Thursday, February 2, 2017

An Obscure Ace Double: Threshold of Eternity, by John Brunner/The War of Two Worlds, by Poul Anderson

ce Double Reviews, 102: Threshold of Eternity, by John Brunner/The War of Two Worlds, by Poul Anderson (#D-335, 1959, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I decided to read this Ace Double after Alvaro Zinos-Amaro mentioned it recently, and I realized that it comprised two novels by writers I always enjoy that I was completely unaware of. Alvaro, it must be said, didn't much like the novels. But I figured Anderson and Brunner are always worth a try, and anyway I have a certain quasi-completist attitude towards both of them. Curt Phillips was good enough to offer me a good copy of the book quickly thereafter ...

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

These novels both come very early in their authors' careers. Depending on how you define "novel", Threshold of Eternity is Brunner's first, second, or third. And The War of Two Worlds, if you want to call it a novel (at some 35,000 words, it is shorter than the offical SFWA definition), might be Anderson's second.

I've written about both authors before, so I won't recap biographical details. Both were very prolific writers. Anderson became an SFWA Grand Master, and I think Brunner would have been one too, if he hadn't died so young (aged only 60, at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow). Both were proficient in entertaining adventure-oriented SF, but also, especially later in their careers, produced serious and challenging work.

Threshold of Eternity was first published in New Worlds, December 1957 through February 1958. I don't know if that serialization was the same as the 1959 Ace Double edition, though I suspect it was pretty similar. It's just about 50,000 words long. The War of Two Worlds was first published in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books for Winter 1953 as "Silent Victory". That version seems to be substantially the same as the Ace Double ... both are in the neighborhood of 35,000 words. (I much prefer, obviously, the original title. It was reprinted under that name in the 2014 NESFA Press collection A Bicycle Built for Brew. (It had earlier been reprinted in The Worlds of Poul Anderson as "War of Two Worlds".))

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
In the final analysis I must agree with Alvaro -- these two novels aren't very good. They are very early in each writer's career, as I noted, and it shows. The simplest way to put it as that Brunner's novel is more ambitious -- and it fails -- while Anderson's novel is more successful -- because it tries much less. (Brunner's "The Wanton of Argus", a shorter and earlier piece eventually published as a very short "novel" is also more successful than Threshold of Eternity -- because less ambitious.)

So to begin with the longer novel -- Threshold of Eternity. It opens in California in 1957 or so, as one-legged Red Hawkins encounters a French-speaking girl who couldn't possibly be there -- and, indeed, it turns out that Chantal Vareze was just in London. What's stranger is the other person they soon encounter, a man named Burma who turns out to be from thousands of years in the future.

We jump, then, to the future, where Magwareet is helping to coordinate humanity's desperate war against mysterious aliens called The Enemy. One of the side effects of their battles, and also of a strange entity called The Being, is temporal surges, which can throw people into the far past. And Magwareet has just realized that his friend Burma has been flung into the past, to the distress of Burma's wife, Artesha, who we soon realize is embodied in the computers that control human society. Meanwhile a sort of "city in flight" (a la James Blish) has been encountered, infested with one of the Enemy, who becomes the first humans can capture alive.

Soon Burma has shanghaied Red and Chantal to his future. Red in particular is annoyed, but he is soon placated when their magic tech fixes his leg, and also when he learns the super-efficient language the people of the future speak, which helps them think more clearly, so that Red realizes all his hostility was due to resentment of his handicap. The two are quickly recruited into the war against the Enemy, which ends up involving more trips to the past (Holland in the 16th Century), as well as doppelgangers for most of the main characters, and eventually a realization of the true nature of The Being, and a curious (and, to me, unsatisfying) ending, with a really strange fate for Chantal in particular.

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
It's all kind of a mess, but amid all that there's no denying Brunner's imagination -- even if it comes off as downright 1930s superscientific guff much of the time. It's interesting to note that Damien Broderick, one of the underappreciated SF writers of our time, and a writer with a history of fascination with wild SF ideas, has written an "elaboration" of Threshold of Eternity, due out from Arc Manor later this year.

Poul Anderson's The War of Two Worlds was first published, as I note above, as "Silent Victory" in the Winter 1953 issue of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books. This was a magazine that published two short novels per issue, often reprints (sometimes abridged) but also often originals. The other story in this issue was an abridgement of John D. MacDonald's 1952 novel Ballroom of the Skies.

It opens with Intelligence Prime, now the alien ruler of the Solar System, receiving a manuscript written by David Arnfeld, who had discovered the aliens and tried to start a resistance, before being betrayed by his companion Christine Hawkins, in order to save her young child.

The rest of the book is Arnfeld's manuscript, which opens as he, once part of Earth's Space Navy, returns to a defeated Earth after a bitter and useless war with Mars, that Earth lost. Arnfeld makes his way to upstate New York and his old farm, along the way acquiring Christine Hawkins and her young daughter. Once at his farm he is disgusted to learn that he will be forced to accomodate a Martian garrison, commanded by Sevni Regelin dzu Corothan.

Inevitably, if slowly, he comes to realize that Regelin is as honorable a creature as he hopes he is himself, and they reluctantly become sort of friends, despite Kit Hawkins' hostility. (It will not surprise the reader that Kit and David are falling for each other.) David soon realizes that Regelin is just as disgusted and confused by the war between Earth and Mars, and by its incompetent conduct, as he is. And then they have visitors -- a senior Martian and his human Quisling. And by accident, David electrocutes one of them, and it shapeshifts -- it is an alien!

We can see right away what has happened -- the Solar System has been invaded by shapeshifting aliens, who took the form of leaders of both Earth and Mars, in order to force them into a foolish and destructive war, after which they can take over both planets. David, Kit, and "Reggie" begin a desperate attempt to raise awareness that the Martian leaders and their human collaborators are infested with shapeshifters ... but how can they succeed, when any of those they encounter might be aliens themselves?

The resolution, frankly, is unconvincing. Along the way, though, Anderson paints of picture of not two but three desperate races, forced into terrible acts for understandable if regrettable reasons. It's reasonably fun, if very very minor Anderson.


  1. I loved the covers on this ACE Double when I was kid. It was one of the first paperbacks I ever purchased (I was 10 years old at the time). Thanks for the trip to the past!

  2. This was one of my favorites as a kid, even though I could never quite wrap my head around "Threshold". I think I still have the remnants of the book somewhere in my closet. Hmmm...