Judith Merril [Ed], The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (1957)

Judith Merril [Ed], The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (1956), cover by Richard Powers.
The best part of being a SF nerd is the joyous feeling you get with new purchases. I rarely buy anything published later than 1980, and have a certain penchant for 1970s SF, both because of the covers (oh, the covers) and the great width of storytelling from that decade. Sometimes I go for a specific title, but occasionally I buy a bundle of books, especially if they are cheap. This ‘go happy’ attitude makes my bookshelves swell at an alarming rate and I have more books than I could possibly read.

SF abounds with anthologies/collections/best of’s – some better than others – and if you are a collector you will soon have plenty of such volumes in your shelf. I think it was the Richard Power cover more than the content that made me start to read the The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (published 1957, but summarizing the publications from 1956), but this volume was pretty inspiring once I started to read. There is a certain oldie but goldie tinge to some of the stories, all written at a time when man had not yet put his foot on the Moon; a freer interpretation of what our solar system could house in terms of life and possibilities, with less actual science to compromise the imagination of the authors. That said, this also results in quite predictable stories with ‘the first men on the moon’ or ‘evil alien does evil things until stopped by masculine hero’. If a theme could be applied to this particular volume it would be communication, as the majority of stories in some way or the other relates to how we try, and sometimes fail, to communicate with each other – be it man to man, or man to alien. Given the magnitude of pulp published in the late ‘50s the editor Judith Merril made a good job choosing stories. So good, it seems, that this series continued for more than a decade. I will gladly pick up more issues if I can just to revisit the early days of SF.

Collated rating: 3.15 out of 5 – some highlights, but also several meagre stories

John Bernard Daley, The Man Who Liked Lions – 3 out of 5

Ancient super race with mental powers to subdue men and beasts have a showdown at the zoo. This is the endpoint of a hunt – the tracking down of a renegade – that has taken both the hunted and the hunters through the veils/wheels of time (yes – time machines, naturally). A story that includes elements of van Vogt’s Slan and a slight tinge of the more modern Highlander movie. And it ends, quite surprisingly, in talons and fangs of lions and vultures. John Bernard Daley has only three listed works at ISFDB, all of them short fiction from the second half of the 1950’s.

C. M. Kornbluth, The Cosmic Expense Account – 4.5 out of 5

An absolutely crazy and entertaining short story on two unexpected heroes set to halt an escalating zombie plague: Professor Leuten – the author of Functional Epistemology – and his publisher Mr Norris. This couple despises each other, Professor Leuten because Mr Norris promised him fame (including a cover of Time magazine) he never got, and Mr Norris because Professor Leuten is high strung academic ass. The book they published is of the kind that people buy to look smart, but never reads. Only one person really read it and liked it: Miss Phoebe, an elderly little lady. In doing so, she started to affect the minds of those around her and by the power of Function Epistemology transformed them into mindless, but kind zombies. The kind of zombies that just doesn’t do anything but thinks. Crops rot, or are eaten by rabbits. Houses burn and no one puts the fires out. Society crumbles, zombies starve. The mind plague is spreading outwards 1 km per day and every attempt to stop it only cause more people to be zombiefied. Professor Leuten and Mr Norris want to pay Miss Phoebe a visit and their mutual loathing is their only protection: if they suddenly start to think fondly of each other they know it is Functional Epistemology talking. Using their innermost fears – spiders and rats – and a silly posture on one leg, touching their noses, they have a means to shake the spell away. Beautifully written and mad, this story is great!

Theodore L. Thomas, The Far Look – 2.5 out of 5

Man has finally reached the Moon and established a little mobile observatory, large enough to house two persons. The astronauts are cycled once a month, meaning that each crew stays a long lunar day and a looooong lunar night before being ferried home. But the darkness does something to them and when they return they are transformed, with that Far Look and fine lines around their eyes. A story that doesn’t really puts it all together, where some parts have promise and others not.

