Sunday, November 29, 2015
The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
I have a weakness for stories about guys who put their brains in robot bodies and thus achieve immortality. A manifestation of my fear of death, perhaps. So when the wife and I stumbled on a Rotary Club charity book sale in a Fairmont, Minnesota shopping mall and I spotted Ace G-631, The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones, among a pile of westerns and murder mysteries and read its back cover, I decided to take it home.
The Sunless World is a 1967 paperback collection of three stories by Jones first printed in Amazing Stories in the 1930s. Each stars Professor Jameson, about whom Jones apparently wrote over 20 short stories. This collection presents the fourth, fifth and sixth stories about Jameson.
We get Jameson's backstory in a brief foreword to this volume. Jameson, in the 1940s, figures out how to preserve his body after death, and leaves instructions that his corpse upon death be interred in a rocket and launched into orbit around the Earth. (This reminded me of 1957's "Mark Elf" by Cordwainer Smith.) Forty million years later aliens, the Zoromes, find the rocket orbiting a lifeless Earth. The Zoromes are brains encased in robot bodies, and obligingly plug Jameson's brain into one of their robot bodies and invite him to accompany them on their journeys through space. Sounds awesome!
This is a fun adventure story full of exotic settings, cool SF ideas, and mass violence. It reminded me of other 1930s pulp adventures I have read, like those by Edmond Hamilton and Henry Kuttner.
Jameson and the Zoromes have cubic metal bodies with four legs and four tentacle arms. (Gray Morrow, in creating the cover painting, actually seems to have been following Jones' description.) They also have telepathy, which comes in handy. And they have the kind of names Star Wars droids have, like "744U-21" and "56F-450," which is kind of annoying for the reader. Jameson's name is "21MM392," but, thank heavens, for the most part Jones refers to him as "Jameson" or "the professor."
Jameson and his fellow "machine men" decide to investigate a planet that is entirely covered in water. There they meet and befriend two races of frog people, the Plekne and the Nacac, who live on floating cities made of kelp. The frog people have never seen land, and their "museum of treasures" consists of rocks they have found in the bellies of dead fish over the years.
The frog people, who have no weapons more powerful than spears, inform their metal-bodied buddies that they are often raided by slavers who live beneath the ocean and have far superior technology. Sure enough, these jerks attack, taking some of the Zoromes captive. Luckily Jameson is just knocked into the ocean during the attack. He sinks to the ocean bottom (which is hundreds of miles below the surface) and proceeds to infiltrate and explore the country of the frog men's oppressors. This "world" at the center of the planet is kind of like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar, first seen in 1915's At The Earth's Core. The surface is concave, the inside of the planet's hollow core, and it is lit by an artificial sun that hangs in the geometric center of the planet. This artificial sun is in fact a city consisting of prisons, an arsenal, and the bright lights that illuminate the surface.
The slavers, the Uchke, are revealed to be "like fragments of an evil dream, their ruthlessness and brutal character plainly stamped on beetling visages," and have four clawed arms, two stumpy legs and torsos seemingly too small for their oversized skulls. The Uchke are not native to the watery planet, but alien invaders whose submarine settlement is a base where they process slaves and build weaponry to ship back to their home planet. Jameson has no compunctions about massacring these swine retail by strangling them with his tentacles or wholesale by blasting them with ray artillery!
Airships regularly travel between the surface and the aerial city sphere. Jameson hijacks one of these airships, rescues his fellow Zoromes, seizes the arsenal and inspires a slave revolt among the frog men living in bondage. He is a leader in the resulting apocalyptic war of ray guns and airships which sees thousands killed and the inner world created by the Uchke absolutely destroyed. This story is like 65 pages long, so Jones has room to entertain us with scenes in which captured Zoromes have had their legs unscrewed by the Uchke and resort to dragging themselves around by their tentacular arms, descriptions of the various vehicles and weapons involved in the slave war, and other bizarre visions.
After liberating the ocean planet, the Zor, we are told, travelled to the nearby planet of the Uchke and used their superior technology to blow up a few of the slavers' cities and bring them to the negotiating table. It turns out that the evil slaver race gets its technology from a secretive and decadent elite of scientists, members of a more advanced species called the Qwux. Only one of these Qwux, Zlestrm, knows the secret formula for making space ship fuel, and the Zor take him prisoner and carry him out of the system as a means of trapping the slavers on their world and thus protecting the frog people.
