Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Forgotten Ace Double: The HEROD Men, by Nick Kamin/Dark Planet, by John Rackham

Ace Double Reviews, 105: Dark Planet, by John Rackham/The HEROD Men, by Nick Kamin (#13805, 1971, 75 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Honestly I don't intend to make the Ace Double subset of these reviews into the "John Rackham Show". But here's another "John Rackham" novel. (Years ago on the much lamented Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written I did a small series of posts on the "Novels of ..." a few writers -- a couple of major ones (Gene Wolfe, Charles Harness, and Avram Davidson) and some lesser known writers (Tom Purdom and Laurence M. Janifer). I'd been meaning to cover Damon Knight as well, but haven't got to him. Now I have the insane notion of doing something like that for Rackham/Phillifent!) Anyway, as I've said before, "John Rackham", real name John T. Phillifent, was a fairly prolific SF writer under both the "Rackham" name and his real name. He was born in 1916 in England, and died in 1976; and published something North of 20 novels, fully 16 of them Ace Double halves.

The other writer this time around is one of those who published very little, though as opposed to the likes of, say, Jeremy Strike, he did publish more than one novel. Two, actually, the other being also an Ace Double (Earthrim (1969)). "Nick Kamin"'s real name was Robert John Antonick, born in Chicago in 1939. He attended the University of Dayton, and seems to have settled in the Dayton area, working in advertising. He was also an artist. He died in 2011.
(Covers by John Schoenherr and Jack Gaughan)

The HEROD Men (I give the key word of the title in all caps as that's the way it's always spelled in the text -- the cover and title page don't make it at all clear) is the longer of these two novels, at about 60,000 words. It's set in the fairly near future, in a world where overpopulation has led to the formation of an extra-governmantal organization, HEROD, devoted to controlling population by killing excess babies (and their parents). The novel's hero, Matter, is an ex-soldier who joined the organization partly because he's good at killing. His latest job is to investigate a free love commune run by his old friend and colleague Philip, up in Manitoba. The commune is suspect in itself (free love equals the potential of excess babies, right?), but they are also suspected of being in cahoots with FROG, a Fundamentalist religious organization devoted to unfettered reproduction, which is trying to build a spaceship to colonize an empty planet.

(All this detail, by the way, takes a long time to emerge. That can be a canny authorial strategy, but in this case it seems mostly just to obfuscate.)

Having escaped one attempt at his life, Matter finds his motel room invaded by a fetching young lady. He insists that she strip, the better to see her concealed weapons (not to mention the better to inspect her voluptuous body), and then, I suppose convinced that she's a plant from Philip's commune, he lets her lure him into a trap, and he's knocked out and taken to the commune.

The upshot is that Matter spends weeks in the commune, discovering that they seem mostly innocent. They do have a lot of sex, but not a lot of babies. But there are some odd things, particularly the technologically advanced barrier around it ... And then there's Matter's increased obsession with the fetching young woman, Stuckey, who had lured him there -- before long they are sleeping together -- but chastely, to his considerable frustration.

In parallel, we see the FROGs working on their spaceship project. It turns out that only 400 people will fit in the ship -- there is room for 2000, but the FROGs intend to keep procreating on the long journey, so by the end 400 people will have ballooned to enough to use up the resources needed by 2000. But wait -- a young nun, despite medical evidence that she is fertile, and despite being "serviced" by numerous priests of the order, has not got pregnant. Does she have the secret of willed contraception?

The identity of this nun is easy to untangle. And so too is what happens when she finally wilfully gives herself to a man she truly loves. And this happens as Matter, finally allowed out of the commune, starts to get closer to the secret of who is after him -- at the cost of some collateral damage. The resolution, obviously, turns on his coming to terms with his violent past, and with his love for Stuckey, etc.

It's kind of a mess, very sloppily plotted. That said, it reads engagingly enough. The (mostly implied) sex is not badly handled, if somewhat '70s-style sexist. There is a pretty broad homophobic streak as well. It's a pretty weak book, but at least a book that entertains one tolerably.

As for Rackham's Dark Planet (much shorter at about 40,000 words), well, it's kind of the same in a very different way. That is to say -- it's quite sexist, and often rather silly, but it's a good fast read (and sometimes pretty exciting), and I'm happy enough to have read it.

It does display some of Rackham's apparent obsessions, the most obvious being having his heroes fall in love with exotically-colored alien (but very humanoid) women. And it quite overtly resembles the last Rackham novel I read, and reviewed in this series, Flower of Doradil, in that it features a human trio (two men and a voluptuous woman with martial arts skills) penetrating a "dark planet", coming into contact with a "primitive" humanoid race, after which they meet a much superior also humanoid race, and a gorgeous female representative of said race. (That presentation, to be sure, exaggerates the similarities between the two novels.)

Dark Planet opens with Stephen Query on a trip outside the Earth base on the inimical planet they call Step Two. This is a jungle planet on which humans have established a small base to serve as a waystation between Earth and the front of the war they are fighting with a human colony trying to become independent. Stephen is an artistically inclined young man who has been exiled to Step Two for insubordination (i.e. telling his superiors, correctly, that they were wrong). He has discovered a fascination with the terribly dangerous natural surface of the planet, outside the human dome. And one day he sees a humanoid figure ...

But then he is suddenly promoted to work for the very General Gareth Evans who had previously punished him. Worse, Evans' daughter Christine, a Lieutenant, and an extraordinarly beautiful (and voluptuous) young woman, will be his only fellow crewman. But as they leave the planet, their ship explodes (sabotage!), and only Query's quick thinking saves them, at least to the point of parachuting to the planet's surface. There they discover that though the planet is indeed dangerous -- and all "dead" material, such as clothing, is eaten away, so that Stephen and Christine are quickly naked -- humans can survive. Soon they have encountered the same humanoids Stephen saw before, and Stephen realizes he has an empathic connection with the natives.

The natives take them in. Stephen and Christine get together briefly, but rather quickly the natives welcome a special visitor -- a Helsee, in their word. This is an ethereally beautiful woman, colored as white as a pearl. Her name is Azul, and she summons Stephen to her, and takes him flying away -- her powers are such that she can levitate. Several months follow in which she heals him and enhances them -- a process which seems to involve mostly sex. But then it is time for one important task -- to cleanse the world of the Earth base: humans are not welcome on this world, not even Stephen, because of their war. But even that ends up conflict free -- Stephen fetches the General and Christine, both much improved by their months with the natives (and lots of sex for them, too), and, voila, the war is over and the base is being abandoned anyway. Which frees Stephen -- who has finally learned to fly himself -- to rejoin his beloved Azul.

So, another fairly silly male fantasy, really. Rackham's professional ability, and some decent action sequences, make it a quick and moderately entertaining read, but not much beyond that.

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