E. L. Malpass, When Grandfather Flew to the Moon – 3.5 out of 5

In a remote cabin in 2500 AD, the Griffiths family just install electricity, much to gran’s dismay. Grandpa is an imposing house tyrant, with strong will and strange impulses. Gran is coping, but complaining. The rest of the family isn’t really pictured in any detail, except the young granddaughter who follows gran around at night when she watches the moon go from full, to a sickle and then to disappear. On that very moon is grandpa, after hitching a ride with the spaceship that landed in the field behind the barn. More than verging on the bizarre, Malpass mixes spaceships, strong-headed characters and plot twists freely, all in a very Amish-ish futuristic backwater.

Reginald Bretnor, The Doorstop – 2.5 out of 5

A strange-looking item bought in a flea shop finds it place as a doorstop. But what is this thing, really? It looks ancient, with an aged copper patina – but is it really old?

Silent Brother, Algis Budrys – 3 out of 5

The crew of the first starship expedition just returns to Earth after a jolly in the Alpha Centaury system. Lots of fireworks, hallelujahs and senses of great accomplishments! But not for Harvard Cable. Poor Cable was supposed to go on the expedition, but became crippled in an accident and now sits alone in his apartment brooding dark thoughts. But strange things happen: the crew members become quarantined, the media are not allowed access – is there a space plague? Meanwhile, Cable have unexpected sleepwalking bouts building a strange machine in his cellar. Not a bad story, containing references to the locked-room mystery and a mind-dwelling alien parasite, but could have been longer and more nuanced.

Damon Knight, Stranger Station – 4 out of 5

In this tale, we follow Paul on a mission to Stranger Station, a remote rendezvous point where every year a sole man meets an alien race. His mission is not clear to him and although extremely well paid he has some doubts for what this job will mean for his sanity. The aliens were first observed on the Titan moon and are a horrible sight, nightmarish even. But friendly, it seems. At their first meeting, mankind received a yellow exudate as a gift – a substance that makes humans immortal. And every thirty years a trade meeting occurs – a tête-a-tête between a human and an alien –where a new a batch of yellow precious doses of this elixir is secured.

Isaac Asimov, Each an Explorer – 3.5 out of 5

I would have loved this story 20 years ago; it is very Asimovish. A clever plot revolting around the outcrossing of plants – this time evil mind-bending plants that subjugate intelligent animals to become their involuntary gardeners. It plays with our conception of animals as the top of the food chain, masters of all other creations, and turns it around. The plants happen to be telepathic and the two human explorers get involved in an intergalactic fertilization event and become carriers of evil plant spores. Craftsmanship, yes, good story, yes – but a little too cozy.

Randall Garrett, All About “The Thing” – not graded

A parody in verse. Not really my thing.

Ray Russell, Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster – not graded

Shortened form of an article first published in Playboy on the movie industry’s overtaking of the SF-genre. Not really understandable unless you – unlike me – have all the ‘50s authors, directors and movie titles in living memory.

Robert Nathan, Digging the Weans – 2.5 out of 5

A semi-scholarly argument between different archeology professors on how to interpret the remnants of a long gone culture. Little fragments are unearthed and bits and pieces are used to sketch the lives of the inhabitants of We (inferred from Us) in their old abandoned cities n.yok, Oleens and Chaga’go. Post-apocalyptic musing which probably was more fun to the writer than the reader…

Roger Thorne, Take a Deep Breath – 2 out of 5

Navigator is the worst cigarette on the market, but a new slow hypnotic commercial makes it the hottest brand in town. The alluring method used for advertising Navigator is then expanded to promote a single man for presidency.

Robert Abernathy, Grandma’s Lie Soap- 2.5 out of 5

Old grandma is the matriarch in her little cabin out in woods. She cannot stand lies, and be damned those little rascals that tries to pull her leg – if caught lying she washes their mouths with her lie soap and from that moment on they can say nothing but the truth. The only grandson to escape her punishment grow up to become a city man, a scientist. But science isn’t great – or rather doesn’t turn into profitable products. But when the secret formula of grandma’s lie soap is distilled and added to tooth paste there is money to be made. But what fun is left in a world full of truth?

