Thursday, February 22, 2018

Another Forgotten Ace Double: Vanguard from Alpha, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Changeling Worlds, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 110: Vanguard from Alpha, by Brian W. Aldiss/The Changeling Worlds, by Kenneth Bulmer (#D-369, 1959, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've written about both these writers before, and so I'll reproduce what I wrote:

Aldiss was born in 1925 to working class parents (his father a draper, his mother's father a builder). He was educated at Framlingham College and West Buckham School, and spent part of the Second World War in Burma. He worked at a bookseller after the War, and his first book was a lightly fictionalized account of a bookstore. He was an SF reader from an early age, and at the same time he was publishing his first mainstream book he was publishing his first SF stories in the magazines. Throughout his career he did distinguished work in SF and in mainstream fiction. I have found his work immensely enjoyable, and very varied in tone, style, subject matter, and structure. He also wrote a few memoirs, and I enjoyed the most complete of those, The Twinkling of an Eye, very much indeed. He won a couple of Hugo Awards, a Nebula, a Campbell, hordes of BSFA awards, and was named an SFWA Grand Master in 2000. He died just this past August, the day after his 92nd birthday.

Kenneth Bulmer, born in England in 1921, was a very prolific writer from the early '50s, under his own name and many others, most notably "Alan Burt Akers", the name under which he wrote the Dray Prescot series for DAW. He was primarily an SF writer, but also did a lot of work in other genres. He was editor of the New Writings in SF anthology series after the death of John Carnell. He died in 2005.

The novels at hand, I have to say, don't show their authors at their best. (Though Bulmer was never brilliant, so his book isn't as big of a falloff as Aldiss'.) The covers are the typical for that era Two Eds -- Valigursky for The Changeling Worlds, Emshwiller for Vanguard from Alpha.

Vanguard From Alpha was first published in New Worlds for September and October 1958, under the title Equator, which was certainly Aldiss' preferred title, and which was used for the British editions. I don't know if the Ace version differs much from the original serial -- it wouldn't shock me if there's some sex in Equator that was cut from Vanguard From Alpha -- but maybe not!
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Curiously, Aldiss expanded the novel much later (1987), fixing up "Equator", a 1965 story called "The Impossible Smile", and a new novella, "The Mannerheim Symphony" into a book called The Year Before Yesterday. I haven't read that, and I don't know anything about it, but asked some people who have read it, and it's a pretty metafictional thing -- apparently, "Equator" is inserted into the novel by having one of the characters from the rest of the novel read it.

Vanguard From Alpha opens with a trio of men on a mission to the Moon base of the alien Rosk, who have come from Alpha Centauri asking for refuge on Earth. They have been granted an enclave on Sumatra, but there's a lot of distrust of their motives. And strange goings on at the Moon base have resulted in this mission. It goes badly, however -- Tyne Leslie, the protagonist, is shot, and when he wakes from his injuries he finds that one of his fellows, Allen Cunliffe, is dead -- the other man, Murray Mumford, says that he had to shoot Cunliffe.

But Mumford then disappears, and Leslie suspects him of foul play. And indeed he soon learns that Mumford is believed to have intercepted some important information, and is ready to betray the humans to the Rosk. Leslie is warned to leave all this investigation to the professionals, but he plunges headlong into things, and soon is captured by the Rosk, only to be saved from certain death by a beautiful Rosk woman.

It continues at a breakneck pace, Leslie whipsawed between an apparent peace faction among the Rosk, and Mumford's own story, and the reappearance of Allen Cunliffe, and the possibility of an invasion fleet from Alpha Centauri. Not to mention his fascination with Benda, the lovely Rosk woman ...

It's really pretty implausible stuff on pretty much every front (not least the apparent sexual compatibility of humans and Rosk). Aldiss by this time had already published his first significant SF novel, Non-Stop (aka Starship), as well as a successful mainstream book, The Brightfount Diaries -- I'm not really sure what he was up to with this -- just making a buck? Exercising his thriller muscles? His next New Worlds/Ace pairing -- X for Exploitation/Bow Down For Nul/The Interpreter -- is far more serious, far better, even if it too is pretty minor Aldiss.

As for The Changeling Worlds, it struck me as one of those stories where the author is making things up as he goes along, not figuring out what sort of story it will be until maybe halfway through. It's told in two threads. In one, Richard Makepeace Kirby is a bored member of The Set, a decadent group of wealthy people who spend their lives going from world to world and party to party, marrying for a few days at a time except when they buy a baby -- then you have to stay together for a year -- and duelling. Richard and his new wife Molly decide to get a baby, and somehow Richard (and Molly) begin to feel like they might like to stay together for a long time.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
In the other thread, John Hassett is on a secret mission to a Black Symbol world called Brighthaven. Black Symbol worlds are proscribed -- the locals are not supposed to know about the wider Galactic civilization, even though they sell their grain to the richer worlds in exchange for heavy equipment. But Brighthaven has decided to cut agricultural production -- and Hassett's predecessor has been murdered. He goes undercover as a tractor maintenance man, and quickly learns that religious leaders have been fomenting hatred of "aliens" (humans from other planets). Soon he is discovered and on the run.

Meanwhile Richard witnesses his brother, a missionary, get murdered at a Set party -- and Molly is almost killed in a duel. He gets an offer to do something with his life -- take a serious job, but that seems silly. Still, he and Molly and another couple hare off on a trip, while Richard decides to find who killed his brother. They also learn something about where their babies come from.

Well, no surprise -- there are wheels within wheels, and a totally crazy economic setup. Plus no rich person ever has a baby the natural way -- instead, babies are another product of the Black Symbol worlds. But the plans of the rabble-rousing priests are dangerous as well ... And of course at the end a sneering evil villain has to pop up ...

For a couple chapters I was kind of intrigued by some of this, but it quickly stopped making any real sense, either economically, or emotionally. You get the sense Bulmer had a notion that his audience deserved some cool ideas -- and he more or less offers those, but without thinking them through well at all. Not to mention some pretty standard '50s era sexism. Really not a very good book at all.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I've seen this one in trips to used stores, but thanks to you for warning me away if I happen to.