Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: Endless Shadow, by John Brunner/The Arsenal of Miracles, by Gardner F. Fox

Ace Double Reviews, 86: Endless Shadow, by John Brunner/The Arsenal of Miracles, by Gardner F. Fox (#F-299, 1964, 40 cents)

May 20, 1911, was the birthday of Gardner F. Fox, hence this reposted Ace Double review.

Here I continue my exploration of the minor works of John Brunner via Ace Double. Which is a good way to do it, I think -- Brunner wrote a lot of short novels, many of them published as Ace Doubles, and they tend to be entertaining but fairly obviously dashed off quickly.

(Arsenal of Miracles cover by Ed Valigursky)
So, this Ace Double includes Endless Shadow, a very short (about 31,500 words) novel from Brunner. The other side is a novel by Gardner F. Fox. Fox (1911-1986) is a fairly legendary figure in the history of comics. He was a lawyer who turned to writing fairly early, and by 1939 was already writing comics, inventing the character the Sandman. He worked mainly for DC, it seems. He was one of the earliest writers of Batman stories, and he created the Flash. All that is very well, but what about Fox the prose writer? Fox wrote a fair amount for pulps in many genres, but he was an avowed fan of SF (beginning with Burroughs). My previous experience with him was a story or two for Planet Stories. I thought them truly awful, among the worst stuff I read in Planet. The Arsenal of Miracles is the only Ace Double I know of by him, though he did do some pseudonymous work, so perhaps he wrote others under different names. It's about 52,000 words long.

Endless Shadow isn't one of the better John Brunner Ace Doubles I've read, but it is better than the last one, "Keith Woodcott"'s The Psionic Menace. This novel uses an idea most familiar to me from John Barnes's Thousand Cultures series: a number of planets have been colonized using STL methods (or perhaps slowish FTL methods) and have progressed in isolation over the centuries, but teleportation technology has been developed (called here the Bridge System) and slowly authorities on Earth are establishing instantaneous links to the various colonies. I'm sure I've seen this idea explored elsewhere than in Brunner or Barnes, but I can't offhand call up examples. Anyone have any ideas? I suppose in a weird way C. J. Cherryh's early novels beginning with Gate of Ivrel resemble this idea. (On the other hand, the notion of STL colonies being united by later-developed FTL spaceships is fairly common.)

The problem of course is that some of the colonies have developed some pretty weird, potentially rather vile, cultures. The immediate problem faced by Bridge System Director Jorgen Thorkild is Riger's World, which has engendered a cult of snakehandlers which threatens to spread to Earth. But that problem can be solved ... Thorkild's more serious issues are personal. He is obsessed with gaining the favors of his previous boss's mistress, Alida Marquis. But Alida has no interest in him, even though her lover, and Jorgen's boss, is out of the picture, having committed suicide.

It turns out Jorgen's real problems are internal -- he, like his predecessor, is losing his sanity. This particular issue is brought to a head when a new planet named Azrael is contacted. The chief religion on Azrael is rather nihilistic -- death is prized as the ultimate experience, and it is best achieved by murdering another person, which act is punishable by death. The "programer" (Brunner's spelling of "programmer" -- I confess I had to pronounce it pro-Gray-mer) in charge of figuring out Azrael culture is himself murdered. A brilliant young programer, Hans Demetrios, is assigned to Azrael.

Azrael's representative comes to Earth and quickly rejects Earth's offer of a link to the Bridge System. This act somehow drives Thorkild over the edge to insanity. Meanwhile Alida Marquis has fallen in love with Hans Demetrios, who has gone to Azrael to take a desperate risk which should bring Azrael into line -- perhaps at the cost of his own sanity. And Thorkild, in the asylum, meets a naked young woman with her own problems. Somehow her nakedness signals that Thorkild must fall for her ... but her dilemma -- how to find meaning in the overly abundant culture of Earth -- gives him the keys to his own similar problems.

It all never really makes sense. Brunner is clearly trying to write a philosophically engaging novel -- at times it reads a little bit like Ayn Rand -- but the ideas at the center don't ever convince. Perhaps the book is simply too short -- it is certainly at the beginning very confusing, and perhaps a chapter or two of backstory would have helped. It is for an Ace Double oddly free of real action -- it truly does turn on the philosophical issues, not on action or derring do or even, really, politics. I didn't dislike it, but neither did I really like it.

It sometimes seems like Don Wollheim chose the novels paired in Ace Doubles because he could find links between them. The Arsenal of Miracles isn't very much like Endless Shadow, but it does have one slight link: it turns to an extent on the discovery of "gates" between worlds otherwise only linked by much slower (though in this case still FTL) spaceships. In this case the gates are a legacy of a long vanished race. The novel opens with Bran Magannon, the "Wanderer", losing a dice throw to a mysterious woman on the planet Makkador. His penalty: she owns his service. She is, naturally, his long lost lover, Peganna of the Silver Hair. Peganna is the Queen of a humanoid race, the Lyanirn, that had opposed humanity years before. Bran was the commander of the human forces, and he figured out how to beat them, and then worked on a deal to let the two races co-exist -- while he fell in love with Peganna. But a jealous subordinate purposely undermined the deal, and the Lyanirn fled to an isolated planet, while Bran, relegated to a humiliating desk job, resigned and began "wandering". His secret was the gate system he found, left by the long-vanished Crenn Lir.

I enjoyed the opening -- it seemed to set up a potentially quite enjoyable, if very pulpy, story. But things aren't resolve very well at all. Bran and Peganna, reunited, travel through the gates and soon stumble on the key to a treasure trove of Crenn Lir technology. But the bad guys -- Peganna's brother, who wants to be King, and the evil man who succeeded Bran as head of Earth's space forces -- conspire to capture the two, and to control the Crenn Lir tech themselves, relegating the Lyanirn (who it appears are just like humans -- both descendants of the Crenn Lir). Everything comes to a head with a trial, at which the two are condemned to death. Until a miracle happens. In other words, a totally implausible ending saves the day. It just doesn't work.

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