Ace Double Reviews, 67: The Pirates of Zan, by Murray Leinster/The Mutant Weapon, by Murray Leinster (#D-403, 1959, $0.35, reissued as #66525, 1971, $0.95)
by Rich Horton

The longer and better known of these novels, The Pirates of Zan, was first published in Astounding, February through April, 1959, under the title "The Pirates of Ersatz". The cover of the February issue is perhaps one of the more famous Astounding covers. It's by Kelly Freas and shows a space pirate with a slide rule instead of a dagger in his teeth. There's a nice reproduction at Noosfere (a magnificent French website with many lovely SF covers), here. The Emshwiller cover for the 1959 Ace edition is not bad. The 1971 cover (by Dean Ellis, I think) is by comparison a grave disappointment. The serial version and the book version are almost the same -- there are small wording changes throughout, which I assume are due to different editing between John W. Campbell and Donald A. Wollheim. The serial version is a bit better.

The shorter novel is also an Astounding story. It was first published as "Med Service" in the August 1957 issue. It is of course one of Leinster's series of stories often called "Med Service", featuring a galactic medical organization that visits and aids colony planets with medical problems. The idea may owe much to the "René Lafayette" (L. Ron Hubbard) "Ole Doc Methusaleh" stories of a decade or so earlier, but Leinster's treatment is much preferable to Lafayette's: the Ole Doc Methusaleh stories are dreadfully executed as well as offensive.

"Med Service" the novella is about 22,000 words. The novel version (The Mutant Weapon) is quite a bit longer, at 34,000 words. It adds a couple of chapters at the end, going into much more detail about the motivations of the chief villain of the piece. I thought the story better at the shorter length.

The Pirates of Zan is really fairly minor stuff. It seems intended to be humourous, and it is much of the time, though some is just crank-turning. Our hero is a native of a pirate planet, but he wants to live an ordinary life, so he travels to a rich, settled, planet and sets up as a EE. But when his radical brilliant new power plant design is rejected, and he ends up accused of murder (for weird reasons that never make sense), he finds himself on the run. He ends up on a backward planet, and once again runs afoul of the local customs, after rescuing a beautiful girl from an abduction attempt. Upon escaping, he kidnaps a few of the locals and sets up as a pirate, but a completely non-violent one. He works an unconvincing scheme to use the threat of piracy to manipulate shipping and insurance stocks so that he can make enough money to a) pay off the locals who have become his crew, b) repay the people he pirated, c) set up a defrauded group of colonists on a new planet, and d) get rich enough himself to marry his girl back on the first planet he went to. Of course, he succeeds wildly, except for coming to realize that his ersatz piracy is vital to civilization, both for economic reasons and for romantic reasons, so he's stuck being a pirate, and also except for realizing (big surprise!) that his first girl is a boring spoiled brat but that he really loves the girl he rescued on his second planet. It's rather rambling, and it really doesn't convince, but it does pass the time pleasantly.

The Mutant Weapon is probably intended a bit more seriously. The Med Service man Calhoun, apparently the hero of a number of stories, comes to a planet which is about ready for full colonization, intending to give it a basic inspection. It seems that the Med Service is the main organization keeping civilization together -- the Galaxy is too big, travel times too great, for a true interstellar government. When he arrives he is shocked to be attacked (by manipulation of the spaceship landing grid). He manages to escape and land in an isolated area. He and his alien pet/testbed Murgatroyd make their way towards the main city. He discovers a man who seems to have died from starvation, amidst what seems to be plenty of food. He is attacked by a nearly starving young woman, but convinces her he's not from the bad guys who have taken over the planet.

He learns that the original advance colonization team has almost all died from this mysterious plague. It seems that a scheme is afoot to take over this brand new planet by killing off the rightful owners with the plague, while the new colonists will be immunized. Calhoun must first discover the nature of the plague and why it was so difficult to diagnose (the answer seems reasonably clever though I am not a doctor), and then safely dislodge the bad guys from the planet, in such a way as to discourage their soon arriving large group of colonists from trying to finish the job. The novel version adds some extended stuff about the motivation and character of the evil genius who devised the plague.

It's not a great story, but it's OK. As I say above, I think it's better suited to a length of around 20,000 words than to the longer Ace Double length.