Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Mostly Forgotten Ace Double: Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse/Echo in the Skull, by John Brunner

Ace Double Reviews, 37: Rocket to Limbo, by Alan E. Nourse/Echo in the Skull, by John Brunner (#D-385, 1959, $0.35)

Today (August 11, 2018) would have been Alan E. Nourse's 90th birthday, so I've taken the opportunity to repost this review I did some time back of his Ace Double Rocket to Limbo.

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Robert E. Schultz)
This 1959 Ace Double pairs a once-popular writer best known for his juveniles with a writer who became one of the towering figures in the field. At the time Alan E. Nourse was surely the "headline" writer of the pair (which is not to say he was particularly well-known), but as of now John Brunner is clearly the more important figure. Rocket to Limbo is a reprint of a 1957 novel, originally published by David McKay. (There also seems to have been a version, possibly much shorter, published in Satellite Science Fiction in 1957.) It is about 50,000 words long. Echo in the Skull is from 1959: it was published in the same year in the UK magazine Science Fantasy. (I don't know which publication came first.) It's a longish novella at some 28,000 words -- I'm not sure if the Science Fantasy text is the same as the Ace Double, but I suspect it may be. It has been reprinted as "Give Warning to the World" according to the ISFDB, but I can't find any details of that.

One point about John Brunner's Ace Double career. I had previously listed a number of especially prolific Ace Double contributors. Somehow, I managed to forget Brunner: the most prolific of them all, I believe! He wrote 24 Ace Double halves, in 21 different books. A few of these were published under the name Keith Woodcott. (He also used this pseudonym for a few short stories -- I read one just today, "Fair" in the March 1956 New Worlds, a pretty fair story, I will say.)

I enjoyed several Alan E. Nourse novels as a teenager: he was one of the first few SF writers I read (with Asimov, Clarke, Norton, and Simak). In particular I recall The Mercy Men, The Bladerunner, The Universe Between, and Raiders from the Rings. (The last two novels were based on 1951 stories in Astounding -- the curious thing is that Raiders from the Rings is not based on a Nourse story, but rather "The Mauki Chant", by Nourse's sometime collaborator J. A. Meyer.) However the novel at hand is not to my mind as good as any of those.

Rocket to Limbo opens with a scene of Earth's first star ship, the Argonaut, blasting off en route to Alpha Centauri. It is a generation ship -- its primitive engines are expected to take as much as a century to reach the nearest star. Quickly we cut to the main action, some 350 years later. The faster-than-light Koenig drive as been in use for a few centuries, and the Earth has a burgeoning colony population. However, the Argonaut is not found at Alpha Centauri, nor at any other planet. Lars Heldrigsson (I thought I was in a Poul Anderson novel for a second after reading that name!) is a young man preparing for his first journey for the Colonial Service, under the command of legendary explorer Walter Fox.

Lars soon learns that what he thought was to be a routine trip to Vega will be something else entirely. The ship's launch is made under unusual security. And Lars's roommate, his former classmate Peter Brigham, a bitter young man, tells him of a mysterious cargo that seems to be illegal nuclear weapons. They are swiftly told the reason for the unusual procedures: another Colonial Service ship, investigating a newly discovered planet, disappeared after making planetfall. Their job is to investigate this mysterious disappearance.

Walter Fox, it turns out, has a bug in his brain about intelligent aliens. It seems humans have encountered no sign of them, but Fox is sure they must exist, and he wants first contact to be peaceful. But other people are afraid of the aliens, including many of the crew, some of whom plan a mutiny, charging that they have been illegally shanghaied to this secret mission, instead of the expected Vega milk run. Peter Brigham has other motives -- he blames Walter Fox for his father's death on a previous exploration mission. Lars, of course, is a loyalist, and he eventually turns Peter to the good side of the Force.

No prizes (after the opening scene of the book) for guessing what the divided crew actually finds on the strange planet. And no prizes for guessing that Lars and Peter, after a harsh struggle with the elements and with another mutiny, have a key role to play when they encounter strange beings in a strange city. And, finally, no prizes for guessing that Walter Fox's dream of discovering intelligent aliens comes into play as well.

