On January 17 I announced to an indifferent world that I had never even heard of Emil Petaja. The Fates must have been listening, because yesterday I stumbled upon a book by Petaja at Half Price Books, for sale for only a dollar. I could not pass up this opportunity to familiarize myself with Mr. Petaja's work, and today I finished the short novel The Stolen Sun.
My DAW paperback edition, copyrighted 1967 and published in 1979, also includes Tramontane. Both The Stolen Sun and Tramontane are based on the Kalevala, the national saga of Finland, about which I know absolutely zero, which may have led me to miss some nuances, but also protected me from spoilers.
A thousand years in the future, Earth's ruthless expansionist empire is at war with the Mephiti, gaseous aliens who hide in deep clouds of black goop that they spread wherever they go, including around planets the Earth empire wants to colonize. (The Earth is overpopulated and must colonize every available planet.) Wayne Panu is the best pilot in the Terran Space Navy, his psychic powers enabling him to form a mental union with his ship closer than that of any other human pilot. Wayne and his ship, The Lady, go on many sorties, bombing Mephiti-occupied planets and clearing them for human settlement. But Wayne is starting to have second thoughts, to feel compassion for the alien enemy. If only there was some way the human race could communicate with the mysterious Mephiti, make peace with them. And what is it with all these weird visions Wayne is having of an old man in a copper ship with oars?
After Wayne's wingman is killed during a bombing run Wayne and The Lady go AWOL, meet the old geezer in the copper ship, and travel back in time to an ancient snow-covered Earth, where Wayne joins a tribe of primitives led by a wizard who are in a war with a witch who has blotted out the sun and then falls in love with a girl cursed to be a vampiric werefox. Wayne, Hercules-style, has to do impossible tasks for this witch. This gives him the opportunity to converse with the giant who is sucking the energy out of the sun; Wayne convinces the giant to stop draining the sun and thus saves the day. The space war plot is vaguely resolved in one brief paragraph, resolved in exactly the way you would have expected. The main thread of the book is not the space war stuff, but the folklorish witch stuff. Ugh.
The space navy war plot is OK, but the fantasy plot with the witches and wizards is silly, and totally unintegrated with the future space war plot. This edition is full of irritating typographical errors, and Petaja's writing style is not very good, clumsy and full of bad metaphors. On page 27 we get a fight scene with muggers. "Rage was a sometime thing in Wayne Panu, but in the rare moments when it did overtake him, it possessed him in toto, like cornered lightning." On pages 29 to 30, we meet Dr. Delph. "He, of all others, understood the magnitude of such a phenomenon as a Wayne Panu: a farmboy from Proxima with a mind-talent as inexplicable as the mysterious stirring of primordial Terran slimes into life....Delph was dedicated to serving mankind, no matter what the serving might lead to. It was a soul-searing job, and it didn't pay off in dreamless nights." There are lots of odd distracting sentences like these. The characters are not interesting, and even the ones who don't do anything get long boring descriptions of what they look like and how they dress.
I'm glad I have solved the mystery of Emil Petaja, and of course I don't regret trying a new (to me) author, but The Stolen Sun is not a good novel and DAW, which has done such a service to the SF community by putting out so many good books by such superior authors as Jack Vance and Tanith Lee, should be embarrassed for printing something with so many typos in it.