Singularity & Co. has been busy expanding since I last read one of their ebooks, the flawed but very enjoyable swashbuckler The Torch. Trying to beat back my growing backlog pile, I went after their November release: Doomed Planet by Lee Sheldon. Sheldon’s probably better known as C. Wayne Lee, the western author who penned over fifty novels and seven hundred stories during his lifetime, only one of which being a science fiction. (And, as far as I can tell, it’s his only work that’s outside the Western and Religious genres.) The one-off Doomed Planet was published in 1967 by Avalon Books, one of the few ’50s-era small-press publishers still in existence at the time, with a striking cover by Gray Morrow.
I’m still curious as to why Lee was branching out into the SF genre in ’67; maybe it’s due to the cult popularity of Star Trek, which started the previous year, or because the Space Race was heating up. Regardless, it’s interesting to see a Western author taking tentative steps into science fiction, learning to play with techniques and tropes that were already science-fiction staples. Lee’s prose is very clear and concise, reminding me of the old ’50s juveniles; the characters being pretty young—they’re supposedly college grads, though they act like small-town teenagers—reinforces that juvenile feeling.
Though, truth be told, the book reads like an early Star Trek episode or a ’50s B-movie—it reminds me a lot of This Island Earth. The plot is basic: after an astronomer and his assistant go missing after bouncing radio-waves into deep space, the astronomer’s nephew Jeff and his pal Woody keep the experiments going. Sure enough, this leads to contact with aliens, who abduct Jeff’s fiancee Sue on their wedding night, and drag her off into deep space. Bumbling around in a second spaceship, Jeff and Woody accidentally trip some controls and set off in hot pursuit, landing on the titular doomed planet where they are taken hostage. Turns out the aliens need to unlock the secret of human facial emotions to conquer earth, since a massive comet is heading straight for their planet—which lacks a real crust, so the comet will most likely obliterate that world. With their planet doomed, the aliens decided to conquer an inhabited planet rather than go after uninhabited but less comfortable planets farther away (sheer laziness).
So, we have the basics laid out before us. Bumbling protagonists, force-fields and space-ships, death rays, evil aliens with multiple arms… the details, though, reinforce that juvenile feel. The aliens are all-powerful and cannot be stopped—unless you slap them on their thumb, which immobilizes them. They also carry fake double-thumbs on one of their hands, which turn out to be “power thumbs”—basically, keys in the shape of thumbs. The book campy, lighthearted pulp in this vein, save for some fascinating and grim revelations later on—spoilers, next paragraph.
See, the evil aliens who remain are survivors of a class war, where the smartest aliens killed off the more numerous not-smart aliens, which conveniently left them too under-populated to prepare against the death-comet. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the summary of things. No, it’s not the greatest revelation in the world, but the rather grim morality angle that shows up later in the book fascinated me. Thus far, it had been a book about inept space rescuers beating up evil aliens and taking their power thumbs; it doesn’t stop being lighthearted camp after that, but that development came out of nowhere and pleasantly shocked me.
Doomed Planet is by no means a legendary work; it’s pretty light and forgettable, save for the brilliant covers. The story itself didn’t do much for me, and I left it feeling a shade underwhelmed: I’m sure someone will be thrilled by a light and fun read like this, but it was too much of a generic juvenile to me, and didn’t particularly stand out. I feel like I’m phoning this review in, which is more for completion’s sake and since I already mentioned I’d be reading/reviewing it. I am glad Singularity & Co. rescued it for future archival purposes, expanding their coverage across the varied breadth of forgotten science fiction literature, because there are plenty of great forgotten books out there. Just because I wasn’t thrilled by this one doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t love it.
This review is part of Vintage Sci-Fi Month; not that I needed an excuse to read vintage science fiction.
Ebook Comments: I was about to praise Singularity & Co. for their lack of errors, up until I saw a pair of words with those weird little sideways L’s that show up as OCR errors. Still, there’s but a few of them; S&Co. is rocking out on the proofreading side. This book is currently only available for those of us with S&Co. subscriptions… I got in with a lifetime subscription from their Kickstarter, so I feel somewhat guilty now for the low price I paid.