A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 72.
The Ace Double: In these lean economic times, isn’t it a concept due for a comeback? It’s two books for the price of one, bound together with the two sides printed in opposite directions, so there’s no proper front or back cover. So make that two books and a neat trick sure to confound nosy commuters who, at first glance, might think you’re reading a book upside down. And think of the convenience: Finish one book, and you need only flip it over to start another. No more fumbling for the next book in your backpack! You can even amaze your friends by trotting out the French word for such a book: dos-à-dos, as those who read this column’s other foray into Ace Double territory already know.
Another advantage: As with microwave burritos and drugstore sunglasses, it’s hard to feel too ripped off. Sure, these aren’t the greatest novels ever written, but at a fraction of a penny per page, who’s going to complain too much? That might explain the pairing of John M. Faucette’s Crown Of Infinity and Emil Petaja’s The Prism. Nothing really links them, but having read them both, I can report that they’re pretty much meant for readers who consume science fiction by the yard. And even the most ravenous genre fans may find Crown Of Infinity tough to digest.
Let’s start with the better of the two. A lifelong science-fiction fan, Emil Petaja palled around with Ray Bradbury and others before turning pro. He published frequently throughout the ’60s and ’70s, basing some of his works on the Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland, home to his ancestors. I’m not versed enough in Finnish folklore to say whether it exerted much influence on the reasonably clever but clunkily executed novel The Prism. But I do know enough about the late ’60s to see where it’s coming from. Though set in a far-off future, this is a novel about young folks upsetting the established order and sticking it to The Man. (Actually—spoiler—a genetic monstrosity who never dies, and grows his children on his body.) The tools of the revolution: deception and swordsmen.
Let me explain: The Prism’s cover and its opening chapter don’t really represent the contents found therein. Kor, the loincloth-clad fantasy hero fighting the vampire on the cover? He’s in the book. But as we quickly learn, he’s the unwitting star of a “livideo” program watched by citizens seeking “titill.” He thinks he lives in a kingdom called Vicaria, though if he had a grasp of Latin, he’d recognize himself as a dupe.
So who’s watching Kor? The future citizens of Earth, now an inflexibly hierarchical society regimented by skin color. But not, strictly speaking, regimented by race. In the unforgiving caste system of The Prism, skin color is everything, and not limited to the colors provided by biology alone. The aristocratic Golds—given their hue through genetic engineering—sit at the top of the pyramid above Blues, Greens, and way down at the bottom, Browns and Blacks. The novel is clear that Blacks and Browns aren’t necessarily descended from those bearing similar pigmentation in our day, but I don’t think Petaja chose those colors by accident. Old prejudices have lingered long after something called the Racial Wars, even though some people have forgotten the source of those prejudices:
“Blacks don’t feel pain, do they, Uncle Dorff?” Sena remarked.
“What difference if they do?” […]
“They’re like the ancient Negro slaves from China.”
The Sena doing the asking is the novel’s heroine, a young woman with—we’re repeatedly told—exceptional breasts, who’s determined to smash the system. To that end, she uses her “breathless bosom” to seduce a man close to the source of power. She also finds a way to draw Kor away from the livideo environment to fight the real enemy. Kor is understandably confused, but the novel goes where you’d probably guess it’s going to go as soon as Petaja reveals the twist, and getting there through his functional prose isn’t much of a pleasure.
John M. Faucette’s Crown Of Infinity, on the other hand, doesn’t have a predictable plot. In fact, I looked long and hard for any sort of plot at all. I wouldn’t make such a hackneyed complaint if it weren’t true. It’s a centuries-spanning bit of space opera about the Star Kings and their various enemies. In each chapter, we meet some of the Star Kings, watch as they struggle with some enemy or other, usually meet a Star King love interest, then learn whether the Star Kings defeated the enemy at hand, and whether the love interest lived or died. Repeat until the book ends.
The hapless, deathless Star Kings are forever in the process of being wiped out of the galaxy, then coming back, usually helped with the latter by some vague piece of technology that Faucette doesn’t describe very well. Think I’m kidding? Here’s the last line of the fifth chapter: “No longer did the Star Kings exist.” Last line of chapter 10: “Star Kings forever!” It owes a deep debt to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, which I don’t like, but which I learned to appreciate more after seeing someone else trying to imitate Smith and produce material that, by standards more stringent than those required to fill out an Ace Double, would be considered unpublishable. (Sometimes you sign Philip K. Dick or a young Dean Koontz. Sometimes you end up with Crown Of Infinity.)
The story behind Crown Of Infinity, the best I could piece it together, is more interesting than the book itself. This is Faucette’s 2003 obit from SFsite.com:
Author John M. Faucette, Jr. (b. 1943) died of an heart attack in late January. Faucette published four novels in the 1960s, but wrote several more novels which he was unable to sell. He believed that part of the problem was that his protagonists were black. His only short story appeared in 2001.
Note that obit writer Steven H. Silver stops short of saying Faucette is right. I’m not sure Faucette had the best grasp of his own writing, really. Which is not to say he was a bad writer through and through, or that he didn’t think deeply about his work. I found a 2001 essay apparently written to introduce a self-published book called Black Science Fiction, wherein Faucette explains where he came from:
I was born many years ago in Harlem of Dorothy Mae Mosley of Atmore, Alabama and John Matthew Faucette of Durham, North Carolina. They came north as young adults to escape the hate, poverty, and lack of opportunity in the South. I attended P.S. 184 on 116th Street in Harlem. In the sixth grade I wrote a story about spaceships battling for the moon and the teacher announced to our class that Emmett Till had been lynched.
I have never forgotten either.
I did not realize it then, but those two things would bring into being a black science fiction writer. As I grew up, there were two things there was no question of: I loved science fiction, read it every chance I got—to the exclusion of everything else, and I lived in a hostile racist world.
He goes on to lump his lack of success with that racism, but he doesn’t always make the best argument for himself. After noting that science fiction has ignored sexuality—a dubious argument—he notes some stories he wrote to respond to changes in sex over the years, stories like “The Sperm Collector,” “Always A Virgin,” “Battle Queen Cinderella,” and “The Scumship.”
I didn’t read the essay, which rambles quite a bit, until after I’d read Crown Of Infinity. And while it didn’t change my mind about that novel, which isn’t very good any way you look at it, one passage did make me think about the Star Kings’ cyclical rise and fall a little differently:
Science fiction is the literature of “what if?” It is magnificent in that way. And so I said, what if we would have vengeance? How would it be accomplished? What would it take?
Most of what I'd read to that point and for many years after that was science fiction. I did not know how to tell a story any other way. And so an allegorical tale of black revenge was born: Crown Of Infinity. The remnants of a humanity slaughtered by an overwhelmingly powerful enemy take to space and multiply and study and train against the day of vengeance.
Oh. Okay. That theme isn’t particularly coherent within the book, but looking back, I can’t say it’s absent either. It’s a cry of pain buried deep in the subtext of a book no one reads anymore, written by a man who died knowing he’d be forgotten, for one reason or another.
The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes
“The sky was fair that day; but for Earthmen, the fairest skies were foul, so long as they held the threat of demolition-bombs coming at random—aimed at nothing and no one in particular, but at everything and everyone in general.”
None But Man by Gordon R. Dickson
“A jerk, and a sudden rumbling viration jolted Culihan O’Rourke.”