Ace Double Reviews, 54: The Astronauts Must Not Land, by John Brunner/The Space-Time Juggler, by John Brunner (#F-227, 1963, $0.40)
by Rich Horton

Yes, yes, Brunner again. What can I say? I like his stuff! This book isn't the strongest Brunner pairing I've seen, but it does have interesting aspects. The Astronauts Must Not Land appears to be original to this Ace Double, with no earlier magazine or book versions. Brunner later revised and expanded it as More Things in Heaven. This version is about 45000 words long.

The Space-Time Juggler, on the other hand, is indeed an earlier story. In fact, it appears to be Brunner's first novel, except for Galactic Storm, as by Gill Hunt, from 1952. (Indeed, it is nearly his first story, period: the only earlier Brunner stories I can find are a short-short from Walt Willis's fanzine Slant in 1951, and a couple further stories from 1953.) It was published in 1953 in a magazine called Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, which paired "novel length" stories. The title then was "The Wanton of Argus", and it was bylined "Kilian Houston Brunner". (Brunner's whole name was John Kilian Houston Brunner.) The two versions of the story appear to be identical. The story is about 29,000 words long. (Calling into question the designation "novel", but it did eventually appear in book form, and it was always called a "novel", so ...)

The Astronauts Must Not Land is a very serious-toned story. The hero is a science writer, David Drummond. David gave up his dreams of a scientific education after being orphaned, and raised his younger brother, who did become a scientist, and indeed got a berth on the first manned FTL ship. Now the ship is returning from Alpha Centauri, and David is in Quito, where the spaceport is located. He thinks he has seen his brother on Earth -- which should be impossible. But it turns out his girlfriend, whose brother is also on the starship (she and David met during the runup to the launch), believes she has seen HER brother. And some very strange Aurora-like manifestations -- like monsters -- have appeared in the sky.

The ship gets into Earth orbit, but there is no news. David and his journalist colleagues put pressure on the space agency -- a panic is threatened. David finally is able to leverage his journalist standing along with his personal relationship with an astronaut to wangle a trip up to the ship. There he learns a disquieting secret: his brother, and the other astronauts, have somehow had their bodies changed into alien forms. All the while, further sightings of people looking just like the astronauts have occurred on Earth.

The resolution is fairly interesting. I was reminded in different ways of Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary and David Brin's "The Crystal Spheres". On the whole, however, the novel is a bit less than Brunner's best. It's slowly paced, and just not terribly interesting for much of its length. It might have worked better cut by about half.

The Space-Time Juggler is set in the "Long Night" of a Galactic Empire. Argus was the capitol of that Empire, but now has descended nearly to barbarism. The old King is dying, and his heir will be his peevish young son, while the regent will be his sluttish and sadistic daughter, Andra. But then the long-lost Princess Sharla appears, accompanied by a loyal soldier and a mysterious older man. Sharla is better qualified to be regent -- but things are complicated by a marriage contract between the ruler of a powerful nearby world and the "regent".

The "juggler" of the title is a conjuror named Kelab, who seems to be intervening behind the scenes. He resolves Sharla's problem with the undesired marriage. But in other ways he seems opposed to the returned Princess and her advisors. They must also deal with the secluded advisor to the dead King, Sabura Mona.

What seems at first to be a straightforward Space Opera about a virtuous Princess returning to reclaim her rightful position becomes rather more complicated at the end. The conclusion is unexpected and rather intriguing. I don't really think the Brunner of 1953 was quite able to pull off what he was trying, but it is an original conceit. Not really a particularly good story, but it shows promise.

"The Wanton of Argus", back to its original title, was reprinted as the closing story of Brunner's 1976 DAW book Interstellar Empire, which also collects two more stories set in the same decayed Empire setting: The Altar on Asconel and "The Man From the Big Dark". The text of all three printings of "The Wanton of Argus"/The Space-Time Juggler seems essentially the same, except that the Ace Double includes a curious opening paragraph that is actually the editor's blurb from the original magazine publication.