Planet Stories. Robert Silverberg. I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said on the subject when I reviewed Hunt the Space Witch!. Really; it’s one of those “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” moments of pure, ecstatic glee. (Unless you’re a foreigner, or have a peanut allergy, in which case insert your preferred combination metaphor here.)
This month’s release—well, the September release; it took forever for me to get it, and then I read real slow-like to savor the flavor—is a compilation of three of Silverberg’s stories originally published in the form of Ace Doubles. Some of his earliest, too, dating from the mid-late 1950s; none of them have been since reprinted. The Plot Against Earth (1959), The Planet Killers (1959), and One Of Our Asteroids is Missing (1964). The great thing about Ace Doubles was getting two ~150-page “novels” for the price of one, even though the “novels” were actually half-length short novels. (I guess this would be a Paizo Triple.)
As with the last Planet Story, The Planet Killers starts with an introduction by Silverberg himself, retelling how these novels were formed. There’s a whopping six pages of introduction, two more than Space Witch!; both introductions are fascinating, and give a lot of insight into Silverberg’s early career and how Ace Doubles were born. It’s a testament to the Golden Age of SF where an author could start the decade reading Ace Doubles of two A.E. van Vogt novels, and end the decade splitting a Double with van Vogt.
The cover by Kieran Yanner is growing on me. I still think the one for Hunt the Space Witch! is one of the best covers for any SF book I own, but this one is really classy in a retro sense. Kind of like a Bond girl shot, which fits the espionage/intrigue angles. And it’s plenty retro: femme fatale in a unitard with a popped collar and shoulder pads and… cleavage, surfing some rubble, an exploding planet in the background, and a raygun that’s awesome in a hilarious way.
The Plot Against Earth
Our hero for this tale is Lloyd Catton; he’s assigned to the Interworld Commission on Crime to help fight against the spread of hypnojewels—hypnotic jewels (duh) that entrance whoever views them, causing their victims to become withdrawn and eventually die. Talk about your gateway drug. Only, Catton isn’t there for the hypnojewels: he’s really looking into the three alien species who’ve formed a loose alliance the ICC is an organization within, because rumors abound that these ancient galactic powers are looking to do something nefarious to the upstart Terrans.
In his introductory notes, Silverberg mentions that this story was very van Vogtian, in the sense of Vogt’s “madcap incoherent” writing, something like “wild poetry.” Plot Against Earth is very much wild poetry; it jumps from subplot to subplot without batting an eyelash. The original plot point is intergalactic espionage, which Silverberg does pretty damn well. Then Catton’s dealing with hypnojewel busts, and a Diplomat’s daughter who’s running away with an alien lover, and then he gets on a ship, which blows up, and then… you get the picture. The action just doesn’t stop.
It may sound packed to the point of excess, but the pacing is smooth; Catton may jump from plot to plot with madcap incoherency, but Silverberg manages the weave the disparate threads together to make a tight little plot: it all comes together near the end. There’s plenty of action and drama in the finest space opera style. Plot Against Earth is an entertaining thrill ride, and I found it to be a great start-off point for this collection.
The Planet Killers
The Security Computers of Earth Central have determined that the planet Lurion will launch a surprise attack against Earth in another 67 years, and in a galactic pre-emptive strike, sleeper agents are sent to blow up the planet. They’ve also determined Roy Gardner is the best man for the job, despite his misgivings over the mission—it’s planetary murder! after all, which includes all the earthlings living there—and so he becomes our plucky protagonist. Lucky for him, Lurion’s inhabitants are a race of uncouth, greedy, ill-mannered louts, who frequently enjoy watching hypnotic blood-sports. (Think dancing knife fights with trance music and laser light-shows.) The only thing Roy finds worth noting is the strangely addictive highball that’s caused the ruin of earlier agents.
But, of course, there’s a girl. There’s always a girl. As well as a couple of radical Lurioni progressives who hope to change their race’s way of life for the better. (Which I guess would start with spending centuries to worm proper table manners into the cultural mindset.) And that just further complicates Roy’s already unseemly task. As Roy digs in to wait for the other agents, the girl and the drink begin to make him question his decisions in life. And not just his own decisions, but those of the security computer, since it keeps sending ineffective agents to Lurion.
Silverberg notes in his introduction that this story was dedicated to the likes of Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton; I see more of Hamilton in here than Brackett, but I kind of understand what he means. Compared to the rip-roaring adventure of The Plot Against Earth, this novel is a subdued character study, focusing on Roy’s choices regarding his mission. I was hoping the methodical pacing would have some great twist ending, but alas; Planet Killers is straightforward in its developments, and doesn’t expand upon all the mystery and intrigue it builds up. It’s still vintage Silverberg, so there’s a few good ideas and competent writing, but it’s one of his most facile works.