Mack Reynolds, Compounded Interest- 2.5 out of 5

What would you do if you could travel back in time? Kill Hitler? Save Titanic? Or… maybe just invest your pounds wisely? In this short story a time traveler pops up every 100 years in a Venetian bank, providing advice on how to invest his initial small deposit. Knowing history his money is growing at an exponential rate, until one day when it is time to cash in his fortune.

J. G. Ballard, Prima Belladonna [Vermilion Sands] – 4.5 out of 5

Prima Belladonna is the first of several stories set in Vermilion Sands, a future holiday resort. The main charater makes a living by tending a flower shop with extraordinary singing flowers. Tuned using an Arachnid orchid, these potted plants can be trained to sing everything from Bethoven to jazz. Our dear shop proprietor adjusts the chemicals soaking the plants’ roots to keep them happy, but most of all he struggles with the very diva orchid set in her bolted vault clouded in a chemical fog. In an apartment across the street a golden skinned girl  with insects eyes moves in; a singer whose voice similar to the orchid’s can make wonders happens. It is close to a masterpiece – escpecially in comparison to some of the admittedly rather mediocre stories in this collection – and depicts a decadent, but slow life where people drink, play board games and attend parties. The shop ownder and the insect-eyed woman have a sort of affair, but it is clear that it is more on her terms than his. And likely part of the reason it happens in the first place is because of her interest in the singing flower. I need to read more Ballard.

Theodore Sturgeon, The Other Man- 4 out 5

The longest story in the collection, and from an author that with time rose to the Parnassus of SF writers. Although nicely written and interesting, my interest in the story waxed and waned; perhaps I was too tired when reading it. The premise, at least is interesting: what substance is our personality, and how can it change? The story is centered around Fred, a famous psychologist, his former wife Osa and her new man Newell – who is the patient whose personality is up for scrutiny. Dr Fred has a psychostat, a machine that can tune in to a specific part of the personality spectrum, opening the possibility to investigate – and treat – different parts of the psyche. It is sort of like operating the mind of a person with an old-fashioned radio, turning the knob to the right frequency and than set to work.

In this case the unpleasant, malign personality of the patient boils down to a suppressed twin personality locked in the inner vaults of the brain. A Siamese twin of the mind, and the struggles caused by this multi-personality creates a living man with a single-minded careless and evil personality. But how to treat not only one, but two minds at the same time – and withhold professional morality when all you want is to get back to your former wife? The story oozes of early psychology science and uses this to also explore the relationships between the three main characters. It can be read for free here.

Garson Kanin, The Damnedest Thing – 3 out of 5

A corpse comes to life while the undertaker is preparing it for the funeral. Its final wish is to scale down the costs for the cermony, but what will the undertaker’s wife say?

Zenna Henderson, Anything Box – 3 out 5

A warm ending of the volume, with a story about a teacher and a very special pupil, Sue-lynn with her Anything Box – an invisible box that if your peer into will fill you with your heart’s desires.

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Jack Vance, The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (1966)

Jack Vance, The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (1980 – DAW books [381]).
Oops, I did it again! Unconsciously my hand picked yet another Jack Vance book from the shelf, despite that I had solemnly swore to put him on hold. Well, so much for promises…

The 1980 DAW edition of The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph contains a total of eight short stories/novelettes, written in the late 1940s and 1950s. (In parenthesis, this is two more than in the first edition from 1966 and two less than in the 1984 “complete” Magnus Ridolph edition.) And as the title suggests each story retells a separate planetary adventure of the talented Magnus Ridolph, investigator extra ordinaire.

They have a similar template: Magnus Ridolph is asked to solve a peculiar case/situation, most often involving the types of problems that arise when alien wildlife/civilization/culture interfere with human interests. In the process he almost invariably crosses/double-crosses the bad guys (there is always at least one of those) in a most spectacular way, and leaves the planet with a considerable sum in his pockets (only to loose it in a bad investment somewhere else). As a reader you know what you get.

