Friday, September 28, 2018

A Late But Little Known Ace Double: Life with Lancelot, by John T. Phillifent/Hunting on Kunderer, by William Barton

Ace Double Reviews, 23: Life With Lancelot, by John T. Phillifent/Hunting on Kunderer, by William Barton (#48245, 1973, $0.95)

a review by Rich Horton

This is one of the last true Ace Doubles, having been published in August of 1973, the last year for the "dos-a-dos" style doubles. It features one author's first novel and only Ace Double. And it features nearly the last novel by one of the most prolific of Ace Double contributors. William Barton's Hunting on Kunderer is the "first novel", a fairly short one at some 34,000 words. John T. Phillifent wrote 16 different Ace Double halves, fourteen under the name "John Rackham", and Life With Lancelot is one of four novels he put out in 1973, the last year he published any novels. It is about 40,000 words long. One interesting note is the cover to Life With Lancelot, which is by Ed Valigursky. Valigursky was an extremely regular cover artist of Ace Double in the first decade of the series, but his last before this one was in 1965. Nice to see him return one time right at the end of the series (and indeed he did another in 1973, for Mack Reynolds' Code Duello). This was also mostly the end of his SF illustrator career, though he continued to do work for places like Popular Mechanics until he retired some time in the 1990s, and he also did some fine art.

(Covers by Harry Borgman and Ed Valigursky)

William Barton has become fairly well known in recent years for a number of reputedly extremely dark and cynical novels, featuring lots of violence and lots of sex (sometimes rather icky sex). He often writes in collaboration with Michael Capobianco. I myself have not read any of his novels, but I have read a number of novellas in places like Asimov's and Sci Fiction, and the novellas are indeed often extremely dark and cynical, and they tend to feature plenty of violence and (sometimes icky) sex. They are also often very good -- in particular I like his two most recent Asimov's novellas: last year's "The Engine of Desire" and this year's "Off on a Starship".

Hunting on Kunderer has some sex, though it's not very icky (a bit maybe), and some violence. It's not what I'd call dark, but it is rather cynical. It's really not very good, though, not even close to as good as his later work -- the writing is at best routine, at worst clumsy, the plotting is perfunctory, the setting a bit ordinary.

Kunderer is a planet apparently consisting largely of jungles, with huge trees, and with a dominant predator much resembling a tyrannosaur. A small group arrives on the starship Wandervogel to take a hunting trip. These include Scott MacLeod, a space navy officer on leave; Uri Baruch, a 300 year old Jewish man who has just been ousted as long-time first minister of the Vinzeth Empire, and who has had his sexual organs restored to him after nearly 300 years as a eunuch; Pashai anke Soring, an alien who has been studying human sexuality; and Maryam, a whore who has been assisting Soring in his researches.

On arrival the four go off into the jungle with a guide named of all things Gilgamesh. Meanwhile, the starship has been sabotaged, and apparently only good luck got them safely to Kunderer. The captain quickly decides that one of the four passengers committed the sabotage, and he engages another guide and follows them in order to interrogate each suspect.

The action consists of a bit of hunting of the tyrannosaurs, a bit of ineffectually questioning by the Captain, a rather more effective investigation by the people repairing the starship, and other niceties such as the alien Soring trying to get Maryam to be seduced by or seduce other passengers in order to advance his scientific studies. There are a few deaths, a solution of sorts to the sabotage mystery, and a curiously upbeat (one might almost say, pasted on) ending.

I can detect traces of the future Barton in this book, but for the most part there is no indication that he would become the writer he did. A weak effort, with a couple of minor interesting touches but mostly not -- forgettable, on the whole.

In 1961 John T. Phillifent published a story called "The Stainless-Steel Knight" in If, under the "John Rackham" name. That story is the first part of the novel Life With Lancelot, which is padded out with two more stories of similar length. As far as I can tell, the two additional stories were not published elsewhere. In this book the three stories are called "Stainless Knight", "Logical Knight", and "Arabian Knight".

All three stories are set on a "Vivarian" planet, consisting of three continents, each a reserve for people living in imitation of a certain historical period. The hero is Lancelot Lake, who is given a back story in which he, a lowly spaceship technician, attempts to save a doomed spaceship, and fails, crashlanding on an alien world. He is posthumously awarded promotion to Prime G, the highest rank in Galactopol. Unfortunately for Galactopol, the aliens have super medical powers, and great interest in humans, and they save Lancelot's life, and give him extra physical strength and an alien companion, called the Shogleet. They can't do much for his brains, though.

Lancelot demands assignments worthy of his position, and as each continent is becoming destabilized -- failing to maintain their historical culture -- he goes to each one in turn. The first is a medieval culture, menaced by the appearance of a "dragon", and Lancelot must vanquish the knight who found the dragon, and then destroy the dragon (which is actually something else, as the reader readily guesses). This he does with the considerable help of the Shogleet, at the same time enjoying himself with several wives and a beautiful maiden who falls in love with him. The second is an Ancient Greek culture which has rejected the Gods, and Lancelot's job is to go down disguised as Apollo, and perform a few miracles to rekindle faith. But he and his lovestruck female technician companion end up in trouble, and the Shogleet must come up with another solution, inspired by a famous Greek comedy. The third culture is Arabian, and it is menaced by a renegade Galactic who is using the high-tech androids, afreets, and so on to rule a fictional Baghdad. Lancelot and a beautiful but sexually repressed fellow agent visit Baghdad disguised as Iskander and the Queen of Sheba, hoping to use the woman agent's charms to distract the bad guy. Unfortunately, the rat doses her with an aphrodisiac. Naturally, Lancelot ends up benefiting from her sudden compulsion for sex, while the Shogleet (with it must be said Lancelot's considerable assistance) again saves the day.

All in all, these are pretty weak stories. The core ideas are hackneyed, and Phillifent does very little new with them. The sex is a bit embarrassing -- the first story has only hints of it, but the later two, presumably written much later, both feature repressed women who fall for the alien-enhanced Lancelot, and who spend most of the story buck naked, and much of it begging for his attention. The plots are rudimentary, solved mainly by the Shogleet's conveniently scaled powers. Lancelot's character shifts a lot, too -- the basic setup is that he is a nebbish, more or less, stupid and way out of his depth and not much physically either. But by the last stories he has become somehow quite a bit more intelligent, and he seems to be rather more a physical specimen (even discounting the alien mods) than originally described.

I'm also a bit puzzled by the use of the Phillifent name. The original story was published as by "John Rackham", and "Rackham" was the name he used for all of his other Ace Doubles save one, and that one, Hierarchies, was originally an Analog serial as by "Phillifent" (which name he generally used only for his Analog stories (and some Man From Uncle tie-ins).)

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