The Clubhouse: Book Reviews; King of the Fourth Planet / Cosmic Checkmate

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Another entry in my endless quest to revive the excitement of what it was like to be a teenage SF fan in the 1960s, what it was like to feel the heart-palpitating thrill of perusing lurid pocket book covers on a rack in a drugstore. In this case, the first cover has something to do with Mars, the ultimate alien planet. Sold!

King of the Fourth Planet

by Robert Moore Williams – published in 1962. One side of Ace Double F-149.

Apparently US author Robert Moore Williams (1907 – 1977) was viewed as an adequate though seldom original SF writer, most noted for his Jongor series (barbarian hero fighting monsters in a lost world) and his Zanthar series (barbarian (?) professor fighting mutants on alien worlds). Well, at least lots of fighting going on. This book was one of his rare one-shots. Let’s see how much fighting there is.

As  I began rereading this work more than half a century after my first reading I had in the back of my mind I had originally been disappointed. The prologue has to do with a mighty mountain rising high above the atmosphere of Mars, a mountain known as Suzusilmar, a holy mountain with seven levels, each inhabited by Martians. The higher one climbs–stairs reach all the way to the top–the more advanced the Martians become. Doesn’t sound disappointing. Rather promising, actually.

However, the first chapter reveals the Martians are dead ringers for humans, albeit ones with odd names and an annoying habit of speaking in vague terms when talking about themselves. Not a very imaginative portrayal of aliens. In the Martian desert the Martians are savages. Those of the first level are barbarians. The second level features more mannered barbarians. The third level is roughly equivalent to 19th or 20th century Earth, which is to say, host to a type of super barbarian. The protagonist, a human named John Rolf, lives on the fourth level where the Martians create highly advanced gadgets for their own amusement but do nothing with them, preferring to meditate and stare off into space. Bunch of Martian hippies if you ask me. Can’t help but wonder if they grok.

John, it turns out, is still annoyed by his divorce a couple of decades earlier. To while away the time he’s decided to retire on Mars and, with the aid of the fourth level Martians’ scientific skills, perfect his design for a Teliknon, a handheld gizmo that enables the bearer to read minds. He plans to mass produce billions of them and distribute them to virtually every human being on earth, apparently in the belief it will solve all of humanity’s problems. I have my doubts. I suspect what he has in mind, if only subconsciously, is some kind of revenge for his divorce. At any rate he seems quite mad.

An earth spaceship lands at the foot of the mountain. The spaceship is operated by the “Company for Better Planetary Relations,” a corporate entity composed entirely of villains. The leader of the expedition is one Mr. Hardesty, a typical power-mad executive who wants to claw his way to the presidency of the CBPR and enjoy unlimited power and wealth. His underlings, mostly mercenary thugs, are firm believers in killing and looting as the best method to secure a personal pension. Having worked for several large corporations, I know the type. Usually found in middle management.

It is revealed that John Rolf is a former President of the CBPR and that his guilt over all the nasty things done on his order is his true motivation to “save” the human race from itself. Right. Just your typical guilt-ridden CEO so common in the board rooms of the Earth. But that’s not particularly relevant to the plot. Hardesty has brought along John’s long lost daughter Jennie and threatens to forcibly marry her unless John forks over all of Mars’ fourth level inventions. John says no. The daughter says no, and elects to stay with dad, as does her love interest who had stowed away on the ship. Problem solved. Case closed.

Except that, with the aid of a helicopter “whose vanes beat the thin air of Mars,” Hardesty kidnaps Jennie and takes her back to the ship. This makes John angry and he decides now would be a good time to get the Teliknon to actually work. Does it ever. His “I-principle,” what we call “conscious mind,” along possibly with his soul, becomes trapped in the brain of Hardesty, then his daughter, then her lover Mr. Hoker, then a couple of Martians, then back to Hardesty, and so on. This power a bit useless, in that his hosts are unaware of him, and he is unable to direct their actions (though he does manage to whisper instructions to Jennie) but at least he is aware of what all the other characters are thinking. As good a narrative device as any, I suppose.

