This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’
‘DUEL IN THE ARENA OF THE STARS
Andalvar of the planet Argus, king of an interstellar empire, was dead and fear ruled in his absence. The dread of a power struggle between the treacherous Andra, and “Black Witch,” and the beautiful Princess Sharla showered panic upon the people and threatened to crumble the starry realm to dust. But their powers were restricted to the present, and before either could sit on the throne, they would have to come to grips with the man from the future who held the destiny of the universe in his hand. His name: Kelab the Conjurer – THE SPACE-TIME JUGGLER’
Blurb from the 1963 F-227 Ace Double Paperback Edition
Set in the same universe as The Altar on Asconel this inhabits that uneasy space between SF and Fantasy.
Following the death of the King of Argus, Andra, ‘The Black Witch’ has become regent on this colony world which has in the main reverted to feudalism. Her older sister Sharla – missing for seven years and presumed dead – suddenly reappears to claim her place accompanied by Landor and the swordsman Ordovic.
Another stranger also arrives, Kelab the Conjuror, a man who appears to command magic and, it seems, is interfering in court business.
It would be giving the plot away to explain anything further as it’s a brief read which is well-written but suffers from a lack of cohesion between the slave-owning and sword-wielding society and the hi-tech elements.
There is no individuality to this society. It is set in the mould of every other far future feudal planet favoured by the likes of Lin Carter and his contemporaries, which somehow always has to include some monarchist system. The characters are stock stereotypes with little light and shade. There is a decent enough surprise and plot twist bit one feels this could have been a far better novel given some thought to the world building and some space to develop characters.
‘A CROWN FOR THE STAR-CROSSED
“It can’t be true! It must be some kind of hoax!” These were the words that went spinning through Neil Banning’s mind when the Greenville authorities told him that the house he had grown up in, the aunt and uncle who had raised him, had never existed.
So Banning found himself in jail, charged with disturbing the peace – and maybe insanity. But when a stranger from outer space came to his cell at midnight and hailed him as the Valkar of Katuun, then Banning decided that maybe the authorities were right, maybe he was crazy. Because the only alternative was to believe the impossible explanation of the Outworlder – that he really was the exiled ruler of a remote star-world, and the personality of Neil Banning was an elaborate fraud.
It didn’t really matter, though, who was right. Banning was on his way to Katuun whether he liked it or not. And as Banning – or the Valkar – he would have to save that star-world from the terror of THE SUN SMASHER…or perish with the loyal subjects he might never have known!’
Blurb from the 1959 D-351 Ace Double paperback edition
Young Neil Banning, on a business trip, decides to take a detour to his old home town. On reaching there however, he finds that not only is his childhood home a vacant plot, but that there was apparently never a house existing there. Getting more and more frustrated by what he sees as a deliberate attempt by the townspeople to cover up the past he is eventually arrested and thrown into a cell.
During the night, a stranger arrives and stages – in Banning’s opinion – an unwanted rescue. The stranger is Rolf, who tells Banning that his past life is a fiction, that he is in fact Kyle, the lost Valkar of an interstellar Empire.
Kyle is needed to reclaim the throne from those who altered his memory and exiled him to Earth, and locate The Hammer, a weapon of interstellar mass destruction whose location only Kyle/Banning knows.
This is one of those odd romantic flights of fancy that imposes a medieval feudal culture on an interstellar civilisation. It features the literary devices of the amnesiac hero and the Maguffin which in this case is a device (as can easily be deduced from the title of the book) capable of triggering a nova in any sun.
Banning has to come to terms with the fact that he may not be who he thinks he is, while leading an army of loyal followers across the galaxy in search of a lost and terrible doomsday weapon.
Added to that, we have a feisty princess, a sundered love affair and a race of deadly telepathic spider people loyal only to the Valkar.
It is explained early on that Earth is a lost part of the Empire that has not yet been reclaimed as we are a fringe world and somewhat retarded.
