Clubhouse: Two Book Reviews; The Plot Against Earth by Calvin M. Knox & Recruit For Andromeda by Milton Lesser

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Calvin M. Knox (1935 – ) Hugo and Nebula award winner, author of more than 100 SF novels and 60 non-fiction books and editor of more than 60 anthologies, is still alive and kicking, still an active member of FAPA, and still universally admired and respected by SF fen.

Calvin was Guest of Honour at VCON 5 in 1976 where he famously announced he was giving up writing SF (on learning what he intended to say the ConCom quickly rescheduled his GoH speech from the opening ceremony on Friday to the closing ceremony on Sunday to lessen the impact of his “downer” speech). Years later he stated he regretted being in a fowl mood during VCON 5 and wished he could come back to do a better job. As a frequent member of VCON ConComs I began a campaign to invite him back but it was a long time before this happened. As luck would have it I was unemployed at the time and couldn’t afford to attend. However, I was let in to present the Elron awards and was allowed to sit in on a talk he was giving and finally meet the man at last. Very cool. Now we are in FAPA together. Also very cool.

Calvin M. Knox? You don’t recognise the name? One of his pseudonyms. You may know him better as Robert Silverberg. Light bulb on now?

His work is generally divided into three phases. The first, from 1955 to 1959, is generally considered his prolific “potboiler” period, after which he slowed down for a while, mostly publishing rewrites. From 1967 on he began publishing books with more sophisticated and thought-provoking themes, such as “Thorns” and “Tower of Glass.” Then, in 1976, disenchanted with how quickly his books were allowed to go out of print, he quit writing SF for 4 years. He bounced back with “Lord Valentine’s Castle” in 1980 followed by numerous novels and novellas, including “Sailing to Byzantium,” winner of the 1985 Nebula Award.

Without any shadow of a doubt, Robert Silverberg is one of the Grand Masters of the genre.

Now let me share with you one of his “potboilers” from the first phase of his writing career

THE PLOT AGAINST EARTH

By Calvin M. Knox – Published 1959. One side Ace Double D-358.

Lloyd Catton is a Special Investigator for the Terran World Government, recently appointed to the Interworld Commission on Crime located on the planet Morilaru. The three Commissioners he meets are from the three main humanoid races: the Morilaru, who are skinny, purple and have bony knobs protruding from the shoulders; the Arenadd, enormously fat orange coloured beings; and the Skorg, gaunt grey critters that smell unbelievably bad. All three races regard Terrans as potential enemies. Nevertheless all four races are willing to cooperate to put an end to the trade in hypnojewels.

Funny thing is, all humanoid races are capable of becoming addicted to hypnojewels. Stare at one for more than a few minutes and it totally absorbs your attention, blinding you to everything else around you. Presumably addicts don’t live long, though this is not stated. Where do hypnojewels come from? It is known non-humanoids, truly alien races, are immune to them. One or more non-humanoid planets must be the source. It is Lloyd’s only lead.

Until Estil, the Terran Ambassador’s teenage daughter, confesses to Catton she plans to elope with a Morilaru named Doveril but is worried he might be involved with hypnojewel smuggling. That night a Morilaru woman named Nuuri calls Lloyd saying she has information to give him. So far Lloyd hasn’t had to lift a finger to investigate. The clues are swarming to him unbidden.

At Noon the next day Nuuri meets Lloyd in a dank Inn called “The Five Planets” and reveals she’s a jilted lover who wants revenge. Somehow she learned Lloyd is investigating the hypnojewel trade, the very thing her lover Doveril is smuggling. Lloyd is pleased to have a chance to catch the villain, but hastens back to the Terran embassy to warn Estil about Doveril. Too late, they’ve eloped, but in the note she left behind Estil doesn’t name her lover. Lloyd decides to keep the info to himself for a while.

Next evening, disguised as a grey-skinned Dargonoid with the moniker Zord Karlsrunig, Lloyd is led by Nuuri to an even danker Inn called “The Last Draught.” Doveril is not present. But a bunch of criminals are, along with a bag of hypnojewels. They haggle. Lloyd gives them a down payment, then leaves to go to a bank to get the remainder of the sum. Only then does he call the authorities. Arrests are made. Let the interrogations begin!

