Ace Double Reviews, 26: Masters of Evolution, by Damon Knight/Fire in the Heavens, by George O. Smith (#D-375, 1959, $0.35)
by Rich Horton
Masters of Evolution is a slight expansion (from 25,000 words to 30,000 words) of Damon Knight's 1954 novella "Natural State". It is the first of three Ace Double halves Knight produced by expanding 50s novellas. With the short story collection Off Center, these are the only four Ace Double halves (in three books) that Knight wrote. (I have reviewed all of Knight's Ace Doubles now.) George O. Smith wrote two Ace Double halves, Fire in the Heavens as well as Lost in Space (1960). (He should not be confused with George H. Smith, who wrote the Ace Double half Kar Kaballa (1969).) Fire in the Heavens is a reprint of a 1958 Thomas Bouregy hardcover, and it is about 52,000 words long.
In Masters of Evolution the world is divided into city dwellers and "muckfeet". The city dwellers rely on high technology. They are conditioned to fear and feel sick at the thought of country life, and of muckfeet food and hygiene. They have previously fought wars, which both sides claim to have won: but as there are only 22 remaining cities in the whole world, and the muckfeet control the rest of the area, and have a much higher population, the real winners seem obvious.
As the book opens, the Mayor of New York has a desperate idea. He assigns a leading actor, Alvah Gustad, to fly out to the muckfeet and offer to trade with them: the high tech city products in exchange for much needed metals -- and also in the hopes of converting the muckfeet to city ways. Alvah somewhat reluctantly and fearfully makes his way to the country. At first he is confronted with suspicion and threats, or is just ignored. But finally he is given a chance to sell his wares at a fair somewhere in the Midwest. Much to his surprise, nobody is remotely interested in his products -- and worse, after he gets into a scuffle, he finds that the muckfeet have managed to completely disable his energy sources. He is stranded.
A pretty young woman named B. J. and a wise mentor type named Doc Bither take Alvah under their arms, and over some weeks they manage to overcome his conditioning against muckfeet food and smells. We get a look at the muckfeet way of life, which is based on using spectacular products of genetic engineering in place of machines. For example, for airplanes they use "rocs" -- huge flying lizards. Plants are used to extract metals from the ground. Other animals are used as truck or as message devices or as "libraries". Alvah is still reluctant to become a muckfoot, though -- he is still loyal to New York. But he is also in love with B. J. And when the cities launch an attack on the muckfeet, Alvah realizes that many things he has long believed are false. The novel is resolved in a predictable confrontation between Alvah's new friends and his old city.
This is a decent piece of work, enjoyable enough, but lesser work than Knight's best. I would rank it third of his three Ace Doubles (not counting the story collection). Some of the plot contrivances just don't convince -- such as Alvah and the very first muckfoot girl he meets falling in love. And Knight's case for the "natural state" versus "technology" is grossly loaded -- the cities' high tech is burdened by having to comply with the laws of physics, basically, which don't really seem to affect the muckfeet genetic creations. Or put another way -- Knight imagines a utopian perfection of genetic engineering, with limited costs; but the opposing high technology is auctorially declared to be inferior -- but not proven so.
(I also looked at the differences between the original novella and the expanded Ace Double. They consist of a brief passage, about a page, in the middle of the book which explains some of the genetic engineering; and a long additional sequence right at the end, extending the final conflict and giving Alvah a chance to be an action hero of sorts. On the whole, the additions are padding, though I think the explanatory passage fits fine.)
The cover of Fire in the Heavens features a spaceship pulling a string of sailing ships through interplanetary space. I assumed that was just a piece of artistic license -- the artist fancifully depicting the theme of the book. I was wrong -- the cover is a fairly accurate representation of an actual scene! That should tell you just how hokey this novel is.
George O. Smith is probably best known for his Venus Equilateral stories, mostly dating to the 40s in Astounding, with one sequel in Harry Harrison's 1973 Astounding memorial anthology. These are somewhat engaging but often silly "engineers in space" stories, about radio communication stations in Venus's orbit, as I recall. I have also seen his novels Highways in Hiding (1955) and The Fourth "R" (1959) praised. (I have read the Venus Equilateral stories but no other novels until Fire in the Heavens.) His writing career lasted mostly from 1942 to about 1960, with a few more short stories appearing through the 60s and 70s and as late as 1980. He died in 1981.
The hero of Fire in the Heavens is Jeff Benson, a brilliant young physicist who runs a company making scientific instruments. (I thought it significant that Benson is a physicist but is portrayed as an engineer, someone whose main job is putting stuff together.) He runs afoul of the beautiful but amoral Lucille Roman, who runs a sort of megacorporation. Jeff's acquaintance with Charles Horne, one of Lucille's rivals, is enough to convince Lucille that he is in cahoots against her. Lucille's company has developed a new atomic jet, the Roman Jet, but her chief physicist doesn't understand how it works. But Lucille is unwilling to trust Jeff to work with her company. And Jeff is too naive to realize that Charles Horne is as amoral as Lucille.
Jeff has a theory that conservation of mass/energy is not absolute -- that some energy is lost, perhaps into a different universe, whenever any energy is used. When the Roman Jet is tested on a spaceship, the sun is noticed to become unstable. The Jet is blamed for this (through the connivance of Horne), but Jeff's theory offers an alternate explanation. Either way, though, the Sun seems likely to go nova.
Horne hatches a plot to steal Lucille's spaceship and fly to Procyon. For supplies he uses the spaceship to yank a number of cargo ships into space (hence the cover!) Meanwhile Jeff has found a way to use a variation of the Roman Jet to contact other universes. And Lucille is on the run from lynch mobs who believe she has caused the impending nova ...
It's all really too too silly. Surely Smith knew this! And there also cliches such as the beautiful and amoral and sexually loose (it is implied, not shown) woman turning into mush and falling in love with the innocent and virtuous hero. And the plot is discursive and casual and just kind of dumb. Not a very good book at all.