by Rich Horton
Brian W. Aldiss, one of the greatest SF writers of them all, died August 19th this year (2017), having just turned 92. So I thought it appropriate to post my review (written some time ago) of one of his early novels that was published as half of an Ace Double.
Aldiss was born in 1925 to working class parents (his father a draper, his mother's father a builder). He was educated at Framlingham College and West Buckham School, and spent part of the Second World War in Burma. He worked at a bookseller after the War, and his first book was a lightly fictionalize account of a bookstore. He was an SF reader from an early age, and at the same time he was publishing his first mainstream book he was publishing his first SF stories in the magazines. Throughout his career he did distinguished work in SF and in mainstream fiction. I have found his work immensely enjoyable, and very varied in tone, style, subject matter, and structure. He also wrote a few memoirs, and I enjoyed the most complete of those, The Twinkling of an Eye, very much indeed.
The author of the other half of this book, Manly Wade Wellman, is less celebrated than Aldiss but still a widely respected writer. Wellman was born in Angola in 1903, and moved to the US at a young age. He was a good football player in his youth, and received a degree in Law from Columbia (his undergraduate degree was from Wichita State), but his goal was to be a writer, and in 1927 he sold his first story to Weird Tales. As this might suggest, his strongest work was in the weird fantastical mode, though he wrote SF, detective stories, comic books, and nonfiction as well. He died in 1986.
I have speculated in the past that Donald Wollheim may have occasionally paired Ace Double halves for thematic reasons. This is another such case -- both novels are about Earth under the domination of alien races. They are also both by fairly well-known, though very different, writers. Manly Wade Wellman became best known for his Appalachian fantasies, especially those about a character named "Silver John". I confess I never warmed to these (indeed, I confess that a good way to turn me off a story is to tell me it's an "Appalachian fantasy"). This novel is quite different -- but not in a good way. Aldiss of course is even better known -- an SFWA Grand Master, one of the best writers in the history of the field. Not surprisingly, this early novel is a lesser work -- though by this time Aldiss was already doing fine stuff such as Non-Stop. Bow Down to Nul is about 48,000 words, The Dark Destroyers about 36,000.
|(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)|
Bow Down to Nul has a slightly convoluted publishing history. It was originally a serial for New Worlds in 1960, under the title "X for Exploitation". The Ace Double is the first book publication. The Ace version is revised, though of about the same length -- there are some cuts but also some additions. By and large the two versions tell the same story. Later book publications sometimes used the much superior title The Interpreter. The later books mostly seem to have used the Ace text until the story was reprinted in The Brian Aldiss Omnibus. (Thanks to Phil Stephenson-Payne for this bibliographical information.)
The story opens with an aggrieved civil servant of the Partussian Empire complaining about how his threats to expose the corruption of a local administrator ended up in his getting fired. He sends his evidence to an incorruptible respected elder statesman back on Partussy. The statesman decides to investigate.
The planet under the rule of the corrupt administrator is of course Earth. The Partussians, called "Nuls", are three-armed, three-sexed, 10 foot tall creatures who breath hydrogen sulphide. They rule an extended empire. They look down in particular on all bipedal races, but aside from that, they are usually somewhat benevolent. But the ruler of Earth is skimming a lot of Earth's output for his own fortune, and otherwise brutally oppressing humans. Unfortunately for Earth, the two year travel time from Partussy to Earth gives Par-Chavorlem, their administrator, plenty of time to set up a sort of Potemkin Village to fool the investigator with.
The main part of the story concerns Chief Interpreter Gary Towler, one of the human liaisons with the Nuls. His job, directly working with Par-Chavorlem, lets him in for plenty of disdain from his fellow humans. He is in love with young Elizabeth Fallodon, another interpreter, but she seems a bit cool to him. However, Towler is secretly working with a rebel leader, and he agrees to reveal a crucial piece of evidence to the visiting investigator that will hopefully doom Par-Chavorlem.
However, the investigator's visit goes distressingly to the advantage of Par-Chavorlem. Towler is faced with some moral decisions: he doesn't trust the rebel leader, and he gets potentially attractive offers from various sides, but Elizabeth is finally warming to him. All leads to a curious and ironic ending. It's far from a great novel, considerably less good than for example Non-Stop, perhaps a bit too obviously a take on the British Empire. Still, not bad -- Aldiss is reliably at least interesting, at least at this stage of his career.
|(Cover by Ed Valigursky)|
The Dark Destroyers is an abridgement of an expansion of a 1938/1939 Astounding serial called "Nuisance Value". ("Nuisance Value", by the way, is also the title of a 1957 Astounding story by Eric Frank Russell, a 1975 Analog story by James White, a 1956 Authentic story by John Brunner, and a 1951 Amazing story by Walt Sheldon. I'm not aware of its use in any SF magazines not starting with the letter A.) When I say "abridgement of an expansion" I mean that in 1959 Wellman published The Dark Destroyers as a Thomas Bouregy hardcover, expanded from the serial. This 1960 Ace edition is marked "Abridged" on the cover.
The story is set some decades after Earth has been invaded by aliens called the Cold People, because they cannot tolerate high temperatures. Most humans are exterminated, but a few remain in the tropics. Mike Darragh is a young man living near the Orinoco, and when a group of local chiefs plan an attack against the Cold People, he urges that he be allowed to investigate one of their bases first. After all, human technology was hopeless against the aliens when they first invaded -- why will their reduced capabilities now do better?
Darragh bravely encounters the Cold People on a Caribbean island and mostly by luck manages to steal one of their air vehicles. He ends up flying to a Cold People dome in Chicago, where he is astonished to discover a colony of humans kept in a sort of zoo. There he tries to urge them to revolt, against the counsel of an elder who seems a bit too happy with the status quote. Fortunately, he instantly falls in love with a local girl, and naturally virtue triumphs.
A pretty minor piece of work, in other words. Not terribly plausible, not terribly interesting.