Friday, April 26, 2019

Ace Double Reviews, 78: One of Our Asteroids is Missing, by Calvin Knox/The Twisted Men, by A. E. Van Vogt

Ace Double Reviews, 78: One of Our Asteroids is Missing, by Calvin Knox/The Twisted Men, by A. E. Van Vogt (#F-253, 1964, $0.40)

A review by Rich Horton

(A. E. Van Vogt was born April 26, 1912. In his memory then, here's another of his Ace Doubles. I've covered biographical/career details of both writers in earlier posts on this blog, so I'll skip that here.)

(Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Jack Gaughan)
This Ace Double, from 1964, features SFWA Grand Masters back to back. And, indeed, it features the very last Ace Double contribution from each prolific writer. "Calvin Knox", of course, is a pseudonym, a very Protestant pseudonym, for Robert Silverberg. One of our Asteroids is Missing is a shortish novel, about 36,000 words. The Twisted Men is a story collection, the three pieces totaling some 39,000 words. (Incidentally, this is an Ace Double, and not the only one, for which the covers were switched -- Emshwiller's cover was intended for The Twisted Men, and Gaughan's for One of Our Asteroids is Missing.)

One of Our Asteroids is Missing certainly reads like late-50s Silverberg, and the cover says "First Book Publication", which strongly suggests that it was first published in an earlier, perhaps shorter, magazine version, perhaps in Science Fiction Adventures, for which Silverberg contributed a great deal of novella-length fiction. But I can't find anything -- none of the stories Silverberg published as by Knox in the magazines have likely titles, at any rate. There was a Mack Reynolds story called "One of Our Planets is Missing!" in the November 1950 Amazing, but I'm sure that's unrelated.

The story opens with John Storm finding a valuable asteroid, full of useful metals. He had promised himself two years looking for asteroids, after which he'd either have struck it rich or he'd go and take a job with Universal Mining Cartel -- either way, he'd marry his girlfriend Liz. he heads to Mars and files a claim, then heads to Earth, and to his shock, his claim doesn't exist any more. And indeed, HE doesn't exist any more, at least not in the government's records. He heads back to Mars to find out what happened, and he learns that UMC is behind all this -- they've bribed a guy to make his claim disappear, then filed their own claim.

Up to about this point, I was rather enjoying the story. A fairly interesting mystery, some good action, a decent pulp-style hero, crisp if not brilliant writing. But it starts to go off the rails when Storm heads back to "his" asteroid to see what UMC is up to. On the asteroid he finds that UMC are trying to move it (!!), and that they are hiding a mysterious secret -- big surprise -- and then gets captured by UMC, who, instead of doing the obvious thing and just kill him, try to buy him off for a few million dollars, which is more than he had originally expected to get anyway. But he refuses to be bought, and instead -- well, I don't want to give away the surprise, though it isn't really that interesting, but the story comes to an ending in kind of a different direction than I felt the beginning really merited. On the whole I didn't think the novel worked very well, not even counting silliness like the not well worked out travel times to the asteroids, etc.

The Twisted Men collects three rather minor Van Vogt stories from lesser SF magazines around 1950. They are "The Twisted Men" (17600 words), first published as "Rogue Ship" in the March 1950 Super Science Stories; "The Star-Saint" (9300 words), first published in the March 1951 Planet Stories, and "The Earth Killers" (12000 words), first published in the April 1949 Super Science Stories.

"The Twisted Men" tells of a scientist who believes the Sun is a variable star, and a sort of mini-nova will destroy life on Earth in a few years. The only hope is to send an colony expedition to Alpha Centauri. He is dismissed as a crackpot, but still manages to build a ship and send it off, with an odd mix of volunteers. He stays home on Earth and is shocked when the ship returns early. But it doesn't stop -- all attempts to get into it fail -- it crashes through Earth leaving a big furrow and returns to space. The hero finally gets aboard, and everyone is "frozen". He eventually realizes that they are actually going nearly the speed of light, in, somehow, their reference frame, so they are feeling the effects of time dilation (and the Lorentz contraction as well, which is where the "twisted" part comes in). All this is really silly and just plain wrong distortion of relativity, resolved by the hero somehow entering the ship's field of reference, and learning that they are, somehow, both near Earth and near Alpha Centauri, so the colony mission can go on, with he, rather creepily, replacing the 50 year old captain as the putative wife of a now 17 year old girl. It has to be said, as with much Van Vogt, that the silliness of the ideas is partly redeemed by the cockeyed originality of them.

"The Star-Saint" concerns a new colony that has been mysterious wiped out, on what seems to be an empty planet. The title character shows up, more or less out of nowhere, and learns to communicate with the planet, which is somehow sentient and has been sending rocks to attack the colonists. He negotiates an agreement for mutual benefit. Again, often silly, but some interesting ideas too. Could have been pretty good with a rewrite, I think.

In "The Earth Killers" the US is nearly destroyed by a nuclear attack. But no other country seems to have sent the bombs. And the hero, an Air Force pilot, had been testing a new plane at the time of the attack and he witness a bomb, which he thought was coming in nearly vertically, as if the attack was from space. But he is not believed, and it is assumed he is concealing the actual villain country. So he goes to prison, but escapes to try to find the real villains, whom he assumes are on a base on the moon. The eventual answer wasn't quite what I expected, and indeed was a pretty good solution. It's not really a very plausible story, and it's somewhat too long, but it's not bad.

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