1950s, 1957, 1958, 1959, Ace Double, anthology/collection, artificial planet, Avalon Books, espionage, gambling, invasion!, Kieran Yanner, long lost earth, memory, Paizo, Planet Stories, pulp, Robert Silverberg, robots!, science fiction, Science Fiction Adventures, space opera, time travel, totalitarian state, utopian
I just finished a rather dull six-hundred-page brick of a crime thriller—one that qualifies better as “mystery” as it lacked the tension and emotional resonance that makes thrillers… thrilling—and I wanted to read some mind-blowing fun and light action-adventure. What luck; my Planet Stories subscription arrived the day before, and it’s some more of young Silverberg’s Ace doubles. The last of three early Silverberg collections, I should note; the first two were simplistic but exuberant adventures, so I was awaiting this one with bated breath.
Like its predecessor, The Chalice of Death anthologizes three of Silverberg’s short novels that once appeared as Ace Doubles in the 1950s, plus a new introduction by the author. Silverberg was a prolific writer at that period, a kid fresh out of grad school who attacked the digest mags with stories. They’re often quite simple, stereotyped/cliched, light action-SF stuff; on the flipside, most of them are fun and entertaining, and Silverberg has smooth and gentle prose.
All three novels originated in Larry Shaw’s digest magazine Science Fiction Adventures before turning into Ace Doubles; SFA was an action-heavy throwback to the old space opera/science fantasy pulps Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder. Chalice was a trio of linked stories in SFA, while the other two, Starhaven and Shadow on the Stars, were “novel-length” tales that took up most of the magazine’s space.
Excepting Starhaven, first printed as “Thunder Over Starhaven,” Paizo has reprinted them using the original SFA titles and not the lamer ones Donald Wollheim at Ace assigned them. (Though, as Wollheim often replaced cool titles with dull ones starting with “The,” it’s odd to lose the rather lame Lest We Forget Thee, Earth on principle alone.) I noted both the Silverberg-approved titles as well as Wollheim’s, for completion’s sake.
The Chalice of Death/Lest We Forget Thee, Earth (1958)
A hundred thousand years ago, there had been a planet called Earth. It had been a proud world ruling a thousand vassal stars, but its stellar empire had turned upon and annihilated their conquerors, and wiped the name of Earth from the maps of space.
…But Earthmen still survived… a strange race of worldless men and women, by tradition advisers to rulers, but never themselves ruling. Wanderers through myriad planets, their origin was a half-forgotten legend.
Protagonist Hallam Navarre is the human adviser to an alien royal on the planet Jorus. Navarre, is late for work, suspecting his nemesis, another alien adviser, is behind it; coming up with an idea on the spot, he claims to have a line on the mythical Chalice of Death, granting immortality to its wielder and death to those who oppose him.
Intrigued, the sovereign gives him a blank check and sets him loose. With the aid of a human half-breed he was supposed to save from banishment, Navarre sets off not in search of the Chalice, but of Earth, reasoning that Earth exists, and finding it may point to the long-lost Chalice. From there, it’s a proper epic space opera, with Navarre’s nemesis hounding him, and realizing the Chalice’s true form changing the direction Navarre takes.
Since it’s on the cover of the Ace Double pictured above, a spoiler; the Chalice is ten-thousand humans in cryogenic sleep: potential immortality for the human race, death to those who wish them harm. (Image via.)
Chalice consists of three linked short stories in Science Fiction Adventures; Silverberg did a damn good job tying them together: their transitions are flawless, and only notable from the occasional recap of info we already know (a few sentences here, using a person’s full name and relationship to the story there, that kind of thing.) As three ~20,000-word stories, though, they each had their own plot arcs, which makes Chalice as a novel a roller-coaster ride: galaxy-spanning challenges are overcome in the blink of an eye, plot points and new developments fly by with reckless abandon, and every other chapter, some new problem is introduced. (Often with Navarre ending up in jail.)
What we end up with is a lightning-fast space opera adventure with some interesting themes and a no-nonsense approach to action. I almost wish Silverberg had slowed down to develop things; the pacing is reckless, a madcap assortment of trials and tribulations, even moreso than Plot Against Earth. It keeps things entertaining, but it ends up falling on the simplistic side, and rushed. Because of its origin, and Ace format, that can’t be helped; on the bright side, the adventure never stops, and even though developments came out of thin air their explanations made them feel logical and part of the story.
