Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Prism, by Emil Petaja/Crown of Infinity, by John M. Faucette

Ace Double Reviews, 98: The Prism, by Emil Petaja/Crown of Infinity, by John M. Faucette (#H-51, 1968, 60 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The lure for me in this Ace Double is the first novel by John M. Faucette, a fairly little known writer these days, but one of a very small set of African American SF writers before, really, the 1980s, which is amazing and a bit embarrassing for the field. There are, of course, significant examples of "proto-SF" by black writers such as W. E. B. du Bois and Charles Chesnutt. But inside the genre the first black novelist was, as far as I can tell, Samuel R. Delany, still the greatest black writer of SF (but that's no shame -- he can make a case for being the greatest writer of SF period). The only other noticeable black SF novelists in the '60s were the excellent YA writer (and Newbery winner) Virginia Hamilton ... and John M. Faucette. Faucette published a few novels in the '60s and '70s, mostly SF but at least one mainstream book. His last short story ("Pets") appeared in Artemis in 2001, and I surely read it but can't remember it. He left several novels unpublished at his death (in 2003, aged only 59), and complained that editors and readers weren't ready for African American heroes in SF novels, which is not an implausible complaint, but, I have to say, perhaps not the only issue in his case.

I approached Crown of Infinity, Faucette's first published novel, with interest and a real desire to like it. The publisher's copy compares it to Doc Smith and Olaf Stapledon, and, oddly enough, that comparison makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, the comparison ultimately is utterly to the disadvantage of Crown of Infinity. Indeed, I'd say this book reads as if written by a teenager completely in love with Doc Smith's work ... and with enough talent to imitate aspects of it effectively, but with no ability to structure a novel, nor enough originality to really make the novel "new".

It opens with a ship crewed by aliens looking for any trace of of the vanished "Star Kings" (echoes here of Edmond Hamilton, of course). No traces remain, but the commander begins to recall stories of their history, beginning with the destruction of Earth by the evil aliens called "Masters of the Universe". Only a few humans escape, but with a plan, involving genetic manipulation (each escaping ship is crewed by a single couple). Eventually, a superman is (tragically) produced, and manages to create a technological solution allowing humans to link with powerful computers and eventually defeat the Masters of the Universe.

The story leaps forward in time again and again, as the now ascendant evolved humans, called Star Kings, turn back a series of variously successful attempts by the Masters of the Universe to return to power. They also shepherd a new group of aliens and humanoids to what is called "Civilization", then disappear after a dastardly Masters of the Universe plot causes a foolish Star King to massacre an innocent planet. There is also conflict with beings from other universes. And there are some utterly silly interludes involving, for example, Star King couples acting like silly '50s suburbanites, to no obvious purpose.

Ultimately, Faucette's imagination fails him. The scope is Stapledonian, and some of the ideas recall Doc Smith. But nothing convinces. And the scope -- for all its vastness -- never seems plausible or thematically interesting. The ideas -- the aliens, the weapons, the battles -- only come off as faint echoes of Doc Smith. And the novel's structure is, well, all but nonexistent, with lots of repetition, and with several chapters seemingly just shoehorned in, maybe simply to pad the wordcount.

Alas, this is a really bad novel -- though, I thought, a clear indication of a writer who just loved the genre.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Crown of Infinity is backed by Emil Petaja's The Prism. Petaja (1915-2000) was born in Montana, of Finnish descent, and lived in San Francisco for much of his life. He was a photographer as well as a writer, and worked in films. He was a friend of the great SF artist Hannes Bok. His best known novels were based on the Kalevala. He was a member of First Fandom, and wrote more than a dozen novels and some 150 short stories, but really never made all that much of an impact. I have read a couple of his works, without much pleasure.

The Prism is not one of his Kalevala books. It's expanded from a 1965 Worlds of Tomorrow story called "Worlds of the Spectrum". It opens with a stereotypical hero character, Kor, fighting battles with the various inimical species in his environment, and desperately wishing to reach the beautiful Princess Sena in her castle up on an unscalable cliff. We soon realize that Sena is in fact a spoiled young woman in a futuristic world who, along with others of her privileged Gold class, entertains herself with "livideo", a sort of virtual immersion in the lives of Kor and his fellows.

It soon turns out that Sena is really not quite so bad as it first appears. She's one of a small group who is trying to overturn the classist and unjust future society on Earth, which exploits not just the other "colors" on Earth, but the genetically created creatures, many of them human, on the planet inhabited by Kor. She ends up arranging for Kor, and eventually a number of his fellows, to be teleported to Earth to confront the evil ruler, His Goldness IX. Meantime she must both entice and fend off the advances of the ugly and fat Dorff, His Goldness' chief aide; while trying to convincingly fit into her milieu, obsessed with virtual entertainment and sex and drugs.

It's all very silly, with absurd touches such as the holy sign being the middle finger. None of the action really convinces, and the denouement is really flat. Kor himself, ultimately kind of a secondary character, is the most interesting -- which is not to say all that interesting. A few OK notions here, though none of them really original: in the end, a typical '60s books by a man in his 50s at the time.


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  2. Good to meet you at WFC, Rich, if only briefly. I enjoy all these retro reviews. I have this book, but I'm sure I'll never read it.

    1. Thanks, Bill! I was very happy to meet you -- sorry we couldn't talk at more length!