Thursday, October 26, 2017

An Obscure Ace Double: Times Without Number, by John Brunner/Destiny's Orbit, by David Grinnell

Ace Double Reviews, 108: Times Without Number, by John Brunner/Destiny's Orbit, by David Grinnell (#F-161, 1962, 40 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This isn't entirely a new review -- I covered the 1969 edition of John Brunner's Times Without Number some time ago here. But I felt like it was time for another Ace Double review, and I had just found this book.

Both writers are actually major figures in SF, though many people won't recognize the name David Grinnell. "David Grinnell" was in fact a pseudonym used by Donald A. Wollheim for most of his later fiction. Wollheim of course was the science fiction editor at Ace Books for nearly two decades, and perhaps he felt that when he published his own fiction the fig leaf of a pseudonym was prudent.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Both these books were originally published in magazines as a series of stories. Times Without Number comprises three novellas about the Society of Time, specifically Don Miguel Navarro. They appeared in issues 25, 26, and 27 of the UK magazine Science Fiction Adventures (a sort of descendant of the American magazine of the same name) in 1962. This Ace edition appeared the same year, and seems to have been close to the same text. The 1969 edition, which I previously covered, was somewhat revised -- some slight expansions and a fair amount of smoothing of the prose.

Destiny's Orbit comprises four novelettes from the magazine Future Combined with Science Fiction Stories, October 1942 ("Pogo Planet"), December 1941 ("Destiny World"), April 1942 ("Mye Day"), and August 1942 ("Ajax of Ajax"). I haven't seen those stories, so I'm not sure if they were revised for the novel, which was originally published by Thomas Bouregy in 1961. The original novelettes were published as by "Martin Pearson".

As noted, I've already discussed Times Without Number. I think it's a very good book, perhaps the best of Brunner's early novels. The final section in particular, "The Fullness of Time", is one of the great time travel novellas ever. The general story concerns an alternate history in which the Spanish Armada prevailed, and the world of 1988 is still Catholic dominated. (The same idea, pretty much, is at the center of two other great alternate histories, Keith Roberts' Pavane and Kingsley Amis' The Alteration.) Times Without Number adds time travel, with the goal (as in Asimov's The End of Eternity and Anderson's Time Patrol stories) of preserving their timeline.

As for Destiny's Orbit, it's a considerably lesser novel. And its 1940s pulp origins show. In particular, the science is beyond laughable. That said, it is, on the whole, tolerably enjoyable, at least in spurts, though Wollheim really wasn't much of a writer.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

Ajax Calkins is a rich young man, heir to his father's fortune, which is based on inventing a system of compressing stores to make them easier to ship through space. (Don't ask -- it's scientifically too stupid for words.) But his character was formed by his mother, a night club singer and an aficionado of adventure stories. Ajax wants to explore new worlds, plant his flag, and be King of his own domain. And, alas, the Solar System is too constrained for him -- Earth, Mars, and the asteroids are under strict EU -- er, EMSA (Earth Mars Space Administration) -- control, and Saturn is ruled by the native Saturnians.

But how about Jupiter? Or, more specifically, the asteroids in the Trojan orbits. Ajax is contacted by a group of miners of the Fore-Trojan asteroids, who want his help (i.e., his money), and in exchange, will let him be their King. Ajax is ready to go, but there is one problem -- a distractingly pretty young woman, Emily Hackenschmidt, a new recruit of the EMSA, who is using the legal powers of the EMSA to try to stop him.

This whole section is presented in fairly amusing satirical terms. And it works OK that way. But from then on, the satire is pretty much abandoned, and the cliches increase. Ajax escapes Emily, and heads to Mars, where he gets attached to a spider-like Martian, the Third Least Wuj, who becomes his loyal sidekick. They head off, with the miners' representative, Anton Smallways, to the Fore-Trojans, particularly the asteroid conveniently named Ajax. They are pursued by the pesky Emily Hackenschmidt ... but Ajax manages to plant his flag (literally) on Ajax.

Complications ensue, particularly involving the Saturnian threat. In addition, Emily continues to try to establish EMSA control. And Ajax the asteroid seems very strange indeed. Could it be a special construct of the inhabitants of the fifth planet, the one that exploded to create the asteroid belt? For that matter, could Ajax' inconvenient attraction to Emily be significant? And why does Anton Smallways look and act so strangely? Could he be a Saturnian plant?

Well, you know all the answers to those questions. Not surprisingly, Ajax turns out to be key to Earth's resistance to the Saturnian threat. And of course the Third Least Wuj -- and Emily Hackenschmidt -- are important as well. There are no real surprises remaining. But, as I said, the book does entertain, in a minor way. I've read worse, at any rate -- a lot worse.

There was, oddly, a sequel, Destination Saturn, written in collaboration with Lin Carter, and published by low end house Avalon in 1967. I have not seen that book, and I must say I don't think the original needed a sequel.


  1. John Boston, stymied by the lack of Name/URL commenting option:

    DESTINY'S ORBIT was also published by low end Avalon, en route from FUTURE to Ace, as were two earlier "Grinnell" novels, ACROSS TIME and EDGE OF TIME.

  2. Ah ... I see I cited Thomas Bouregy because the copyright notice says "An Ace book, by arrangement with Thomas Bouregy and co." Avalon of course was Bouregy's SF imprint. I should have checked!