Johnny Mantell, beachcomber and broke bum, is blamed for the accidental death of a tourist. Seeing no better alternative, he steals a Star Patrol ship and flies to Starhaven, an artificial planet made to protect pirates, murderers, and villains of all kinds: an anarchic planet free of social mores and constraints. Mantell hits it off well with Starhaven’s benevolent dictator, Ben Thurdan; he’s given a stack of currency “chips” (poker chips, I assume) and sent off with Thurdan’s pretty secretary Myra as his tour guide. And then given a top secret assignment from Thurdan: make the man a personal shield system, to assuage his fear of death. Meanwhile, Starhaven faces occasional attacks by the Star Patrol; their laser blasts are dispersed by the planet’s shields, and the energy funneled to Starhaven’s own guns.
In contrast to Chalice, Starhaven is a slower, more fleshed-out piece. Which is a compliment; the characters, world, and plot feel more thought-out and developed, more of a character piece, a good change after the roller-coaster ride of action that Chalice was. Most of the characters have their own motivations, and the novel follows the intrigues between them; Johnny Mantell likes Myra, but Thurdan is, shall we say, possessive. (A touch of the Silverberg misogyny here.) About halfway through, there are a couple of interesting developments which Silverberg foreshadows—they’re easy enough to guess, being a little cliched, but are a nice change of pace.
Slight spoilers coming next, but again, they’re predictable: there’s a group trying to assassinate Thurdan and seize control, because they’re afraid of what a less-benevolent ruler of the invincible planet would be like. (Ah, the problem with firm one-man rule: they may make the trains run on time, and operate with efficiency, but their rule doesn’t last forever—nobody likes a tyrant. Also, woe unto you if it’s your face under the stomping boot; Mantell realizes early on that everyone’s life and death depends on the whims of Thurdan.) Second, Mantell is suffering from lingering problems related to his hypnoscan he received when he first arrived at Starhaven: let’s just say Total Recall-esque implanted memories and leave it out in the open for all to see.
Besides the obvious “shocking twists,” I had one more problem with Starhaven: it’s plagued by a bad case of adverbosis. This won’t be a problem for everyone, but I was grating my teeth at the unnecessary adverbs; in most cases they’re used as a crutch to shore up sloppy writing. An example from the inside-cover excerpt; take out the adverbs and you’re left with limp prose:
The metal creature, unharmed by the deadly blast, waited impassively. Almost a minute slipped by while Marchin hopelessly continued to direct his fire at the barrier that shielded the robot’s patient bulk. Then, seeing he was accomplishing nothing, cursed vividly and in a quick bitter gesture hurled the blaster across the room at the stiffly erect robot.
When is something that can be described as a “blast” not deadly? What makes for “vivid” cursing; aren’t cuss words vivid enough in design and use to begin with? Did Marchin get creative in his swearing (“Spunkweasel! he cried, hurling the blaster forth”)? I get that he’s “hopelessly” shooting the robot from the facts a.) it isn’t doing anything, and b.) he stops doing it and just charges the damn thing. “Stiffly” comes closest to being valid, but it’s just used to prop up an otherwise uninspired phrase (“the erect robot”). Gah. This rant in writing is now over.
Starhaven is a perfect pulp world: a paradise for scum and villainy, a utopia of gambling halls and pleasure domes void of moral restraints. (No, there isn’t any sex, and little violence.) Also, an ideal James Bond villain-type lair: an orbital, artificial planet with super-effective shields and super-effective guns. (Yeah, there’s a bit of van Vogt superman syndrome here, and a touch in the protagonist.) It also asks some interesting questions about anarchy, dictators, and the rule of law, even if the novel itself is light on those issues.
Shadow on the Stars/Stepsons of Terra (1958)
Baird Ewing is sent to Earth as ambassador from the far-flung colony world Corwin, which is due to face an onslaught from the insectoid alien Klodnoi in the next decade. What Ewing finds, though, is a decadent, pacifist Earth which in no way can assist Corwin in fending off the encroaching hordes. Earthers are more interested in undergoing body-modifications to promote individuality, and are too blase to help, even if they had a military or weapons.
Worse, another of Earth’s colony-children, Sirius IV, is in the final stages of a gradual effort to usurp control from the Earthers. (In their view, somebody needs to run things for the Earthers since they’re not running things for themselves.) And one of its upper-echelon agents, Rollun Firnik, is on to Ewing, suspecting some Corwinite trick… maybe Corwin suspecting of “nonexistent Sirian alterior motives” in their grand attempt at altruism. (Yeah, maybe if you weren’t shady as hell, then nobody would suspect you of anything.)
