The latest in Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories pulp reprint line is a trilogy of early Robert Silverberg tales, written for the digest Science Fiction Adventures, which was in turn looking back to the old Planet Stories pulp for inspiration. The first book, Hunt the Space Witch! (hereafter referred to as HtSW!), contains seven of his earliest stories; the next two each contain three novellas. These stories have been out of print since they were in Ace and Dell paperbacks in the 60s-70s (one of the Ace Doubles I own includes “Slaves of the Star Giants”).
Hunt the Space Witch! is pure pulpy science fiction goodness. Look at the names of the stories it holds: “Slaves of the Star Giants,” “Spawn of the Deadly Sea,” “Valley Beyond Time,” “Hunt the Space Witch!” If those don’t catch your attention, you’re barking up the wrong tree. These are fast-paced tales of adventure and intrigue, of horrific monsters and beautiful star damsels; don’t expect a lot of complex development and you’ll get a lot of pulpy fun. There’s post-apocalyptic vikings and star-spanning empires, interstellar spy games, and a pair of time-travel tales. Like most pulp tales, imagination often outranks complexity, but Silverberg is a solid writer capable of great imagery and tension, two things pulp fiction needs most.
The stories in HtSW! are all medium-short, around 30-40 pages each. This makes them short enough to read in one sitting, without overdosing on the pulp, like popping popcorn. Their short length also constrains them to the basic “introduction, development, ending” formula, so they’re a rushed and choppy at points. It’s also an exercise in watching an author mature: the later stories are better than the earlier ones, in terms of pacing and development.
“Spacerogue” is definitely my favorite, an interesting tale of revenge for the titular mercenary. “The Silent Invaders” is also pretty good, about two warring species of aliens seeding spies into Earth culture. On the other hand, the two time-travel stories, “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “Valley Beyond Time,” are roughly identical. Well, not exactly, but they have a lot of similarities in their basic premise and execution, and it was like reading the same story again. The former is more interesting for its creativity, while the latter is more developed, but far less interesting, culminating in a somewhat random encounter before an abrupt ending.
As with all pulp-era fiction, everyone’s tolerance level varies, but if you’ve picked up other Planet Stories books or have read a lot of ’40s/’50s-era fantastic fiction, you should be right at home. Personally, I’m glad to see Planet Stories branching out into more of the “ray guns and rocket ships” stuff; I’m a fan of their brand of planetary romance and swords-and-sorcery, but variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also worth noting that this is a huge book; the last Planet Stories I found, the Before They Were Giants comp, was relatively huge compared to the rest of the line, and HtSW! dwarfs that by some 30 pages. Also, the price: the Planet Stories pricetag has fluctuated around $15.99 since the change in formatting, which is pretty decent, considering some pulp reprint collections of the same general page count (200-350) have MSRPs of twice that.
I have to say, that’s one of my favorite Planet Stories covers yet, done by the amazing Kieran Yanner; the girl-in-the-nebula is hella-slick, and the old-school primary colors rocket ships are a nice touch. Paizo also has a wallpaper version up. Sadly, the next two books in Paizo’s Silverberg trilogy look a bit different; they’re good, too, with heavy James Bond vibes, but for my money HtSW! is the best of the three.
(spoilers, if you haven’t read the two previous Skaith books)
Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.
Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.
The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.
Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. Reavers has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.
Even with those complaints, Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and Hounds as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards Reavers because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.
It’s even more bittersweet in that Reavers was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.
(slight spoilers, for those who didn’t finish The Ginger Star)
The Hounds of Skaith picks up after the conclusion of The Ginger Star. Eric John Stark has ventured across the dying planet of Skaith in search of his foster-father Simon, destroying the citadel of the ruling Wandsmen in the process. Now, he has to venture back across Skaith, to the planet’s single starport, before the Wandsmen close the planet off for good. For you see, Skaith is dying, and many of its citizens want to leave before its sun dies and the planet freezes, while the Wandsmen want to retain power and keep the status quo.
This volume is filled with action, and all the epic battles the previous book was a short on. Skaith is devolving into civil war, as more and more groups realize that Old Sun is indeed dying, and that they must escape before the long freeze. Stark continues his role as a pawn of prophecy neck-deep in Skaith’s politics, as he unifies these rebellious groups to fight the Wandsmen. And to make things more difficult, he knows he can’t trust some of them.