The science fiction aspect, or perhaps I should say metaphysical aspect, is the implication all sentient beings, on reaching a level capable of handling the skill, can read minds, but until one is sufficiently enlightened, “natural” censors within the mind reduce all memory of accidental activations to vague and dream-like impressions of supernatural experience. This is offered as an explanation for encounters with ghosts. Sure. Why not.

Jennie escapes. John regains his body. Mr. Hoker is still hanging around. The trio join a flood of Martians climbing to higher levels as they flee from the first level barbarians who have been armed by Hardesty and enticed to conquer the mountain on his behalf. As luck would have it the Martians on the fourth level build a barricade on the steps and use a few rifles they invented to block the barbarians from climbing higher. This is pulp fiction stuff. We see Mr. Hardesty in his helicopter hovering over the barricade, tossing hand grenades and firing a tommy gun down at the hapless Martians. Then he unleashes his personal band of mercenaries.

Long story short, in a concert hall at the highest level the KIng of the Martians uses an abacus and some (probably) god-awful music to defeat the foe before you can say “Deus Ex Machina.” Happy ending all around. Even the dead are revived.

No wonder I felt disappointed, cheated even. This wasn’t a proper Martian mountain covered in mysterious ruins, it was a blasted metaphor for human spiritual progress, a subject I wasn’t the least bit interested in fifty years ago.. Nor am I now, for that matter. The skipping from brain to brain accomplished very little. The Martians were just about the most boring Martians I have ever come across. Nope. Nothing here for me to like.

Sadly, I suspect “King of the Fourth Planet” was Williams’ attempt to rise above his usual level to please his critics. Didn’t work. Not for nothing did he win an Elron Award for his Zanthar series back in the seventies!

Now we come to the second cover. Natch, anything to do with cool, 1950s style rocket ships appeals to me. Fur-lined space cadet boots a bit odd but, hey, at least he’s got shoulder flaps! And “10,000 worlds against one” does sound exciting. Definitely a must buy Ace Double!

Cosmic Checkmate

by Charles V. De Vet & Katherine MacLean – published in 1962. Other side of Ace Double F-149.

US author Charles V. De Vet (1911 – 1997) wrote about 50 stories. His first, “Unexpected Weapon,” was published in the September 1950 issue of Amazing Stories. This, his first novel (he only wrote two), was co-written with the more prolific and better known US author Katherine MacLean (1925 – ). It was her first novel, too. She is perhaps most famous for her 1951 short story “Pictures Don’t Lie” in which the Earth eagerly awaits the arrival of an enormous alien spacecraft, only to discover that–unfortunately for the aliens who are promptly eaten by microbes–the spaceship is microscopic in size.

I remembered nothing from my first reading half a century ago. All was new to me. The opening chapter has a human spy by name of Robert Lang challenging Veldians, alien inhabitants of the planet Velda, to beat him at “The Game,” a kind of super complicated chess played with “pukts” on a board with 169 squares (must be a bloody big board). Each player starts with 52 pieces. The game is THE cultural obsession of the Veldians. Fascinating it is not. Fortunately, the reader is spared an explanation of how it is played. Instead the narrative concentrates on Robert’s ploys to interpret the psychology behind his opponent’s methods. Okay. Interesting.

On the other hand, the aliens are dead ringers for humans. In fact, the only way master player Kalin Trobt discovers Robert is human is to reach forward and touch the tip of his nose. Seems the peculiar feel of our nose cartilage gives us away. That and nothing else, physically, at least. Odd turns of phrase and behavioural oddities can be clues as well, but mainly, it’s the tip of the nose, and only by feel.

Right. I settled down for yet another book where the aliens are merely humans with funny names. I couldn’t be more wrong. Katherine MacLean is noted for her subtle concepts that inject character-driven emotion into hard SF. I suspect the truly alien aspect of the Veldians is largely her contribution.

Seems the Veldians used to share their planet with a race of cat-like predators of great intelligence called “deleeth” whose favourite snack were the perpetually nomadic Veldians, constantly on the run. When pounced upon, the men would turn to fight—and die—while the women grabbed their children and fled. Evolution selected men for aggression, and women for non-sex appeal, to the point where women could breed only one year out of eight, the rest of the time their sexual characteristics atrophied to the point where they resembled genderless elfin creatures, albeit strong enough to grab their only child and run like mad. Presumably in their eighth year children could flee by themselves, freeing their mother to swell into a temporarily voluptuous “real woman” available for mating and capable of bearing a single child yet again.