For some reason Lloyd lets Nuuri know his real mission is to find out who is plotting to attack Earth and that he wants her to come with him to Skorg (where he suspects the hypnojewels originate) to help him further his mission. She turns him down. Meanwhile all the suspects die under interrogation, but the three commissioners are terribly pleased about the questions they asked even though they went unanswered. Lloyd can’t figure out if this is because the humanoids are more alien in their thought patterns than he assumed, or if they are simply trying to prevent him from learning anything. Perhaps they are in cahoots with the smugglers.

Anyway, at Government expense Lloyd grabs a spaceliner to Skorg along with three Morilaru attaches, a neural block to keep out the Skorg stench, and a metabolic booster to prevent him smelling bad to a Skorg. So, in spite of a gumshoe plot, Silverberg inserts little SF touches here and there to keep things offbeat and interesting.

Onboard Lloyd meets Byron Royce, a friend of the Terran Ambassador who knows all about Estil’s elopement and assumes Lloyd is investigating same. He also knows what sort of muffled sound an explosion in the engine room makes and quickly leads Lloyd to a lifeboat. Seems the liner has been sabotaged. Lloyd, Byron, a Skorg, an Arenadd and several Morilaru escape to crash-land on a swampy planet. Silverberg has fun depicting how the various aliens are, by their very psychological nature, helped or hindered in their efforts to survive. It really has very little to do with the plot except for Lloyd overhearing a delirious Morilaru describing a scheme to ship matter duplicators to Earth and destroy its economy (matter duplicators are outlawed everywhere). Dashed convenient, plot wise, methinks.

Also, excessively complicated. Wouldn’t a plot to inundate the Earth with massive shipments of hypnojewels accomplish the same end? Perhaps Silverberg, here at the tail end of his “potboiler” period, had evolved a formula with X number of plot twists and was simply slotting elements into place as required by the number of pages produced to date. A theory, at least.

For example, once rescued and back on Skorg, Lloyd just happens to pick for dinner the particular nightclub Estil, abandoned by Doveril, is now making a living as a lounge musician. “Catton wasn’t listening. Currents of amazement pounded in his mind. Talk about needles in a haystack, he thought! What luck! What blind luck!” Well, that’s one way of putting it. Bit of laziness on the part of the author I suspect.

Long story short, turns out the Skorgs are producing hypnojewels, not to flood the Earth with them, but to trade to a non-humanoid race called the Vyorn in exchange for a shipload of matter duplicators. The Vyorn are the most interesting concept in the book. Truly alien, “with six jointed arms and three legs and eyes glowing beadily from triangular sockets, they are chlorine breathers who give off carbon tetrachloride as respiratory waste.” Most delightful of all, they are utterly indifferent to humanoid lifeforms. Once on planet Vyorn, Lloyd explains his mission to the Vyorn in charge of the oxygen-breather’s compound but the alien doesn’t care. When he has a blaster fight with the Skorg crew of the ship loaded with matter duplicators the Vyorn spaceport personnel don’t even bother watching.

And when travelling between Vyorn cities Silverberg puts in a fascinating throwaway “…farmland ploughed by weird swaybacked creatures whose bodies were segmented like crustaceans and whose eyes had a haunting wisdom about them, as if they were the eyes of intelligent beings who had been subjugated by the Vyorni.”

Frankly, I’d much rather the book had been devoted to the inhabitants of Vyorn, but “The Plot Against Earth” is an adequate potboiler with all loose ends tied up and mission accomplished, so can’t complain. Fun to read. Just not a classic.

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Milton Lesser (1928 – 2008) is a bit of an oddity. An American author who changed his name to Stephen Marlowe and who wrote numerous crime fiction under that name, he earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote a number of SF potboilers that were considered adequate if ordinary. So, how does he stack up against Silverberg?

RECRUIT FOR ANDROMEDA

By Milton Lesser – published 1959. One side Ace Double D-358.

Every 780 days a draft is held to determine which two-hundred young men from North America are selected to be sent on the “No-where Journey,” a trip to an unknown destination from which no-one, as yet, has ever returned. A young lad named Kit Temple is chosen. So too, a rich man’s son, Alaric Arkalion, quickly replaced by an imposter for Ten Million dollars. In Russia they call it the “Stalintrek,” and a veritable superwoman named Sophia Petrovitch is among that hemisphere’s chosen two-hundred.