I was rather disappointed by this novel. For one thing, it's put together rather carelessly. There are a number of quite unnecessary niggling inconsistencies (such as how far the Argonaut eventually seems to have travelled, or what sort of planet the mysterious planet is in terms of indigenous life). And the ending is an annoying attempt at transcendentalism via psi hogwash.

I enjoyed Echo in the Skull somewhat more. It's an extraordinarily fast-moving story, partly because it covers a very short time period -- perhaps twelve hours. Long enough to save the world with a love story thrown in. It's gripping and sets up an interesting mystery which is resolved acceptably. There are some short-cuts -- the hero jumps to some correct conclusions implausibly swiftly, for instance. It's not great work but it's good old-fashioned fun.

The story opens with Sally Ercott hungover and in despair. She is broke, filthy, living in a rundown flat, and at the brink of letting her landlord sell her as a prostitute in lieu of rent. She has vague memories of a much more comfortable life, but no specifics -- and more terrifyingly, she does have occasional very specific memories of other, much stranger, lives. These memories involve things like human sacrifice to a huge alien being, and barbarian invaders, and suchlike.

Then she is nearly run over by a young man, who insists on taking her to his house to at the very least clean up and get herself a good meal. Sally's landlord and his wife are depicted as furious at this development -- is their only motivation that of driving her to sufficient degradation to agree to "go on the street"? Or is something more sinister going on? The man who picks up Sally is named Nick Jenkins (it's probably only a coincidence that that is the same name as the narrator of one of the most important (and one of the best, and perhaps my favorite) English novels of the 20th Century: Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time).  Nick is an inventor, and a man with an open mind, and he promises to treat whatever strange stories Sally tells with respect. And when Sally tells him of her unusual memories of other lives, he asks her to draw scenes from them -- which elicits the information that the barbarian invaders from one scene had four arms; and that in another memory Sally's skin was scaled.

Nick arranges for a Doctor to treat Sally. Meanwhile the sinister landlord couple have tracked Nick down, and they are attempting to kidnap Sally back. Fortunately, another resident of Sally's rooming house has also become suspicious of the landlord and landlady. The conclusion moves rapidly, with Sally in deadly peril, even as she and Nick have figured out (perhaps too rapidly, as I suggested) just what's going on. But between Sally's new found confidence, and the help of Nick, the doctor, the other resident, and some reasonably intelligent policemen, all comes out OK.


  1. Hi Rich, great to see you doing your blog, I used to follow you over at the SFF.Net newsgroups and looked forward to your end-of-year lists.

    I have 2 questions please (both regarding shorts, novelettes or novellas).

    1) You once wrote of Chiang's "Story of Your Life" that (paraphrasing) 'most SF is either concerned with technology or with it's characters. This stories combines both. We get stories this good only once every 3 years. Read it!."

    Since then, have you read any other storie(s) that are as good or as powerful as Chaing's?

    2) Has there been any horror short fiction (shorts, novelettes, novellas) that has knocked your socks off and is worth reading (from the last 2 decades)?


  2. 1) One obvious answer is "New Light on the Drake Equation" by Ian R. MacLeod, from only a couple of years after "Story of Your Life". Add "Magic for Beginners", by Kelly Link, "The House Beyond Your Sky", by Benjamin Rosenbaum, "Everybody From Themis Sends Letters Home", by Genevieve Valentine.

    Probably a few more should be mentioned ... "Cimmeria", by Theodora Goss maybe, or "Mutability", by Ray Nayler.

    Whether I rank any of these quite with the Chiang (and other stories by him deserve consideration, such as "Exhalation") is hard to say. The MacLeod, anyway. The Link (and stories like "Lull" and "Light" are similarly good). The Rosenbaum.

    2) As for Horror, that's less my thing. Joe Hill's "Best New Horror" really impressed me. And maybe a couple SF stories that can be read as horror, like Bruce McAllister's "This is For You".