Hello You Wierd Old Friend: Jeremy Rediscovers His Love Of Shitty Paperbacks
" 'If the Holy Bible was printed as an Ace Double', an editor once remarked, 'it would be cut down to two 20,000-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as "Master of Chaos" and the New Testament as "The Thing With Three Souls." ' "
— Charles McGrath, New York Times, May 6, 2007
In retrospect, maybe it was inevitable.
I was—and sadly, still am—finishing up my second book in the Ruins of Empire series, Templum Veneris at the time which takes place on the planet, Venus. I was scanning the science fiction section of my local bookstore looking for something. Inspiration, maybe. Or a distraction. Something to either get the juices flowing or get them to calm the fuck down. I dunno, I've got problems with juices, apparently.
Anyway, my eyes fell on this old paperback on a bargain rack. Any person who's spent time hunting for books (by which I mean any human worth talking to) would recognize the style immediately. The red-tinted pages, the worn, chipped edges, the kitschy artwork and that musty smell like your father's long-lost collection of girly magazines. It was an old pulp sci-fi paperback from the late '60s, early '70s.
And this particular one was an Ace Double. These were mass-produced paperback novellas with a side of the book featuring one novel and, when you're done with that, flip it around... ENTIRELY NEW BOOK!! All for 75¢. (I paid $4 because, you know, fucking inflation)
The one I found was titled To Venus! To Venus! on one side and, on the other, The Jester At Scar.
I remember loving those pulpy, sci-fi adventures when I was a kid. In fact, I'm not entirely sure my interest in astronomy and space science didn't stem from these books. I've always been more interested in planetary science than black holes, quasars, magnetars, lensing flares, pulsars, gamma-ray bursts, and other more abstract phenomena. (And just to prove that you don't either, one of those terms isn't even real, and you didn't even know which one!) But planets, especially planets in our solar system always did, and still do, hold my interest.
The reason for that was, in my mind, those planets are places we could go! They are out there! Spinning within reach of Earth! We could, conceivably, get a rocket, set it on top of a bigger rocket, set that on ONE HUGE FUCK ROCKET, blast off and land on the planet. And then we could battle space monsters and discover hidden alien treasures and possibly kiss a green girl with three boobs...
Yeah, I was a nerd long before being a nerd was considered cool. I'm like a hipster nerd. Which flings me right back into the 'not cool' category.
So I grabbed it, popped a few beers and dove in to see what weirdness lie in wait between these worn pages that have been around nearly a decade longer than me.
And just because, SPOILER ALERT. I doubt anyone out there really wants to seek this book out and read it as well, assuming you could even find it. But lest this actually finds somebody with a fifty-year-old backlog of reading material who screams, "You ruined it!" Spoilers, I guess.
To Venus! To Venus!
The Russians (gasp!) have landed a probe on Venus! (Those dirty Commies!) But all is not lost because our brave Space Agency of the United States (Yay!) is on the case along with none other than Chet Duncan (Woot! Woot!). Those sneaky Ruskies (Booo!) might have landed the first probe on Venus, but 'Merica will be the first to land people who will plant Old Glory on that mysterious, cloud-covered world. (YAAAY!)
But all is not well, for there may be trickery afoot (gasp!). While the Russian probe sent back data that indicates that the nearby planet is a paradise with conditions perfect for life, Chet considers that it might be a trick. For it has been long assumed that Venus is, in fact, a hellish world. Could the Russians be lying to our Brave American Heroes? (please stand for the National Anthem)
(You may be seated) ANYHOO! So the Space Agency decides that they can't risk it and they send Chet up in a lander (YAY!) along with Carter and Quincy (Quincy?). And it's a good thing they did too because the Russians (booo!) have a lander en route as well. It's a literal race to Venus! But the Americans are well ahead, and they land first. Only to find out that, yes, Venus is indeed a superheated hellscape. (Those sneaky Russian bastards!) Not only that but the landing crippled the lander, and they have no way to get it back into space! (Noooo!)
But all is not lost, because the Russians (boooo) have called for help. (yay?) The Russian cosmonauts have landed, but they have been stricken sick and need the penicillin the Americans carried with them. Chet's only hope, and the only hope for his crew, is to make his way to the Russian landing site.
So our heroes set off. Braving windstorms and 300-degree heat to reach the stricken Russian lander (booo... I mean...yay?) They reach a mountain and begin to climb. But as supplies of water and food run short, morale begins to be tested. About halfway up one of the men, Carter, leaves his equipment and wanders off to die alone (*plays Taps*)
And yet, Chet and Quincy continue on. And, as they climb they begin to notice the temperature dropping. Then they find liquid water! Soon they emerge into what actually is a little Garden of Eden on top of the Venusian mountain. The Russians weren't lying after all, the highest peaks on Venus can actually support Earth life. They find one Russian cosmonaut (booo) left alive after the rest have succumbed to some unknown pathogen. But our American Heroes (YAAY!) put aside their differences, help nurse their Russian college back to health, and they all escape Venus together (Awwww!)
