Monday, February 4, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 113: Android Avenger, by Ted White/The Altar On Asconel, by John Brunner

Ace Double Reviews, 113: Android Avenger, by Ted White/The Altar On Asconel, by John Brunner (#M-123, 1965, 45 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

The occasion for this Ace Double review is Ted White's 81st birthday today, February 4, 2019. Ted White is a true SMOF. He published a fanzine beginning at age 15. He won the Best Fan Writer Hugo in 1968. He was co-Chair of the 1967 Worldcon, and his fannish credits could likely go on for pages.

He is probably best known to the casual SF fan (at least, fan of my age) as an editor -- an assistant at F&SF from 1963 to 1968, then for the next decade editor of Amazing and Fantastic, where he affected an improvement from the depths of the years right after Sol Cohen took over the magazines, to something at times approaching the Cele Goldsmith Lalli levels. (These were the years -- 1974-1978 at least -- that I subscribed to those magazines, and I appreciated Ted's rather pugnacious approach to them.) He then became an editor at the American magazine Heavy Metal (based on the French graphic magazine Metal Hurlant.)He was also a disk jockey for a time, and he is an accomplished musician.

(Covers by Ed Valigursky and Gray Morrow)
And he is an SF writer, producing more than a dozen novels and a couple of dozen short stories (the most recent in 2017, so he's still at it.) One collaborative story got a Nebula nomination, but I'll confess that I've not really been overly impressed with the occasional story I've seen. But I hadn't read a novel, and I ran across this Ace Double, with Android Avenger, so I figured it was worth a try. (I admit I really bought the book for the Brunner novel.)

So, what is Android Avenger about? Well, it's about 40,000 words or a bit more! Sorry ... It's set in New York in the relatively near future of 2017 -- oh, wait a minute, that's the past now! Life is calm in this near future, apparently, mostly because anyone who shows unruly attitudes -- Deviants, that is -- is detected by automatic scanners, and executed. The narrator, Bob Tanner, is serving his periodic (every couple of years) duty as Executioner -- a thousand people gather in an arena, and press a button, one of which randomly activated the electric charge to kill the Deviant. This time, however, Bob is oddly affected by the execution, and he ends up going into sort of a fugue, which causes him to be picked up and scanned. The scanner finds nothing, but an X-ray determines that his bones are metal. Surely this will brand him a Deviant, so he escapes, using violence, which is certainly Deviant.

Soon he encounters a beautiful redhead, who warns him to be careful. Then he's attempting to return home -- but his home is too dangerous. And suddenly he finds himself gripped by a compulsion he can't control -- and he runs without volition (and at implausible speed) to a building wherein he finds and kills a man. Before long he's confronted by the sister of the dead man (another beautiful redhead!), and he learns that the original redhead is named, oddly enough, Hoyden. And then he is possessed by the mysterious force again and kills the sister.

By now you can see who the android avenger of the title is, though not why he's "avenging". The story continues at some pace, through some sudden changes of tone and scenery. He meets up again with Hoyden. They have sex. They fight. Then he runs away to another borough, takes on a new identity, and starts to live with the poor people there, who are outside the controlled system of the main part of New York. And things get stranger, and Bob, trying to understand his nature and purpose, finally comes to a confrontation with the being behind his problems ... Plus he gets his reunion with the lovely Hoyden.

It's all a bit -- maybe a lot -- silly, and disjointed. There are occasional nice bits of speculation, as for example about the moving roads in future (past, now) Manhattan. There's a certain ambition behind some of it, lost in the end by the need for action and by the hard to take ending. So -- not a particularly memorable book. There was a sequel, called Spawn of the Death Machine -- I almost wonder if White wrote it just so he could use that gloriously pulpish title.

(Cover by McKenna (not for The Altar at Asconel)
I've written a lot about John Brunner before, so I won't reiterate that. He is a favorite of mine, and I generally really like his early, shorter, less serious novels. The Altar On Asconel is in that category, but it's a bit late -- 1965, after he had begun producing work of more obvious ambition, such as The Whole Man from 1964. This novel is part of his so-called Interstellar Empire series, which also includes an early novella, "The Wanton of Argus", which became the very short Ace Double half The Space-Time Juggler; and another novella, "The Man from the Big Dark". The ISFDB also claims that his first novel, Galactic Storm (written when he was 16 or 17, and published as by "Gill Hunt") is part of that series. (I've not read that book, and I gather it's not easy to find.) It's about 55,000 words long. It was serialized in If, April and May 1965, as "The Altar at Asconel", in a cut version, about 42,000 words. I have the serial as well, and the cuts seem to be pervasive but rather minor -- a few sentences here and there, spread throughout the book. I don't know if Brunner or Frederik Pohl made the cuts.

The main character of The Altar on Asconel is Spartak, an academic on Annanworld, which was the university planet of the old interstellar empire. The empire has mostly collapsed, after 10,000 years, with many planets having reverted to barbarism, but a few, such as Annanworld, still retaining a decent tech level. Spartak's specialty is the history of the empire -- he knows, for example, that the starships humans use were all made by a previous, now disappeared, race -- and especially the history of one prominent world, his home, Asconel, which also has retained some technological underpinnings.

Spartak, along with his half-brothers Vix and Tiorin, agreed to leave Asconel on the ascension of their older brother Hodak to the position of Warden -- in order to avoid the possibility of clashes over the succession. But now, 10 years later, Vix has shown up on Annanworld with terrible news -- their brother Hodak has been assassinated, and a strange man named Bucyon has taken over as Warden. And he, with the beautiful Lydis and the misshappen Shry, rule the planet in the name of a god -- Belizuek, who demands human sacrifices. And it seems that nearly the whole population of Asconel has been conditioned, so that they accept their oppression happily.

Vix, along with his latest woman, Vineta, head to Delcadoré, near the heart of the old empire, to look for Tiorin. And they find him, but they also are shanghaied into transporting a mutant girl, rumored to have mental powers, into exile on the Galactic rim. This is accomplished by a crude conditioning, so they cannot even think about going to Asconel to try to free their planet from Bucyon and Belizuek. But the mutant girl's powers come in handy -- she is able to undo their conditioning, and after some struggle, she agrees to help them get to Asconel.

Once there they find the world in even worse shape than they thought. And then they encounter Belizuek, who seems a megalomaniac telepathic being. Vix and Tiorin are read to attack, but Spartak, with the help of the mutant girl, comes up with a more sneaky plan ... And, well, you know more or less how it ends. There is, of course, a revelation as to what or who Belizuek really is, and there's a final, fairly logical, fate for Spartak and the mutant girl (who is quite young -- there's no suggestion that Spartak fancies her).

All in all, this isn't one of Brunner's best efforts. I wonder if he really didn't have much interest in the project. There is less speculative interest, less original thinking, than in most of Brunner's early books. The plot is not very tightly constructed, and things are really too easy for Spartak and company. The end is rushed a bit, and also comes off rather flat.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Crider would've approved of Ted's little joke in naming his heroine. The recurrence of "hoydens" among the characters in paperbacks in the '50s did not go unremarked by Bill and his regular (or irregular) blog readers...