to overrule him.’ ‘
Front page banner and interior blurb from the 1965 Ace Doubles paperback M-115
Scientists are studying the only non-human intelligence so far discovered, which is on the planet Tantalus. The creature is a single gestalt organism composed of millions of sub-units which work the continent it exists upon as a giant farm. Humans have learned to communicate on a basic level with the Tantalan and have transported units of its being to the Southern continent to allow it to expand in exchange for permission to study the Tantalan.
After forty years, the Tantalan seems to have done little apart from copy the concept of mining and ore production from humans. However, when a human scientist is killed, the Tantalan asks for its body to examine.
Now humans have discovered some of their surveillance devices disabled and a Tantalan sub-unit factory has been mining for substances only found in the human body.
A ship recently called at Tantalus to take off a human consultant who had been called in because of his alleged psi-powers but had been asked to leave because of his arrogant attitude to almost everyone.
It is suspected that the Tantalans had replaced someone on the ship with a Tantalan-created human copy.
The ship is therefore held in Earth orbit until Master Brand, one of the Masters of Earth, can determine who is the Tantalan copy. As all the passengers are, to varying degrees, mentally unbalanced, it is not an easy task.
Brunner is very good at packing a great deal into a short novel and here manages to do it, even while employing quite a large cast of characters. The cast may be perhaps a tad too large for this story, but we’ll forgive him for that.