Monday, April 1, 2019

Birthday Ace Double Review: Captives of the Flame, by Samuel R. Delany/The Psionic Menace, by Keith Woodcott

Ace Double Reviews, 85: Captives of the Flame, by Samuel R. Delany/The Psionic Menace, by Keith Woodcott (#F-199, 1963, 40 cents)

A review by Rich Horton

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Emshwiller)
This Ace Double includes novels by two of the great writers in the field. "Wait!", you might say, "Samuel Delany I understand. But Keith Woodcott! I never even heard of him." Ahh ... but Keith Woodcott was a pseudonym for John Brunner. At any rate, neither of these novels is among their author's best, though Delany's is the promising work of a young writer who would get better, and who even here shows much promise, while the "Woodcott" is terribly disappointing work by a writer who had already done first rate work, and who could usually be trusted to be quite entertaining, even in his hackwork. He'd get better too -- but you can't say that The Psionic Menace provides any evidence of that. Captives of the Flame is the longer book, about 52,000 words. The Psionic Menace is about 38,000 words.

Captives of the Flame is Delany's second novel. It appeared when he was just 21 years old. It is the first of a trilogy, collectively known as The Fall of the Towers. It opens enigmatically, with Jon Koshar confused and lost ... we soon learn that he has been imprisoned for the past 5 years, despite his prominent position as the son of a leading merchant in the city of Toron. Toron is the island capitol of Toromon, a small "empire" on a future Earth, an Earth on which the inhabited parts (which seem to include Aptor, setting of Delany's first novel, The Jewels of Aptor) are isolated by belts of radiation, the result of the "Great Fire". As the novel begins, Toron is lurching towards war with the mysterious people beyond the nearby radiation belt. The young King Uske, mostly a puppet, wonders what he is doing, declaring war. Jon Koshar's sister Clea, a brilliant mathematician, looks forward to her graduation party, and worries about her military boyfriend. The mysterious Duchess of Petra plots to kidnap the King's younger brother Let. A boy named Tel has landed on the island, and is immediately swept up in the Duchess's plot, along with the acrobat Alter, her aunt Rana, and Jon Koshar. Also involved is a giant from the slightly mutated forest people, who live near the radiation barrier.

If all this seems a bit busy, well, it is. And it stays that way, though it's mostly easy to follow and fun to read. The war starts on schedule. Economic chaos, partly driven by artificial fish production, and exacerbated by a poisoning of the fish supply, accompanies the war. (Delany includes some rather incoherent and unconvincing economic rants.) The kidnap plot comes off, and Prince Let is taken to the forest people, to learn how to be a better King than his ineffectual brother. Clea's mathematical abilities identify a way to end the war. Jon Koshar, with Alter and Petra, battles the alien Lord of the Flames, who seems to be behind the provocations that led Toromon to war. This battle takes them to numerous different planets, to inhabit different life forms, in a colorful sequence that reminded me of Harlan Ellison's very minor early novel The Man With Nine Lives. And ... well, the book pretty much stops. Good thing this is just part one of a trilogy!

In many ways this book is kind of a mess. But some of that might be resolved in the concluding novels of the trilogy, to be fair. (I've read the whole thing, but 40 years ago, and I don't remember it at all.) And as I said it's readable and fun throughout, with prosodic flashes that, while not wholly successful, point the way to the kind of writer Delany would become.

It should be noted that both Captives of the Flame and the second novel in The Fall of the Towers trilogy, The Towers of Toron, were significantly revised prior to publication of the omnibus edition of all three books. That's omnibus edition is what I read, back in 1975 or so, and maybe that's why I don't remember Captives of the Flame! (Or maybe not.) For one thing, it was retitled Out of the Dead City (a much better title) for the later editions. It is possible that some of the revision was restoration of cuts demanded by Donald Wollheim -- I have read that Delany's first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, had to be cut significantly to fit in an Ace Double, and that in the end, frustrated, he was just tossing out paragraphs more or less at random. I would say there is definite evidence in Captives of the Flame that scenes are missing.

The Psionic Menace, by contrast, is a bad book unrelieved by any indication of the possibility of better work to come. I wonder if Brunner purposely used the Woodcott name because he knew how bad the novel was. ("Keith Woodcott" wrote some 5 books for Ace, 4 of them Doubles -- the name also appeared on a couple of short stories. I haven't read any other "Woodcott" novels so I can't say if their quality was generally lower than the novels under the Brunner name. But certainly the other Brunner Ace Doubles I've read (under his name) were much better than The Psionic Menace.)

The book is set in a future in which a mostly peaceful and well-controlled Earth has isolated "psions". Conditions are worse for Psions in the interstellar confederation controlled by the "Starfolk", who live on starships (like Anderson's Kith or Heinlein's Free Traders). The main character, a "cosmoarchaeologist" named Gascon, is a psinul -- his thoughts cannot be sensed by psions. One night he encounters a runaway psion boy who is panicked by a broadcast psionic message warning of the "end of everything".

Meanwhile, on the Starfolk-dominated planet Regnier, a young girl, Errida, is chosen to be a Starfolk concubine. (It appears they need to refresh their genetic pool on occasion, and they do so by force.) But her brother is a psion and it becomes necessary for them to escape to an isolated alien city -- once home to a colony of the "Old Race"... alas, the rest of her family is swept up in a fomented anti-psion riot.

Gascon's academic field, cosmoarchaeology (study of the relics aliens have left on various planets), combined with his being a psinul, makes him ideal to send to Regnier in an Earth plot to solve the mystery of the psion panic about the "end of everything", and also to put pressure on the Starfolk. So he goes to Regnier, and meets Errida. The Starfolk, who have come to Regnier because a Starfolk ship has been lost and psions are suspected, get involved as well, and in a typically too rapid Brunner ending Gascon steals a Starfolk ship and follows clues to the location of the "Old Race" and to the, in the end very disappointing, solution to the mystery of the "end of everything".

It's just a book that didn't work for me at all. I wasn't engaged by any of the characters. I was thoroughly unimpressed by the SFnal aspects, particularly the lamish resolution to the central mystery. Brunner wrote a lot of his early stuff pretty fast, for the money, but he usually gave decent value. Not this time, though.

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