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A whimpering bang, or a bangin' whimper?


After this, Paizo is putting their Planet Stories line on indefinate hiatus, so this will stand as the endpoint of the brand for at least a time. So does it end with a bang or a whimper, or a little bit of both? Probably both.

Once again, this is a collection of classic Robert Silverberg - the third in a row, and the second to have three novellas together. Maybe my Silverberg threshhold was being pushed as a result, but I thought this was the weakest of the three collections, with Hunt the Space Witch probably the best. Of the three stories, Starhaven was the most fun, but all stories, I think, have flaws. Sad but true, the best part of the book is probably the excellent introduction by Silverberg about writing sci-fi in the 50's and 60's.

Chalice of Death is about the potential rebirth of a long-lost human empire, based around a mythical Earth. The problem here is, finding Earth is about as hard as a trip to a local library and then chatting to some nobel savage aliens, which kind of makes it all seem a bit implausible. There are some fun moments of battle and politicing, but its probably OK rather than good or great.

Starhaven is actually pretty morally grey: an artificial world run by a strongman, where nothing is illegal - including murder. There is a little depth here as our hero is not sure himself whether he is a brainwashed space cop sent to close the place down, or not. There is also a local resistance movement, that spouts a lot of fancy rhetoric, but basically thinks that they can do a better job of avoiding the struggle for power when the Stalin-like leader eventually dies. So, they plan to bring his death forward involuntarily so they can control the outcome. At first it sounds noble - especially on a world somewhere between rogue state and libertarian paradise - but the more you think about it, no one has much goodness in their heart. Still, there are moments of derring-do and a pretty girl in a love triangle, so it definitely has moments.

The last story, Shadow on the Stars, is a time paradox sci-fi think piece, with a background overwhelming threat or two to overcome. Really though, its aiming at being hard sci-fi dealing with temporal issues, as well as themes of colonialisation and decay. Its ok, but just seemed to lack a little "fun".
All up, this is an interesting reprint of some old more or less early sci-fi tales by a guy who turned out to be a pretty damn good writer. These tales might otherwise have been more or less lost, and that would have been a shame.

Hopefully the Planet Stories line will return in time, bringing back more old classics.

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A modern reprint "Ace triple"


Back in the 1950's and 60's, Ace books published as a sci-fi series a number of "Ace Doubles" - books with two front covers, upside down relative to each other, and two novellas/novels you could read back to front. Those doubles usually contained works by two authors, although some were two stories by the same writer, and sometimes there were two stories by the same author but one published under a pseudonym. Robert Silverberg had some of his early work presented in such a manner, and tells you all about those heady days in a nice little introduction. Then its off to the republication of three 50 year old 90-odd page stories (its not 400 pages all up, as the desciption says) in a strictly conventional one after the other fashion. In fact, I have no idea how one *could* do an "Ace triple", save by using non-euclidian geometry...but I digress. How do these old stories hold up? Pretty well.

The Plot Against Earth is an adventure story with aliens, spaceships and blasters, but not hard sci-fi in the sense there is no lovingly detailed description of how things work: there is faster than light travel (nullspace) and matter duplicators but this is just by the by, like hopping on a bus would be to you and I. It’s a mystery story as well, and while I can't say the plot twists are any great surprise the plot moves fast enough to hold your interest to the end.

The titular story smacks of Minority Report (which it post-dates by a year or two) but instead of "pre-cogs" we have a computer prediction of a future war that is best averted by destroying a planet now, before it can cause the deaths of 50 billion, rather than just 3 billion. A secret agent is sent to this world to carry out its destruction with planet killing devices, and finds a horrible world seemingly without hope of redemption. But there are some small details that raise doubts here and there: and who wants 3 billion deaths on their conscience? This is more than just an run of the mill story, dealing with issues as well as action, and reasonably well done, too.

The last story is "One of our asteroids is missing" which really should be titled "MY asteroid is missing". Its about a young space-miner who lays claim to a mineral-rich asteroid, only to find upon his return to Earth that his claim has not been recorded...and then that he has been deleted from all computer records. Something is up, and he has to go back to his claim to find out what...and its nothing he was prepared for. This is a nice little romp, reminiscent of Brackett in a way, almost a Western in spirit. Its amusing to see that the book is set around 2018, and that there are private spacecraft and that there has been a Mars colony since 1970-odd. Obviously, things did not turn out like that, but you wonder if they could have, in a slightly different world. There a few plot holes when you stop and think about it, but nothing that slows you down when reading the story.

All up this is a pretty good little collection, fun to read and well written enough to make you think from time to time.

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Very early Silverberg


First of all, this book is 250+ pages, not 400, so we have 7 30-odd page short stories here dating from the 1950's, some of Silverberg's first published stuff, written as blood n guts space opera with giant scientists, evil alien toad-men, chilling murderous cults, and more. Largely they are adventure tales in a sci-fi setting, with a more or less heroic protagonist.

