Ace Double Reviews, 57: The Million Year Hunt, by Kenneth Bulmer/Ships to the Stars, by Fritz Leiber (#F-285, 1964, $0.40)
by Rich Horton
This Ace Double backs a fixup novel by Kenneth Bulmer with a story collection by the great Fritz Leiber. The Million Year Hunt is about 47,000 words long. The stories in Ships to the Stars come to just over 40,000 words.
Recently I read a number of issues of the British magazine Science Fiction Adventures. In one of them (#26, from 1962) I read a story by "Nelson Sherwood" called "Scarlet Denial". It was quite clear that that story must have had a sequel, and possibly a prequel. It turns out that it did have a sequel, which appeared in #28, called "Scarlet Dawn". "Nelson Sherwood" was a pseudonym for Kenneth Bulmer, a very prolific British author whom I have discussed previously in these reviews. When I asked, elsewhere, if a book version of the two Scarlet stories existed, Ian Covell answered (eventually
As far as I can tell, the book The Million Year Hunt includes "Scarlet Denial" unchanged. I don't have a copy of "Scarlet Dawn", but I assume it too is unchanged, and that the novel is a simple concatenation of the two stories.
I'll quote my review of "Scarlet Denial": This particular story is set in a colonized galaxy. The colony planets are garrisoned by Galactic Guardsmen, or Gee-Gees, much resented. The story opens with a young man named Arthur Ross Carson playing a practical joke (a hotfoot) on a Guardsman. Unfortunately, at about the same time the local governor is assassinated, and even more unfortunately, it is not Carson but his girlfriend who is suspected of playing the joke as a diversion in aid of the assassin. Carson confesses to try to get his girlfriend off, but before the administrative wheels grind sufficiently, she has been tortured to death by another organization, the Statque, which is charged with maintaining the "Status Quo" in the Galaxy. Understandably enough, Carson goes a bit crazy, and runs away, in the process stumbling at random through a matter transmitter to another planet.
That's kind of a dark beginning, eh? On the other planet, which turns out to be unsuitable for human life, Carson manages to become host to an ancient alien intelligence. With this intelligence's help, he is able to escape. The alien, named for some reason Sandoz, wishes Carson to help him find his lover, lost for thousands of years. Carson wishes to find and kill the Statque agent who killed HIS girlfriend. These wishes, by sheer luck, turn out to be fairly consistent with each other -- and Carson/Sandoz end up on an important planet -- where they learn that Carson has a rather different, implausible, destiny. The story ends with a certain amount of growing up by Carson, and the suggestion of a possible sequel.
I have no idea what the title means, by the way. At any rate, this is a fairly minor effort. The best part by far is the character of Sandoz, who is pretty funny at times.
"Scarlet Dawn" continues the Carson/Sandoz story. Carson follows the human who has ended up hosting Sandoz's lover to another planet. Sadly, it turns out that this host is a brain-damaged, and dying, child. It is Sandoz's wish, not surprisingly, that Carson marry his lover's host -- but the current host is unacceptable.
Carson is still in love with his murdered girlfriend. But on this new planet, he finds himself pursued by a woman who reminds him unaccountably of that girlfriend -- only better. But he is also still pursued by the evil Statque. It turns out, natch, that there is a reason he fell in love with his original girlfriend, and an even better reason he prefers this new girl. All tied into his ultimate destiny, hinted at in "Scarlet Denial". But before that can be resolved, he must deal with the Statque ...
The sequel is a lesser work, a more or less competent and by-the-numbers resolution of the plot elements left hanging from the first half, but not really as interesting.
Ships to the Stars collects six Leiber stories, dating from 1950 through 1962. None of them qualify as major Leiber, but they are decent work, as one would certainly expect. I'll treat them one by one.
"Dr. Kometevsky's Day" (Galaxy, February 1952) 7200 words
This is a Velikovskian story (the Dr. Kometevsky of the title is transparently Velikovsky). At some time in the future, the members of a group marriage are among those who realize, against their will, that the planets are of a sudden acting like "Dr. Kometevsky" predicted -- beginning with the disappearance of Phobos and Deimos. The explanation is not quite what Velikovsky might have predicted (and the story as a whole is profoundly skeptical of Velikovsky). It's interesting enough, but not special -- more interesting, perhaps, is the look at the dynamics of a group marriage.
"The Big Trek" (F&SF, October 1957) 1700 words
A curious little piece, almost a precursor of the New Wave. The viewpoint character becomes part of a multi-species "trek" across what seems to be a devastated Earth -- the moral being the value of continued exploration of space as opposed to stagnation on Earth and the concomitant destruction of Earth.
"The Enchanted Forest" (Astounding, October 1950) 7400 words
A curious story about a far future man who conceives of himself as a "Wild One" in a regimented society. He has escaped, carrying the "seed" of his fellow Wild Ones, and he ends up on a mysterious planet, encountering what seem to be the same people again and again, in a sort of medieval milieu. The explanation is satisfactorily SFnal, but not terribly interesting.
"Deadly Moon" (Fantastic, November 1960) 10300 words Perhaps this story could be described as "Fortean". A psychiatrist is treating the daughter of an astronomer. She has been dreaming of a "spider" in the Moon, while her husband, an astronaut, flies one of the first ships around the moon. Natch, her supposedly mad fears turn out to be real ...
"The Snowbank Orbit" (If, September 1962) 5900 words
The Solar System is under attack by inscrutable aliens, and a ship that was intended by be a Sun explorer is suddenly an unlikely warship, drifting near Uranus. The captain's desperate maneuver around the big cold planet ends up revealing something of the true and somewhat surprising nature of the aliens. A Leiber attempt at something of a hard SF story that didn't come off for me.
"The Ship Sails at Midnight" (Fantastic Adventures, September 1950) 8200 words
This story struck me as almost a Sturgeon pastiche, but if written in 1950 it predated most of the stories one would describe as characteristically "Sturgeonesque". A group of four somewhat Bohemian young people encounter a mysterious and beautiful woman, shortly after some UFO reports. She inspires them to think differently than they have, to become truly original rather than tiredly retreading fashionable ideas. The narrator falls in love with her and she with him. But is she really human? And what happens when her fellows finally return? And can humans really free themselves from their natures?
I think this easily the best story in this book, and as I said, very Sturgeonesque.