My life in outer space

Archive for July, 2016

Overlords From Space – Joseph E Kelleam (1956)

acedoublesoverlords

‘BEWARE THE PLANET-WRECKERS!

The regime of the Zarles had turned Earth into Hell. Possessing strange unearthly perception, weapons of cosmic destruction, and motivated by an inhuman cruelty, these overlords from space had enslaved the Earth in a feudal terror. Then, one day, Jeff Gambrell, a human slave, defied his particular tyrant once too often and found himself facing the seemingly impossible challenge – how to escape. It had been done once before, therefore he knew that what had always seemed impossible was not…

Jeff’s life and death struggle against the fiendish cunning of the Zarles is set against a startling background of unleashed interplanetary fury. Joseph E. Kelleam’s new novel explores the frightening depths of man’s inventive powers with brilliant detail and breath-taking power.’

Blurb from the 1956 D-173 Ace Doubles paperback edition.

Kelleam’s novel of Earth occupation by the tentacle-handed Zarles isn’t actually that bad. Earth has been occupied by these alien invaders for generations and humans appear only to now exist in slave labour camps.
Jim Gambrell, assisted by his brother Jeff, manages to escape over the wall, and although hunted by by his alien slavemaster Raiult and his equally alien hounds, is at the last minute whisked away by a rescuer in a globular air vehicle.
The narrative then follows Jim’s brother Jeff, left alone in the labour camp and plotting an escape of his own.
Raiult has a ‘pleasure slave’ for want of a better word. The Zarles have bred a strain of human women called Kittens who are essentially pets. They are blonde and petite and one can’t help but make comparisons with earlier US works such as Cummings ‘The White Invaders’ where aliens (often dark skinned aliens) take a liking to the white womenfolk of America.
There’s no suggestion of sexual exploitation here as the Zarles – as is explained later – are essentially sexless and have transferred their reproduction to technological means. Raiult employs his Kitten as a companion and seems to derive pleasure from her singing.
She is not as docile and compliant as Raiult imagines, however, and steals some of her master’s devices to help Jeff escape where he is in turn rescued by Red O’Leary (the pilot who rescued his brother and father) and reunited with them in a space station of free humans seeking to overthrow the power of the Overlords.
There’s a bit of an odd detour through the worlds of probability, which looks like a desperate way of solving a couple of plot resolution issues, but on the whole it’s a pleasurable enough read.

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Fortune’s Pawn – Rachel Bach (2013)

Fortune's Pawn (Paradox #1)

Devi Morris is a young ambitious mercenary in the interstellar kingdom of Paradox. Her ambition is to become a Devastator, one of the elite force under the command of the king himself. To do this she will have to wait ten years or more to gain enough experience to be accepted.
However, her friend Anthony has advised that there is a vacancy for a security position on a high risk ship, captained by a trader called Brian Caldswell. Experience on his ship ‘The Glorious Fool’ is thought of as being a fast track entry to Devastator status.
So, Devi (with her own personal armour) becomes half of the security detail on a ship which boasts among its crew a large parrot-like navigator, a handsome and mysterious cook, a mystic, a creepy child with strange powers and an exile from the ferocious xith’cal reptilian race.
Gradually Devi becomes curious about both the cook, Rupert, with whom she becomes romantically embroiled, and the Captain’s business, which turns out to be far more than merely trading goods between planets.
There are some effective action sequences, although the romance element is a little schmaltzy, cringeworthy and more akin to a Mills and Boone novel than a militaristic space opera. It doesn’t make a lot of sense either. For reasons I can’t really go in to without using spoilers, Rupert has a past which would really preclude any romantic involvement unless he was prepared to come clean. He seems like a decent bloke and in his circumstances would not have flirted with Devi to the degree that he does. Additionally, there is one scene where they initiate a kiss and Rupert – having second thoughts – has to walk away, and stands there, shaking. This strikes me as not so much romantic but just a tad creepy.
The other point that vexes me very much about this novel is the concept of a hereditary monarchy controlling a network of planets. It just doesn’t fit with the interstellar society in which this is set. How did this evolve and over what period of time? It is, at the end of the day, a mere decorative effect since we see nothing of the king or any indication of how this system works. For me, it is less decorative and more bling. It’s also a bit of a cliche adopted I imagine to appeal to the demographic target for this series. Clearly this is not the one into which I slot.
I find it quite interesting though that the people who find the concept of a monarchy romantic and fascinating are those who live in countries who don’t actually have one. The reality of such systems is rather irritating and very depressing. Had Bach attempted to make a political point about monarchies it might have made sense, but that’s not the case.
However, even taking into account the absurd interstellar Royalty concept, this is a very enjoyable read. One is drawn in to the story and the various mysteries which Devi has to unravel, some of which are left hanging for the next volume.
The action sequences are very well done, and the novel zips along at a fair pace. There’s some decent characterisation and I am really looking forward to the next installment. It would be great if Devi returned to find that there had been a revolution in Paradox and that the kingdom was now a republic, but I fear I am going to be disappointed.