And it’s not just the facile nature; a lot of details don’t feel thought out. Is it really a surprise attack when Earth knows it’s coming from 67 years away? Why does the computer continue to send five-man teams, each man individually, even as they break down and collapse? Or, better yet, why don’t they try to work things out diplomatically, or use some good-old Soft Power to get the Lurioni to change themselves? Step carefully: plot holes.
Part of the problem may be that this is one of Silverberg’s earlier works: it’s an update of “This World Must Die!” from the August, 1957 issue of Science Fiction Adventures (under the Ivar Jorgenson pseudonym). That explains a lot; this tale has the same linear pacing and facileness of Silverberg’s earliest works. From what I’ve heard, the original version was even more underwhelming, and the changes to the plot were for the better. Still, it’s a good example of Silverberg having a solid idea for a story, but not the experience to do it justice. While not outright bad, it’s far from his best.
One Of Our Asteroids Is Missing
Talk about your fascinating settings: in this novel, prospectors ply the asteroid belt between Mars and Earth, looking for rare minerals to mine. Think the California Gold Rush, only these ’49ers are scouring the asteroids of the future (2018! Better start building your rocketships now, we’ll be mining the stars in less than a decade). John Storm is one such prospector; after getting his engineering degree, he preferred prospecting asteroids to a cozy Earth-based job with the Universal Mining Cartel. He gave himself a time-limit of two years, at which point he’ll return home and marry his sweetheart, Liz; and after nearly two years of searching, he’s found the mother lode: a small asteroid laden with valuable minerals, enough so he can retire to a life of luxury.
But when he returns to Earth to see Liz, things get screwy. It starts when he tries to check on the state of his claim, only to find there’s no record of it besides his hard-copy receipt. Then he finds out the computer not only fails to recognize his claim, it doesn’t recognize him, either. John is a victim of corporate espionage, not identity theft, and isn’t too pleased with the thought of losing billions of dollars. (Hell, otherwise, he might have to work for a living.) Hitching up his belt, he returns to Mars to set things straight… only to find the Universal Mining Cartel is jumping his claim.
And then the story takes a total left-turn, and John finds that Universal Mining is after something much more important than rare minerals… something which will make UMC the most powerful entity on Earth. Instead of doing the sensible thing of killing John off, UMC holds him hostage until he’ll accept a buyout of $5 million (!), which he continually refuses (…). I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but it is a major divergence from where the plot looked to be heading. I thought the revelation spruced up the story and made things more interesting, but it came out of nowhere, which made it somewhat bizarre.
The Bottom Line
Of the three, I liked The Plot Against Earth best; its plot is a wild ride, yet it manages to tie everything together at the end. The Planet Killers is the weak leg in this trio; it’s not bad, but it’s missing something. As a character piece, it doesn’t go into enough depth to use its character-centric focus to its advantage, and bogs itself down in predictability. That said, just because it’s the low point doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining; it just isn’t as strong as the others. One Of Our Asteroids is Missing is somewhere in the middle, leaning closer to Plot. It starts off as a good corporate intrigue/mystery, and ends up somewhere else. It’s quite enjoyable, provided you’re not put off by the bait-and-switch plot divergence near the end.
Silverberg has a laudable writing style. He’s skilled at penning a solid story, covering all the bases while not delving too deep. It’s along the lines of comfort food in book format; not too rich, not very bland, flavorful yet filling. Something that feels just right and encourages you to keep reading. He backs this up with a good handling of mystery—though The Planet Killers was a bit predictable—and has some amazing little creative bits here and there. I may sound like I really didn’t like Planet Killers, but I thought Silverberg did a great job handling an alien world. Actually, that was a strong point of all three novels, especially Plot Against Earth with its numerous alien cultures. Silverberg is a great world-builder, throwing out copious ideas, even if they’re not detailed in-depth.
Paizo is getting better with age (and experience). Their selection has been consistently top-notch, even as it jumps authors and genres with some frequency. These new trade paperbacks are freaking huge; The Planet Killers has nearly three hundred pages of text. For $15.99. Looking back, some of their books from the past few years—Robots Have No Tails in specific—are miniscule in comparison. I’m going to take the glass-half-full approach and be happy that they’ve skipped the large category altogether and went straight to huge. Let no one say you’re not getting your money’s worth with these Silverberg compilations. Three hundred pages each, give or take, for sixteen clams? Steal.
In short, I heartily endorse these if you’re a fan of no-nonsense pulp-style space opera. They may be a little basic, and weak in the middle, but they’re great fun. The plots are intriguing, if not intricate; the action, non-stop; Silverberg is a fantastic writer; and the creativity is astounding. For pure action-adventure you can’t get much better than this. And as was mentioned earlier, this is three long out of print Ace Doubles, making it something of a pulp collectible. Do yourself a favor and look into these Planet Stories collections.