Three stories from this volume were included in the collection The Worlds of Jack Vance that I read a few months back (namely: The Kokod Warriors, The King of Thieves, and Coup de Grace) and they are shortly reviewed here. Of the remaining five, Magnus Ridolph deals with murderous and indestructible crop-eating aliens (The Howling Bounders); frames a murderer on the backwater planet Sclerotto (The Unspeakable McInch); clears a tourist facility from a sudden onslaught of ferocious gorillas, swooping dragons, and carnivorous crabs (The Spa of the Stars); interacts with mutated intelligent sardines (The Sub-Standard Sardines); lights up a nova and solves the enigma of periodic disappearance of anaeorobic aliens on Jexjeka (To B or Not to C or to D).

Maybe it is just me, but I think this is great entertainment. Seriously who can say no to fun, intelligent and rapid puzzles, set in fantasy worlds populated with bizarre creatures, and seasoned with witty dialogue? If you like Lucky Luke, P. G. Woodhouse and the Muppet Show all mixed in a bowl, well then this is the thing for you.

  • The Kokod Warriors (1952)
  • The Unspeakable McInch (1948)
  • The Howling Bounders (1949)
  • The King of Thieves (1949)
  • The Spa of the Stars (1950)
  • Coup de Grace (1958)
  • The Sub-Standard Sardines (1949)
  • To B or Not to C or to D (1950)

(4 out of 5)

Poul Anderson, The Avatar (1978)

Poul Anderson, The Avatar (1979 – Berkley Books). Stunning cover.

I have tons of books to read; so many it is often hard to choose what to read next. This time it was the cover that got me going. Seriously, the Berkley Book cover of Poul Anderson’s The Avatar is nigh on perfection: a Chewbaccaesque tailed alien flashing fangs in a mighty growl and – oh yes – a human couple in 1970s disco action poses. It is too good for words.

In The Avatar, we approach Earth in a not too distant future. The major powers are still there: America, Russia, Europe, although slightly altered in the hyperbole version so common in cold war SF. However, there is a major change: humans now know they are not alone in the universe. There are the Others, who humans never met, but whose actions and legacy for ever have changed humanity. They left a fabulous gift: a stargate for instant travel. And on the other side of that gate lies Demeter, a planet ready for human colonization. A much-needed planet to reduce the brewing tensions on populous Earth.

Who are these Others, and what do they want? Somehow they must have been watching from afar, making sure the stargate was not found until at a time when humanity was ready to make the leap for space. The transition came with ripples that turned into big waves and upheaval, but somehow a new order has now settled and a balance reached. But it is a fragile balance, a tipping point, where societal havoc could flair again. And at this precarious time another stargate has been located, but what lies beyond is unknown – and just about to be chartered by an expedition.

The problem is that the ship sent out to explore gets back just two months after it went – instead of the many years (if ever) the political leaders thought it should take. The gates, it seems, does not only transport across space, but also allow for time travel. In fact, in relativistic terms eight years have passed for the crew. Now they come back with great tidings and a diplomat from the Betans, a friendly alien society that wants to connect and establish trade. This means change of epic proportions for mankind – a connected universe with endless possibilities is unfolding. It also means the death of the world as we know it, and hence the death of the current power base.

This change is too abrupt for the people in power, so instead of a victorious return the ship is whiskered away and hidden, complete with crew and alien, and no words told of what happened to them. It is a great scam, so effective that it is a complete secret except for a handpicked few. But there is also Daniel Brodersen, a wealthy businessman who realizes something is not as it should, and that the lie reaches to highest levels. He is no hero, but he has the means to do something and escapes Demeter with a crew to go find out what happened with the expedition. This hails the start of a long journey. A journey that will take the crew, and the remnants of the first expedition, across the breadth of space and time – all the way to the Others.

