1950s, 1956, 1957, 1958, anthology, espionage, giant monsters!, invasion!, Kieran Yanner, mutants, Paizo, pirates!, Planet Stories, post apocalyptic, psionics, revenge, Robert Silverberg, robots!, science fiction, Science Fiction Adventures, short fiction, time travel, totalitarian state, vikings!
The latest in Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories pulp reprint line is a trilogy of early Robert Silverberg tales, written for the digest Science Fiction Adventures, which was in turn looking back to the old Planet Stories pulp for inspiration. The first book, Hunt the Space Witch! (hereafter referred to as HtSW!), contains seven of his earliest stories; the next two each contain three novellas. These stories have been out of print since they were in Ace and Dell paperbacks in the 60s-70s (one of the Ace Doubles I own includes “Slaves of the Star Giants”). (Note that this has been revised since I first posted it.)
Hunt the Space Witch! is pure pulpy science fiction goodness. Look at the names of the stories it holds: “Slaves of the Star Giants,” “Spawn of the Deadly Sea,” “Valley Beyond Time,” “Hunt the Space Witch!” If those don’t catch your attention, you’re barking up the wrong tree. These are fast-paced tales of adventure and intrigue, of horrific monsters and beautiful star damsels; don’t expect a lot of complex development and you’ll get a lot of pulpy fun. There’s post-apocalyptic vikings and star-spanning empires, interstellar spy games, and a pair of time-travel tales. Like most pulp tales, imagination often outranks complexity, but Silverberg is a solid writer capable of great imagery and tension, two things pulp fiction needs most.
The stories in HtSW! are all medium-short, around 30-40 pages each. This makes them short enough to read in one sitting, without overdosing on the pulp, like popping popcorn. Their short length also constrains them to the basic “introduction, development, ending” formula, so they’re a rushed and choppy at points. It’s also an exercise in watching an author mature: the later stories are better than the earlier ones, in terms of pacing and development.
A quick overview:
Slaves of the Star Giants
A man thrust forward in time finds himself trapped in a lush jungle full of lumbering alien giants and manipulative robot automatons. After attempting to ingratiate himself into a tribe of primitive human barbarians, he’s cast out, only to find he’s a pawn in a larger game. An interesting little tale with some strong nostalgic charm; I like how the technology of the past is like magic to these people. A bit predictable, and it’s too similar to one of the later stories for my tastes, but otherwise okay.
Spawn of the Deadly Sea
Aliens have invaded earth, conquered it, and now it consists of some isolated floating city-states left to rot on the sodden planet. One plucky youth decides to become a raider (viking!); he’s cocky, but good enough to pull it off, and becomes a chief of his own pirate ship. When the alien overlord invaders return, he must reach out to the mutated race of aquatic humans living beneath the surface to fight back to invading horde, to reclaim Earth for earthlings dry and wet alike.
I have to say, if nothing else, the setting was fantastic. It’s a fun and pulpy tale with some great cinematic swashbuckling, and one fantastic moment, when the aquatic mutants create a living carpet for the vikings to rush across, attacking the invaders. Campy and pulpy, but fun; it has charm despite its ludicrous plot… don’t overthink it, just enjoy it.
The Flame and the Hammer
Doddering emperor of a declining space empire hears talk of planetary rebellion. Needless to say, he sets off a plan to quash it. On one the planets, a high priest informs his son of the mythological Hammer of Aldrynne, a weapon prophesied to bring the empire crashing down. You can see where this is going. The same kind of “lost Earth found/long-lost technological weapon” trope was reused in some of Silverberg’s later works, such as the novels collected in Chalice of Death. Again, it’s pretty pulpy with its Space Roman feel to the empire, and the boy destined to bring the downfall of tyranny, but it’s fun and enjoyable.
