(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 52.)
Here's a word to learn and treasure: "Dos-à-dos." It's French for "back-to-back" and, for our purpose, it refers to two books published between the same covers. (It also has other applications, and is related to "dosado" or "dosido," a dance move in which the partners dance back-to-back.) Here's another: "Tête-bêche," French for "head-to-back." For our purposes, it means a "dos-à-dos" publication in which the two halves of the book are printed in opposite directions. There's not back cover, only two front covers. Flip one around and you have another book. And for this column there's no more relevant an application of this process than the mighty Ace Double series. What's an Ace Double? Take a second to look here if you don't know already. Ace published tête-bêche volumes of genre books that gave readers two, count 'em, two books in one from the '50s through the '70s. Sometimes they would be from the same author, like the book we're talking about today. Other times the series would pair theoretically simpatico works, like this edition of Philip K. Dick's The Solar Lottery and Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump:
As you can see, Ace featured striking cover art that sometimes, as with the William F. Temple books at hand, oversold the contents. Which isn't to say that either Battle On Venus or especially The Three Suns Of Amara is bad. But have another look at that cover: Tanks! Futuristic warplanes! Rockets! Actually, now that I think about it, the cover doesn't so much oversell Battle On Venus as too accurately pinpoint its appeal. The book features all those elements and little more. In short, a crew from Earth lands on Venus and finds themselves terrorized by a bunch of straight-out-of-World War II tanks that seem to be working on autopilot. Then the tanks start defending the Earthlings from an opposing army. Wha? Huh? It's left to the intrepid George Starkey to get to the bottom of things, which he does with the help of a beautiful Venusian raised from birth to be a thief. There's also a wizard and a bit of a twist. It's all pretty standard stuff. On the flip side, literally, The Three Suns Of Amara is a good deal better. Here the hero's not much more deeply developed than George Starkey, but Temple has spent a lot more time thinking things through. Earth has become home to some competing, and not particularly successful, political philosophies. That doesn't factor in too directly to the plot, but the background information is welcome. Mostly the hero spends his time wandering an increasingly strange planet until stumbling into the tender trap of a shapeshifting seductress named Rosala. After molding her body to meet his ideal, they make love. A lot. But she's ultimately revealed to be a tragic Circe. Sherret knows he has to break away, but has mixed feelings about his escape. That Temple introduces even a hint of ambiguity makes this a better book than its companion, but that's not the only improvement. Sherret's wanderings allow the author to let his imagination run, and the whole thing has an accidental surrealism similar of one of the era's low budget science fiction movies. (Killer trees? Sure! Why not?) At times he seems to be making it up as he goes along, but that dreamy atmosphere works to the book's benefit. "This planet of yours," Sherret tells Rosala:
gets too bizarre for me at times. I can't get a clear picture of the place I keep trying to piece it together, but nothing joins onto anything. I'm beginning to think the pieces aren't meant to fit.
Temple doesn't push that as far as he might. If he had, and if he were to find a way to write prose that's more than serviceable, he might have had a cult classic on his hands instead of a book that helped make the world safe for stranger visions to come.
Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.
Next:Flesh by Philip José Farmer
"The crowd in front of the White House talked, shouted, and laughed"
Then: The Avengers: The Afrit Affair by Keith Laumer