Why I Loved This:
First, is there a better name for a space-race, cold war era astronaut than Chet Duncan? Chet Duncan is the name of every blonde, blue-eyed, thick-necked jock that won every football championship in states where the other primary form of entertainment revolves around corn. Chet Duncan has a handshake that would make any red-blooded American man question his heterosexuality and then immediately shame himself for it. You could go into a barbershop and order a Chet Duncan and, when the barber was done saluting the Freedom Eagle, you would walk out with a haircut that would make a drill sergeant cum in his pants.
And the main character in the book is all of those things.
And second, like the main character, this book only makes sense if viewed through the lens of the Cold War. The Russians are all portrayed as these conniving, scheming little bureaucrats who need to play underhanded tricks to compete with a force as formidable as the Space Agency of the United States.
Not that the Russians would ever be able to pull one over on the United States. That would just be ludicrous.
Yep, couldn't happen.
And, of course, the strange moral at the end where we realize if all the people of Earth put aside our differences, we would recognize that we are all just human and then we could explore space together. But, you know, just as long as everyone else realizes that America got there first and, therefore is the awesomest.
Actually, the science isn't bad, especially given what we knew when the book was written. There was no reason to believe, at the time, that all of this wasn't totally doable. The paradise on top of the mountain was maybe a bit of a stretch, but, then again, we now know there is a space high in the Venusian atmosphere where the pressure and temperature are at a level where humans could live. You know, provided that they had an oxygen tank because there's nothing to breathe in the atmosphere. Oh, and a protective suit from the sulfuric acid. And some kind of protection form the hurricane-force winds.
Yeah, Venus is a terrible planet.
Anyway, it reminded me of the Martian but based on what we thought Venus might have been like in the 1970s. So if you could get past the eye-roll-inducing Cold War politics, it was a fun hard-ish sci-fi read.
Book#2 The Jester at Scar
More of a space opera meets film noir.
The planet scar is a haven for tourists and adventurers alike. For the rich aristocracy of nearby Jest, Scar is a place where one can experience the delicacies created from the planet's local fauna and enjoy the mild weather provided by a red giant sun that keeps one side of the planet in darkness for months at a time. For the adventure, one can test their bravery and skill by leaving the safety of the city in search of the highly prized fungus, including one with a spore that will grant immortality. But, mostly, the spores just kill anyone unlucky enough to breathe it in.
Enter Earl Dumarest (who's name sounds like a brand of mattress they sell on the Internet) an adventurer looking for the Lost Earth, the legendary planet that birthed the human race. Meanwhile, Yeon and Joylanda, the couple who rule Jest have decided, based on a coin flip, to visit Scar. For... you know... reasons. Dumarest finds a patch of the golden mushroom but, just as he gets to it, some marauders from the town swoop in, kill his partner and leave him without a protective suit from the dangerous spores.
After a Daring Escape, Dumarest engages in a complicated game of WhoDunIt until the trail leads him to Yeon and Joylanda where he figures out that their servant did it. (read, The Butler Did It). As a reward, the couple's robot companion informs him that he's found a clue to the location of Lost Earth. You see, Earth was the old human word for dirt. So all you have to do is find a planet named after the Jester word for dirt. Mystery solved.
Why I loved it:
I had to check to see if the author, E. C. Tubb, wasn't by chance one of L. Ron Hubbard's pen names. It wasn't, but it well could have been. The story seems to lurch drunkenly from one thrilling adventure and daring escape to another. When Dumarest isn't engaged in gun battles with random goons, or scaling mountains or jumping into waters inhabited by some carnivorous creature or another, he's playing Sam Spade with a cast of completely forgettable characters that seem to appear and disappear with equal fanfare. All of this is tied together with a loose storyline that... kinda makes sense?
But it was a fun read. It was one of those page-turners that had me sitting back when I was done muttering, "What the figgity fuck did I just read?" It's pure pulp fiction. Monsters, Bad Guys With Guns, gruesome deaths and even a femme fatal that isn't really bad as much as she just needs to remember that she's a woman and, thus, should stop being so goddamned ambitious. Seriously, sweetie, let the men work it out.
That last bit would probably upset a lot of people but, for me, it was that kind of overt sexism that goes way past offensive and gets into the hilarious. It was the 1970's as this book wasn't exactly written for the hip crowd. We have a long way to go as a society, but it's nice to look back and realize how far we've come.
This book was like sex with someone you don't really like. At the time it's kinda fun but after you're like, "Why did I do that? What's wrong with me?" My summary above feels disjointed, but that's literally the best I can do. It was a space opera adventure. Parts of it made sense taken apart but together... yeah.
But, you know, Durmarest found Earth in the end so... cool.
I think I might do another one of these sometime. My local used bookstore seems to have a constant collection of them, and they are as fun now as they were when I was a kid.
If anyone out there has come across another one of these, hit me up. I'd love to hear what strange, bizarre, and interesting things lie within the discarded paperbacks of times gone by.
Also, please somebody write the Bible as an Ace Double. The description sounds amazing.