One day we’ll be really advanced and united under an unelected hereditary galactic monarchy. Can’t wait.
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.
COSMIC BLOCKADE RUNNER
Her ex-Imperial Highness of Outer Space had developed a conscience. With a well-armed space cruiser on her hands, she didn’t want to sell it to just anyone – that is anyone under Empire Control. So the former Empress and her ex-space captain husband, became mercenaries for GLASS – The Galactic League for the Abolition of Suppression and Slavery.
Their first assignment was blockade running, to bring antibiotics to the plague-ridden humans on Antrim, besieged by the Halicheki bird-people and ignored by the Empire. Only, this would be a ticklish business for they could not fire one shot at the Halicheki without being legally termed pirates. And although the ex-Empress and her husband were open-minded enough to try all sorts of devious tricks, the prospect of being hanged for piracy by the Empress’s successor did not appeal to either of their natures…’
Blurb from the M-133 1965 Ace Double paperback edition
This is Chandler’s second ‘Empress Irene’ novel (following from the fabulously titled ‘Empress of Outer Space’). This finds Irene, having abdicated her position as an Empress of a Human interstellar Empire, at a bit of a loose end, with an Imperial light cruiser at her disposal, and her able husband, John Trafford.
The couple are approached by GLASS to become blockade runners and ferry a cargo of antibiotics to Antrim, a culturally Irish planet which is suffering the ravages of a pandemic disease outbreak.
This planet however, lies within the territory of a hostile avian species, The Halicheki. Irene and her faithful crew need to get past the ships of the evil matriarchal bird people, land, deliver their cargo and escape from Halicheki space. There are chases, space battles, derring do, unexpected allies and a bit of political shenanigans.
As always, Chandler’s aliens are somewhat simplistic and more akin to something one would find in a Disney movie. On the whole though, it’s a lighthearted romp that breaks no boundaries and is standard fare from Chandler, whose entire style was to translate seafaring adventures into fast paced space opera.
‘Scobie Redfern was just a nice good-looking American young man who had never heard of such things as Portals, parallel worlds and Trugs. So when someone materialised in his apartment with the Trugs in hot pursuit, it all seemed sort of a funny game. But there was nothing amusing about it once the monsters themselves arrived.
For it wasn’t long before Scobie was himself running for his life from world to world and from Portal to Portal just to keep one jump ahead of the Trugs and hoping that THE WIZARDS OF SENCHURIA might, just might, be able to get him back home alive and whole!’
Blurb from the 12140 Ace Double 1969 paperback edition.
This is one of a series of books Bulmer wrote which feature ‘portals’ between worlds. Certain humans are mutant ‘porteurs ‘ who can sense the presence of these gates and open them.
Scobie Redfern is a fairly ordinary Manhattan guy who gets into a cab one winter night only to find that a large man has entered the other passenger door. Before any argument can start the stranger who appears worried agrees to ride to the restaurant Scobie was heading for.
The stranger, however, is being followed by monstrous creatures called Trugs, who now have Scobie’s scent. His only hope is to follow the stranger and some of his friends through a portal to another world. So begins Scobie’s adventure.
In structure it reads very much like the work of Otis Adelbert Kline since Scobie moves from place to place; at first becoming a slave in in one of the mines of the Contessa, the arch-villain of the piece. He escapes with the help of his fellow-slaves and a young porteur called Val and they escape to another world only to find themselves trapped in the city of the Wizards of Senchuria.
One gets the impression that Bulmer – much as Otis Adelbert Kline did – was making it up as he went along without much thought for the eventual outcome.
The ending is particularly silly as Scobie has decided that the Senchurians – despite the fact they enslaved him and fed on his emotions – are not such bad eggs after all and agrees to help them in their fight against invading beasties from yet another dimension.