Valley Beyond Time
Another story in the same vein as “Slaves of the Star Giants,” only without the time travel. Some alien outsider being (someone who comes from Beyond?) grabs a bunch of sentient from across space, and used them to populate a pristine primitive valley as his own private zoo. Despite some rejuvenation, these creatures dislike their captivity, and break out. A more refined and developed story than “Star Giants,” though lacking its innate creativity and sensawunda weirdness. It also has elements of suspense, and some butting of heads between the captives.
Hunt the Space-Witch!
A spacer takes leave of his ship—on a planet that must have inspired Mos Eisley, scum and villainy all—to track down his blood-brother, friends to the end… only to find his compatriot has become part of the Cult of the Space-Witch. He’s determined to rescue his friend from their clutches, damn the costs. It’s a bit campy, yes, but the hokey-ness of an interstellar cult belies is dark and sinister nature. One of the best stories of the collection.
The Silent Invaders
Later expanded into a novel, which I reviewed on here. An alien sent to earth as a sleeper-cell observer in a war between two alien species is caught up in the political game—and caught by the enemy. But things might be serving a higher purpose, and neither race might be the ones pulling all the strings. A fine tale of interstellar intrigue and espionage, probably the most fully-realized pulp adventure vision in this collection.
This one dodged many pulp stereotypes, such as including a strong female character, almost a femme fatale, as the protagonist’s foil. It also has a psionic fetus, which I thought was a mind-blowing idea, but others might not be able to stomach such pulpy developments. If you can, you’ll love this story. Again, Paizo is saving the best stories for last.
Spacer nobleman lives in dejected exile, after his lands and titles have been stripped from him by a self-indulgent tyrant. His quest for revenge has brought him back, infiltrating their organization, in order to bring its leader down. One man out for revenge, with a grey moral compass: sounds pretty hardboiled. The story takes some shocking turns, and even ends on a surprising crescendo of action; I was very impressed. Again, one of the best—if not the best—in this collection.
The Bottom Line:
“Spacerogue” is definitely my favorite, an interesting tale of revenge for the titular mercenary. “The Silent Invaders” is also pretty good, about two warring species of aliens seeding spies into Earth culture. On the other hand, the two time-travel stories, “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “Valley Beyond Time,” are roughly identical. Well, not exactly, but they have many similarities in their basic premise and execution, and it was like reading the same story again. The former is more interesting for its creativity, while the latter is more developed, but far less interesting, culminating in a somewhat random encounter before an abrupt ending.
I’m starting to sense themes of freedom and control as pivotal to Silverberg’s early career; just look at the other story synopses. These stories have an unequivocal 1950s Americana view, the black-and-white morality of freedom against constraint. We have protagonists fighting against manipulative cults and oppressive empires, even alien jailors, in order to secure their freedom. A trope older and more established than the pulps themselves, dating back to Colonial America times, and riffing off the Second World War’s fight against oppression. Just slap some rayguns and rocketships on and we’re good to go.
As with all pulp-era fiction, everyone’s tolerance level varies, but if you’ve picked up other Planet Stories books or have read a lot of ’40s/’50s-era fantastic fiction, you should be right at home. Personally, I’m glad to see Planet Stories branching out into more of the “ray guns and rocket ships” stuff; I’m a fan of their brand of planetary romance and swords-and-sorcery, but variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also worth noting that this is a huge book; the last Planet Stories I found, the Before They Were Giants comp, was relatively huge compared to the rest of the line, and HtSW! dwarfs that by some 30 pages. Also, the price: the Planet Stories pricetag has fluctuated around $15.99 since the change in formatting, which is pretty decent, considering some pulp reprint collections of the same general page count (200-350) have MSRPs of twice that.
I have to say, that’s one of my favorite Planet Stories covers yet, done by the amazing Kieran Yanner; the girl-in-the-nebula is hella-slick, and the old-school primary colors rocket ships are a nice touch. Paizo also has a wallpaper version up. Sadly, the next two books in Paizo’s Silverberg trilogy look a bit different; they’re good, too, with heavy James Bond vibes, but for my money HtSW! is the best of the three.