Tue 16 Sep 2014
JOHN RACKHAM – Dark Planet. Ace Double 13805, paperback original, 1971. Published back to back with The Herod Men, by Nick Kamin. Cover art by Jack Gaughan.
I don’t read nearly as much science fiction as I used to. I don’t care for fantasy, except on occasion the humorous kind. I’m not interested in military science fiction, even though the first three Star Wars movies were a lot of fun. I don’t like long series of books in the same world or universe, especially the big fat thick ones. I know if I ever start one, either I’ll never finish or (wonder of wonders) it is what I’m looking for and it sucks all of the reading time out of my day.
I thought I’d like the new fad, or at least I think it is, of steampunk SF and fantasy — the kind that takes place in Victorian times — but I quickly discovered that a little bit of gaslights, diesel-powered zeppelins and intricately machined robots goes a long way. (If I’m mischaracterizing the genre, I assume someone will let me know, gently, of course.)
I assumed for a while that, even no one’s publishing it, what I like is good old-fashioned space opera, until I tried to read one of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s old Lensman series. No for me, not any more, not stickboard characters like this. Maybe I’m too old for science fiction, both the current variety and last century’s.
Or maybe not. Coming across a duplicate copy of one of Ace’s well-remembered and long-lost Ace Doubles, I gave it a try, and while Dark Planet showed its roots far too clearly, it was a lot of fun to read. I liked it. It’s my era of Science Fiction, circa 1966-72, when I wasn’t yet 30 but had started my teaching career and life was as fine as it could be. Maybe everyone has their own particular niche in terms of favorite reading material, and could it be that I’ve only been reading the Wrong Stuff?
Stephen Query is the protagonist in this one. He’s a misfit in the world of humanity in which he is forced to live. He doesn’t belong. He walks to the beat of a different drummer. He’s been forced out of the Space Service, where he thought he’d found a home, and sentenced to a life of drudgery and loneliness on a world with an atmosphere so noxious that it would dissolve the clothing right off your back. Sentenced there unjustly for disobeying a high-ranking officer’s direct orders. A world that’s fit only as a stopping-off and refitting station for spaceships on their way to fight in another part of the galaxy.
But loneliness he doesn’t mind, and it comes with some dismay to learn that he has been pardoned and is forcibly ordered to ship out and off to war. But the ship is sabotaged, and he and the Admiral and the Admiral’s daughter are forced to make a crash landing on the planet.
The Admiral’s daughter has one outstanding feature, according to the author, and that is her bosom. Her breasts are mentioned with obvious admiration several times, and on a planet where clothing dissolves, along with all other non-living material, we think — or at least I did — we have an inkling where this is going.
Wrong. It turns out that the world, previously unexplored, is inhabited. Not only by the people who eventually rescue the unlucky trio, but there are also sentient beings on the upper levels of the planet. Not only that, but only Query can communicate with them, being a human of other talents, and not only mentally and emphatically, but in a (shall we say) in a more sensual way, or so I gathered — since we the readers do not have the same talents, but need to be given hints at times as to what is transpiring.
Very reminiscent, I thought, of novels of the late 40s, by authors such as Henry Kuttner, in only a slightly upgraded and a bit more sophisticated telling, complete with happy ending.
But the most enjoyable aspect of this short novel (just over 100 pages, but of small print) is that I both did and didn’t know exactly where the novel was going. Not Hugo-winning material at all, in any year, don’t get me wrong about that, but this fit the bill at exactly the time I wanted to read it. Good stuff!