Many people assume the destination is Mars, because it is closest to the Earth every 780 days. Sure enough, the North American two hundred are flown to White Sands, New Mexico and rocketed into space to a space station where they are transferred to a Mars-bound space liner. Along the way Kit and the false Alaric become friends. Alaric knows everything, as if he’d been through the procedures before.

Turns out, Mars, with its thin, breathable atmosphere, is only a way station. Alaric, whose imposter nature has been discovered, leads Kit to the matter transmitter and enables both of them to jump ahead to “Nowhere,” a planet on the other side of the Milky Way. Alaric informs Kit that the journey, though it seemed like an instant in time, actually took five thousand years. Everyone they knew on Earth is now dust. No reason to go back.

Meanwhile the Soviet selectees are at a different way station. “Somehow, she knew she was on Jupiter, the fifth and largest planet, where the force of gravity is so much greater than on Earth that it is an effort even to walk.” Bit of an understatement that. Suspect Lesser didn’t do much research.

The crux of the plot is that the Galaxy’s one super race, nearly as old as the galaxy itself, is dying out, and is holding a series of games on Nowhere planet pitting younger, less advanced races against each other, intending to grant the winner all of the super race’s knowledge and technology. It’s mostly planet against planet, but Earth is the exception, with two contestants. North America is in second place, and the Soviets in fourth place. Much is at stake, to put it mildly.

There are to be three contests. Kit is chosen. Through chemicals he is placed in a dream world as a savage armed with bow and arrows. So too, is Sophie Petrovitch. She wins. He drowns but is pulled out of the dream while still alive by the doctors monitoring him, including Alaric. First round to the Soviets.

In the second round Kit is living on Earth and has just discovered his wife Lucy was replaced long ago by an imposter named Sophie. The time has come for Sophie to kill him. But first, in order to win, she has to get certain information from him. She fails, mainly because she and Kit fall in love. Round two to North America.

Now the Alaric Imposter reveals he is a member of the Super Race, or rather, a human body inhabited by a mind-controlling parasite which is what the Super Race really are. The contest is being held not for the benefit of the winner but to determine the best new host race for the Super Race. Alaric the parasite claims he is ashamed of his race’s parasitical nature and has become a traitor in order to help the humans. The best way to do that is to take Kit and Sophie to a giant space station between the Milky Way and Andromeda (the home base of the parasites) and use it to destroy the mini-fleet of five warp speed ships the aliens possess. Without these few ships (the source of power for them is used up–no more can be built) the parasite race would need to use matter transmitters, which would take thousands of years to reach Earth. This would give time for Earthmen to evolve to the point where they would easily defeat the invaders. Sure. Why not? Sounds like a plan.

Big space opera type battle takes place. Sophie dies. A wounded Kit wakes up on Stephanie’s lap back on Nowhere. Stephanie? His girlfriend back on Earth. Seems she had lobbied to be sent after him. The two of them plan to be the first to go back to Earth. They are rather looking forward to whatever changes have taken place in the ten thousand years since they left.

Kit appears to believe the battle had been very real and that the parasite aliens had been defeated. I suspect the entire incident was simply the third round in the game. Now what, a final round to determine the outcome between first place Deneb and second place North America? Then, if the winner, Earth gets the benefit of Super Race knowledge? Or does the Super Race consist of parasites after all? And will Kit and Stephanie arrive on Earth just as the parasites show up? And come to think of it, won’t Kit and Stephanie be returning to Mars rather than Earth, since that is where the matter transmitter was located? Will the way station on Mars even exist 10,000 years after they left it?

Lesser leaves everything open-ended. Can’t say I’m satisfied, but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

This potboiler has more SF elements than Silverberg’s potboiler. The underlying concepts stirred my sense of wonder to a greater degree. For one thing, the mystery of what and where “Nowhere” was struck me as more intriguing than the quest for hypnojewels. More imagination on display here. Even so, not a classic by any means, but better than I expected.

To sum up, both novels be perfectly adequate time wasters. Even now, more than half a century after they were written.

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

 

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