William F. Jenkins (better known in the SF field as Murray Leinster) was born on June 16, 1896, and died in 1975, just short of his 79th birthday. He was an extremely respected SF writer, known as the Dean of Science Fiction, and a Hugo winner. He wrote successfully in many other fields, and was also the inventor of the front projection process used in creating special effects. In honor of his birthday, I am reposting this review of one of his best known novels, backed with a less well known novel.
The longer and better known of these novels, The Pirates of Zan, was first published in Astounding, February through April, 1959, under the title "The Pirates of Ersatz". The cover of the February issue is perhaps one of the more famous Astounding covers. It's by Kelly Freas and shows a space pirate with a slide rule instead of a dagger in his teeth.
|(Cover by Kelly Freas)|
|(Cover by Dean Ellis?)|
"Med Service" the novella is about 22,000 words. The novel version (The Mutant Weapon) is quite a bit longer, at 34,000 words. It adds a couple of chapters at the end, going into much more detail about the motivations of the chief villain of the piece. I thought the story better at the shorter length.
|(Covers by ? and Ed Emshwiller)|
The Pirates of Zan is really fairly minor stuff. It seems intended to be humourous, and it is much of the time, though some is just crank-turning. Our hero is a native of a pirate planet, but he wants to live an ordinary life, so he travels to a rich, settled, planet and sets up as a EE. But when his radical brilliant new power plant design is rejected, and he ends up accused of murder (for weird reasons that never make sense), he finds himself on the run. He ends up on a backward planet, and once again runs afoul of the local customs, after rescuing a beautiful girl from an abduction attempt. Upon escaping, he kidnaps a few of the locals and sets up as a pirate, but a completely non-violent one. He works an unconvincing scheme to use the threat of piracy to manipulate shipping and insurance stocks so that he can make enough money to a) pay off the locals who have become his crew, b) repay the people he pirated, c) set up a defrauded group of colonists on a new planet, and d) get rich enough himself to marry his girl back on the first planet he went to. Of course, he succeeds wildly, except for coming to realize that his ersatz piracy is vital to civilization, both for economic reasons and for romantic reasons, so he's stuck being a pirate, and also except for realizing (big surprise!) that his first girl is a boring spoiled brat but that he really loves the girl he rescued on his second planet. It's rather rambling, and it really doesn't convince, but it does pass the time pleasantly. It should be noted that it was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo.
The Mutant Weapon is probably intended a bit more seriously. The Med Service man Calhoun, hero of the overall series of Med Service stories, comes to a planet which is about ready for full colonization, intending to give it a basic inspection. It seems that the Med Service is the main organization keeping civilization together -- the Galaxy is too big, travel times too great, for a true interstellar government. When he arrives he is shocked to be attacked (by manipulation of the spaceship landing grid). He manages to escape and land in an isolated area. He and his alien pet/testbed Murgatroyd make their way towards the main city. He discovers a man who seems to have died from starvation, amidst what seems to be plenty of food. He is attacked by a nearly starving young woman, but convinces her he's not from the bad guys who have taken over the planet.
He learns that the original advance colonization team has almost all died from this mysterious plague. It seems that a scheme is afoot to take over this brand new planet by killing off the rightful owners with the plague, while the new colonists will be immunized. Calhoun must first discover the nature of the plague and why it was so difficult to diagnose (the answer seems reasonably clever though I am not a doctor), and then safely dislodge the bad guys from the planet, in such a way as to discourage their soon arriving large group of colonists from trying to finish the job. The novel version adds some extended stuff about the motivation and character of the evil genius who devised the plague.
It's not a great story, but it's OK. As I say above, I think it's better suited to a length of around 20,000 words than to the longer Ace Double length.