A weakness, in an otherwise pretty good plot, is the idea that the human rulers (dressed in some semi-criminal oligarch costumes) would be able to contain the knowledge of a successful contact with an alien civilization. That does not seem credible; because information wants to be free – it is in our very nature as humans. And when the stakes are high, the more likely it is that someone, somewhere would let the tongue slip. And why do the despondent rulers not want to aim for the stars? Is it them, or the people that isn’t ‘ready’? However, these questions fade away as we follow the crew on their flights across time and space, jumping from stargate to stargate with the hopeless aim of finding back home to Earth.

Thus, on the surface this is a book about political intrigues and human exploration of the great unknown. This is to a degree true, but it is also a book that dwells on the longing for intimacy, and what happens to people that have got lost in time. Much of the plot uses the present back dropped against a fond of what happened ten years ago, before the first expedition to the Betans. Relationships and friendships, expectations and missed opportunities, everything is mirrored in both the past and the present. And there is lovemaking – in all types of gravity. And when it is not lovemaking, it is a sometimes tiresome dialogue on who hopes to make love with whom, or whether it was good, and if it was bad, why was it not good, and who is jealous, and who is not… It find it frustrating and strange that the alien Betan who is among the crew is mentioned only in passing for more than half the book. Seriously, an intelligent ALIEN representing a new civilization is in the ROOM, and instead there are all these thoughts about the pleasures of love.

However, one thing that Anderson does very well is the description of the holothete, humans trained from childhood to be wired to a computer, and how the vastly expanded possibilities for thoughts changes the person, making the ordinary life less and less tractable; a mind on the expense of the body. There are other nuggets too; especially the swirling dance across the universe, and Anderson is a very good writer, sometimes even poetic as in the short avatar passages that are interspersed through the novel. I do recommend you to read the book, but am left with the feeling it could have been a better book if it didn’t dive so deep into some of the longings of soul and flesh (on the expense of other topics). Anyway, The Avatar reached 8th place in 1979’s Locus Poll Award for best novel.

(3.75 out of 5 | pretty good)

 

Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1967)

Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1979 – DAW books [325]).
Having read close to ten Jack Vance books the last year I am close to getting a Vance overdose. And that’s a pity, because I like his rich universe filled with wonders. But there is just so much wonders one can take before being overwhelmed. Hence, I cannot really muster the spirit to report the Palace of Love other than in an offhandedly-short review.

It is the third of five books in the Demon Princes series and it pretty much follows the template of the earlier books: Kirth Gersen gets a lead to where a Demon Prince may be hiding and use all his smartness to get there and tick off one of his the archenemies. In this case the prince is Viole Falushe, known for his lusty hunger for pleasures and his Palace of Love where all things mortal can happen. A palace for the flesh and the sins.

The book is executed in traditional Vance style, filled with seldom used but lovely words. It is musty, rich and flamboyant – but also somehow give the impression of having been written with his left hand while his right hand was busy playing tennis. Simply, it doesn’t really come across as a genuinely wholehearted story. There is some sloppiness I cannot understand, for instance why he wanders away from the alien-breed origins of the Demon Princes and instead plant a story of a bullying boy turned maniac.

Moreover, our angry hero doesn’t really seem that angry anymore, just stubborn and single minded. Despite being awfully rich after the bank swindle in the last book he continues his quest, and in so doing also turn two beautiful women down – one in the beginning of the book and one in the end – both that wants to follow him on his travel. But he does kill Falushe. In style.

I probably should take a Vance break now. Probably, but perhaps not likely.

(2.5 out of 5 | sometimes wordsmithery isn’t enough)

Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1968) cover by Richard Weaver
Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1968) cover by Richard Weaver | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1967) cover by Richard Powers
Jack Vance, The Palace of Love (1967) cover by Richard Powers | credit ISFDB.

