Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig

Ace Double Reviews, 84: The Pictures of Pavanne, by Lan Wright/The Youth Monopoly, by Ellen Wobig (#H-48, 1968, 60 cents)

Lionel Percy Wright was born 8 July 1923, so in honor of his birthday I am posting this Ace Double review I did 9 years ago on my blog. It's also an opportunity to mention one of the most obscure SF novelists ever, Ellen Wobig, whose only fiction, as far as I know, was this novel.
(Covers by Jack Gaughan)

Here we have something quite obscure. Lan Wright, at least, is not unknown, though he may be all but forgotten. Here's what I wrote in a review of an earlier Wright book: Lan Wright is a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (b. 1923), who was a regular contributor to the UK SF magazines, mostly E. J. Carnell's (New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction Adventures), from 1952 through 1963. As far as I know he never even once appeared in a US magazine. Indeed, he only once appeared in an anthology, a British book edited by Carnell. He did have five novels published in the US, four of them Ace Doubles, the last of these in 1968. I had read a story or two in the magazines, and found them mediocre but with interesting aspects, so I tried this novel. As far as I know he is still alive, but seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) since the age of 45. [In fact, he died on 1 October 2010, one year after I wrote those words.]

So, we see that The Pictures of Pavanne was apparently his last book. I would suggest that to some extent the market had simply moved beyond him -- Carnell was not publishing much anymore, having given up New Worlds, and Don Wollheim was moving beyond Wright's sort of stuff as well. And those were for all practical purposes the only editors who ever bought his work.

As for Ellen Wobig, I know nothing of her beyond that she was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1911, and died in Rockford, Illinois, in 1989. And there's no hint anywhere I can find that she published anything besides The Youth Monopoly. Wobig was thus one of only 8 writers whose only novel was an Ace Double half.

Given that you'd perhaps expect these stories to be pretty dire. But that's not really the case. Both have their moments -- both are entertaining enough, really, and with some hints of nice ideas. Neither novel is earth-shaking -- neither is really, in the end, successful. But they exceed my (admittedly low) expectations.

The Youth Monopoly, which is about 38,000 words long, is one of those stories that changes focus as it goes. It may be that the author intended this change -- that she was misdirecting the readers. Or it may be that the story changed on her as she wrote it. Anyway, after a very brief prologue from the point of view of the narrator in his old age, we meet Rod Dorashi trying to escape Metropolis, a city in a future US that seems to be ruled by an autocrat called Commander Korn. Dorashi is fortuitously picked up by one Ormand Bey, who feeds him and reveals that he has heard of him -- from an old man, Frechette, who Dorashi has helped out before he (Frechette) died. Somehow at this point I expected the tale of a revolution against Korn. Instead, Dorashi accompanies Bey to his home, the luxury resort called Trysis, which has been co-owned by the old man, Frechette. Trysis, it turns out, is a very special resort -- visitors are fed a special diet which rejuvenates them by five years. But they can only visit once a year, so to gain significant years of lifespan one must stay on good terms with the owner.

Rather mysteriously, Dorashi is immediately installed in the inner circle of Trysis operations. It seems Frechette picked him as his successor. The other members of that inner circle include Bey and a couple of women and a couple of men. One of the women immediately (it seems) becomes Dorashi's lover. All of them, it seems, have been around since the 14th Century or so, taking the immortality food ever since at a rate metered to maintain a youthful appearance.

The rest of the book basically concerns machinations at Trysis. Bey turns out to be rather a tyrant, imperious in his dealing with his own staff and with the privileged visitors. Part of the concern is that the political powers of this future US -- which seems a fractured set of city-states -- stay ignorant of Trysis's secrets. But part seems simply Bey liking to throw his weight around. Dorashi is shown rebelling a bit, but being severely punished ... and that's kind of it. Until we get to the end, where there is a sudden change in circumstances, and a dramatic (though guessable) revelation. The actual conclusion is cynical and fairly effectively executed. So, in the end, not really a very good novel, but one with aspects of interest.

I wasn't very impressed with the previous Lan Wright novel I read (Who Speaks of Conquest? (1957)). The Pictures of Pavanne really isn't very good, but it's better than Who Speaks of Conquest?. Admittedly that's faint praise. The novel is about 56,000 words.

The main character is Max Farway, the dwarfish son of a rich industrialist. As the book opens he has returned to Earth for his father's funeral. We learn that Max is a) very difficult to deal with; and b) a brilliant artist, probably the best of his generation. Oh, and he had issues -- with his father, and with his painful body.

On dealing with his father's estate, he learns that the older man had become obsessed with "The Pictures of Pavanne", a huge work of art left by vanished aliens on a distant planet. A sequence of human artists have tried to capture the Pictures in smaller form, and have all failed. (Hardly surprising, really.) But Max's father had been corresponding with a scientist who apparently found some mysterious secret about the Pictures. But then the scientist refused further contact with the elder Farway.

Inevitably Max decides to go to Pavanne. His stepmother and agent accompany him. There he encounters the very old ruler of Pavanne, now confined to a high-tech wheelchair/virtual reality system. This man (and his two vile, apparently incestuously lesbian, daughters) torment Max, in part, it turns out, because the scientist with whom Max's father corresponded was actually murdered. A subplot develops, concerning the ruler's chief assistant, who hopes to escape Pavanne with his lover and with all the money he has squirreled away.

But all must wait until the dramatic Passage of the Blue Sun. It seems that Pavanne is part of a two sun system, and the Pictures show best when directly under the Blue Sun, an event that occurs only every 16 years. So -- Max needs to view the Pictures in this light to paint his masterpiece. The other subplots also converge on this point, particularly the amazing discovery the murdered scientist made ... then ... well, a sometimes interesting (though overwrought) plot just falls apart with a banal, silly, conclusion,

Much of this book is quite bad -- the absurd depiction of the nature of artistic creation. The ridiculous orbital mechanics implied for the Pavanne system. The rather casual plotting. The terribly disappointing ending. But there were things I liked. Max isn't a believable character, but he's kind of interesting, and his Oedipal relationship with his stepmother had real potential (but Wright couldn't go through with his implications.) The story actually has momentum most of the way, and the plot, though silly, might have satisfied had it ended a bit more traditionally. It's not a good novel, by any means -- it's undeniably a bad novel -- but it was, yet again, better than I had expected.

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