Ace Double Reviews, 16: Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany/The Tree Lord of Imeten, by Tom Purdom (#M-139, 1966, $0.45)
by Rich Horton
This Ace Double was published in 1966. Empire Star is about 29,000 words long, The Tree Lord of Imeten is about 48,000 words. To the best of my knowledge, neither book appeared in any other form previous to this publication. Delany had 5 novels appear as part of Ace Doubles: his first, The Jewels of Aptor; the first two novels in his Fall of the Towers trilogy; The Ballad of Beta-2, and this one. The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star were later reissued together as #20571 in the last year of Ace Doubles, 1973. My original copy of the two books, bought in 1975 for $1.25, is not bound dos-a-dos like a typical Ace Double -- I think this is a still later reissue of the 1973 Ace Double, but I may be wrong -- perhaps this was the 1973 version (though $1.25 seems a high price). Interestingly, Empire Star and another Delany novel, Babel-17, have recently been reissued in a dos-a-dos Trade Paperback.
Samuel R. Delany was justly among the most celebrated SF writers of the 60s and 70s. For me his most congenial work is a remarkable burst of stories and novels from 1966 through 1968 -- those three years saw the publication of his Nebula winning novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, as well as my favorite among his novels, Nova, plus his Nebula winning story "Aye, and Gomorrah", his Nebula and Hugo winner "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", and such stories as "The Star Pit", "Driftglass", and "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line". To say that those are my favorites among Delany's work shouldn't be seen as rejecting the value of later stuff such as Trouble on Triton or Tales of Neveryon, which I still enjoy -- it's just that what he did from 1966 through 1968 still impresses me as just plain more fun.
Empire Star came out just at the beginning of this period, in 1966. It is generally grouped with his earlier novels, but in tone it reminds me as much of Babel-17 as any of his stuff, and it quite openly foreshadows aspects of Nova. It doesn't have the enduring reputation of the stories I mentioned above, but it is impressive work, extremely playful in a bravura and quite accomplished fashion -- showing an author clearly besotted with language, clearly interested in allusion and symbolism but still at the point of having fun with it all. It's a thoroughly enjoyable novel, if just that bit less serious than even his slightly later stuff to relegate it to the second rank among his works.
It opens with Comet Jo, a young man on a planet of Tau Ceti devoted to harvesting plyasil and nothing else, encountering a downed alien spaceship and coming into possession of a devil kitten, a crystallized alien called Jewel, and a message to deliver to Empire Star. So he hitches a ride with a spaceship away from Tau Ceti -- despite the fact that he is a simplex boy, and that living in the wider universe may require him to become complex and even multiplex. The story darts rapidly to Earth, to other planets, and to Empire Star; and Jo meets such people as the tortured San Severina, who owns seven enslaved aliens called Lll; and the embodied consciousness of a Lll in a computer -- the Lump; and the suicidal poet Ni Ty Lee, who (like Theodore Sturgeon) seems to have done everything you have done before you could do it; and a Princess escaped from Miss Perrypicker's Academy. What is it about -- well, that's sort of multiplex. It's swift and gay and bittersweet and funny and the ending is delightful, with echoes of Harness but much tighter. It's really a fine work.
Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, all of it in Asimov's, and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the three "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and this year's "The Path of the Transgressor" are quite remarkable -- the latter, from the June 2003 Asimov's, is in my view a strong contender at this juncture for a Hugo nomination.
So, I am rather an admirer of his latter-day short fiction, but I'd not read a novel. I was thus glad when I ran across this Ace Double in the ConQuesT dealer room -- not only a good excuse to reread Empire Star but a good opportunity to try Purdom at novel length. The result is not bad -- The Tree Lord of Imeten isn't a brilliant book at all, and it's noticeably rushed in its conclusion, but it's a fairly original and refreshing story in many ways. It's not as good as Empire Star (not even close) but it's solid work, and the combined Ace Double has to rank as one of the stronger book in the whole series.
Harold is a 21 year old man living in a colony of refugees from a regimented 21st Century Earth. The colony has been established on a plateau on a planet of Delta Pavonis, on a world otherwise dominated by forest, mountain, and ocean. His mother and sister are long dead, and his father and his best friend have just been murdered in some never specified political dispute. A young woman, Joanne, negotiates a deal whereby the two are exiled off the plateau, but not killed.
In the forest they encounter two separate intelligent species -- a ground-dwelling species without hands (just paws) but great linguistic facility; and a tree-dwelling apelike species which has just entered on an Iron Age. The tree-dwellers are violent, and they have enslaved many members of the ground dwelling species. Harold and Joanne are captured by the tree-dwellers, and, sickened by the slaveholding, they scheme to escape and work to free the slaves.
All fairly routine, really, but it's redeemed by a pretty decent job of portraying the two species, particularly the ground-dwellers, and by the fairly well-characterized main characters. Minor effective details are Harold's extreme nearsightedness and Joanne's limp. The plot resolution is a bit rapid, and somewhat conventional. Still, I liked it, and I wonder if Purdom wrote a sequel -- there's definitely room for a story about the eventual contact between the two indigenous species and the rest of the human colony.