All Redfern has to do is obtain a super-weapon from another world two dimensions down the road, which he does with surprising alacrity. The Contessa appears at this point, a Disney Witch figure, cackling from within an impregnable sphere of force. Her come-uppance will need to wait for another day.
I’ve always been intrigued as to what deep-seated psychological need is satisfied by the presence of aristocratic or Royal titles and figures in SF. The Galactic Empire, for instance, is a popular rabbit to pull out of the SF hat and often assumes a feudal system with the Empress/Emperor at the top of the tree and the riff raff at the bottom.
Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ is the most famous Galactic Empire example because the books focus on ‘The Empire’ as an entity, examining its political and social demise and planned resurrection.
The ethics of this feudal system are never explained.
Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ paints something far more believable. The concept of Royalty in Space has long been in the visual media from the time of Flash Gordon and Emperor Ming, along with Star Wars, Babylon Five, ‘Stargate ‘ along with its TV spinoffs and all the other formulaic space opera clones that get churned out season after season.
It also turns up in these borderline Science Fantasy epics from the likes of Lois McMaster Bujold and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Is it that we have some innate psychological need for drama featuring class systems and aristocratic titles?
This book, like most others featuring titles, royalty and feudal systems is very much on the Romantic side of the genre. There’s a great deal of fighting alien beasties and general derring do and not really enough of the derring don’t.
‘WHO HOLDS THIS NEBULA CAN SWAY THE GALACTIC IMPERIUM
MISSION TO AN EMBATTLED NEBULA
When Raul Linton, Commander of Space Navy, returned from the bloody Third Imperial War in 3468 A.D. he was a disillusioned hero. Defiantly stripping off his medals and ribands, Raul roamed the Inner Cluster of stars in search of some meaning.
But close on his trail was the Imperium Government spy, Pertinax – known as the Snake – who was out to prove Raul a traitor.
And then Raul Linton met up with Sharl of the Yellow Eyes, who proposed a daring scheme of intergalactic action which would at once restore the Sharl’s exiled Queen Innald to her rightful place on the throne of Valadon – but to join this mission, Raul would have to fight openly against his own government…
Another swashbuckling adventure by the author of Thongor of Lemuria and The Star Magicians.’
Blurb from the 1966 G-606 Ace Doubles edition.
Lin Carter was a prolific author of SF, Sword and Sorcery and the odd hinterland of Science Fantasy that lay between.
This novel is SF at heart. but set within a baroque Herbert-esque galaxy where swords and feudal systems exist quite happily alongside starships and laserguns.
Raul Linton is a jaded soldier who distinguished himself in an interplanetary war that need not have been fought. Since leaving the service it seems he has been spied upon by some sections of a paranoid government, particularly the spy Pertinax.
While buying a sword one day, Linton is approached by Sharl of the Yellow Eyes, and finding himself being tailed by Pertinax, who had placed a transmitting device in his cloak, he takes up an offer from Sharl and they leave for a lonely planet, deep in the heart of a Nebula.
It’s very enjoyable hokum, if a tad sexist. Linton is called upon to restore a young queen to her rightful throne which the Earth government have handed to her idiot brother.
She is intelligent and educated, but she is just a woman after all and she needs a man to command her armies, since they would never follow a woman.
Somewhat near the end our hero has to tell the young queen that she must trust his decisions and basically to shut up and let him get on with it. In Carter’s world this sort of behaviour brings out the best in women.
‘But when she got her breath back and had a few moments to digest the swift-moving flow of events, a half-smile warmed her lips. What woman, however aggressive, does not secretly desire to meet a man capable of mastering her? Before long a small dimple showed at the corner of her wonderful mouth, and the bright hardness of her eyes turned soft, almost dream-full, as she stared meditatively at the door through which he had just passed…’ p 93
It’s a fast-paced tale, enjoyable enough in its own way and although an obscure – to most – bit of pulp fiction is nonetheless quite interesting in terms of style.