Poul Anderson, Virgin Planet (1957)

Poul Anderson, Virgin Planet (1977)
Poul Anderson, Virgin Planet (1977)

A planet full of virgins, well isn’t that every young star faring adolescent’s dream? Or is it, really? A few authors have tried this angle before, but here it is Poul Anderson, one of the big names, that paints the world of amazon virgins. The story revolts around Davis Bertram, a fun but lazy guy that likes to take shortcuts in life, and whose good looks have saved him from any serious consequences (except a trail of crushed hearts of women seduced). Just graduated from space academy he wants to experience the big adventure, gets the thumbs up to go and steers his spaceship to the vicinity of a big reality vortex. Said vortex has hindered any serious exploration in that part of the universe, but now the intensity has dwindled and Bertram is ready to take his chances. In a jest he tells his buddies that he is about to find a world full of women – and hey, that’s exactly what he does.

He merely touches the ground before being trapped and disarmed by Barbara, a red-headed warrior vixen with a temper as sharp as her axe. Barbara drags poor Bertram back to her city, where the big question is wether he is in fact a man – or a monster. The city, an indeed the whole planet, is female only – a sort of early medieval society with warrior women. They are all descendants of a ship that crashed some 300 years ago, but with no men around propagation is based on parthenogenesis conducted by the Doctors using the old ship’s laboratory. The Doctors are religious leaders, proclaiming the arrival of the almighty Fathers – men with supposed magic properties. The big problem for Bertam is to show that he is a man, and not a monster pretending to be a man. If he is a monster he needs to be killed, and if he is a man he is worth killing for!

The story quickly turns into a classic adventure voyage where Bertram and a little band of unlikely women – including Barbara and her twin Vivian – transverse mountains and forests, nearly escaping dangers and plans to kill Bertram. And everywhere: the temptation of voluptuous women hungry for the first man in three hundred years.

It’s not a bad story, as adventure goes – and fairly well written. The problems are more related to the shallowness of the women, but that may be expected for a book with this title. A particular narrative problem is that all derived clones from each of the original shipmates retain the personality of the original, regardless of a new cultural background. It is like all determinants of a personality would be inscribed in the genes, and not being the intricate product of genes, environment and social culture (or nature and nurture, if you so wish). It is, of course, a convenient and creative backdrop, enabling pre-prescribed reactions in the cast, where every clone behaving similarly in a given situation. It is a tad bit tedious. Another irritant is that so many women would just jump into his arms wanting to be fertilized. However, I can disclose that he never gets laid, as there’s always some monster/warrior attack/sibling mix-up interfering with the act.

(3 out of 5 | entertaining, but leaning towards banality)

Jack Vance, The Worlds of Jack Vance (1973)

Jack Vance, The Worlds of Jack Vance (1973 - Ace).
Jack Vance, The Worlds of Jack Vance (1973 – Ace). One of may favorite covers of all times!

Few writers have been blessed with such a rich imagination as Jack Vance. Not only was he very creative, he was also a stylistic writer with a unique prose, erudite yet entertaining. This volume, published in the mid-1970s, brings together a collection of Vance stories from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s with the loose title The Worlds of Jack Vance. Although disparate in content – except the three stories of Magnus Ridolph – the book feels solid and surprisingly coherent. Thus, it could be read in one go, or each story as a stand-alone treat for Vance thirsty SF readers.

This is book is a little gem, from the great cover all the way to the very last page – a must read if you like Vance’s style. I especially liked the two longer stories The World Between and The Moon Moth. The weakest story was The Brains of Earth, which still is better than the majority of mainstream SF. If you have a possibility to buy this book, don’t hesitate – you will not regret it!

 

The World Between (1953)

In an act to strife growing boredom in the crew, the captain of the research vessel Blauelm decides to make a detour into the Kay System before returning to the Blue Star. Although not at war, the Kay and the Blue Star civilizations have been quarreling for a long time. The explorers happen to stumble on a planet suitable for human life, if properly bioformed. When the Blue Star claims the planet and starts introducing a succession of species designed to transform the methane atmosphere into oxygen and carbon dioxide, the Kay responds in turn. What ensues is biological warfare, where the Kay are dropping pests and the terraformers responding with pest of the pests, increased resistance, etc. A quite entertaining novelette, especially for me as biology professor. Good stuff, which ends with a surprising twist.

