Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Blind Worm, by Brian M. Stableford/Seed of the Dreamers, by Emil Petaja

Ace Double Reviews, 28: The Blind Worm, by Brian M. Stableford/Seed of the Dreamers, by Emil Petaja (#06707, 1970, $0.75)

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Gray Morrow)
The Blind Worm is Brian Stableford's second novel. (His first, Cradle of the Sun (1969) is Stableford's only other Ace Double.) It is about 56,000 words long. Stableford was born in 1948, and his first story, a collaboration with Craig Mackintosh called "Beyond Time's Aegis", as by "Brian Craig", appeared when he was only 17, in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. He has also written as Kay Stirling, John Rose, and Francis Amery, though the Stirling and Rose pseudonyms may have only been in fanzines. (The "Brian Craig" pseudonym was later used for some gaming tie-ins and at least one more collaboration with Mackintosh. The Amery pseudonym was used for a brief series of stories in Interzone a few years ago.) He first attracted attention (though not very much, I suppose) with two series for DAW in the early 70s: the Hooded Swan books about a spaceship pilot named Grainger who is host to an alien mind-creature; and the Daedalus books, about an ecological mission to a variety of troubled colony planets. Stableford published quite a few books, mostly for DAW, until the early 80s. He reappeared in the late 80s with a highly-praised group of books about an Alternate Historical Victorian England with werewolves. Throughout the 90s his reputation has only grown, with an impressive list of rather hard SF stories mostly on biological themes, many linked as part of his "Emortality" future, which culminated in 6 novels, the last being 2002's The Omega Expedition.

I was very impressed by Stableford's work of that era, which I think among the best biologically-oriented SF -- thoughtful, original, extrapolatively exciting. At that time I made a point of reading the Hooded Swan and Daedalus books, which are solid if minor work: rather cynical, often focussing on interesting biological ideas (especially in the Daedalus books), certainly worth a look, but not as good as his mature stuff. Much of Stableford's energy in recent years has been focussed on translations from the French.

The Blind Worm is a fairly ambitious novel that didn't really work for me. It's very much a novel of its time -- strongly influenced by the New Wave. There are three parts, each of similar length. It might almost have been originally published as three stories, though I can't find any evidence of that. In the first, "The Quadrilateral", we are introduced to Earth in the far future. The seas are dry, and the land is dominated by the Wildland, a hive mind of plants. A few humans still live, tolerated by Sum, the controlling mind of the Wildland. One human King, John Tamerlane, wishes to reestablish human presence in a deserted city in the dry Great Gulf. He and his motley fellows, the hero Vanice Concuma, the woman Zea, the wild man Silver Reander, and the boy Swallow, offer Sum a bargain: if he will cede them this city, Swallow will use his telepathic powers to link Sum with the other three components of the Quadrilateral -- hive minds in three other universes. Accompanied by the Blind Worm, a construct serving Sum, and by the ancient man Jose Dragon, creator of the Blind Worm, they journey to the other universes to try to complete the Quadrilateral, with ambiguous results that mostly involve everybody dying. In the second part, "Blind God", the Blind Worm has been granted Godlike powers, and he uses them to resurrect the dead humans, and recruits them to a struggle against his creator, Dragon. In the third part, "The Army of the Dead", all the dead humans in the abandoned City in the Great Gulf have reanimated as zombies, and are attacking the Wildland. The Blind Worm, in another guise, again recruits the Black King Tamerlane and the hero Vanice Concuma to try to battle this army, and to enter the City and vanquish whatever being is behind the army of the dead.

I was bothered throughout by a feeling that much of this was arbitrary -- that Stableford was making it up as he went along. Some of the ideas and imagery are impressive -- but not, to my taste, terribly interesting. And the characters themselves are not very involving, and also seem arbitrarily motivated. It seems that Stableford was trying for a philosophically challenging novel, but he really didn't have the skills to dress it in interesting enough plot/prose/characterization.

Emil Petaja (pronounced Puh-TIE-uh, apparently -- I had always thought it Puh-TAH-huh) was a Montana-born writer of Finnish descent. He was born in 1915 and died in 2000. He became a friend of the near-legendary SF artist Hannes Bok at an early age, and lived with Bok for a time. Petaja wrote stories and poems, some Lovecraftian, and began to sell to the pulps in 1942. He wrote SF and also mysteries for about a decade, then stopped writing and worked as a photographer in San Francisco. He was lured back to the field in 1965 or so -- possibly by Fred Pohl, who bought stories by a number of old pulpsters (such as Robert Moore Williams, A. E. Van Vogt, Bryce Walton, and Jerome Bixby) for Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow in the mid-60s. His first novel was published in 1965, his last in 1970. He may be best known for his cycle of four novels (a fifth remains unpublished) based on the Finnish legend cycle the Kalevala. He was the first SFWA Author Emeritus, in 1995. 8 of his novels were Ace Double halves, including of course Seed of the Dreamers, his last published novel. It is about 37,000 words long.

Seed of the Dreamers opens with a "starcop", Brad Mantee, fetching a scientist who has gone insane and killed several people. The scientist's long-lost daughter, the beautiful Harriet Lloyd, intervenes and the scientist escapes in Brad's spaceship. Brad scoops up the daughter and takes her spaceship -- with her help (she can sense her father's location via psi) he tracks him to an uncharted planet.

To this point I was disgusted. The story so far is sexist, and silly, and implausible, and not very interesting. Things seemed to get worse when nearly the first thing they encounter on the planet is a group of naked black savages who seem straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard. Luckily, before I could throw the book across the room, it is revealed that these people actually ARE straight from the pages of Haggard! It seems that an alien race from across the universe is trying to understand humans. The only material they have is some illicit fiction, coincidentally almost all from the 19th and 20th Century in the English language, that Brad had hidden on his spaceship. (Fiction of any sort is illegal in this future galactic society.) So they have created constructs based on the various stories and populated this world with them.

The rest of the story concerns Brad and Harriet dealing with people who think they are in stories from Haggard, Baum, Shakespeare, Hilton, and Burroughs. They must find a way to convince these people that they aren't really inside these stories, and that they can throw off the dominion of the alien race and chase the aliens from the galaxy. Or something. It didn't really make much sense to me.

It's a very very very silly book. And it's mostly not fun silly -- just stupid silly. There is some unintentional humour -- for example, apparently Petaja couldn't use Tarzan because the books were under copyright (or the character is trademarked or something). So he introduces a character named Zartan the Stupendous, Lord Staygroke. I don't think I was really supposed to break into guffaws at this point, but I couldn't help it.

I suspect Petaja could do a little better than this -- on the face of it this seems possibly an uncharacteristic work. But it certainly isn't very good.

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