Following hot on the heels of Grandon, who was sent off to Venus in ‘Planet of Peril‘, we find Harry Thorne (not in fact Harry Thorne at all but a Martian) who is transported to ancient Venus by the secret method of Professor Morgan. Harry arrives in the body of the Prince of Olba and is very soon brought up speed with the help of Vern Vangal (another interplanetary traveller). Soon however the prince is in trouble, since an ambitious noble is killing off the Royals in a bid to seize the throne.
Narrowly escaping assassination the prince finds himself in a forest where he intercedes in an argument between an attractive woman and a lisping fop. As is unsurprising, she turns out to be a princess. She is engaged to the idiot and while the men are arguing the Princess is kidnapped. It is the same old entertaining tosh. Harry has to deal with giant reptiles, talking man-eating apes and the immortals of a hidden valley who have learned to transfer their consciousness to machines. Again one gets the impression that Kline wrote randomly, or serially at least… possibly having a goal in sight, but not quite sure how he was going to get there.
At one point Harry and the Princess defeat a reptile which appears to be mostly mouth and a couple of legs. They take over its cave, only to find an egg in there. The egg hatches and the princess feeds the tiny beast, who then follows them. ‘Ah.’ one thinks. ‘the pet is going to prove useful at some point.’ In fact, no. The pair bump into some of the machine-men, get into a cable-car and then just whizz off, leaving the poor beast abandoned on top of a cliff.
The denouement plot structure is almost identical to the last volume. Usurper takes over throne and threatens to marry hero’s girlfriend. Hero has to do something. All ends well.
One can’t really fault Kline for the laziness of his delivery. One imagines that there were far worse things coming out of the publishing houses of the day. Although Kline repeats plot devices in various ways he is at least imaginative. The concept of consciousness transference into a mechanical device, if not original, is certainly well thought through.
In the 21st century it is now a standard theme, particularly from writers such as Richard Morgan and Peter F Hamilton who have widely explored the idea of immortality via digital ‘backup’s of one’s consciousness and memories. It’s interesting to see the idea mooted in 1930.
“She and her pet were only a cover-up for the theft of the Crown Stones—and the few who knew might have to die for it!”
‘He was careful to make it appear as if his trajectory were strictly follow-the-leader, so that only he knew by what small fraction it was off. The wailing scream of ruptured atmosphere came now and the screen picture shimmered into ionic disturbance, but was clear enough to show a range of small, low hills, well-wooded, a shallow gorge between them, and the slope down to the shoreline. There was a small, shingle-edged river-mouth. A scattered array of timber shacks on either side of that river would be the troops’ living quarters. There were radio masts pointing to the sky. The alien ship was well ahead now and just settling down into the water.
Sixx had been merely tickling his jets so far. Now he leaned on them hard, grunting as savage deceleration shoved him deep into his seat. The clipper bellowed down… and down… and washed that scatter of shacks with searing blue-and-white flames laced with shock diamonds. Some of that terrific thunder came back through the hull as the squat ship slowed to a hovering halt, hung on its devastating tail for an undecided moment… then lifted… and drifted along… started to go down once more… changed its mind once more… slid away in another direction… and now there was nothing visible at all on the screen but dirty steam and black, roiling smoke.’
Blurb from the 1973 Ace Double paperback edition (53415)
Sixx and Lowry work for Interstellar Security, a company that prides itself on never having lost something in their keeping.
They have travelled to the Kingdoms of Kandalahr where the king has secretly agreed to let humans take the Crown Stones of power to earth to be studied, as they have the power to allow the holder to control other individuals.
As a cover the boys are ostensibly escorting a young lady with eidetic memory, along with her charge, one of the pedigree royal pets, an analogue dog-creature with unfeasibly long ears.
Someone, however, seems eager to stop them and the object of their interest appears to be not the stones, but Miss Stame, their decoy.
This is a surprisingly entertaining romp featuring a couple of likeable wisecracking partners pitted against the private army if a disgruntled alien royal.
