Ace Double Reviews, 94: Sanctuary in the Sky, by John Brunner/The Secret Martians, by Jack Sharkey (#D-471, 1960, 35 cents)
a review by Rich Horton
I've read some weak Ace Doubles lately, so I tried to improve my fortunes by picking one with a John Brunner half. I can almost always count on Brunner for entertainment with a thoughtful edge. Brunner (1934-1995) of course was one of the field's greats, a Hugo winner for Stand on Zanzibar (1968). He had a bifurcated career a bit like Robert Silverberg's: beginning around the same time as Silverberg he was extremely prolific early in his career, publishing a lot of quickly executed and competent work; and then sometime in the early to mid '60s seems to have consciously raised his level of ambition, beginning with novels like The Whole Man and The Squares of the City, and continuing to his famous quartet of long novels, beginning with Stand on Zanzibar, then The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. But that distorts the case a bit -- for he remained very prolific, producing a whole series of shorter novels at the same time, some highly regarded (I like Total Eclipse a great deal, for instance), and some not as good (I was quite disappointed by The Infinitive of Go). He died fairly young, and shockingly -- at the 1995 World SF Convention in Glasgow.
As for Jack Sharkey, he was a near contemporary of Brunner's, born three years earlier and also dying three years earlier. He began publishing in 1959, and was active only until about 1971, publishing four novels, an Addams family novelization, and a fair quantity of short stories, many for Cele Goldsmith's magazines (Amazing and Fantastic). Indeed, his career in the field really ended in 1965, when Goldsmith (by then Cele Lalli) left the magazines after they were sold. Sharkey only published three further SF/Fantasy stories. Apparently he concentrated on plays after that.
The cover to the Sharkey novel is by Ed Valigursky, I don't recognize the artist on the Brunner novel -- it's not really a good representation of any scene in the book, looks almost Flash Gordon-like, or trashy TV serial anyway. The ISFDB tentatively suggests Basil Gogot, a name I've never seen, though Todd Mason informs me that they must really mean Basil Gogos.
I have said before that in comparing Brunner and Silverberg, I like early Brunner better than early Silverberg, but late (or middle) Silverberg better than late Brunner. I really do enjoy Brunner's early novels, many of them Ace Double halves -- they are all of course quite short, and sometimes show signs of hastiness (especially in their conclusions), but they are generally good fun, with interesting ideas and some real thoughtful speculation. Sanctuary in the Sky isn't one of my favorites of this group, alas, but it isn't bad either.
A group of people from different planets come by spaceship to Waystation, a huge space station serving as a sort of neutral point between a group of competing planets. The planets are Cathrodyne, a warlike planet which oppresses the people on Lubarria and Majkosi; Pagr, a likewise warlike matriarchy which oppresses Alchmida; and neutral Glai, which controls Waystation. The people are Ferenc, a fanatical Cathrodyne officer; Ligmer, a Cathrodyne scientist; Dardaino, a Cathrodyne assigned as a priest to the Lubarrians; Mrs. Iquida, a Lubarrian; Toehr, a Pag of high status; Vykor, a young Majko steward; and, most important, the mysterious Lang, who comes from "out of eye range" -- that is, a planet whose Sun is not visible from any of this local group of planets.
The main character is Vykor, who is working as a spy of sorts for the Glaithe people, hoping that this will lead to independence for his Majko people. Vykor is also sort of in love with Captain Raige, the Glaithe woman who is heading the Waystation staff and who is Vykor's contact. But most of the action is set in motion by Lang, who has the knack of mysteriously appearing almost anywhere, and of asking the sort of questions that greatly discomfit his listeners. We get glimpses of the political questions central to this planetary group; and of the scientific questions, mainly centering on the question of "Who made Waystation"; and of the odd nature of Waystation, with its reconfigurable spaces and secret passages. (I was strongly reminded of Robert Reed's Great Ship*.)
The plot mainly turns on the chaos caused by Lang, and on the question of his true identity (which is pretty easily guessed, mind you). The resolution, as usual for early Brunner, is a bit rapid, but it's also fairly thoughtful, and to some extent easy answers are avoided. As I said, not really one of my favorite Brunner stories, but decent work.
The Secret Martians, on the other hand, is a pretty silly mess. It opens promising to be a bit of a romp, and as such it might have been OK. Sharkey worked for a while in advertising, and his hero, Jery Delvin, is an advertising man. His special talent is as a "spotter" -- he can always see through the deceptive claims of advertising. Except when distracted by beautiful girls. Evidently that talent gets him chosen, by the Brain, a huge computer which helps run the government, to be sent to Mars along with the Amnesty, a badge that gives him authority to do anything, and with a collapsar, the weapon reserved for governement Security, in order to solve the problem of the disappearance of a bunch of Space Scouts -- young boys who had been on a trip to Mars.
His main problem is a gorgeous girl with the implausible name Snow White, elder sister of one of the presumably kidnapped Space Scouts. Her ability to distract him allows her to steal his Amnesty, and he vacillates between anger at her and helpless lust. He keeps trying to solve the main problem, even without his Amnesty badge, and he ends up encountering some of the lizardlike aliens, the sugarfeet, who are regarding as mere animals. Of course, they aren't, and the plot descends into real stupidity, with the Devlin, Snow, the sugarfeet all cooperating to some extent, and with the title "Secret Martians" assuming a somewhat ambiguous role, while the villains are a rather obvious group. Will the Space Scouts be found? Will Jary and Snow get together? Will the sugarfeet get the recognition they deserve? Will the bad guys be thwarted? Will anything make sense, either plotwise or science-wise? Do you really need to ask?
So -- in the end, another pretty mediocre Ace Double, but just sufficiently redeemed by the fairly decent Brunner novel.
*SPOILER for Sanctuary in the Sky
... it turns out that Waystation is even more like the Great Ship than we originally realize. I really do wonder if this novel might have been at some level an inspiration for Reed's conception.