A lot of the worlds depicted here seem to hint at those later developed in Silverberg's magnum opus Majipoor cycle - kind of providing a lot of the backdrop of the alien universe which only just touches the backward little world of Majipoor. Certainly there are echoes of this early stuff in Lord Valentine's Castle, and that’s a good thing.

There is also a little depth to the stories you don’t always see at first. "The Silent Invaders" is about warring aliens putting aside their differences to help a new "super" generation of humanity evolve - there is only a line or two, like "normal humans are the real enemy" or some such, to hint that perhaps all is not as it seems, and at the end of the story you wonder to what extent the protagonists actions are really his own, and to what extent he has been mentally influenced - controlled, even - by his new charges.

Add in a little introduction by the author about the writing of these stories, and all up there is a fun little book here just waiting to be read.

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Writings of the birth of humanity


This is the work of a young Manly Wade Wellman, before he wrote his Silver John stories. Here, the hero is Hok, once of the first modern humans. Yes, he is a caveman, wearing furs and carrying a sharp stick at the beginning of his saga, but over time Hok becomes "humanity's first hero" driving out Neanderthals, learning archery, metalwork, and forging peace between tribes.

This is, actually, pretty good stuff, and containing hints at a broader mythos that explains Atlantis, an advanced civilisation swept away by the (meditterranean) sea. Hok is surprisingly engaging for a guy who wears animals pelts and initially thinks the way to a woman's heart is to steal her away from her family and friends, and Wellman hints that many of the labours of Hercules are much-garbled retellings of Hok's early exploits.

There is also a 50-page short story which is not of Hok, but of his tribe (presumably in post-Hok days) meeting a Martian exploratory force come to take over the Earth, and driving them off: shades of The High Crusade here, and its interesting to speculate if the story was inspiration for that, on some level.

A short introduction by David Drake is also included, telling us that Wellman in fact lived in tribal Africa until he was 7, so he probably had a good understanding of "primitive" tribal man, and lets us know a little about the man. This is interesting and welcome.
All in all, this is not as good as Silver John, but still a solid read.

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Jekyll & Hyde


This is an experiment for Planet Stories, two 70-80 page novellas by different authors in the manner of an old Ace Double. Does it work? Well, only insofar as the stories are any good. One is, and one is..not so good.

As a 15 or 16 year old, Michael Moorcock wrote some Sojan short stories for a fanzine. This is a collection of those stories, apparently somewhat revised. It's not great - the characters are less than one-dimensional, the narration inconsistent, and the setting contradictory - in the space of a few pages Sojan refers to his boss as "War-King" and "Emporer", and implies both hereditary succession and election to the position. Each 2-3 page chapter is almost a standalone story.

For a brief while, it rises above itself when Sojan crosses the Demon Sea and confronts the evil priests of Rhan and the Old Ones. This pretty obviously draws heavily from work of H P Lovecraft, and then Robert E Howard's Tower of the Elephant Conan tale.

In the introduction to the book, Erik Mona points out that Moorcock's first thoughts on republishing Sojan were that it would be a mistake. I would say that Moorcock should have followed his initial instinct and let this stuff fade into obscurity, or rewritten it to a much greater degree than he did.

Under the Warrior Star is the better story of the two, for all that follows the "sword & planet" formula - set out by Mona in his introduction - precisely. Brax is a modern Earthman who stumbles across a secret Government facility in the wilds of Alaska and becomes a human guinea pig to be sent into an experimental man made universe. There is a planet there, which is both strangely Earthlike and strangely not (for instance, the Earth is actually a giant tree).

While there he inexplicably gains superhuman speed and strength, meets fellow more or less men, and of course, a woman (in a chapter helpfully titled "The Woman").

There is then an adversary to overcome: The One, an odious plant hive mind that has giants for slaves and devours humans. Brax uses his unique Earthly knowledge to good effect, and heads off to the inevitable confrontation...and I'll stop there, so as to avoid spoilers.

Yes, the story is formulaic, but the telling is good and has a few wrinkles: rather than try to explain everything, the first person narrator sometimes just shrugs and says "I don’t know". This works better than getting bogged down in detailed mumbo-jumbo, and lets the plot and action continue. The story does not raise issues of existential angst: it just offers a few hours of escapist reading pleasure.

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Mostly pointless


Before They were Giants is an anthology without a theme, a collection of the "first published" works of a wide range of living SF writers. There are 15 short stories in about 200 pages, which includes a brief questionnaire with answers by each author (itself generally two or three pages long). As a result, there is a real grab-bag of things here, with "sci-fi" being pretty widely interpreted and the authors involved ranging from Piers Anthony to China Mieville.

As a result, by operation of the simple law of averages, there are bound to be a few things here you like. The bad news is, its probable there will be quite a bit more you either dislike or are indifferent to. Its also billed as a primer for aspiring writers - which it may very be of some use as, I have no idea - but as a result it also straddles into teachiness in places at the expense of fun. Throw in the fact that this is, by definition, the rawest works of the authors involved, and the book becomes of more use as a curiosity striving for "importance" than a book trying to be "fun".

Two and a half stars is probably fairer than two, but I can't do that, and I cant give it three stars just for meaning well and trying real hard.