Tramontane – Emil Petaja (1967)

tramontane2

‘IMMORTAL VENGEANCE

About Tramontane:

This fourth science-fantasy novel based on the Finnish legendary epic, KALEVALA, seemed like a good idea because there are actually four important heroes in these wonderful legends, and this novel completes the cycle concerning itself with the prophecy of the Great Return when the Vanhat seed shall return to Oava, the planet of their origin.

Kullervo is the “bad one” of the legends. Ugly, sullen, despised, he was actually born out of evil. He kicked his cradle to pieces and refused to drown when the wise women flung him into the river. As a vindictive cow-herd slave he changed cows into bears and this killed all of Ilmarinen’s household. Like Manfred and Oedipus, he was predestined for tragedy and doom. However, he is surely one of the most fascinating characters in all mythology. Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer, chose his tragic life for the theme of this magnificent symphonic tone poem, Kullervo, one of his finest works, involving choruses, soloists, and a sweeping Wagnerian nobility.

My Kullervo Kasi, a prototype of his ancestor, is the spawn of a leakage from a dark dimension of matter-energy that is incompatible with the life-forces in this one. Therefore, Kullervo Kasi is the natural choice of the Starwitch Louhi to find the tag-end o remnants f the Vanhat existing somewhere on despoiled Terra and destroy them . .

Emil Petaja’

Blurb from the H-36 1967 Ace Double Paperback edition

In the fourth segment of Petaja’s reimagining of The Kalevala. The Starwitch Louhi rescues Kullervo Kasi from certain death on a volcanic world and. realising that he is the reincarnation of the Kullervo of legend, recruits him her quest to destroy the Vanhat.
Kullervo, not human enough to engender longstanding trust from humans, travels by Mothership from planet to planet, each time being moved on.
Louhi imbues him with powers which allow him to control the alchemical elements of Fire, Earth, Air and Water, but only to kill enemies on his journey to Earth to destroy the Vanhat before the prophecy can be fulfilled of their return to their own world. He encounters various grotesques, such as a corpulent cannibal pirate queen and some religious fundamentalists who are quickly dispatched to oblivion.
Although better written and more interesting than ‘The Stolen Sun’, Petaja’s relocation of The Kalevala to the far future with its uneasy mix of magic and technology doesn’t really work. The Science Fantasy subgenre, which saw its origins in Edgar Rice Burroughs, HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith achieved quite a level of sophistication in the Nineteen Sixties from authors such as Moorcock and M John Harrison. There has to be some form of internal logic that allows magic and technology to exist together and to convince the reader that this is plausible.
It is not present here, and we end up with something which is neither one thing nor the other and not a very satisfying blend of both.
‘Tramontane’ by the way, means ‘the stranger from over the mountain’, just in case you were wondering.


The Cosmic Computer – H Beam Piper (1964)

The Cosmic Computer (aka Junkyard Planet)

‘During the System States’ War, Poictesme was the general HQ and supply depot for the final thrust at the enemy. When the war ended, the buildings, the munitions, the freeze-dried food supplies, were all abandoned without a thought. Now the colony world is a poverty-stricken agricultural society with only two exports: the fermented products of their world’s unique grapes, and the salvaged war equipment, now selling at about 1% of its true value.

And, persisting over the decades, is the legend of MERLIN, the super-computer said to have planned the grand strategy which successfully concluded the war. “If we could only find Merlin,” the inhabitants said to each other, “all our problems would be solved.”

Then young Conn Maxwell returned from Earth, with a university degree, and a few clues about the location and the true nature of Merlin. And the sure knowledge that finding the Cosmic Computer would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to his home world.’

Blurb from the 1978 Ace paperback edition.

As is made clear from the blurb, Conn Maxwell was designated to travel to Earth from the colony world of Poictesme, a world desperate for regeneration following an intersystem war, to try and identify the location of the super computer Merlin, which many of the colonists believe is hidden somewhere on the planet and which they see as their salvation.
Although Conn has identified the sites of many abandoned bases and spacefields likely to contain valuable equipment and ships, he has been informed that Merlin was a myth, invented to boost morale and demoralise the enemy.
After making this clear to a trusted few, including his father, they decide to publicly embark on the search for Merlin, their aim being to loot the abandoned sites, build enough finances to build a hypership and trade on their own terms with Earth, exporting their valuable melon brandy and revitalising their world. If this means lying to the public, then so be it.
One can argue that this is borderline SF at best. The society of Poictesme is lifted wholesale from the US of the Nineteen Fifties, along with its values and inevitable sexism. Piper has made no attempt to create a believable colony society and, as other critics have pointed out, has not considered that computers may have been miniaturised by the time Man has reached the stars. To be fair, he was never alone in this, and it is the least of this novel’s problems. It suffers for one thing from a surfeit of minor characters, many of whom are not fleshed out enough to be distinguishable from the rest.
It is at root a political farce, possibly a homage to James Branch Cabell, since the name of the world and its main town are lifted from Cabell’s work. It has dated considerably in comparison with other novels of the time. It also owes a lot to Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy at the denouement which uses the same premise of analysing data to predict the future of human civilisation in the galaxy.
Interestingly, Piper seems to have been the inventor of the word ‘Collapsium’ which Will McCarthy later used to great effect in his novels of The Queendom of Sol.
Having said all that it’s an entertaining piece and mildly amusing in places, but is not an important work by any stretch of the imagination.


