Saturday, January 26, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 53: Cache from Outer Space/The Celestial Blueprint, by Philip José Farmer

Ace Double Reviews, 53: Cache from Outer Space, by Philip José Farmer/The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories, by Philip José Farmer (#F-165, 1962, $0.40)

by Rich Horton

Today would have been Philip José Farmer's 101st birthday, so here's a repost of my review of his only Ace Double appearance.

Philip José Farmer (1918-2009) was born in Terre Haute, IN, and raised in Peoria, IL. He went to Bradley University (in Peoria) while working at a steel mill, and didn't really turn to writing until graduating at the age of 32. He was noticed very quickly, however, and won an early Hugo as "Most Promising New Writer", largely on the strength of his famous early story "The Lovers", which controversially depicted sex with an alien. (He is also one of those writers who worked for my company in one of its iterations -- in his case, McDonnell Douglas in Southern California in the late '60s as a technical writer.) His most famous works include "The Lovers", the Hugo-winning novella "Riders of the Purple Wage" from Dangerous Visions, and the Riverworld novels, especially the first, To Your Scattered Bodies Go. My favorite Farmer story is probably "The Sliced-Crosswise Only On Tuesday World", which was expanded to a novel, Dayworld.

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller)
According to a brief biographical note in the book, Cache From Outer Space/The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories was Farmer's first book for Ace. Cache From Outer Space is a novel of about 50,000 words. The Celestial Blueprint and Other Stories collects four stories, all originally published in 1954. The stories total some 38,000 words.

Cache From Outer Space is a really bad title: I suspect Don Wollheim is to blame. It's not strictly speaking inaccurate, but it's not a very good representation of the book -- for one thing, the "cache from outer space" isn't all that important an aspect of the plot, and for another thing the title serves to tip the reader to something I suspect the writer wished to be at least to a small degree a surprise. Besides the title's misleading aspects, it's just boring.

The novel itself, however, is pretty fun. It's set some centuries after an event -- one assumes a nuclear war (we later learn a bit more detail) -- has caused civilization to crash. Benoni (Ben) Rider is a young man from Fiiniks (Farmer takes great delight in a whole series of silly phonetic corruptions of current place names). He is on his First Warpath -- an initiation journey in which young men of the Fiiniks tribe are expected to raid the nearby Navaho and return with a scalp. But, prompted by his father, he extends his journey far to the East in search of a fabled great river, and of newer and more fertile land. (Besides water problems, Fiiniks is troubled by some geologically unlikely (it seems to me) events: earthquakes and a huge series of new volcanoes.) He is also prompted by a desire for revenge against his the oafish Joel Vahndert, his rival for the affections of Debra Awvrez. Joel turns out to be a crude and slimy traitor, who betrays Ben and leaves him for dead after Ben rescues him from Navahos.

Ben makes his way through the desert and finally reaches the river, called the Msibi. In the process he captures a young black man, Zhem, and the two become blood brothers. They make their way to the territory of Kaywo (= Cairo, Illinois), a warlike state ruled by a beautiful Pwez (= President). Kaywo has just conquered Senglwi (obviously my city, St. Louis), and is facing war with Skego (again, obviously my home city, Chicago). Ben and Zhem join the equivalent of the Foreign Legion, but then Ben meets Joel again, who has made the same journey, more or less. They start a brawl, and that brings them to the attention of the authorities, who plan to send them back home to offer the Fiiniks a new home in exchange for assistance against Skego. But all these plans go up in smoke when news comes of a spectacular discovery in Pwawwaw (!), which Kaywo must control before Skego. This discovery, and Ben's alert reaction to it, changes his position relative to the Kaywo authorities dramatically, leading to an open-ended conclusion. (I wonder if there was a sequel -- one certainly isn't necessary, but there is room for one.)

Cache from Outer Space is a decent adventure novel, reminiscent to some extent of much of Andre Norton's work. Farmer has a good touch with fight scenes, and moves his story along quickly. He also does a good job of portraying his people as part of their culture -- the heroes do not have convenient contemporary attitudes. As such, Ben, though obviously a decent man of his time, is hard for the reader to approve of often. Not a lasting work by any means -- but good work of its kind.

I'll treat the four stories in The Celestial Blueprint separately:

"Rastignac the Devil" (20400 words) Fantastic Universe, May 1954

This story has some interesting ideas but is rather a mess. It's set on a French-colonized planet a few hundred years in the future. The human colonists live in harmony (of sorts) with two other species: the reptilian Ssassaror and the amphibian Amphibs. This harmony is enforced by the "Skins" everyone wears, which condition people to submission, vegetarianism, non-violence, etc. There is also a sanctioned custom of stealing babies of other species and raising them as changelings. Rastignac is a human who wishes to go into space, and who realizes that the Skins are inhibiting people from independent thought and ambition. He also recognizes that the Amphibs have altered their Skins and are plotting to take over the other two species. He is imprisoned for his beliefs, but escapes with the help of some other outcast friends, and in the company of a beautiful and vicious human girl who was raised by the Amphibs. He plans revolution, first, then to rescue an Earthman who has landed a spaceship on the planet. But things don't go quite as he hopes ... The main problem here is a disjointed plot, which shows signs of having been made up as the story was being written. A rigorous rewrite and a careful investigation of the central conflict might have been interesting.

"The Celestial Blueprint" (8500 words) Fantastic Universe, Jul 1954

This is a purely satirical story in which two rival men, both very powerful, contend. The one man asks the other to help him revenge himself on his home town -- by setting things up so that the town will witness the religious signs that portend the end times. The other man does so, but he plans also to take down his rival -- who has his own plans. None of it was really very interesting or believable.

"They Twinkled Like Stars" (6700 words) Fantastic Universe, Jan 1954

This is better. SF horror, in which a plague of lethargy leading eventually to catatonia is inflicting people. The protagonist is a hobo, due to the early stages of this plague. He is taken to a reeducation camp, but it turns out to have a different purpose. What's going on comes clear, via a flashback to the man's youth, and also via some significant names. Not bad at all.

"Totem and Taboo" (2600 words) F&SF, Dec 1954

Another decent story. More playing with names. The hero is named Jay Martin, and his fiancée, Kitty Phelan, wants him to quit drinking. He goes to a strange psychologist to treat his drinking problem, and the doctor leads him to get in touch with his totem animal. The names make it clear what sort of animal his totem is, and also his fiancée's animal -- and the likelihood they stay together. Cute.

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