Ace Double Reviews, 66: Siege of the Unseen, by A. E. Van Vogt/The World Swappers, by John Brunner (#D-391, 1959, $0.35)
by Rich Horton
At last, an A. E. Van Vogt Ace Double! Now I have read and reviewed an Ace Double by each of the SFWA Grand Masters who wrote one. Siege of the Unseen is about 30,000 words long. It is apparently the same story as "The Chronicler", a two-part serial from Astounding, October and November, 1946. I'm not sure if the story was revised in any way for the 1959 reprinting. It was also reprinted once as "The Third Eye of Evil", a really pulpy title that actually is the only one of the three that has much to do with the story. As for John Brunner's The World Swappers, it is about 43,000 words, and I don't know of any earlier publication, in this form or another.
Siege of the Unseen is rather uneasily framed by a series of extracts from the coroner's report on the death of the protagonist, Michael Slade. Slade's mutilated body was found on his land -- identifiable by his third eye. I have to say I was never really worried about Slade's fate, though!
Michael Slade is a successful businessman who gets injured in a crash and suddenly develops a third eye on his forehead. He eschews treatment, and instead tries to learn to see from the third eye. As a result his wife divorces him and he is generally shunned. But when he does learn to see well with all three eyes (curing his previous two-eyed astigmatism in the process), he finds that he can transport himself to another world, apparently coexistent with Earth. This world is inhabited by three-eyed people, including a beautiful naked woman.
Before long, and somewhat against Slade's will, the woman has recruited him to come to her world and join her in a battle against the evil oppressor Geean. She dumps him in a gloomy city and says he must survive for a day. He finds that the city is inhabited by three-eyed vampires, who are apparently normal (if three-eyed) people who have been corrupted by Geean. A young woman befriends him, and tries to get him to lead an attack on Geean, but Slade doesn't feel ready -- especially when the woman asks him for a drink of blood.
Slade returns to Earth only to be recalled again, where he meets a nicer group of people, apparently primitives, but actually people living in superior harmony with nature. But they prove rather passive as to the evil Geean, and soon Slade is on his own again, before being captured by Geean forces. But Slade finds an unexpected ally, leading to his eventual confrontation with the evil leader (not to mention, of course, meeting the beautiful leading lady again ...)
It's a truly silly book, but at times the silliness is inspired. I can't say I liked it much, but I liked it more than I expected. Van Vogt could be so strange that you just had to play along at times. In John Boston's wonderful phrase, he "was the Wile E. Coyote of SF. He ran off the cliff in 1939 and looked down sometime in the 1950s."
The World Swappers is about a secret group of long-lived people plotting a better future for humanity. Which is a familiar enough idea, but Brunner uses it a bit differently than many others. It opens with a man, Saïd Counce, lying in wait for a powerful businessman. He confronts the businessman with his plan to rule the galaxy (that is, the smallish local group of planets humans have colonized). Earth, it seems, is a very nice place to live, but it is becoming overpopulated. Opening new colonies is not feasible, so the businessman plans to promote emigration to the existing colonies -- but they all resent Earthmen. Counce suggest that the businessman, Bassett, is going about things just a bit wrong, and offers his group's help, then disappears.
Then we meet others of Counce's group, on a distant unoccupied planet. They have discovered evidence of aliens, the Others, evidently humanlike but adapted to slightly different types of planets. They fear that humanity is not ready to meet the Others. Finally, we go to Ymir, the least pleasant of the human colonies, ruled by a very repressive religious sect. There we meet a rebellious young woman, Enni Zatok.
We quickly gather that Counce leads a group of people devoted to the interests of all humanity, as opposed to people like Bassett, interested only in themselves. Counce's group is desperately trying to arrange for humans to be welcoming to the aliens. At the same time they need to try to make the aliens willing to deal on friendly terms with humans. And they hope to solve the problem of Ymir -- especially as they have a plan for Ymir.
One aspect of the story I liked was the early use of matter transmission as a means of practical immortality, much as with Wil McCarthy's Queendom of Sol stories. (That is, a record of the copy of a person created when he is transmitted is saved (and possibly edited even, as with McCarthy's stories) and then the person can be recopied if his "original" dies.) That's the earliest use I can think of of this particular wrinkle on matter transmission. (A similar idea is a mentioned, almost as a throwaway, in Algis Budry's great Rogue Moon, one year later than The World Swappers.)
On the whole, it is an enjoyable novel, though a bit wobbly towards the end in particular. It tries to do too much too fast, perhaps. The noble central motivations are nicely presented, too. On the other hand, the ideas and events are often a bit strained, not quite convincing. Not Brunner at his best, at all, but as ever with him it is a decent read.