by Rosemary Benton
I love the bookstore in my town. Not only do they have a newsstand in front that provides me with the latest world events and developments in the US space program, but they have a very comprehensive science fiction section, front and center, as you walk in. I’ll occasionally look at the stand’s selection of comic books when I hear that there is a new series from Marvel Comics, but every trip to the bookstore must come with at least thirty minutes spent in the science fiction section.
This month part of my book budget went to Ace Double Novel F-133 containing the third publication of A. Bertram Chandler’s The Rim of Space as well as the first edition of John Brunner’s Secret Agent of Terra. Reading these stories back to back was a real treat, and one that I desperately needed this month. After the national tension created by the USSR pledging millions of dollars in military aid to Cuba on February 8th, coupled with the rapidly deteriorating health of one of my family members, my mind had been adrift on dark thoughts. I needed distractions of the science fiction variety, my favorite form of escapism. These stories supplied it in spades.
The first book I read was Chandler’s The Rim of Space. This novella centers around a rag tag team of wash-ups turned merchants aboard the dilapidated, but reliable, ship Lorn Lady. Stationed on the fringe of the Galactic Rim, this is a territory so remote from Earth that the central Terran government, the Federated Worlds, has little influence. Rebellion is building in order to mount a push for the Rim Worlds to become their own government. Caught in this wave of frontier space nationalism is Derek Calver, a man who used to work for a respectable company but has since left to pursue a drifting life in deep space. Through episodic adventures loosely tied to the exchange of merchandise, the crew of Lorn Lady meet intelligent alien lifeforms and experience strange space anomalies.
After finishing The Rim of Space I turned to Brunner’s Secret Agent of Terra. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was reading a novella that pitted the characters of H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series against the American agents of The Time Traders. In almost exact contrast to the universe of Chandler’s piece, Brunner’s protagonists are agents of the Corps Galactica – a economic and security force powerhouse for Earth’s galaxy-wide territories. When a remote and technologically backward world called Planet 14 is penetrated by off-worlders looking to take advantage of the natural resources of the isolated human society, it is up to agents of the Corps to infiltrate the population without notice and take down the exploitative evil doers.
Of the two novellas I found Brunner’s tale of espionage and infiltration to be the more complete of the stories. Like H. Beam Piper, Brunner goes to great lengths to build up an unEarthly society complete with religion, social casts, lore and legend. When I first began reading Secret Agent I had no idea what an unexpected turn the plot would take. The society of Carrig, the central city on the planet, is first introduced in such minutia through the eyes of a merchant trader that one would think he would be the main character. In no way would one guess he was from another planet. In no way would the reader assume he was, in the grand design of the plot, such a minor character. Brunner has a way of making each citizen who appears in his book an indispensable part of the story, even if they play a minor roll. Within the entirety of the book I don’t believe I read about a single character that was superfluous to the overarching story. Every player had a part to play, and it was clear that Brunner knew where he was going with his story from start to finish.
The Rim of Space, on the other hand, focused nearly entirely on building up only three characters out of the entire cast – Derek Calver, the purser Jane Arlen, and strangely enough, the aged Captain Engels. To Chandler’s credit these are three very interesting characters. Calver and Jane are both deeply flawed people with questionable morals, rocky relationship histories, and physically rough around the edges. The relationship that develops between them is entirely fitting for their damaged pasts, and their snappish and jeering squabbles seem to come naturally even as they grow closer. Captain Engels, while nearly absent from the first half of the story, comes to be a constant reminder of the impending conflict that will arise between the Rim Worlds and the Federation. He’s grandfatherly and wise, but frail.
This was a great purchase, and one which I happily give four stars to as a whole. I would love to read the full novel of The Rim of Space at some point. Apparently chapters four and five had to be removed for printing purposes in the Ace Double Novel edition. My hope is that these missing chapters will more closely tie in the impending revolt of the Rim Worlds with the rest of the episodic adventures. As it stands though, individually I think that The Rim of Space is a solid three and a half stars for choosing to develop only three characters and not tying up the adventures of the Lorn Lady’s crew more closely to the hints of a larger overarching plot. Secret Agent of Terra deserves a full five stars. Great twists, incredible setting, fully rounded characters and impeccable world-building put it on the very top.