Ace Double Reviews, 20: I Want the Stars, by Tom Purdom/Demons' World, by Kenneth Bulmer (#F-289, 1964, $0.40)
by Rich Horton
I've mentioned that the most prolific authors of Ace Double halves were A. Bertram Chandler (18), John T. Phillifent ("John Rackham") (16), Kenneth Bulmer (15), and Andre Norton (15). I've already reviewed Chandler and Rackham in this series, so I figured it was high time to get to Bulmer. (I'll get to Norton soon as well, though I figure she's better known than any of the others I mentioned.)
(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer is an English writer, born 1921 and as far as I can find out still alive. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer from about 1952 through 1988 or so, publishing close to a hundred novels that the ISFDB knows about, under his own name and several pseudonyms. His most-famous pseudonym is probably "Alan Burt Akers", used for his Dray Prescot series of 37 novels for DAW, from 1972 through 1988. I've haven't read any of those novels so I can't comment on them. He also took over editorship of the classic British original anthology series New Writings in SF after the death of the first editor, E. J. Carnell. Bulmer edited numbers 22 through 30 of that series, from 1973 through 1977. With 30 total volumes, I believe that qualifies as the longest running (in terms of number of books) original anthology series in SF history. Though Bulmer's writing tended to be extremely old-fashioned, even pulpish, his editorial hand showed a certain taste for the New Wave (in among a fair amount of old-style stuff).
The author of the other half of this Ace Double is Tom Purdom, whom I've discussed before. As I mentioned then, Purdom had a modest career from the late 50s through the early 70s, putting out a dozen or stories and five novels to limited notice; then in about 1990, he returned to the field with up to now almost 20 stories, all in Asimov's, many very good indeed.
Purdom's I Want the Stars is his first novel, and it is quite short at about 42,000 words. Bulmer's Demons' World is a bit longer, at some 52,000 words.
I Want the Stars is a rather ambitious novel in theme, though the execution doesn't really match the ambition. The novel opens with a group of 4 humans attacking an alien spaceship. We soon learn that humans have been in interstellar space for only a fairly short time, perhaps a century, after having solved their internal problems. War has been eliminated, psychological problems are mostly solved, lifespans are about 300 years, men and women form free and fluid sexual bonds without jealousy, the economy is a post-scarcity economy. (Indeed, I was in some mild ways reminded of Iain M. Banks's Culture.) Why then this attack on the aliens? Well, these aliens, the Horta, are telepaths who take over and enslave by mind control other alien races.
The attack fails, partly because of the Horta mind powers, and partly because the humans involved are simply not psychologically ready to fight sentient beings. The one man of this group, Jenorden A'Ley, is closest to being ready to fight, and he is also struggling with his knowledge of his mortality (enhanced by the machinations of the Horta), and with his search for real meaning in his life. With the two surviving women, he joins another man and heads off exploring. They discover a primitive race, at roughly 20th Century Earth tech and social levels, ready to destroy themselves with atomic weapons. To their horror, they learn that a mysterious super race -- called, get this, the Borg* -- is offering to teach these people whatever they want to know -- to human morality, this seems terribly wrong. They decide to accept the Borg's offer to join the other race and get their own questions answered, and they head to a Borg planet. where various representatives of any number of alien races are under Borg tutelage. But the humans soon learn that the Borg method of teaching, while interesting, is rather frustrating -- they seem intent on teaching their questioners the history of intelligent life, more or less as a precursor to answering any question.
Jenorden gets impatient and starts visiting various other races to see what they are learning. Then the action starts, as some relatively primitive aliens treacherously attack the humans, hoping to steal their technological secrets. And, shockingly, the Borg refuse to stop the violence. Jenorden and the others must fight for their lives, confronting their own potential for violence, and hoping to learn the Borg secret. The answer is not quite believable, but it is uplifting, and it does quite reasonably offer meaning to Jenorden's life.
Demons' World opens with a group of human Foragers venturing Outside, and discovering an unfamiliar man. Against regulations, they rescue this man from the enormous Demon they encounter. They take the man back to their underground warren. The Controller class takes over, and they learn that the man, called "Stead" from the only word he utters, is an amnesiac. They teach him what they can, mysteriously withholding certain knowledge, particularly about sex. This frustrates Stead as he cannot deal with his attraction to such people as the curiously different Della, one of the leading Controller researchers.
But after some instruction, the ruler, or Captain, of this human nation, the Empire of Archon, assigns Stead to be a Forager with the same group that originally found him. There he meets such people as Honey, who seems to attract him in ways disturbingly similar to Della; and Cardon, a bitter man with a secret; and Thorburn, the competent leader. Stead also learns, on his foraging expeditions, that the Demons that the Controllers believe are simply myths are all too real, and truly gigantic; and he comes to sympathize with the lower social state of the Foragers and the Workers relative to the Controllers.
Stead seems ready to come to new understanding of the real nature of this world, and perhaps to regain his memory, when a foraging mission gone wrong brings the redoubled wrath of the Demons on human society. The only hope is for humans to finally learn the truth of their position in this world ...
It's really rather silly, though the story as told is fast moving and readable enough. But the central secret is pretty obvious from the getgo, and the human society doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and Stead's personal story, particularly his abortive relationships with Della and Honey, is frustratingly handled. To say nothing of the blatant ignoring of the square/cube law. Awfully minor stuff, in all.
*Purdom's Borg don't really resemble the Star Trek Borg very much at all, but I do sort of wonder if a Star Trek writer didn't read this book and decide he liked the name. Indeed, another alien species name from this book was used as a Star Trek species name, Horta.