by Gideon Marcus
What if the South had won at Antietam? Or the Mongols had not been so savaged by the Hungarians at Mohi? If Hitler had grown up an artist? Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since the genre was formalized. One of the newer flavors of the time travel oeuvre is the “sideways-in-time” story, where the “what-if” has become reality. Sometimes the tale is told in isolation, the characters unaware of any other history. Oftimes, the alternate timeline is just one of many.
Keith Laumer published one of the latter type in the pages of last year’s Fantastic, an engaging yarn called Worlds of the Imperium. In this serial, Brion Bayard, a minor diplomat dispatched to Stockholm, is abducted by agents from another Earth. The world he is brought to is under the benign domination of an Anglo-German empire, one whose technology and culture are somewhat mired in the Victorian age, but with one critical difference: The Imperium has perfected the Maxoni-Cocini engine that facilitates cross-timeline travel.
The M-C drive is a finicky thing. One slight error in construction results not only in the destruction of the vehicle, but the entire planet. In fact, the Imperium’s timeline is surrounded to a vast distance by blighted worlds where development of the M-C drive resulted in catastrophe. Only two exceptions exist – our Earth (“Blight Insular Three”), and a closely related world (“Blight Insular Two”) that avoided M-C destruction but fell prey to atomic apocalypse. This latter world has begun to raid the Imperium timeline with increasing effectiveness; it is only a matter of time until they succeed in its conquest. Bayard is the key to the Imperium’s survival.
I won’t tell you how he is the key, nor anything else about the plot of this fun book, just published as one half of Ace Double F-127. It reads a bit like one of Laumer’s Retief novels without the comedy. I like any story that features a hero who is my age (42), and it is one of the few books that accurately portrays the debilitating aftereffects of being truly worked over in a fight. On the negative side of the ledger, Imperium is a bit too short and a touch too glib; while the adventure is exciting and the histories intriguing, somehow, the work fails to leave a much impact. Also, the female lead, the intrepid Swede Barbro, is as undeveloped as a pencil sketch, which makes the ensuing romance between her and Bayard feel tacked on.
Still, I do love alternate history, and Imperium is decent (if not stellar) Laumer. Three and a half stars.
In Stars, a handful of alien colonists survive a spaceship malfunction on the edge of known (to them) space. Refugees from a telepathic society (the Dvaneth), three of them are psi-endowed. The planet on which the seven have crashed is not immediately identified, but it becomes quickly apparent that the world is Earth.
This is something of a mixed blessing: Earth is hospitable to the Dvaneth, who are human in every way (this extreme coincidence is never explained.) Moreover, the telempathic castaway called Mathis is able to learn and convey the languages of the Texan natives to the refugees. Since the colonists look Hispanic, fitting in does not prove difficult. There is even a Dvaneth citizen already installed on Earth, a Watcher who reports on planetary affairs from behind the shield of a terran cover identity. If the colonists can find him, they are halfway to safety.
There is a downside, however. The incorporeal parasite beings, the Rhu-inn, the bane of Dvaneth existence, are endemic to Earth’s sector of space. Having no bodies of their own, they inhabit those of hapless humans, forcing them to to their bidding. Until a planetary shield can be erected against the Rhu-inn, Earth cannot be visited by Dvaneth vessels, and the castaways have no chance of rescue. Worse still, it quickly becomes apparent that a Rhu-inn has already infested at least one human, and planetary conquest is imminent. Can the invader be stopped in time?
All in all, not a bad set up, if a bit hoary. Where the book falls down is execution. Bradley is a new writer, and it shows, with all emotions and dialogue dripping with melodrama – the book equivalent of the comic strips’ inability to use any punctuation but the exclamation mark. As in Imperium, the romance subplots are perfunctory and hackneyed.
Most disturbing is the constant undercurrent of violence. I’m not certain if this was a stylistic choice on Bradley’s part, a way of distinguishing the Dvaneth culture, but if people aren’t striking each other, or contemplating striking each other, they are shouting. Bradley’s castaways are constantly at the edge of a rage, their knuckles white in clenched fists. Only the albino empath, Dionie, seems to rise above base emotions – and Bradley makes her the victim of a near rape! I suppose this kind of roughness is tolerable (expected?) in a Howard-esque fantasy (a la Door through Space) but in Stars, I found it off-putting. Two stars.
Should you pick up F-127? While it is the least of the Ace Doubles I’ve yet picked up, I think the Laumer makes it a worthy purchase, particularly at just 40 cents. And you may like Stats better than I did.
Coming up…January’s exciting Space Race developments!
[By the way, I have been advised that Galactic Journey qualifies for “Best Fanzine” rather than “Best Related Work.” If you were planning on nominating the Journey for a Hugo, we would greatly appreciate your changing your vote accordingly. Thank you!]