Wed 20 Jan 2010
KEITH WOODCOTT – The Ladder in the Sky. Ace Double F-141, paperback original; 1st printing, 1962. [Paired with this novel, tęte-bęche, is The Darkness Before Tomorrow, by Robert Moore Williams.]
There was a time when every SF fan worthy of the title had to have a complete set of Astounding’s, and if not, then a set of Ace SF Doubles was almost as good a credential for getting yourself in the door.
For the most part they were a direct carry over from the days of the pulp magazines, but gradually better authors and better writing came along – authors such as Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. LeGuin – but even so, their early stories still showed their pulp roots.
And so does The Ladder in the Sky. Woodcott was one of the pen names of the much better known John Brunner, an author who went on to win a Hugo award or two – but not in 1962, nor for this book, as enjoyable as I found it to be.
The Ladder in the Sky one of those books that heads off in one direction, a totally familiar one for veteran SF-nal readers, but somewhere along the way, it jumps off the track and all but starts over. (I love it when that happens. Or at least I usually do.)
Picked seemingly at random from literally a slum on the wrong side of tracks on a backwater planet, Kazan is kidnapped and forced by a sorcerer into a mystical if not magical sort of servitude to a black demon or devil for the standard year and a day. (See the cover as shown above.)
The purpose? To gain the powers he needs to rescue the city’s true leader from his imprisonment in an impregnable fortress surrounded by a moat filled with strange and ferocious creatures.
Easily done. And then? The rest of the tale. (See above.) Kazan has to learn what his powers are, what they can be used for – and what they can’t – and most importantly, how to get along with his fellow humans while he’s struggling with his own identity.
These, I am sure, are concepts that resonated strongly with the SF readers of the day. The writing is acceptable, but unfortunately some of the characters are only caricatures of real people. Primitive, in fact. It may have been lack of space – the novel is only 137 pages long – or (more likely) this early in Brunner’s career he had the ideas but not yet the skills to carry them out.