If you’ve taken a look at my other, gaming-centric blog, you probably noticed that I’m huge on science fiction and Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line, both of which I heartily endorse. This concoction set me off on a Robert Silverberg binge, as Paizo is reprinting three volumes of Silverberg’s early short stories and novellas. As luck would have it, I went out of town at just the wrong moment: I’d thought the latest Planet Stories release would arrive before I left, so I’d have something to read while I was out of town. It didn’t, so I got to spend another week and a half not reading it. To pass the time and keep things thematic, I grabbed Silverberg’s The Silent Invaders, half of Ace Double F-195 from 1963, and read it instead. (Again.)
Silent Invaders was published twice in the 1950s, both in October, first in Infinity Science Fiction in 1958 and then in Science Fiction Adventures in 1959. As far as I can tell, the short-story version from SFA was reprinted in the last Planet Stories Silverberg omnibus; as my favorite from the book, I was more than curious as to how the expanded version would compare to the short.
This book combines the two standard modes of how Ace acquired enough material to print thousands upon thousands of doubles. On the first side, we have an expanded story from a pair of pulpy digest magazines. On the other, we have a short yarn by a British author (William F. Temple); Ace was great at buying British fiction from authors unknown in the US, filling the demand by importing foreign stories. The best part of the double is the trippy cover for Silent Invaders, by the legendary Ed Emsh. Bask upon its glory and despair.
Well, alright, I have seen better Emsh covers. But it’s very unique and recognizable, compared to most Ace Double covers… hell, compared to SF paperback covers of the time.
So, let’s crack into this book, shall we? The first paragraph:
The prime-class starship Lucky Lady came thundering out of overdrive half a million miles from Earth, and phased into the long, steady ion-drive glide at Earth-norm gravitation toward the orbiting depot. In his second-class cabin aboard the starship, the man whose papers said he was Major Abner Harris of the Interstellar Development Corps stared anxiously, critically, at his face in the mirror. He was checking, for what must have been the hundredth time, to make sure that there was no sign of where his tendrils once had been.
Aw hell yeah! This is why Silent Invaders was my favorite from the Hunt the Space Witch! collection: the intro hooked me, the writing kept me reading. If there’s anything you can say about Silverberg, it’s that he’s one of the most compelling Golden/Silver Age authors based on readability alone. Whatever else, he manages to nail the writing on the head, and keeps your attention all the way through with his steady prose. For sheer readability, Silverberg takes the cake. And I say this as a fan of Bradbury, Brackett, and Burroughs.
So, anyways, our protagonist is Major Abner Harris, formerly Aar Khiilom of Darruu, sent to infiltrate Earth. The Darruu are in the middle of an ancient war with another extraterrestrial race, the Medlins, and they’re hoping to plant covert agents to push Earthling support firmly in the Darruu camp. Only, it turns out the Medlins have sleeper agents on Earth, too: hundreds of them, compared to the ten Darruu. And Abner bumps into one almost immediately.
Not only is this a slick little book of extraterrestrial espionage, it’s also got a growing subplot about evolved Earthlings, who may or may not posess telepathic powers. I spent most of the book wondering who was really pulling the strings here. Is this a loyalty test from Darruu high command? Are the Medlins playing a fast one? Who is manipulating who, particularly once the telepathic fetus shows up? It’s no le Carre novel, but it does get its point across, and the unborn telepathic child was the mind-blowing moment the first time I read this story.
My big question going in was “What’s changed?” Well, a little, and a lot. There’s a lot of weird details that are spruced up: Abner tips the bellhop a “demi-unit piece” instead of a “quarter-unit piece;” instead of simply reading a paragraph about the starport, he hears the info over a loudspeaker, and attempts to visualize the locations it mentions (Ecuador) to convince himself his training is sufficient. Things like that.
The major changes have been the inclusion of more flashbacks of life on Darruu, revealing just how homesick Abner/Aar really is. This felt like a really strange addition, to me: in both versions, Abner ends up becoming a double-agent, so why does the longer version go into great depth of how much he loves being home? I guess you could argue that since Abner is capable of feeling homesickness, he’s less of a nationalistic the-ends-justify-everything Orwellian drone, like his handler and compatriots are, and thus he’s less psychotic and more likely to jump ship. While it didn’t outright ruin the story, it didn’t sell me; while I like seeing more of the aliens, I’d rather have seen more of a moral quandary within Abner than what’s here. (Of course, if you’re of the opinion that the telepathic fetus is pulling Abner’s strings, it gives things a more sinister overtone.)
In the end, I see why Paizo put the smaller story in their Hunt the Space Witch! compilation. Well, other than for size constraints. This version is perfectly acceptable, it has a lot of great description going for it, and it just feels more polished then the short story version. But I just don’t think anything meaningful was added to make the Ace version any more definitive than the short story. If it wasn’t recently reprinted (and collected with a selection of other short stories) I’d probably be more supportive, but I can’t see enough draw to track this version down when there’s an easily accessible version that’s roughly the exact same thing.
On the plus side, it’s far better than its double (William F. Temple’s Battle on Venus)… But that’s a review for another day. As is The Planet Killers, once I get back home, the friggin mail hold ends, and the package gets delivered.
On a final note, I’ve finally learned to stop reading the inside cover blurbs to Ace Doubles, since all they do is give the damn plot away. I’m not talking about some minor spoilers, I’m talking about the surprises and ending an all the interesting bits. What, did people in the 1950s-60s only read books if they knew how they’d turn out? Good thing I’d already read this story so I already knew all of it.