Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Old Ace Double: Clash of Star-Kings, by Avram Davidson/Danger From Vega, by John Rackham

An Old Ace Double: Clash of Star-Kings, by Avram Davidson/Danger From Vega, by John Rackham

a review by Rich Horton

I've discussed Ace Doubles here before, and as I've spent much of the last two weeks out of town, I'm posting one of my old Ace Double reviews here, a pretty decent example of them.

Both halves of this Ace Double, interestingly, made the first ballot for the 1966 Nebula Award, Danger From Vega as a Novel, and Clash of Star-Kings as a Novella. The latter made the final ballot, which that year had only three entries -- along with Charles L. Harness's "The Alchemist" it lost to another Ace Double half, "The Last Castle" by Jack Vance. (The Vance story actually originally appeared in Galaxy, April 1966.) Clash of Star-Kings is about 38,000 words long, just barely short of novel length. As far as I know this was its first publication in any form. According to the Avram Davidson Website, Davidson said, referring to Ace's habit of changing titles in the direction of greater garishness: "I call it Tlaloc but I bet you they will call it something like Aztec Goddesses from Outer Space with Big Boobs" Well, Clash of Star-Kings is better than that, at any rate! Danger From Vega is about 54,000 words long, and also, as far as I know, first appeared in this edition. (There has been a later single book edition from Ace of Clash of Star-Kings, and a single hardcover edition, from Dobson, of Danger From Vega.)

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was a truly wonderful writer, usually best at shorter lengths, though such novels as those in the Vergil sequence, or the Peregrine books, are very enjoyable to read, if often a bit rambling.

Clash of Star-Kings is indeed about a clash between beings from the stars, but in the main it is much more subdued than the title would seem to indicate. It is in large part the story of an American couple, the Clays, and their writer friend, Robert Macauley, in the small Mexican town of Los Remedios. Much of the interest in the novel lies in the affectionate description of the ups and downs of expatriate life in Mexico. (I seem to recall that around this time Davidson lived in Mexico.)

The central plot concerns mysterious lights and legends on a nearby mountain. The locals believe that the mountain is the home to certain ancient gods. Eventually of course we learn that there are two groups of gods, the more benevolent Old Ones, and the more violent Aztec gods -- and this being a science fiction novel of course they turn out to be two alien races. (It has been some times since I read the book, so some of the details may be a bit fuzzy.) The climax involves a battle between the two races, as I recall perhaps involving the fate of the human race. All that is handled well enough, but as I hinted earlier, the real enjoyable stuff is the portrayal of everyday life. It's a pretty decent piece of work, probably Davidson's best book-length story at that time, though he would fairly soon surpass that.

John Rackham was the main pseudonym for British writer John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). As far as I know, Phillifent began publishing SF in the May 1958 Astounding with "One-Eye", as by "John Rackham". Though that first story was as by "Rackham", he eventually fell into a pattern -- almost all of his work as by "John T. Phillifent" was for Analog (one story for Fantastic, a couple of novels and some Man From Uncle tie-ins are the only exceptions), while most of his novels and his short fiction for other venues were as by "John Rackham". (In particular, he was a regular contributor to E. J. Carnell's UK original anthology New Writings in SF.)

Danger From Vega, his second novel, fits a certain sub-genre that Avram Davidson has also written in: stories of all-female planets. (In both this book, and Davidson's Mutiny from Space, the planets involved aren't technically "all-female", but close enough for government work.) Other examples include Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Jerry Oltion's incredibly dumb "Kissing Cousins" (one of his Astral Astronauts stories, almost all of which are incredibly dumb). Any more?

As Danger From Vega opens, Lieutenant Jeremy Thorpe is waiting tensely for a hopeless space battle against the implacably hostile Vegans, who have ships that maneuver incredibly, with super high-g's, and who make no effort at communication. Earth has been fighting the Vegans for decades, and due to the aliens' maneuverability advantage, the home team is losing badly. In flashbacks we learn that Jeremy is actually Gerald Corde, but that he switched identities with his college roommate in order to defy his father's orders and enlist in the Space Force. (His father is an Admiral, and had pulled strings to get his son appointed to a research post on Venus, out of harm's way.) In amidst these flashbacks the battle occurs, and Jeremy's ship is destroyed, with only 5 survivors. Through heroic efforts and sacrifice (two more deaths) Jeremy and two other men manage to limp to a unfamiliar planet and crashland.

They are rescued by a number of very attractive but very hostile green-skinned women. Much to their surprise, some of the women speak English. At first they fear that this planet are an outpost of Vega, but it soon turns out that the Vegans are regarded as despicable enemies: they have enslaved all the planets' men, and the now mindless men periodically take a culling of women and rape them, in order to breed more men for slaves, and more women for future breeding. (In a side note, we learn that only perfect specimens of the men and women are left alive -- this is taken to explain why all the women are very beautiful. Once again, aliens are revealed to have exquisite taste in human females! I trust that once we make real first contact, aliens will be recruited as Miss America judges.) (By the way, it is never explained why this planet's people are perfectly human in all respects except for skin color.)

The women are very suspicious of the Earthmen, mainly due to a very natural fear of men resulting from the fact that all the men they've ever encountered are basically mindless and are also likely to rape them. (Let's just take all the obvious jokes as read, OK?) But the Earthmen manage to convince the alien women that their intentions are good, and soon they learn that this planet has a limited but very impressive radio technology, which explains how they learned English (from our broadcasts, over more than ten light-years distance). The human abilities in power generation combined with the alien women's radio abilities, as well as the hints that the Vegans do not use radio at all, begin to point towards a solution. Will the alien women overcome their initial revulsion for the men? Will the Earthmen find a solution that doesn't endanger this new planet? Will each surviving Earthman find a lovely young green mate? Are the Vegans toast? Can anyone doubt it?

The above description must make the story seem silly and sexist and rather stock. And so it is, really. But for all that it's kind of fun, and the sexism isn't nearly as bad as it could be (for instance, part of the solution is to accept the women as worthy soldiers and space pilots), and finally though the science is silly and there are huge holes in the plot, the ultimate solution, while it doesn't hold up to close thought, is kind of clever. In other words, this is a fairly bad book but still readable. Not worth special effort to find, but not a bad way to pass a couple of hours. A guilty pleasure, if you will.


  1. Glad you've done this d-volume, though I've avoided doing much more than skimming as this is one of the three-four Davidson books I've yet to read. You do kill him off a bit early in a typo above. I'll see if I can score the AD (or AD AD) and read the Rackham as well.

  2. Thanks for catching that typo on his dates ... I've fixed it, and I'll add cover photos later too.

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