The Moon Moth (1961)

Newly graduated from the Institute, Edward Thissel finds himself promoted to Consular of the Home Planets on Sirene, after the unfortunate death of his predecessor. Sirene is an extremely beautiful and fertile planet, but home to a strange civilization. Because of the bountiful environment, people have evolved a culture around honor instead of wealth where one’s place in society is displayed by ornate masks, such as the Forest Goblin, the Dragon-Tamer, or the Red Bird. Poor Thissel is ill prepared for the Sirenese life, and have to don the Moon Moth mask; a drab grey mask with tufts of hair, marking him as of little consequence. To make matters worse, language is accompanied with music, played on a dozen different instruments – and if played with the wrong instrument, intonation, or scale, the message can be interpreted as insulting. This was what caused the death of Thissel’s predecessor. After an uneventful three months of learning instruments, Thissel receives an urgent order to find and exterminate an assassin who just arrived to Sirene. But how to find a man with an unknown face in a city of masks?

Brain of the Galaxy (1951)

A patchwork of seemingly non-connected stories: a man appears naked at a cocktail reception; another man leads the remnants of a warrior battalion towards retaliation; a third man searches an abandoned desert city for a parchment in a brass coffin; a fourth man paints vivid dream pictures on a screen with his brain; and a fifth man endures endless bouts of tortures in the Room Below. All in the quest for the Brain of the Galaxy.

The Devil on the Salvation Bluff (1955)

The religious settlers on Glory struggle to turn the wilderness into neat, orderly habitation. They are partly successful, but the unpredictable timing of day and night makes life difficult – Glory has nine suns, all of which seem to pop up and down seemingly random on the sky. Another irritant are the Flits, descendants from a crash-landed spaceship 500 years past that roams the mountains with their sheep, seemingly careless about the joy of God and civilization. Something needs to done about the Flits, as an interplanetary Inspector is about to arrive.

The Men Return (1957)

When causality disappeared, the downfall of men was imminent. Now only a handful sane humans, called Relicts, remain, while a new humans, called Organisms, developed from the lunatics and insane. And now the last Relicts are bound to be eaten.. A both disturbing and wonderful little novel, with Salvadore Dali inspired landscapes, ever-shifting and dangerous, and rampant cannibalism.

The Kokod Warriors (1952), The King of Thieves (1949), Coup de Grace (1958)

Magnus Ridolph is one of Jack Vance’s favorite characters, to which he often returned in his work. Magnus Ridolph is like a Galactic version of Hercules Poirot crossed with an adventurer from a fantasy novel. Although serving the general good, he seems to take on missions that are also quite lucrative to him. This collection has three Magnus Ridolph stories, all very enjoyable to read and all with the same quick humor. In the Kokod Warriors, he sets out to help the Women’s League Committee for the Preservation of Moral Values to halt the betting and gaming on the strange planet Kokod, where little tribes of Kokod warriors live to fight one another in perpetual and ritualized warfare. In The King of Thieves, Magnus Ridolph lands on the planet of thieves and sets out to steal from the King of Thieves. And in the Coup de Grace, an anthropologist is found dead, shot in his head, in the little spaceport The Hub. Magnus Ridolph is asked to find out who the killer is, and uses logic and skill in a very Agatha Christie-like manner to do so.

The Brains of Earth (1966)

Abducted by the alien race Tauptu, Paul Burke finds himself on a planet plagued by a century long war. The war has just come to an end, where the last of the Chitumih have been seiged by the Tauptu. Chitumih and Tauptu are the same race, the only difference between the two is that Chitumihs are infected with a mind-sucking parasite called the nodal that influences their behaviors. However, the Chitumih are not the only infected: all of Earth is overloaded with nopals. After some terrible treatments, Burke his sent back to Earth with a single mission: to cleanse Earth from nodals. And he only has a month to do.