It only took a few chapters to remember why Leigh Brackett’s Ginger Star is one of my favorite Planet Stories books: it’s got a lot of the Barsoomian/swords-and-planets fare, yes, but when Brackett grabs the reins it transcends into something more. Most of the early Planet Stories line was filled with pure Barsoomian novels—Almuric, the Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and Otis Aldelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs. For my money, Brackett is on the top of the heap: she writes damn fine swords-and-planets without devolving into the same-old, same-old pastiche/homage to Barsoom. (Nothing wrong with riffing on Barsoom, that’s why I buy Planet Stories after all, but Brackett manages to add so much to the genre that I consider her writing the genre’s high-water mark.)
Brackett’s prose is top-notch, arguably some of the strongest writing in the early Planet Stories books. Her characters are flat compared to Ginger Star or The Sword of Rhiannon—Stark’s love interest, Gerrith the prophetess, barely shows up—but Brackett makes up for it with plenty of action and adventure. And Skaith is filled with all manner of wondrous alien life: telepathic northhouds, various humanoids created by induced mutations, the deadly carnivorous Runners who run within sandstorms and attack in the ensuing chaos, a xenophobic government struggling to keep order, cannibalistic doomsday cults, and farers, hippies who wander from city to city, living off the generosity of the government. Quite a lot of inspiration to be drawn from all that.
Needing some light reading, I picked up another Planet Stories book when I saw it in the book store—you’d be surprised how quick these leave Barnes & Noble, and how few of them are stocked. This one happened to be Piers Anthony’s Steppe, a historical fiction turned space opera, which sounded fairly interesting from its back cover blurb.
After falling into a cavern, the Eurasian barbarian chieftain Alp is sucked into a future world by people who want to use his knowledge to play The Game. This Game is an immersive roleplaying experience where uneducated future players take roles of historical figures, each hoping to lead their character to victory and glory. In the end, Alp escapes into the Game, hoping to use his extent knowledge to become victorious as he evades the police looking for him on Earth, and becomes enmeshed in the plots and politics of scoring and winning. There are several great battles, the forging of several tribes, and a love interest for poor lost Alp, all inside this great Game, where players ride spaceship “horses” and fire “arrows” of pure light.
Steppe is one of those interesting books which has a lot of bad elements balanced with a lot of good ones. The entire plot is incredibly relevant and creative for today’s society—the Game is a cross between a star-spanning mumorpuger and a reality TV show, with the players gauged on their performance by the number of stable viewers. The aspect of corporate espionage, the Game itself, and the Machine overlords are like a pre-Cyberpunk trifecta, all the elements of Cyberpunk well before they arrived. While the book’s primarily a fantasy with its historical homage, Alp becomes so enmeshed—addicted, even?—to the game, its proto-Cyberpunk aspects are quite notable. And, as a roleplayer and gamer, the idea of the Game is pretty awesome.
At the same time, there’s a number of major flaws with the book. I’ll ignore some of the more contrived plot points/macguffins and the confusing time terminology of the Game world (one Year in the Game is equal to a day of real time, while a Day is a couple of real time minutes, and Anthony stops capitalizing and therefore distinguishing between them somewhere in the middle of the book). The major problem with the book is its long history-lesson stages. Vast sections of the book are pure exposition, with no action, as Alp either watches or leads a cartoon effigy of ancient peoples as they fight and conquer other cartoon figures representing other groups of ancient peoples. While an interesting concept, these sections were so damnably slow and droll that I ended up skipping most of them; I may not have known the history, but I don’t necessarily need to know it. Each expository chapter was akin to pulling teeth. It was like Anthony really wanted to write two books, a novel about a technologically advanced world-game and a textbook of Dark Age barbarian tribes, and ended up with this.
I should note that Planet Stories is becoming much more like the original pulp magazine of the same name—the splash page and cover are very magazine like, the book features internal illustrations and a two-column layout, and it’s increased in size to a proper digest format. The quality of the book just feels better as the covers are less rigid, and from start to finish the layout and text are evocative of a step into the past. It even features a retro-styled ad for Planet Stories subscriptions. Definitely a step in the right direction.
In the end, I found myself praising the complex originality of the plot and ideas, while despising the sections of heavy expository writing. At any point where Alp turns on the viewer (TV) to watch the cartoon factions fight each other, turning from giants to dwarves, I started tuning out. The second half of the book is particularly low on dialogue or interaction, all being done through authorial exposition in text-block format. Still, Steppe is a decent read, hooking you at its best points as much as it drives you away with its worst. It’s mediocrity at its best, a great idea with rough execution, and while I can’t say I’ll read it again it provided several nights worth of entertainment.