by Gideon Marcus
I recently discovered the goodness that is the ACE Double. For just 35 cents (or 45 cents, depending on the series), you get two short books back to back in one volume. I’ve been impressed with these little twinned novels though their novelty may pass as I read more magazine scientificition – after all, many of the ACE novels are adapted magazine serials. Still, they’ve been a great way to catch up on good fiction I’ve missed.
Biggle’s name is what sold me on this Double as he’s turned in some solid work in the last few years. In fact, you might have read Espers, Biggle’s first novel, when it appeared in Amazing back in 1959 as A Taste of Fire. Now, normally I try to provide a modicum of commentary on the works I review. After all, you all tune in for my exhaustive literary criticism, right? My academic spotlight on the objective quality of a work in the context of our modern and historical socio-political structures?
Well, good. Because I’d hate to spoil a word of Biggle’s excellent work. Quite simply, the thing had me hooked from the first paragraphs, and it did not let me go until I had finished the novel two hours later. Espers held me in rapt attention while the needle of my phonograph hissed up and down on the last groove of a record, completely unheeded. Biggle has written a compelling, often unpredictable read, and had I discovered it two years ago, it would have been a strong contender for the 1959 Galactic Stars awards. 4.5 stars. Read it.
Lowndes’ Puzzle Planet is a horse of a different color. It is the author’s attempt at a straight sci-fi themed “whodunnit” murder mystery. Set on an extraterrestrial world inhabited by seemingly primitive humanoids, it struggles to maintain interest. The key problem is that Lowndes is a veteran of the Golden age of science fiction. His heyday was in the 1940s, and he has written very little fiction in the last ten years, his time being taken up with magazine editing, particularly the digests, Future, Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Quarterly. Puzzle Planet, while it is not unentertaining, it is also not innovative. The events of Lowndes’ novel could as easily have taken place in an exotic Earth locale, perhaps in the Orient or Africa.
Moreover, it is often the case that a science fiction writer can only manage a few leaps at a time. If a story features creative extrapolation of technology, then often the society portrayed is bog-standard modern American. Or if the characterization is particularly keen, then the technical aspects may be conventional. Lowndes, in focusing on the mystery aspects of his story, misses out on both, showing us both technology and culture that are utterly familiar, despite the story taking place on an alien world far in the future.
Nevertheless, Lowndes does know how to write, and the mysteries (plural) are competent, as one would hope given the priority he gives them. Three stars.
Whatever my misgivings about Puzzle Planet, I can’t deny that 35 cents was a steal for the 245 pages of entertainment I got out of D-485. If it’s still at your local bookstore, do pick it up.