Across Time – Donald A Wollheim (as David Grinnell) – (1957)

Across Time

‘ONE MAN VS. THE YEAR ONE MILLION

Time-traveling UFO’s jerk our hero one million years into the future and launch him on a trans-galactic venture, brightened by such incidental items as an attractive post-homo sapien race of evolved simians, and an Ultimate Spaceship.
Chasing mysterious celestial phenomena was part of Zack Halleck’s Air Force duties, so it wasn’t strange that he was assigned to assist in his brother’s experiment. For his scientist brother had devised a method of deliberately attracting and trapping any such sky objects. But the experiment backfired – and the Hallecks themselves were its victims.

When Zack opened his eyes again, it was on the Earth of a million years in the future. And Zack learned that the only way he could rescue his brother and return to his own time would be to accept a role as a human pawn in a conflict of galactic supermen.’

Blurb from the 1958 Ace Double D-286 paperback edition.

Zack Halleck is an Air Force pilot assigned to track mysterious objects in the skies above Earth. He is none too happy to be reassigned to a related duty, which is to assist with a project devised by his scientist brother Carl. The brothers had always been competitive. with Carl winning every competition, up to and including wooing and marrying Zack’s girl Sylvia when Zack went missing in action, presumed dead.
Carl has invented an electronic screen which can somehow attach a homing signal to the strange spheres of light that have been appearing in the skies.
When Carl and Sylvia are up a mountain fine-tuning the device, Zack is left in the laboratory; the only place from which the screen can be turned off. It is then that the green lights appear, seemingly heading straight for Carl and Sylvia. Zack, still angry from a lifetime of belittling, delays switching off the device which is attracting the mysterious lights. When he does, it is too late. Sylvia and Carl are gone.
He then flies off, determined to confront the UFOs, and crashes into one. When he awakes, he finds himself on an Earth of the far future, being looked after by humanoids descended from apes of our time.
Humanity, he soon discovers, has also evolved into two separate lines of beings of almost pure energy. Some appear as white spheres, and some as green. The white ones are benevolent. while the green ones have enslaved some humanoid races and are working towards a goal of a kind of mind-meld singularity by combining their consciousnesses to produce a single mind.
It is they who have kidnapped Carl and Sylvia (for reasons that frankly don’t make a lot of sense) and it is up to Zack, with the help of a Late Humanity thinking warship, to rescue them.
Wollheim’s attempt to explore the sibling rivalry aspect is a bit clunky but at least gives the tale a bit of depth.
Comparisons can be made to ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians in the Lensman series, since they were two races diametrically opposed in ideologies. One supposes that SF authors of the Fifities employed metaphors, either consciously or unconsciously to represent the struggle between Communism and The Free World, or at least, how they perceived it, or maybe I’m reading far too much into it.


Cycle of Fire – Hal Clement (1957)

Cycle of Fire

Hal Clement’s genius was in his talent to write rounded likeable characters and set them into a background of realistically thought out planets and environments.
This is no exception and can be seen as a kind of bridge between Stanley G Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’ and Barry B Longyear’s ‘Enemy Mine’.
Young Nils Kruger finds himself stranded on alien world. He had earlier become separated from his colleagues on a survey expedition and they now believe him dead.
This world is highly volcanic and part of the complex orbit of one planet and two suns.
Not far away is Dar Lang Ahn, an alien male whose glider crashed while he was travelling back to his home in the Ice Ramparts carrying valuable books for his people.
Nils finds the alien sick and dehydrated, and shows him how to get water from the analogue cactus plants that stud the desert, which makes Nils suspect that Dar might not be a native of this world either.
Communicating at first in gestures and drawings, the two begin their journey toward safety and knowledge of each other.
Clement throws in cosmological and anthropological mysteries along the way which are not fully explained until quite near the end.
To a certain extent novels like this shame many of today’s writers who, it seems, can’t be bothered to world build or create credible alien lifecycles, preferring to employ ‘Star Trek’ aliens who are essentially humanoid with two genders – although they may be lizards or birds – or just human with a few bumpy ridges on their noses.
Clement does worldbuilding in the truest sense and this is almost a masterclass in designing a species that has evolved to survive on a world with an eccentric orbit involving two suns.
The bonus is that it is also highly enjoyable.