Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ace Double Reviews, 75: The Planet Killers, by Robert Silverberg/We Claim These Stars!, by Poul Anderson

Ace Double Reviews, 75: The Planet Killers, by Robert Silverberg/We Claim These Stars!, by Poul Anderson (#D-407, 1959, $0.35)

A review by Rich Horton

On the occasion of the 92nd anniversary of Poul Anderson's birth, here's a repost of a briefish review I did of one of his Ace Doubles, backed with one by Robert Silverberg.

Silverberg again! And Poul Anderson. Two of the most prolific writers in SF history, and also two of the more regular Ace Double contributors. And also two SFWA Grand Masters: two of the best SF writers ever. As of 1959, though, I doubt anyone was predicting future Grand Master status for Silverberg: certainly this novel provides no support for such speculation! Anderson, to be sure, is another matter.

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The Planet Killers is about 43,000 words long. It is an expansion of "This World Must Die!", published under the name Ivar Jorgenson in the August 1957 Science Fiction Adventures. It's a very simple story -- too simple, really. I expected -- hoped -- to see a twist along the way but none really happened. The story opens with Roy Gardner, an agent of Earth, being ordered to the planet Lurion. It seems that a computer has decided that Lurion will turn warlike in 67 years, make a sneak attack on Earth, and completely destroy it. The only alternative for Earth is to destroy Lurion now, by sending 5 agents to Lurion to set off sonic generators to, I guess, shake the planet apart.

The objections to this are obvious. Most clearly, in 67 years there is no way to divert Lurion from this path? More simply, how can there be a "sneak" attack if Earth has predicted it? And how contrived is this idea of sending 5 and only 5 agents to plant the sonic generators?

At any rate, Gardner goes to Lurion. He finds the one remaining agent of the 5 previously sent, who is near collapse. Gardner soon learns that Lurion is indeed an awful place, evidenced by such  things as entertainments in which two people (one usually, it seems, a woman) fight with knives until one is killed. But Gardner also meets a Lurionese group which hopes to reform the planet from within. And he meets an Earth woman, an anthropologist, with whom he falls in love. She too will be doomed if Lurion is destroyed, for any attempt to evacuate Earth people from the planet would give away the game.

Can Gardner's resolve hold? Or will he make the obvious morally correct decision? And how will his agency treat his defection, if he defects? All the most obvious and straightforward answers occur. It's really a paint-by-numbers book -- Silverberg at this stage of his career was not terribly good, but he was often at least decent -- competent and entertaining, and occasionally attacking interesting themes. But not here -- this is Silverberg at close to his worst.

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
Poul Anderson's We Claim These Stars! is a fairly early Flandry story. It was originally published as "A Handful of Stars", in the June 1959 Amazing, then expanded and reprinted in this Ace Double as We Claim These Stars! The Ace Double version is about 41,000 words long. Ace later reprinted it as a single book. It was also reprinted, under the superior title "Hunters of the Sky Cave", in Anderson's collection Agent of the Terran Empire (1965). Alone among the stories in that book, it was not revised for the 1979 Gregg Press edition.

As with all Flandry, the story is good fun. And this is one of the earliest Flandry stories to show hints of the darkness that pervaded the later full-length Flandry novels. Right from the beginning, to be sure, Flandry was lamenting the coming "Long Night" -- that was the central them of the series from the get go. But by We Claim These Stars! little hints of Flandry's personal emptiness begin to show up. Briefly, in this novel he accompanies a young woman who has escaped from a planet overrun by Merseian supported invaders back to her planet, where he sets up a resistance operation. There is plenty of derring-do, and of course some romance (resolved as ever in a bittersweet way), and even a direct physical encounter with Flandry's rival Aycharaych. The Terrans win this round, but we already know, of course, that they won't win them all -- that the Long Night will claim the Terran Empire.

This is certainly one of the best early Flandry stories, probably the best.

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