Ace Double Reviews, 9: Monsters in Orbit, by Jack Vance/The World Between and Other Stories, by Jack Vance (#M-125, 1965, $0.45)
by Rich Horton
Monsters in Orbit is presented as a novel, but it is actually two novellas, both featuring the same protagonist. The novellas were published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1952, "Abercrombie Station" in the February issue, and "Cholwell's Chickens" in the August issue. "Abercrombie Station" is about 23,000 words long, "Cholwell's Chickens" about 18,000 words. I have not seen the original issues in which these were published, so I don't know if the Ace publication involves any revisions, but I suspect not. "Abercrombie Station" is slightly better known, as it was reprinted in the Pocket Books collection* The Best of Jack Vance in 1976. Otherwise, as far as I or Contento know, these stories have only been reprinted in this Ace Double, and in the 1990 Underwood-Miller collection Chateau D'If. (This collection includes another Thrilling Wonder novella, the title story, originally called "New Bodies for Old" in the August 1950 Thrilling Wonder; and two fairly well known stories: "The Gift of Gab", from the September 1955 Astounding, and "Rumfuddle", from a 1973 Silverberg anthology, Three Trips in Time and Space.)
The World Between and Other Stories, by contrast, is frankly presented as a collection of stories. It's a fairly good one, with four novelettes and a short story, including his Hall of Fame story "The Moon Moth", totaling some 45,000 words.
The two stories in Monsters in Orbit both feature a teen-aged girl named Jean Parlier. She was abandoned by her parents as an infant, and raised to the age of 10 by a bar owner named Joe Parlier. Then she killed Joe and a few others (it is hinted that this was in self-defense of a rape threat), and gadded about the galaxy, escaping from the odd foster home or orphanage. At 16, and beautiful (and experienced), she answers an advertisement offering $1,000,000 to seduce and marry Earl Abercrombie, the owner of the satellite habitat/resort Abercrombie Station. The trick is that Abercrombie Station, due to its microgravity, is a haven for very fat people, to the extent that extreme obesity is considered beautiful, and a very slim girl like Jean is considered odd. But Earl Abercrombie is genetically unable to put on enough weight -- hence Jean's mysterious employer assumes she will attract him. (He has also shown signs of attraction to "Earth types" before.) Jean goes up to Abercrombie Station as a servant, and soon finds that a) her wiles don't really work on Earl, and b) even her cynical self can't bear the thought of marrying him, even for $2,000,000, or $10,000,000. But she also runs across some sinister secrets involving Earl's collection of monsters, and Earl's mysteriously and conveniently dead and exiled older brothers.
Naturally Jean manages to come out ahead, but it seems that money doesn't satisfy her. She really wants parents -- so in "Cholwell's Chickens" she heads back to her home planet to try to track down her parents. In so doing she encounters a mysterious man named Cholwell who claims to be raising chickens on the same planet. Jean finds her mother, rather unsatisfactorily, and also finds herself mistaken for another woman on this planet. And she encounters Cholwell again, soon to learn the what his "chickens" really are, and eventually to learn the true and surprising identity of her real parents.
Both stories are silly in many ways, and "Abercrombie Station" is borderline offensive at points. Jean is often sympathetic, but at the same time she is a multiple murderess (albeit with some justification). I actually rather enjoyed "Cholwell's Chickens", with reservations, but I thought "Abercrombie Station" unconvincing. It is a mystery to me how it was chosen for a Best Of collection. Also, I must have read it back then -- I own the collection, bought shortly after it came out in 1976. But I don't remember it at all.
The stories in The World Between and Other Stories are:
"The World Between" (10,600 words, from the May 1953 Future, wherein it was called "Ecological Onslaught") -- a team from the Blue Star, all names starting with "B", finds a planet in between their home and the rival Kay system (yes, all names starting with "K"). They claim it and begin terraforming efforts, but the Kay people, including a beautiful spy, drop off pests to spoil all the terraforming. The "hero" (ambiguously so) finds a clever counter to this, and wins the love of the spy in the process. Minor but somewhat intriguing in its ecological themes.
"The Moon Moth" (13,900 words, from Galaxy, August 1961) -- a classic story, about Edwer Thissell, newly come to Sirene, where everyone wears masks and abides by extremely fussy rules of manners. Edwer finally takes advantage of the rigidity of Sirenese society to gain extra status.
"Brain of the Galaxy" (9200 words, from Worlds Beyond, February 1951 -- it has later been retitled "The New Prime") -- the "ruler" of the galaxy is chosen by a battle of virtual experiences in various environments. A pretty good story, actually.
"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" (8300 words, from Fred Pohl's pioneering original anthology series Star, #3, 1954) -- colonists on a world with an eccentric orbit and multiple suns have a hard time adapting to the unpredictability.
"The Men Return" (3300 words, from the July 1957 Infinity) -- far in the future reality is slippery and arbitrary. But with sufficient will and rationality ... a neat, very different, story.
*Ballantine/Del Rey had put out a series of "Best Of" collections of authors such as Stanley Weinbaum, C. L. Moore, Lester Del Rey and many others, beginning in 1974. Pocket, apparently in response, started their own series, with entries from Vance and Poul Anderson among others.