Jack Vance, Ecologcial Onslaught [variant title The World Between] (1953), cover by A. Leslie Ross | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, Ecologcial Onslaught [variant title The World Between] (1953), cover by A. Leslie Ross | credit ISFDB. Giant moths with barbed talons are dipping in to their prey.
Jack Vance, The Moon Moth and other stories (1976), cover by Richard Weaver.
Jack Vance, The Moon Moth and other stories (1976), cover by Richard Weaver | credit ISFDB. A great artistic cover!
Jack Vance, Brain of the Galaxy (1951), cover by H. R. van Dongen.
Jack Vance, Brain of the Galaxy (1951), cover by H. R. van Dongen | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, Les mondes de Magnus Ridolph (1977).
Jack Vance, Les mondes de Magnus Ridolph (1977) | credit ISFDB. Three of the stories in the collection comes from The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, here in a French edition with a Kokod Warrior.

Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1964)

Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1964 - Berkley Medallion Books) cover by Richard Powers.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1964 – Berkley Medallion Books) cover by Richard Powers.

Time for The Killing Machine, number two in Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series. The gallant hero in this space-fantasy saga is Kirth Gersen, a man whose life is devoted to track down and kill the five Demon Princes responsible for the annihilation of his home planet.

In the previous book, Gersen successfully found and killed Malagate the Woe, but is now without any leads to the whereabouts of the other four alien, but humanoid Demon Princes. To have something to do other than loitering around in space harbors, Gersen accepts an offer to serve as weasel in the Beyond and track down a traitor of the Oikumene. This mission by coincidence leads him to a trail of Kokor Hekkus, the notoriously cruel Demon Prince known for his extravagant pleasures in combining machines in the torturing and killing of people.

But Kokor Hekkus is not an easy man to find, as there is no information about either his looks or his home. Gersen gets a little bit closer by investigating the kidnappings of a large range of wealthy citizens. By following the money, he finds clues about Kokor’s home planet – Thamber. However, Thamber is a lost planet, known only in childhood stories and poems.

Set a course from the old Dog Star

A point to the north of Achernar;

Sleight your ship to the verge extreme

And dead ahead shines Thamber’s gleam.

Gersen’s ticket to Thamber involves the construction of a giant killing machine in the form of centipede – commissioned by Kokor Hekkus – and the help of Alusz Iphigenia, an original inhabitant of Thamber that Gersen releases from the debtors of Interchange. Once on Thamber, it remains to Gersen to find and kill Kokor – in a forgotten world full of beasts and angry people.

Jack Vance likes his heroes and provide them with both mental and physical skills, including surprisingly good proves of martial arts. Kirth Gersen is no objection to this pattern, but in this second book we get to experience some levels of doubts in the main character, which I find refreshing. Otherwise, Vance writes a fantastic flowing prose, with colorful and imaginative worlds and creatures. I am saving the last three books on the shelf until the autumn, so that I have something to look forward to. Kind of when you put a good vintage wine in the cellar for a special occasion.

On a final note: for once I seem to have procured a first edition – and with a cover of Richard Powers. I am pleased.

Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1967) cover by Richard Weaver | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1967) cover by Richard Weaver | credit ISFDB. Killer centipede with LP eyes – something to haunt you in your dreams.

Jack Vance, La machine à tuer [The Killing Machine] (1969) cover by Ed Emshwiller | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, La machine à tuer [The Killing Machine] (1969) cover by Ed Emshwiller | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, De Moordmachine [The Killing Machine] (1970) cover by Robert Ebell and Ruurd Groot | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, De Moordmachine [The Killing Machine] (1970) cover by Robert Ebell and Ruurd Groot | credit ISFDB. Killer centipede – or, no, is must be a killer centiarma! Or perhaps Hallicugenia?

Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1978) cover by Gino D'Achille | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1978) cover by Gino D’Achille | credit ISFDB. Good dog, sit.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1980) | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1980) | credit ISFDB. Cool alien! Gecko hands, ridged back, lots of horns and a giant Chinese dragon eye – all the things you want your alien to posses.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1988) cover by Chris Foss | credit ISFDB.
Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (1988) cover by Chris Foss | credit ISFDB. A rather typical 1980s cover based on the colours and the big machines – but I like.