Back in the day, Ace Books built a publishing empire on the backs of cheap science fiction paperbacks, namely the famous Ace Doubles. While many of its books were new creations, Ace culled the pulps and grabbed the rights to many British authors to keep up with the demand of publishing two books in one. Many of its originals were slapdash affairs, written quickly so the author could make rent, and so the Ace lineup is flooded with novels that nobody has since bothered reprinting.
Some have this pulpish, campy charm because of this. Others are rushed, clunky, and lack finesse. Most fill the generous middle ground, being somewhat entertaining, somewhat rushed, terse and action-packed. The general formula usually features a couple of good ideas, a single major plot twist, some action, the guy getting the girl in the end, etc. Most of Philip K. Dick’s early work follows this formula, as does a large chunk of the SF magazine output, and so on for 1950s-1960s SF in general, so one can hardly blame Ace for any of this. Ace tended to over-focus on authors who could reliably churn out new fiction, or had vast libraries of old material to draw from, including such big names as Dick, Jack Vance, Andre Norton, Robert Silverberg, and John Brunner cropping up with some regularity.
Brunner made his early career on pumping out SF novels, as fast as he could cash the paychecks, but his long-lasting career forgets this. Instead, he’s remembered for three major works. My knowledge of John Brunner comes from Stand on Zanzibar, his watershed novel that won him a Hugo. I tried twice in high school to get into the book and failed, and I’ve been meaning to give it another go with my full attention (and some literary maturity). Anyways, Zanizbar is dense, with a multi-layered plot told via an intertwined rubric of one linear narrative and three sets of supplemental chapters. Brunner’s other great novels are also thought-provoking, namely The Sheep Look Up and its ecological message, The Shockwave Rider, introducing a lot of terminology and themes later used for cyberpunk, and The Jagged Orbit, a dystopian novel in the same vein as Zanzibar.
Moving back to Ace and the paperback years, The Super Barbarians is one of his many Ace novels, not a double, but one of Ace’s less-famous singles. Written in 1962, as the 160-page Ace D-547, the book is almost forgotten nowadays; I’ve seen people claim it’s incredibly hard to find, though there’s a bunch on the Amazon Marketplace for under a buck. At the same time, there’s next to no information available on this book; the most comes from SFPaperbacks. I picked it up for the egregious sum of $3.50 a while ago, and figured to give it a shot.
The story takes place after humanity has been enslaved by the Vorra, a race of technologically advanced barbarians. (Apparently they ripped off more technologically-apt races to get those starships on the cover, since they only really know how to use them, not how to repair them, or how they work.) On their home planet of Quallavarra, humanity has been forced into servitude, essentially slaves to the Vorra nobility. The only “free” human space is “The Acre,” a literal acre of urban blight where humans are ungoverned.
Pan to Gareth Shaw, overpaid steward to feudal lord Pwill, a Vorrish noble fascinated with human culture. Gareth is content to live in overpaid luxury, even though Pwill Jr. is a right pain in the ass, and Pwill’s wife is a bit…interested, you might say, in studying human reproduction. This changes when Gareth takes a trip down to The Acre, and finds the human resistance movement. Naturally, his position of power is highly needed by the resistance, so he’s dragged into a web of intrigue fighting for human freedom. It turns out that many Vorra are addicted to a normal earth substance, which is some kind of super-drug for them; normally I wouldn’t put in spoilers, I will in this case. It’s coffee, of all things. And the resistance hopes to use this addiction to the advantage of mankind.
The Super Barbarians is a simple action-adventure story, one of hundreds of formulaic Ace novels. A hundred and sixty pages is enough to introduce the situation, develop the plot, and get out before it crumbles down. It’s not a bad choice if you’re looking for adventure/entertainment reading, but there’s not much to this. Heck, when your story is essentially a one-joke note, it’s hard to be any less. (Seriously, coffee?) It’s interesting that the ruling aliens are primitives with warring feudal houses, though that fits right in to the one-note-trick and the plot.
The cover is neat, though contrary to the picture, don’t expect any major starship battles over Earth. That was all in the past, sadly. It’s a lot cooler to have the invasion on the cover instead of a group of ragged humans in a ghetto stockpiling secret coffee caches I guess.
I hate to disagree with the inside-cover blurb, but this is far from “John Brunner’s best.” Though, it is kinda fun, in its dopey way. Like most books in the early Ace lines, the plot is laughable, and the “science” is questionable, but the book is rounded enough to be entertaining, fast and tight with a tidy little plot. Much like most other Ace books.