Ace Double Reviews, 83: The Communipaths, by Suzette Haden Elgin/The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy, by Louis Trimble (#11560, 1970, 75 cents)

A review by Rich Horton

As with many Ace Doubles, this backs a very forgettable (and mostly forgotten) novel with an early, minor, work by a writer who became much better. Which highlights one of the benefits of the format -- it was a way for young writers to publish novel length or near novel length work that showed promise but wasn't always quite ready for prime time. The forgotten work is Louis Trimble's The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy, about 38,000 words long. The more remembered writer is Suzette Haden Elgin, and her first novel is here: The Communipaths, about 28,000 words.

Elgin's first story was "For the Sake of Grace", which appeared in F&SF in 1969, when she was 33 and a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at San Diego State. (Linguistics have long been a major theme of her SF, and her "Native Tongue" trilogy is built around an invented language.) That story featured a character named Coyote Jones, and it was fairly well received, being reprinted in the Wollheim/Carr World's Best SF. The Communipaths also features Jones, and so do four later novels, including Furthest, the only other Elgin novel I've read so far.

The Communipaths is set in the Three Galaxies, about a millennium in the future. The faster than light communication system in the Galaxies is run by powerful telepaths (called communipaths), who are genetically identified as very young babies, taken away to a creche and raised to live a life of luxury, while also being conditioned to service. And then they die, very young. On the planet Iris, in one of the most remote corners of the Three Galaxies, a powerful potential communipath is born to a young woman, a member of the Maklunites, a communal group of people the depiction of whom made me think of Le Guin (perhaps particularly The Dispossessed). Coyote Jones is sent to Iris to take the baby from his mother, but the mother, already distressed over the loss of her lover (the baby's father), resists.

The baby is taken away to the communipath training planet, but the mother is still distraught, going so far as to use her own considerable mental powers, combined with the baby's, to attempt to teleport the baby to her. It is decided that she is a traitor to humanity, and Coyote, along with his sometime lover Tzana Kai, is recruited to arrest her. He does not take kindly to the assignment, though there is a rationale: the baby's considerable mental powers, uncontrolled and unshielded, are a threat to people's lives.

The novel runs on a couple of threads -- one following Coyote, who is interesting enough in a slapdash early '70s sort of way; and the other the Maklunites, also interesting enough in a very '70s way (as my comparison to Le Guin of that era is intended to suggest), before coming to a dramatic if rather too abrupt conclusion (with a very easy to guess resolution, or one might even say, copout). It's OK work, but weak mainly in being too short -- those characters of some interest aren't really given time to develop, the Maklunite society is only sketched, the plot is, as I said, resolved too abruptly. So: not unpromising, but a minor piece of work.

Louis Trimble (1917-1988) wrote a number of books in the SF, mystery, and western genres. In SF, he wrote mainly for Don Wollheim, whom he followed from Ace to DAW. His last novel appears to be The Bodelan Way (DAW, 1974), which I recall seeing, probably because of the Freas cover. He wrote one book in collaboration with Jacquelyn Trimble, presumably his wife.

The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy is a light adventure that is not quite light (or frothy) enough, or alternately not serious and well thought out enough. It seems a consortium of industries objects to the onerous rule of the "Federation", a future Galactic society. So they plan to take over, with the help of some treasonous "GalMil" agents, and with some forbidden military technology.

For some hard to understand reason, a key to their plan is a planet on which they establish an artificial society resembling 19th Century England, only better. (No Satanic mills.) The Federation sends a spy to infiltrate this society, as does the one planet (or some group of planets) independent of the Federation, Jondee. The representative from Jondee is a sprightly woman, that from the Federation an intelligent but slightly stodgy man. You can see where this is heading! (Though in the end Trimble disappoints a little here ...) At any rate, the two successfully -- though with some difficulty -- unmask the real plot, while tripping through some not very convincing scenes set in a version of a 19th Century British village.

The issue here, really, is that none of the setup makes much sense. And that for something making so little sense to actually work, a lot more wit would have to be in evidence, and a lot more sex, too, if you ask me, and some more action. The makes nods in the direction of all three, but doesn't execute very well in any area.

From what I can gather from the brief mentions of Trimble I've seen, he's fairly well regarded as an unpretentious provider of decent entertainment in all the genres he worked in -- and that's the sort of book The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy seems to want to be -- unpretentious decent entertainment -- but for me it fell short.