Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Forgotten Ace Double: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb

Ace Double Reviews, 100: Alien Sea, by John Rackham/C.O.D. Mars, by E. C. Tubb (#H-40, 1968, 60 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This is the 100th Ace Double review I've done. I started these on the wonderful old Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written back in the early 2000s. I retain an interest in Ace Doubles for an intersection of reasons ... the feeling that they give room for an awkward story length (25000 to 45000 words, say); the fact that they provided space for new writers to get published; the sometimes goofy subject matter; the fact that they could be a home for unpretentious adventure SF; and their uncommon format. But it must also be said that a lot of the stories published as Ace Doubles were downright crappy. And indeed this review, the 100th, perhaps appropriately features a couple of awfully weak short novels.

(Cover by George Ziel)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
That said, the writers were both English veterans -- and, indeed, generally competent if uninspired producers of acceptable SF adventure. E. C. Tubb (1919-2010) is by far best known for his Dumarest of Terra novels, which began in Ace Doubles in 1967, migrated to DAW when Donald Wollheim moved there, and concluded with a novel first published in French. But he was very prolific, publishing well over a hundred novels and even more short stories beginning in the UK SF magazines in the early '50s. Besides the Dumarest novels he was somewhat known in the early '70 for the Cap Kennedy books, written for DAW as by "Gregory Kern".

John Rackham's real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). He also began publishing in the early '50s, though much less prolifically. He ended up producing something north of 20 novels as well as a fair amount of shorter work, under both the Rackham and Phillifent names.

I've enjoyed novels by both writers in the past -- as I say above, they were generally competent writers -- certainly of the second rank, but not unreadable. And in that context, this particular pair of stories is quite disappointing. Really, this represents kind of the low point of what Ace Doubles could be -- not even redeemed by the notion that it might have served as a way to give a young writer a start on a career that might develop.

Rackham's Alien Sea is the longer novel, at something close to 65,000 words. (Tubb's C.O.D. Mars is just over 40,000 words long.) Alien Sea opens in space, with a severely damaged spaceship struggling to make its way around the sun back to their planet, Roggan. They make it, and find that no one survives -- an atomic war has caused almost all the land on the watery planet to be sunk ... the crew of this ship, and a few survivors of their rival nation, must cooperate to rebuild some semblance of civilization.

Then things jump forward a couple of thousand years, as Dennis Dillard approaches the planet Hydra. He's a professional "feeler", who has his emotions recorded to be used in a future entertainment in which people get to "feel" the emotions of the characters. Hydra is a water world that Earth has started to exploit, in tentative cooperation with their enemies the Venusians, who are the descendants of Earth politicians exiled decades before. Dillard arranges a chance to meet the Venusians -- the emotions of encountering them seems like a good opportunity for recording. He also gets to visit the research station run by a former professor he hates, and in the process gets involved with a woman secret agent of sorts; and of course he visits the pleasure city on Hydra.

Some strange stuff happens, and Dillard ends up much more involved with the Venusians than he had planned -- something very strange is going on. Not to mention he forges an empathic connection with a beautiful Venusian woman. And soon they learn that the strangeness is a true alien race -- and the reader, of course, knows right away that these aliens are the descendants of the Roggan crew we met at the beginnning the book -- and the planet Hydra is really Roggan.

It all turns on Dillard and his new lady love forging greater cooperation between the Venusians and Earth -- and establishing a reason for the Roggans to abandon their nefarious plans and agree to cooperate in a mutually beneficial fashion with both Earth and Venus. Oh, and there's the absurd invention Dillard's former professor has made ... There are actually some potentially interesting ideas in this book, but there's too much stuff that just doesn't make much sense; and the book is too long, too boring for long stretches.

Tubb's C.O.D. Mars opens with a detective, Slade, taking a job: to smuggle three surviving explorers returned from Proxima Centauri to Mars -- he'll be paid Cash on Delivery, hence the title. These explorers, it turns out, are in quarantine, in Earth orbit, supposedly because of the threat of an alien virus. The focus then shifts to Ed Taylor, an employee of Slade's, who is trapped in a loveless marriage, with a wife who won't have sex with him, and dreams of escaping to one of the space colonies with a hot young woman. Taylor ends up in trouble -- seduced and drugged by a pretty woman, and forced to take a risky job ... which turns out to be Slade's trick: he needs someone to pilot the ship he'll send to rescue the explorers.

For a while here, things seemed kind of interesting, and decently told in Tubb's noirish and cynical style. Then we get introduced to the woman doctor running the quarantine, and to the actual explorers, and before long we learn that the quarantine is for a good reason -- they really have been taken over by a sort of semi-intelligent slime mold from Proxima Centauri.

Before long, Taylor's rescue attempt has gotten him infected as well. Slade is trying to play the criminal Martians against Earth's UN authorities, for his own profit of course. Taylor survives the virus/slime mold, and unconvincingly he and the doctor fall in love, and she infects herself ... Everybody heads for the asteroid belt, where the slime molds/explorers try to take over an asteroid and propagate themselves by heading back to Earth, while Taylor and the Doctor, who have become superhuman via symbiosis with the Proxima slime mold, head to the stars. And Slade is left desperatly looking for an angle which will make him lots of money ...

As you can guess, I didn't think much of this. It really reeks of being written quickly to fill a slot, with no really coherent ideas behind it, just a bunch of cliche notions slapped together until they seemed enough to propel a plot for 40,000 words. At least it reads fairly quickly, but it's a pretty weak novel. Tubb remains worth a look -- though not requiring a look -- for his Dumarest books; but C.O.D. Mars is pretty sad stuff.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this one a few times, but never bothered to pick it up. Good luck, apparently.