Consequently Veldian “strip clubs” consist of floorshows where fully clothed women in their highly desirable but temporary female state merely slink from one end of the room to the other, exuding pheromones as they go. Drives the men crazy, it does.

And that’s the point. By human standards the Veldian males ARE crazy. Born to be both extremely aggressive and sexually frustrated, the average male is a berserker time bomb waiting to go off. Can’t help but feel that Katherine has an element of satirical comment on men in general in mind. Despite these flaws, the Veldians have built a civilization by corralling men’s instincts in two very formal ways.

First, since practically anything any guy says to another guy is taken as an insult, dueling to the death is quite common. Any attempt to apologize is viewed as cowardice, and that usually triggers a lynch mob. It pays to think before you speak when visiting Velda.

Second, every male’s ambition is tied up with “The Game.” One dreams of working one’s way up to “The Final Game” which is televised to the entire population, as is the execution of the loser. Hence Robert Lang’s mission to ultimately play the game with the fate of Earth’s empire of 10,000 worlds at stake. If he wins, Velda surrenders. If he loses, the entire human race will undoubtedly be wiped out (since the Veldans have some sort of secret weapon against which humanity has no defence). This is not as dire as it sounds, as Robert has an eidetic memory AND a built-in but undetectable computer wired to his brain. If any human can win, it’s Robert.

Problem is, the Veldians refuse the stakes. They’ve already made up their minds to destroy the human race. Wonderful outlet for their aggressive instincts, you see. But they still want Robert to play the ultimate championship final game, just for the fun of it, particularly for the fun execution ending, which promises to be hilarious. Every single Veldian Robert runs into introduces himself, itself, or herself by saying “I will watch you die.” Gets on Roberts nerves, it does.

Throughout the book Robert is a “guest” at the house of Kalin Trobt, apart from a brief escape of several days duration. Trobt, for a Veldian male, is unusually calm. Robert finds out why. Apparently, while spying on one of the 10,000 worlds, Trobt fell in love with an Earth woman and she with him, and he brought her back to be his wife. On the entire planet he is the only man with a woman available for mating whenever they both feel the urge to go at it like bunny rabbits. Talk about trophy wives! Trobt is envied like no other.

As for Robert, an elf by the name of Yasi begins to voluptualize and selects him for a mate. This almost compensates for his impending doom. Makes him happy and content, for the short term at any rate.

There are plot twists and unexpected revelations, plus a very interesting Game Master revealed, and a bit of violence which improves Robert’s reputation, though not enough to save him. Worse, the Veldians use him to figure out true human nature in all its flaws and weaknesses. He’s doomed. The Earth is doomed. The 10,000 worlds are doomed. Robert’s mission is less than successful.

And yet, and yet, he has one final masterful ploy up his sleeve and when he plays it, the fates of humanity and the Veldians are determined in an unexpected but totally satisfactory manner. The only hint I will offer is that it takes full advantage of both the strengths and weaknesses of the psychology of both races.

To me, this is what science fiction is all about. Concepts new and different sufficient to stir my sense of wonder. “Cosmic Checkmate” redeems this particular Ace Double in my eyes. It’s a gem of a novel. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Since I believe Katherine MacLean is responsible for the bulk of the original concepts and deft satire in “Cosmic Checkmate,” I look forward to reading other works by her if when I come across them. And I’ll give Charles V. De Vet a further look too, just to see what he’s like on his own.

BY THE WAY:

You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines
 

You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project
 

You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive
 

And check out my website OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine
 

And then check out my newest new website, devoted to my paying market SF fiction semi-pro zine Polar Borealis, at Polar Borealis Magazine

1 COMMENT

  1. I haven’t read any of these blasts (blasters?) from the past, but remember loving many of the Ace Doubles. I suspect many of them are best forgotten, though. Still, the classics remain – Simak, Eric Frank Russell, Hal Clement et al. I was reading at more or less the same time as avidly collecting Mars Attacks bubble gum cards. All that gum…amazing I still have teeth.

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