Phillifent seems to have come into his own here with this, set in a universe where Humanity is using the K-drive, salvaged from the ancient abandoned ships of a civilisation vanished or fallen into barbarism. The drive gives them FtL travel but no one as yet understands how it works.
Phillifent ties up everything neatly at the end without – as is often the case with an Ace Double – seeming rushed to finish.
The concept of Royalty ruling entire planets is employed here, although it has to be said that the king is aware of change coming and is preparing for the time when absolute rule and possibly the monarchy itself will be a thing of the past.
It’s a romantic notion, one which repeats itself in various guises in SF up to the present day with little recourse to examining it as a realistic possibility. What is there in the collective unconscious that relishes the appeal of Monarchy?
It does tend to turn up more from authors in countries where they don’t actually have to suffer the realities of such nonsense.
van Vogt had a thing for absolute monarchs, and Asimov famously brought the Galactic Empire into the SF mainstream, although Frank Herbert put a far more complex spin on it in the Dune saga.
Of late Wil McCarthy created his own version of Royalty in Space in the hi-tech and very baroque ‘The Collapsium’ which features an immortal Queen of Sol.
Royalty, one imagines, imbues the piece with a certain flavour of age, history and entrenched culture. It adds colour and a certain superficial glamour. More than anything though, it usually stands to represent decadence or a stagnant culture, which it does in the ‘Dune’ sequence and certainly here.
‘In his Nebula Award-nominated novel ‘The Collapsium’, acclaimed author Wil McCarthy introduced a richly imagined future of boundless possibility, where poverty, war, and even death are banished forever. Only now that world’s exquisite perfection propels one restless young man toward the ultimate challenge…
For the children of immortal parents, growing up can be hard to do. A prince will forever be a prince – leaving no chance for Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui to inherit his parents’ throne. So what is an angry young blue blood to do? Punch a hole in the shadow he’s been living in by rallying his equally disgruntled companions to make an improbable spaceship, busting out of the so-called summer camp in which their parents have stowed them and making a daring escape across the vastness of space. ne’er do well Conrad Mursk is just along for the joyride – until he realises this is no typical display of teenage angst.
The children are rising up in an honest-to-gods revolution. And, boyo, things are going to get raw…’
Blurb from the March 2003 Bantam paperback edition
McCarthy’s sequel to ‘The Collapsium’ is somewhat disappointing since it lacks some of the wit and panache of its gloriously original predecessor.
Set some years after the events of ‘The Collapsium’, ‘The Wellstone’ explores some of the more unexpected ramifications of a society where immortality has become the norm.
The Queen of Sol and her consort Bruno, now have a son; Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui, a rebellious youth (and talented poet) who has, with some dismay, foreseen his destiny of being forever a Prince and never ascending to the throne.
Tired of his parents’ dismissal of his concerns as childish whining, he incites rebellion amongst the disaffected youth. Having subsequently been confined to an artificial planette (an asteroid-sized world endowed with standard Earth gravity and an atmosphere through a process best explained by the Author within the original text) with his entourage of supporters and sycophants, he manages to cobble together a spaceship and escape.
The science is just as stunningly inventive as in the previous novel, but the novel suffers in that one can never really feel any empathy for the Prince. One feels he should be, if not a loveable rogue, then a likeable maniac, but his charms remained somewhere off the page.
Also, by concentrating solely on the Prince’s escape and eventual capture it severely reduces the plot to a linear exercise, as compared to ‘The Collapsium’ which contained multiple diversions, revelations and surprises.
However, McCarthy is such a good writer that this is still an eminently readable and polished piece of work. One wonders if there is a veiled comparison to the current British Monarch and her King-in-waiting. It would be nice to think so, but I can’t really see Prince Charles inciting a youth rebellion and heading off across Middle England on a hijacked bus, although I would be vastly impressed if he did.