Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Forgotten Ace Double: Flower of Doradil, by John Rackham/A Promising Planet, by Jeremy Strike

Ace Double Reviews, 104: Flower of Doradil, by John Rackham/A Promising Planet, by Jeremy Strike (#24100, 1970, 75 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is notably a late period Ace Double. It features two pseudonymous authors. One of them, "John Rackham", real name John T. Phillifent, was a fairly prolific SF writer under both the "Rackham" name and his real name. He was born in 1916 in England, and died in 1976. He published about 20 novels, all but two as "Rackham" (and probably one of the novels as by Phillifent was meant to be published under the Rackham name). He also did a few Man From Uncle novelizations under his real name. He also published over 50 short stories, beginning in 1954 with "Jupiter Equilateral", published as a slim book (or chapbook) by the Titbits Science Fiction Library in the UK. Those stories were probably 25,000 words at least -- perhaps longer (35,000 words?) as Malcolm Edwards reports that the print was quite tiny. (Thus, these are essentially short novels -- as long as many Ace Doubles.) Rackham wrote four of these Titbits books in 1954/1955. His next work in SF was some short fiction in 1959, for various magazines in both the US and the UK (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Nebula, Astounding, If). His real name first appeared on "Point", in Fantastic in 1961, but after that the Phillifent byline was reserved for his appearances in Analog. Fully sixteen of his novels were published as Ace Double halves.

Jeremy Strike is a different case. His real name was Thomas Edward Renn (1939-2000), a West Virginian. This was his only work in the SF field. He was, thus, one of a few writers whose only SF book was a single novel that appeared as an Ace Double half. I checked, and in the ISFDB (which is not necessarily complete) I found eight examples, spread throughout the entire history of the format. These are Francis Rufus Bellamy (Atta, 1954), Nick Boddie Williams (Atom Curtain, 1955), Anna Hunger (The Man Who Lived Forever, 1956, with R. De Witt Miller (an expansion of a Miller story from Astounding in 1938)), Bruce W. Ronald (Our Man in Space, 1965), Alan Schwartz (The Wandering Tellurian, 1967), Ellen Wobig (The Youth Monopoly, 1968), Strike, and Susan K. Putney (Against Arcturus, 1972). I have previously reviewed the books by Ronald, Wobig, and Putney. Many of these writers published only that Ace Double half, though some had very minor additional publications (Ronald had a story in If, Hunger had a few shorts in The Magazine of Horror, Williams published some SFish stories in the slicks, Putney had a Spiderman graphic novel illustrated by the just late Bernie Wrightson).

(Cover by Kelly Freas)

The covers are by probably the two leading SF illustrators of that time: Jack Gaughan (in a more psychedelic than usual mode for him), and Kelly Freas.

So, I spent a fair amount of time on the background of these writers. Could it be that the novels themselves are not so interesting? Well -- yes, it could.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Rackham, as I have said before, was a pretty reliably producer of competent middle-range SF adventure. And that describes Flower of Doradil fairly well. Claire Harper is an agent of Earth's Special Service, come to the planet Safari to investigate some mysterious activity on the proscribed continent Adil. Safari is mostly devoted to hunting, but Adil is occupied by the humanoid (completely human, it actually seems) natives. But some plants with tremendous medical properties are being smuggled out, and the agents sent to investigate have disappeared.

Claire is tall, red-haired, and beautiful, as well as great at hand-to-hand combat. This qualifies her to infiltrate Adil, whose natives are reputed to live in matriarchal societies, with the women bigger than the men, and in charge. She hires two guides, Roger Lovell and Sam Coleman, and they make a plan to try to get to the mysterious interior, where the special plants grow, and where a true society of Amazons supposedly rules. And so they make their way there, fighting off a couple of murder attempts, as well as dangerous animals, before they are indeed captured by Amazons. After which the book turns on an attempt to negotiate with the factions of that society -- men who wish to revolt, women who will brook no compromise, and a wise Queen who just happens to be the spitting image of Claire. And evil smugglers who will stop at nothing to retain their monopoly.

It's mostly OK. The sexual politics are a bit retro, but not outrageously so, and certainly the implication is that women and men have equal rights. The view of the natives is a bit patronizing, as well. But the story moves nicely, and the action is tolerably well done, as is the sexual tension beneath things. And then -- the climax comes, quite quickly, and driven by coincidence and luck -- and the book just stops. As if the final chapter was lopped off. Weird. But you do kind of know what happens.

As for Jeremy Strike's A Promising Planet, not surprisingly, it's a lesser work. Bill Warden works as a planetary surveyor for a small company, trying to find promising planets on the cheap. He comes to an interesting new planet, as it happens just ahead of a ship owned by a larger corporation and captained by a woman he seems friendly with, named Sara. Bill claims the planet, and lands, only to have his spaceship commandeered by the locals, and given as a sort of offering to their god.

Who turns out to be real, and who talks to Bill. It seems this god has controlled the planet in a very benign way since "Those Who Went Away" went away. Sara offers to help, and ends up in the same fix as Bill, along with her crewmen, a thuggish mate only interested in plunder, an engineer, and a communications man with limited social skills but lots of brains. Bill Warden ends up gaining some trust with the god, and he is allowed to see the city of those who went away. Buck, the mate, starts stealing, while Jason, the engineer, ends up in the custody of the High Priest of the locals. And the other guy figures out what the god is -- no surprise, a planetary computer, gone fairly mad.

What hath Zelazny wrought, is one thing that ran through my head. Unfairly, no doubt. The novel rather disjointedly rambles to a resolution of sorts, though as the end approaches its clear that nothing terribly interesting or original is possible, and Strike chooses a thuddingly cynical conclusion. I'd have liked something more conventional, to be honest, but in reality, nothing could really rescue this pedestrian effort.

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