Thursday, May 5, 2016

Another Ace Double: Empire of the Atom, by A. E. Van Vogt/Space Station #1, by Frank Belknap Long

Ace Double Reviews, 96: Empire of the Atom, by A. E. Van Vogt/Space Station #1, by Frank Belknap Long (#D-242, 1957, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Both authors of this Ace Double are fairly significant -- Van Vogt of course is a legend, and an SFWA Grand Master. Long is less prominent, but he did win a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and he has -- or had -- a significant reputation as a Horror writer, and a disciple of H. P. Lovecraft. Both were also very long-lived.

A. E. Van Vogt was born in 1912 in Canada, and died in 2000. He worked for the Canadian Ministry of Defence, doing some writing on the side, beginning with true confessions stories, and turning to SF in 1938, inspired by John Campbell's classic "Who Goes There?". His first sale, to Campbell at Astounding, was "Black Destroyer", still considered a classic. He made a huge splash in 1940 with the Astounding serial Slan, and another splash with "The Weapon Shop" (1942), which was fixed up into a novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher. (The term "fix-up" was, I believe, a Van Vogt coinage.) His most famous novel is probably still The World of Null-A (serialized in Astounding in 1945). He became a full-time writer in the early '40s, and moved to California in 1944. He was an early adopter of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics (later Scientology), though he apparently left the movement around 1961.

There is no denying Van Vogt's immense importance and influence in the field of SF, and I certainly don't dispute that he deserved the Grand Master award. But I confess I've never much liked his work. By and large I agree with the points Damon Knight made in his famous essay on The World of Null-A. I've generally found Van Vogt's work illogical, not very well-written, downright slapdash on occasion. But a lot of people I truly respect really love his work, so I admit without reservation that I am missing something important. Sometimes that's the way it is.

So I approached Empire of the Atom with some caution. It is another "fix-up", though a fairly coherent one, comprising five novelettes first published in Astounding in 1946 and 1947. It was published in hardcover by Shasta in 1957, followed the same year by this abridged Ace Double edition. (It's still fairly long for an Ace Double at some 56,000 words.)

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the book: I quite enjoyed it. One reason is that the plot is more controlled, more logical, than in other Van Vogt books, only veering off in a Van Vogtian direction right at the end. There's a reason for that -- I realized immediately that his had to be a retelling of some portion of Imperial Roman history, but my knowledge of that history was not sufficient for me to recognize the exact correspondences. But Wikipedia helped immediately -- the story is based on the life of the Emperor Claudius, most specifically as portrayed by Robert Graves in I, Claudius. This anchoring in actual historical events, I feel, kept Van Vogt on course, as it were.

It is set some 10,000 years in the future, after humans have colonized the planets of the Solar System, and then been reduced to barbarism on each of these worlds. A city-state, Linn, arose, and in the recent past it conquered the world and began to try to annex the barbarians on Venus, Mars, and even outer satellites such as Europa. The ruler, or Lord Leader, is a vigorous man but getting older. A new child is born to his scheming second wife, Lydia. (These are, of course, analogues to Augustus and Livia.) The new baby, named Clane, turns out to be a mutant -- Lydia was accidentally exposed to radiation -- this society uses radioactive metals (and worships the "Atom Gods") but has no idea how they work. As a mutant Clane should be killed. However, a leading Temple Scientist wants to raise him and show that mutants, if treated properly, have the same potential as anyone. So Clane is raised, somewhat isolated, and becomes an unusual but very intelligent young man.

The succeeding episodes show Clane learning how to function amidst his scheming relatives, the worst of whom is Lydia, whose prime desire is to place her son by a previous marriage, Lord Tews, on the throne. Clane has no wish to rule, but he does wish Linn to do well, and he does have relative favorites among his relatives, and so he helps one of his Uncles to win a great triumph on Mars, only to have the maneuvering of Livia and Lord Tews mess things up. The dueling continues, as a rebellion on Venus is also crushed, as Clane makes some significant discoveries, and as Tews finally achieves his goals, only to be threatened by an unexpected barbarian incursion from Europa -- a crisis that at last forces Clane to the forefront. Here at the denouement the book finally takes its Van Vogtian turn, but I actually found that aspect kind of cool. There is a sequel, The Wizard of Linn, serialized in Astounding in 1950.

Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994) began publishing in 1920 and his 1921 story "The Eye Above the Mantel" attracted Lovecraft's attention. He published quite a lot of horror-tinged fiction in the next couple of decades, contributing to Weird Tales from its first year (1923). His most famous story might be "The Hounds of Tindalos". He also wrote a fair amount of SF, and he wrote in several other genres (including comics, some Ellery Queen stories, a Man From Uncle story, and Gothics).

I first encountered Long with the Doubleday collection The Early Long, from the mid-'70s, part of a number of books that followed Isaac Asimov's The Early Asimov, in featuring early stories by well-known SF writers along with extensive material about the early careers of these writers. Even then I thought Long a curious choice for such an anthology, and I admit I've felt that way more and more as time goes by -- I've been very unimpressed by everything I've read from him. But I must admit that his reputation in the Horror field is actually pretty good -- I'm not really a Horror reader, so I must defer to those who really love that genre, and especially those who love Lovecraft. The most interesting SF story I've read by Long is "Lake of Fire" (Planet Stories, May 1951), not because it's all that good, but because it is a very direct prefiguring of Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes".

Space Station #1 is some 55,000 words long. This appears to be its first publication (and it may be Long's first novel-length fiction). It opens with a certain Lieutenant David Corriston in a desperate fight for his life in the bowels of the title Space Station. It turns out that this fight is the result of a murder he had witnessed just a few minutes earlier, and perhaps more to the point, of his conversation with Helen Ramsey, the daughter of Stephen Ramsey, who controls the uranium mining on Mars, apparently by oppressing the colonists. There follows a somewhat wild sequence of events, as Corriston meets Helen, the two fall instantly and implausibly in love, Helen's bodyguard is killed, she disappears, Corriston barely survives his fight, a uranium freighter coming to the station suddenly loses control and veers to the surface of Earth in a terrible disaster, Corriston is imprisoned by the station's Captain, he discovers that a number of people, including Helen and the Captain, are wearing very sophisticated masks ...

For several chapters I found this quite entertaining, but somewhere along the way it went wildly off the rails. It devolves into a silly and implausible (but of course!) battle for the soul of Mars, as Corriston must convince the Martians that neither the oppressor Stephen Ramsey nor the thug they have hired to oppose him are worth respecting ... only, it turns out, Ramsey sort of his (if mainly for having a wonderful daughter) ... And Corriston proves his worth by trekking across Mars and beating up a guy and etc. etc.

It really reads like Long started writing and every so often lost his way and just hared off in a new direction until he had written a novel's worth of words and then resolved things. The hero gets the girl, the villain(s) are vanquished, and, oh, by the way, at the last second he introduces Martian lampreys just because he needed to extend things a few thousand words more. Oh well.


  1. Here's James Lileks's commentary on the cover(s):


    Don't know if he's aware they're an Ace Double.

    1. Thanks! I had forgotten about Lileks -- I used to read him in the early days of the internet, loved his stuff.