A review by Rich Horton
James Gunn was born July 12, 1923, so he turns 95 today, and he is still an active writer, with a new novel out this year. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did several years ago of his only Ace Double. Alas, it was his first novel, and I'm afraid I'm not very kind to it.
|(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Ed Emshwiller)|
Both writers are SFWA Grand Masters. I've written about Silverberg in these Ace Double reviews many times before, so I won't repeat myself here. Gunn is particularly well known as one of the first people to treat SF in an academic milieu -- indeed, he published extracts from his MA thesis in Dynamic Science Fiction. He has been a Professor (now Emeritus) of English at Kansas University for decades, and he is the Founding Director of KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction. (He has taught at KU for 60 years now!) He's also, of course, been a significant writer of SF for even longer, getting particular notice for The Listeners, about SETI, basically, which was a Nebula nominee. He won a Hugo for Best Novelette for "The Giftie" in 1999, and other Hugos for non-fiction in 1976 and 1979.
The 13th Immortal is set several hundred years after a century of war has caused the remainder of the world to retreat to technological stasis. Twelve immortal men have parceled the world into twelve domains, and they in their various ways have enforced an agrarian lifestyle on everyone. The thirteenth domain is Antarctica, newly green and secure behind an impenetrable field.
Dale Kesley is a farmer in Iowa. But he has surprisingly little memory of his past life. One day a man turns up, looking for someone -- for Dale. This man is from Antarctica, he claims. And so too, says the man, is Dale. And it's time for him to go home. After some internal agonizing, Dale decides to follow this man -- mostly because of a nagging feeling that he doesn't really fit in Iowa.
But their travels do not go smoothly, In South America the two are separated, and Dale is captured by the agents of the Immortal in charge there. Rather implausibly, this man takes a shine to Dale and instead of having him executed after an escape attempt he recruits him -- as an assassin! Dale's new job is to go back to North America and kill the Immortal up there!
It is clear that relationships among the Immortals are fraying. And during Dale's travels he learns even more about his world, as he ends up encountering a town full of despised mutants, and a town run completely by automation. Inevitably his peregrinations lead him to Antarctica, and a confrontation with the mysterious 13th Immortal -- as well as a realization of his own history and destiny.
This is really pretty minor stuff. Silverberg of that era was a competent craftsman, and often willing to at least make a stab at handling interesting issues -- but still often a producer of yard goods. This book is yard goods, and indeed a bit below the average Silverberg 1950s standard, perhaps not a surprise coming so early in his career.
This Fortress World was first published by Gnome Press in 1955. This 1957 Ace Double is abridged. It is a novel that seems very derivative of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. (One of Gunn's Hugo-winning books was called Isaac Asimov: Foundations of Science Fiction.) But nowhere near as good.
|(Cover by Murray Tinkelman)|
It opens with a young acolyte, William Dane, at a religious order witnessing a beautiful woman leaving something in the collection bowl, then going outside only to have her feet cut off by some blacksuited thugs. Finding her beauty sufficient to challenge his faith, he hides the pebble she left. Soon the thugs are invading his cathedral -- he kills a few of them, and decides to leave.
He's picked up by an intellectual who teaches him, almost instantly it seems, to be a master fighter. But when this man urges him to give him the mysterious pebble, he kills him. After another escape, he is rescued by a whore with a heart of gold (TM). But that doesn't last -- he decides to escape to another world, but instead he ends up in the hands of the blacksuits, by whom he is tortured. But the WWAHOG(TM) rescues him again, rather surprisingly -- only to be kidnapped herself. So William realizes he has to confront the head of the blacksuits -- and eventually the real power. But he learns that there is another power he knew nothing about ...
I hardly believed a word of it, I have to say, and I was bored through most of it. The Galactic society Gunn sketches is unconvincing, despite his heavy-handed attempts to give it a philosophical grounding. And the characters do not convince, either. (For example, William is unable to reconcile himself to the fact that Whore With a Heart of Gold (TM), with whom he falls in love, was, well, a whore (for very good reasons, it turns out).) Pretty weak stuff. I must add, however, that I was reading an abridged version, and it's possible that the full novel does a better job, particularly in establishing character.