Ace Double Reviews, 51: The Puzzle Planet, by Robert A. W. Lowndes/The Angry Espers, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (#D-485, 1961, $0.35)
by Rich Horton
This qualifies as a pretty minor Ace Double in the scheme of things. The Puzzle Planet is about 41,000 words long, The Angry Espers about 48,000 words. The ISFDB says that The Angry Espers was also published as a complete novel under the title "A Taste of Fire" in the August 1959 Amazing -- I would assume that was a shorter version.
Robert A. W. Lowndes is of course primarily known as an editor. He worked mostly for Columbia publishing, and edited a host of magazines in several genres. He was notable for producing quite decent magazines on very limited budgets. Among his better known SF magazines were Future and Science Fiction Stories. He wrote a modest quantity of short stories, and only two novels that I know of -- though there may well have been others. (In particular, he used quite a few pseudonyms.) The novels I am aware of are The Duplicated Man, a collaboration with James Blish (much of Lowndes' output was in collaboration) and this Ace Double half.
Lowndes contributes a brief foreword to The Puzzle Planet in which he mentions John Campbell's assertion that an SF mystery was impossible -- because the writer could too regularly base his solution on super science or some other SFnal quality. Lowndes (as with many other writers, notably Isaac Asimov) responded that of course SF mysteries were possible -- it was simply necessary that the writer reveal to the reader any SFnal tricks he will use -- or perhaps better, make the solution to the mystery dependent on nothing SFnal. The Puzzle Planet is his attempt at such an SF mystery.
Roy Auckland has come to the planet Carolus in order to investigate some difficulties among the archaeological team studying the planet. These difficulties, it turns out, revolve around the controversial leader of the team, Dr. Howard James, who believes that the deserts of Carolus hold evidence of a long past powerful race of aliens. But the current inhabitants, the Vaec, are a pleasant but primitive people, much given to silly practical jokes.
James seems to have been the target of a couple of failed murder attempts. But there is something fishy about those attempts. And then another member of the expedition actually is killed -- in a very unusual way. The solution to the murder turns on unraveling not only the tangled relationships of the expedition members, but the secrets of the Vaec. I suppose Lowndes plays fair enough with the reader, but his mystery just isn't that interesting, and the Vaec secrets are hokum, basically.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr., who died in 2002, was one of the lesser known well-loved writers in the field. By this I mean that he was never really prominent, but that he was mentioned a lot as a writer worth trying out. I myself am not very familiar with his work -- all I have read is a number of short stories. Most of them appeared in the last few years of his life in Analog, and by and large these were not terribly good. The Angry Espers is the first of his novels that I have read. His reputation is as an extremely humane writer.
In The Angry Espers Paul Corban, a human space pilot, awakens in a hospital on an unfamiliar world. He is surprised that his attendants do not speak, and that they seem disgusted by him. Eventually he is taken to a facility with a number of other people, and he learns to speak the language of this planet. He learns that the planet is full of powerful "espers", and that he is regarded as a subhuman because he has no such ability. He has been confined to the equivalent of a mental institution, and his fellows are mostly natives who are truly mentally deficient in that they should have had esp powers but do not. He nearly despairs, despite beginning to have feelings for a sympathetic female doctor.
Then he discovers one or two more Earth humans in the institution. He lets some of the doctors know that he comes from another planet, but he (and the sympathetic doctors) have not figured with the terrible prejudice of most of the Espers against non-esps. A war is launched against the worlds of the Terran federation. The second section of the novel covers the war in some detail, mostly through the viewpoint of people connected to Paul. It is a terrible war, with Earth's technological superiority (a result of not relying on ESP for everything) only allowing them to slow the inevitable advance of a people that can anticipate every move, that communicate instantaneously, that can teleport, etc.
The third section offers some hope, rejoining Paul and his doctor girlfriend as they make a desperate attempt for political reform on the Esper planet, supporting a less-prejudiced government. Naturally they win, but the implication is a bit scary, because Biggle stacks the deck a bit in their favor (given his initial setup). One can't help but think that the real result would be extermination of Earth. (Biggle also cheats, to my mind, by allowing Paul (and by implication all humans) to have latent esp powers that he gains in moments of extreme stress.)
It's not a terrible novel, but nothing particularly memorable either. I shall have to track down a copy of one of Biggle's better known novels to try.