The main plot of this story concerns one of Zlestrm's inventions, which he brings with him onto the Zor ship. It is a device which allows one to look clearly into the past, and to dimly perceive possible futures. Jameson explains how the idea of actual physical time travel is ridiculous and obviously impossible, which I found amusing because such time travel is a staple of SF.
The Zor ship, with its score of machine men and poor Zlestrm, flies across the galaxy for a few years (!) and comes to the now barren Earth, where Jameson uses the time viewing device to watch the Earth formed when a wandering star passes by Sol, witness the Crusades and the Napoleonic Wars, and observe as his nephew inters him in his rocket and launches him into space. Then Jameson and the Zoromes (and poor Zlestrm) observe several million years of human evolution, political and economic development including space colonies and interplanetary war, and so on.
This is one of those stories in which the characters are primarily observers rather than participants, which I find to be a drag. There is little drama, especially since we already learned in the foreword how Jameson came to achieve immortality. Jones tries to inject levity by having the town drunk see Jameson's nephew snatching Jameson's body from the cemetery. I kept hoping Zlestrm, whom the Zoromes had basically kidnapped and taken from his home (for years!) and whose genius and labor they were exploiting without offering him any kind of remuneration, would make a break for freedom or seek revenge or something. However he does nothing but fret that his food supply and air supply (the Zoromes, of course, need no food or air) is running out; I guess he really was as effete and decadent as he seemed.
There is finally some drama at the end of the story when the time viewing device malfunctions and Zlestrm, who of course doesn't have an impregnable metal body like the Zoromes, is killed. My dreams of Zlestrm playing the role of the Doctor Zachary Smith of the Zor ship over the next 10 or 15 Jameson stories were dashed.
I don't think I can really recommend this one; nothing much happens, and the most interesting character is unceremoniously killed. Zlestrm the Qwux, I will not forget you!
The Zor ship arrives at a huge planet which is just travelling through space, unconnected to any solar system. The planet's interior is a honeycomb of tunnels and passages, and Professor Jameson and his fellow machine men encounter two alien races down there.
Remember how in Gods of Mars (1913), by our man Edgar Rice Burroughs, we learned that the people of Barsoom had been fooled into believing in a dopey religion which had them, just after becoming eligible for that sweet senior citizen discount at the Greater Helium Dunkin' Donuts, travelling to a secluded area which was supposed to be a paradisiacal afterlife but which instead was where they were devoured by monsters? In "The Sunless World," Jameson, 34T-11 and 6W-438 meet the people of Ayt, who have a centuries-old superstition which leads them to send the elderly and criminals to a cavern full of bones where they are eaten by a brutish race of voracious creeps. It is believed that, if this sacrifice is not made regularly, these creeps will attack and overthrow the city of Ayt.
Jameson and his mechanical comrades refute the native people's dumb religion, and lead them in a terrific war against the monsters. At the same time this war is going on the hollow planet is hurtling into a solar system, on a collision course with a planet! A demolition team of Zoromes blows up this planet (!) but a little too late; massive pieces of the exploding planet hit the hollow planet of the Ayt people, causing tremendous earthquakes which kill 75% of the Ayt population. But with their religion abandoned, their enemies devastated, and their formerly wandering planet now in an orbit around a star, the Ayt people have a bright future ahead of them!
While not as good as "Into the Hydrosphere," "The Sunless World" is pretty fun. There are lots of cool things going on, like Jameson's fall through a shaft hundreds of miles deep, that cavern full of mountains of bones, the very weird monsters (the morphology Jones comes up for them is unusual and interesting), and Jameson's temporary imprisonment in the Ayt city, when the natives think he is the leader of the monsters.
Taken as a whole, The Sunless World is an entertaining old-fashioned space adventure book about technology, astronomy, and waging wars in the interest of justice. There's no love or sex (I told you our hero was in a robot body, right?) and almost no character relationships (I told you our hero's comrades don't even have names, right? Well, they don't have personalities, either. You know who had a personality? Zlestrm the Qwux had a personality, and you saw where that got him!) But Jones makes all the aliens, locales and fights work, and I will certainly buy the other volumes in Ace's Professor Jameson series should I come across them in my travels.