Saturday, November 10, 2018

Ace Double Reviews, 79: Final War and Other Fantasies, by K. M. O'Donnell/Treasure of Tau Ceti, by John Rackham (#23775, 1969, $0.75)

A review by Rich Horton

This Ace Double backs a leading light of the then hot SF New Wave with a very old-fashioned author (and a very old-fashioned story). Rackham's Treasure of Tau Ceti is about 50,000 words long, and O'Donnell's collection is about 40,000 words of fiction, plus a nice introduction and some story notes.

As I've mentioned in other reviews of Ace Doubles by these writers, both "John Rackham" and "K. M. O'Donnell" are pseudonyms. "Rackham"'s real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). O'Donnell's real name is Barry Malzberg (b. 1939). Malzberg's pseudonym was famously, and very nicely, derived from the names of Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and their joint pseudonym "Lawrence O'Donnell", though at the time people used to speculate that the "K. M." stood for "Karl Marx" (Malzberg's politics being, at least then, fairly well to the left). Both Malzberg and Phillifent published (still publish, in Malzberg's case) much of their work under their own names. (Indeed, as far as I can tell Malzberg abandoned the K. M. O'Donnell pseudonym after 1972. Phillifent also abandoned his John Rackham pseudonym at about the same time, but that was perhaps more because he stopped selling at more or less that time.)

(Cover by Panos Koutroubousis)
K. M. O'Donnell's first story was published in 1967, and in 1968 he made a big splash with the title story of this collection, "Final War", which appeared in the April 1968 F&SF, and which made the Nebula final ballot and come close to winning the award for Best Novelette. No doubt that notoriety helped him sell this collection, his first, and one of his first books. K. M. O'Donnell, even then, must have been a pretty open pseudonym, as a couple of the stories included here first appeared in magazines under Malzberg's own name. (And, indeed, Malzberg/O'Donnell have such an individual and noticeable style that readers could hardly have failed to notice that they were the same writer.)
The stories are:

"Final War" F&SF April 1968 (12500 words)
"Death to the Keeper" F&SF August 1968 (8400 words)
"A Triptych" F&SF July 1969 (2000 words)
"How I Take Their Measure" F&SF January 1969 (2100 words)
"Oaten" Fantastic October 1968 (2200 words)
"The Ascension" Fantastic April 1969 (1700 words)
"The Major Incitement to Riot" Fantastic February 1969 (2200 words)
"Cop-Out" Escapade July 1968 (3600 words)
"We're Coming Through the Window" Galaxy August 1967 (1100 words)
"The Market in Aliens" Galaxy November 1968 (1400 words)
"By Right of Succession" If October 1969 (1800 words)

I had read these stories before -- I think I had a copy of this Ace Double years ago (though I know I didn't read the Rackham story). But it was enjoyable rereading them. In particular my impression of "Final War" changed radically. I had a memory of it as a very depressing Vietnam allegory. On rereading, I don't think that applies at all. It's a very funny story, albeit very blackly funny, and its anti-war attitude is much more general than simply anti-Vietnam. It seems to resemble Catch-22 more than anything, I would say. The story concerns a hapless group of soldiers engaged in a fairly formalized series of battles with the opposition. Hastings is a private trying to get out on grounds of mental illness. The Captain is a confused officer convinced Hastings is out to get him. The First Sergeant is a former motor pool worker who claims falsely to have been in "four wars and eight limited actions".

"Death to the Keeper" tells of an actor who plans to reenact the assassination of the "Keeper" years previously, though it ends up more concerned with the actor's mental state. "A Triptych" is perhaps the earliest of Malzberg's "astronaut" stories (his most famous being, I suppose, Beyond Apollo (1972), his controversial Campbell winning novel). "How I Take Their Measure" is a cynical story about a future welfare worker tormenting his cases. "Oaten", he says, was written as an Analog story, and came off as a parody of an Analog story: it's about trying to make contact with supposedly primitive aliens. "The Ascension" is another assassination story (Malzberg claims there are four in the book but I can only find three): this one from the POV of the President waiting to be killed. "The Major Incitement to Riot" looks at a riot in an oppressive future state from several angles. "Cop-Out" is a crucifixion story, about two entities acting out the crucifixion, with a twist of course. "We're Coming Through the Window" (his first published SF) is a cute short-short, about a time machine that goes a bit wrong. "The Market in Aliens" is a cynical short story, as Malzberg writes very much in 50s Galaxy mode, about exploiting alien visitors. And "By Right of Succession" is the other assassination story, the trick here having the assassin succeed the president (of course to be assassinated himself in turn).

Some fine work here, particularly the title story, and (for me) "The Market in Aliens".

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
The John Rackham novel, Treasure of Tau Ceti, is very minor work indeed. Rackham did some enjoyable work (his Ace Double Danger from Vega, which I have reviewed in this series, is a good example), but this book just doesn't do much. It opens in London, as bored rich man's son Alan Noble stops a mugging in progress, and ends up with a clue. He gets help from adventurer Neil Carson, and from the beautiful Fiona Knight, and they learn, implausibly quickly, that the clue refers to a mysterious treasure to be found among the possibly intelligent aliens on Verlan, a planet of Tau Ceti.

So they travel to Verlan, and make their dangerous way to a group of aliens. They witness a remarkable crystal with great healing powers, and learn that the aliens know where there is a cache of such crystals. But when they reach the island with the cache, they find that another villainous individual is also on the same track. And they find that the treasure is very well hidden, very hard to reach. So -- do they find it? Do they, after much effort, rebuff the bad guy? Do they find a way to retrieve the treasure? Do they prove that the aliens are intelligent?

Well, of course you know the answers! My problem with the book, which it should be said is efficiently enough told, is that there is never a surprise, never anything of real SFnal interest. It's purest yard goods, lazy writing by a guy just filling a slot.

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