So, for starters, we have a grand old space opera background (upcoming alien invasion) as Ewing’s motivation, running into a web of Sirian conspiracies and intrigue. But even that’s not the main crux of the novel; no, Silverberg states in the introduction that it’s a time-paradox tale. And before too long, temporal travel is added to further complicate the intrigues. The time-travel element works well into the story, and you can guess where the final showdown with the Klodnoi is heading.
Shadow on the Stars has a very complex plot, between the intrigue and the time travel paradoxes, even though it’s working with standard space opera fare. It’s not the byzantine web of questions like in a pure mystery novel, but it blends enough mystery elements to draw the comparisons. The paradoxes are thought-out, and while there’s not much time for it, they did make me think. The mystery-intrigue element, on the other hand, is something of a segue to introduce the time-travel, which becomes the dominant force in the novel’s middle section.
Shadow is one of Silverberg’s many early works that strains to be something more, but succeeds at doing so. The developments that occur in the last quarter of the novel are deep character-driven crises which felt realistic, yet which reflect back to earlier points. These moments showcase Silverberg’s talents as a young rising star paying his respects to pulp action, and real some insightful and mature growth at his craft. The novel’s final twist, as usual, is more cliche than surprising. But it is the perfect conclusion (both of them!) to this novel. I can’t imagine the novel ending any other way.
The Bottom Line
The Chalice of Death is an action-packed ride that never lets up; as such it has all the draws and flaws you’d expect from three action-soaked novellas jammed together. It’s all action and big ideas, so it’s even skimpier on development and character than usual; on the flipside, it’s… full of action and big ideas. Starhaven is in the same vein as Silverberg’s better early works, like The Silent Invaders or the first three-fourths of The Planet Killers. It combines Silverberg’s wild ideas and creativity with great pacing and a balanced story arc; it’s near the top of his early novels, and I enjoyed it. As for Shadow on the Stars… the best of the bunch. It’s standard space opera fare, but with a lot of complexities, a realistic character, and a great ending. Two of them, even. It’s still not approaching the quality level of Dying Inside or Hawksbill or Downward to the Earth, but for Silverberg’s early stuff, it’s a knockout.
Silverberg’s early writing and content has more in common with van Vogt or Ed Hamilton than his later novels, which is something to keep in mind, as is the fact he wrote these as a twentysomething fresh out of college. On the upside, he did win some awards as “best new writer” in 1956, and with good reason. As a new writer, Silverberg made plenty of mistakes with his novels (craft-wise, not grammatical), but he was enthusiastic, creative, and published more in a decade than most writers did in a lifetime. To me, Silverberg’s writing is a lot like comfort food: it doesn’t have as much complexity or spice, but it’s of decent strength, strong creativity, and eminently readable. (So I guess I abandoned the food analogy in the middle there. Does calling it “filling” help?)
As rollicking adventures written by a young author trying to break into the SF mainstream, he seldom fails to entertain. Compared to his later, more introspective works, though, they lose some ground: they’re shallow and lack development, and Silverberg leans towards being facile even at his best—in his younger days, he introduces legions of new devices and alien species, but rarely gives more than a name or brief description. That gives it a certain gee-whiz pulpy charm, and makes them fun adventures, but that lack of development and world-building depth is what set Silverberg apart from van Vogt or Hamilton or Jack Vance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and he captures the same sense of wonder as these other authors.
Take that for what you will; certainly, I think his “first boom” from 1967 to around 1976 is smarter, deeper, and more enjoyable. But Silverberg was an amazing peddler of, for lack of a better term, pulp. And even in early bare-bones form, as a self-admitted hack writer, his prose style is compelling and readable. This is, as far as I’ve seen, the best example of his early works in terms of quality and content: Chalice is a flawed but fun action story, while Starhaven and Shadow on the Stars showcase Silverberg’s early-years talents. Go into it understanding that the author only got better, and that these are works of escapist fun, and you’ll have a blast.
Alas, this collection will act as a swan-song for the Planet Stories line for the foreseeable future; halfway through Starhaven, I received the dreaded email announcing the Planet Stories hiatus. Given the amount of time and effort Erik Mona has sunk into this imprint, I know he’ll do all he can to bring it back. But that doesn’t change the fact it’s the least profitable—possibly unprofitable—product line, for a company who’s now the market leader for roleplaying games, and from a business standpoint this has been a long time coming. I’ll hold on to my subscription so I can pick up the volumes I need at a discount, and hope that I’ll be surprised with another Planet Story in the future.