Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An old Ace Double: Who Speaks of Conquest? by Lan Wright/The Earth in Peril, edited by Donald Wollheim

Ace Double Reviews, 64: Who Speaks of Conquest?, by Lan Wright/The Earth in Peril, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (#D-205, 1957, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This is anthology week at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, and I had planned to cover an anthology of stories on the subject of marriage from Harper's Magazine in 1905 or so, Their Husband's Wives. But my computer has died, hopefully temporarily, and with it the review I had written. Instead, I turn to a review I wrote quite a while ago, with a Don Wollheim anthology backing a novel by Lan Wright, from 1957.

(Cover by Meltzoff)
Lan Wright was a UK writer, full name Lionel Percy Wright (1923-2010), 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. He seems to have published nothing (in SF, at any rate) after the age of 45.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)
Who Speaks of Conquest? was first published in four parts in New Worlds, April through July, 1956. This book version is about 50,000 words, which is kind of short for a four part serial, so it's possible (I don't know) that the book version is cut.

It's rather a silly novel, setting up a really dumb situation and working that out for most of the book, then trying to rescue some of the stupidity with a little twist right towards the end. By that time, I wasn't buying it! It's one of those ideas that probably would have been OK at about 10,000 words, but that simply doesn't bear the weight of a novel.

The first Terran starship lands at Sirius (why they didn't go to Alpha Centauri first is never explained -- it turns out to be inhabited, so it can't be for lack of planets). There they find a welcoming committee, from an intelligent race that has colonized these planets. They learn that the entire Galaxy is under the rule of the Rihnans, apparently a mostly benign rule, but an unquestioned one. Humans are expected to meekly accept their position. Of course, they don't, and soon an invasion fleet is dispatched from Alpha Centauri. But to the invaders' surprise, the plucky humans decide to fight back, and moreover they have been able to develop some surprisingly good tech, and the humans win.

The Rihnans don't take that lying down, and begin plans for a much bigger fleet to suppress Terra. But the humans have their own ideas, and they decide to take the fight to the rest of the Galaxy before the fight comes to Earth. It turns out that humans are much more ingenious than anyone else (what a surprise!), and so despite lack of numbers it looks like they might win. But the Rihnans do have a special trick up their sleeves.

Luckily the human Captain leading the war effort is able to figure out the Rihnan secret. (Part of which turns out to be telepathy.) He magically becomes telepathic himself, but he is still taken prisoner. And a rescue mission is mounted to the planet he's been taken to, but ... well, why tell the story. The improbable human successes continue, of course, and by the end the Rihnans are swept off their perch. But there is something strange going on ... and as I said some of this implausible human success turns out to have a slightly acceptable explanation. Except it shouldn't have taken 45,000 words of boring easy human successes to get to the twist. And it's not that good of a twist anyway.

The other side of this book is an anthology edited by Don Wollheim, The Earth in Peril. As the title makes clear, it's a selection of stories (6 in all) featuring the Earth in danger of destruction, from alien invasion or natural forces or just by accident. I suppose in a way Who Speaks of Conquest? also fits this theme -- perhaps Wollheim chose his anthology theme to pair with the novel.

Here are the stories:

"Things Pass By", by Murray Leinster (19,500 words) (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Summer 1945)
An overlong story with some annoyingly implausible super science. But the basic situation is kind of cool: a huge fleet of near light speed alien ships is passing through the Solar System, who knows why? The gravitational perturbation of these ships threatens to destroy life on Earth. Fortunately our hero, a scientific maverick, with the help of a beautiful woman, and against the foolish obstructionism of an evull corporation, saves the day.

"Letter from the Stars", by A. E. Van Vogt (2600 words) (Arkham Sampler, Winter 1949)
Also called "Dear Pen Pal". An alien criminal manages to contact a human by letter, supposedly just for correspondence but actually with nefarious aims.

"The Silly Season", by C. M. Kornbluth (5500 words) (F&SF, Fall 1950)
Kornbluth at his most sardonic. A newspaperman investigates mysterious UFO-type manifestations. They seem real, but nothing comes of them. Over a few separate outbreaks, people become convinced they are all fake. Then the aliens REALLY come ...

"The Plant Revolt", by Edmond Hamilton (8700 words) (Weird Tales, April 1930)
One of the least plausible stories I've read. Plants suddenly and rapidly mutate and revolt against humanity, turning into mobile and predatory beings. To do so they need certain rare elements emitted from a single man-made volcano. Which is the key to solving the problem, rather absurdly. Told in a horribly turgid faux-19th century style.

"Mary Anonymous", by Bryce Walton (7400 words) (Planet Stories, Summer 1954)
I read this a few years ago in that issue of Planet and didn't remember it. But actually it's not too bad, which means it's probably Walton's best story. (Walton being one of my least favorite writers of that period.) Mars and Earth have been at war for decades, and Earth has just figured out the weapon to exterminate the Martians. But as they launch it, Mary suddenly rebels, and, as it turns out conditioned by the Martians, destroys the Earth spaceship. It's a surprisingly cynical story -- both Earth and Mars come off as irredeemably evil. Mary is sympathetic but does bad things too. The story ends with a twist revelation about Mary that seemed obvious to me (but then I had read the story before!)

"The Star", by H. G. Wells (4200 words) (The Graphic, Christmas 1897)
Famous story telling in journalistic fashion of a rogue star wandering into the Solar System and nearly destroying Earth. Aspects (such as the speed of the star) don't hold together well, but the cold inevitability of the telling is very effective.

So, a mixed anthology -- two good stories (Wells and Kornbluth), two OK ones (Walton and Van Vogt), and two bad ones (Leinster and Hamilton).


  1. I remember reading ACE Double D-205 back in the early 1960s. Wollheim had a tendency to put a novel on one side of the Double and a collection of stories on the other side. I liked the ACE Doubles that featured one writer (like the Harlan Ellison volume) with a novel and a short stories.

    1. Yes, I liked that sort of Ace Double too. A good way to get a writer an opportunity for a story collection.

      Of course, as everyone knows story collections don't sell as well as novels, Ace reportedly sent royalty statements to some writers claiming the collection on the back side of the novel sold fewer copies ... In fact, Robert Silverberg told me that was the case with his THE SEED OF EARTH/NEXT STOP THE STARS -- Ace did pay up when he complained, I think.

  2. I've read all or almost all of the stories, not the "novel", and that seems to have saved me a little wasted effort. I remember none of the stories except the Wells, which has been anthologized so many times.

  3. Lan Wright's novel was published in France in 1959. I read it as a teenager in the 60s and found it interesting, especially with the final twist. For me, it has long been the perfect example of 'old-fashioned' space opera.
    Out of curiosity I've just reread it and your review is amply justified, all I'm left with is nostalgia for a distant era of sf discovery.