Ace Double Reviews, 27: Star Guard, by Andre Norton/Planet of No Return, by Poul Anderson (#D-199, 1956, $0.35)
by Rich Horton

This Ace Double features an SFWA Grand Master writing each half. Noticing this, I decided to see how many Grand Masters wrote Ace Doubles. The answer is, most of them. Indeed, 12 of the 18 SFWA Grand Masters were featured in at least one "classic" Ace Double (i.e., the ones published between 1953 and 1973 in dos-a-dos fashion). (One of the other 6, Lester Del Rey, has a quasi Ace Double published in 1977.) Three of the Grand Masters are also among the most prolific Ace Double writers: Andre Norton, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson. The other Ace Doubles to feature two different Grand Masters were #D-61, from 1954, L. Sprague de Camp's Cosmic Manhunt backed with Clifford Simak's Ring Around the Sun; and #D-110, from 1995, featuring Anderson's No World of Their Own backed with Isaac Asimov's The 1,000-Year Plan (yes, a retitling of Foundation).

Star Guard is the longest Ace Double half I have yet seen, at 68,000 words. It is a reprinting of a 1955 Harcourt, Brace hardcover. As with many Norton novels, a hardcover marketed to the Juvenile segment was followed by a paperback marketed to adults.

The book opens with a brief prologue explaining that after reaching the stars humans encountered an existing Galactic civilization. The rulers of this civilization decided that humans were too aggressive for full membership, but that their aggression could be put to good use by making them mercenaries. Some mercenaries become "Mechs", who serve on relatively higher-tech worlds, using tanks, airplanes, blasters and such. Others become "Archs", who serve on low-tech worlds using swords and rifles.

The hero of this book is Kana Karr, a newly-hatched Arch specializing is "Alien Liaison". His first assignment is to the planet Fronn, taking one side of a dispute between twins over which is the rightful heir. But things go horribly wrong when someone armed with a blaster kills the twin Kana's group is backing. This is evidence of a rogue regiment of Mechs illegally operating on a low-tech planet.

When Kana's Horde (as they are called) tries to peacefully leave the planet, they find their escape routes blocked, and more treachery ends in the murder of the Horde's leaders. It is up to the survivors to make their way through the hostile outback of Fronn, dealing with natural obstacles such as the mountains, dangerous animals, and a weeks long storm; as well as more sophisticated obstacles presented by the three indigenous sentient species of the planet. Their goal is to report the rogue Mechs to the authorities, but as time goes on evidence mounts that this conspiracy way be more wide-ranging than they imagine.

It's pretty decent adventure SF. The aliens are fun in a classic 50s manner. The action is well-handled. The plot is twisty enough to hold the interest. The final resolution perhaps doesn't quite convince, but it is in its way satisfying, and it resolves this book's action while certainly leaving room for a sequel or sequels.

Planet of No Return is about 33,000 words long. It is a reprint, unchanged as far as I can tell, of the serial "Question and Answer", which appeared in the June and July 1954 issues of Astounding. This story was written to be part of a Twayne Triplet. The Twayne Triplets were to be a series of collections of three novellas. Each book would be introduced by an article by a scientist, describing a world and a situation he had created. The three stories would all be set in that world. Thus it was, as far as I know, the first use of a concept which became the "Shared World", and which was later used for such anthologies as Medea: Harlan's World. (Although in the case of the Twayne Triplets, the stories would not be set in a common "future".) The first group of stories was called The Petrified Planet, and included pieces by H. Beam Piper, Fletcher Pratt, and Judith Merril. Some other stories were commissioned, for different worlds, but the only other Twayne Triplet to be published was Witches Three, featuring stories by Pratt, James Blish, and Fritz Leiber. Witches Three may not be a canonical Triplet anyway, as the stories included were not commissioned expressly for the series (for example, the Leiber story is Conjure Wife, from way back in 1943).

Isaac Asimov's "Sucker Bait", which had been serialized in Astounding earlier in 1954, was written for the same setup as "Question and Answer". (Other stories that were apparently written for other Twayne Triplet commissions were "Get Out of My Sky" by James Blish, "Second Landing" by Murray Leinster, and "First Cycle", an unfinished H. Beam Piper story that Michael Kurland completed in 1982. Blish's original "Case of Conscience" novelette was also apparently intended for a Twayne Triplet.)

The basic setup is a binary star system with a twin planet at one of the Trojan points. The planet seems earthlike -- all other planets humans have found are either unsuitable for human use, or previously occupied. One expedition has been sent from Earth, and has failed to return. Now a second expedition is going. Anderson populates his ship with an ill-mixed mixture of men, and he portrays an expedition in financial peril, and facing apparent sabotage attempts. This is the last chance for Earth to finance a ship to another star system -- unless this expedition proves successful. But on arrival they find a native race, previously unsuspected. Is Earth's star travel doomed? or is this race willing to share? There is a bit of a twist ending, though really it's pretty easy to figure out what's actually going on. The story is a pretty good read, and Anderson spends some time contemplating the central "question" of his story -- is humanity ready for the stars? Not bad stuff.