Ed Carew is the owner of a spaceship in a distant future in which the huge human Expansion has collided painfully with the empire of the ruthless and alien Vetch. With the aid of his two crew members, Carew has been living on the fringes of the law, making a living by means of occasional smuggling and other activities frowned upon by those in control of the Expansion. So he is more than a little surprised to find himself and his crew forcibly recruited and sent on a dangerous voyage through Vetch space to discover what happened to a long-ago human expedition to a remote part of space known as the Devil's Nebula. What they discover poses an even greater threat to humanity than the Vetch.
I have read and reviewed on this blog three other books by Eric Brown and have formed a high opinion of his story-telling ability. I therefore regret to say that, although the story keeps the pages turning effortlessly, in my view this one fell short of the standard set by the others. The reason is that it seems to have been written with an adolescent audience in mind; it is too simplistic in its content and style, too superficial in its characterisation, too focused on introducing extravagantly weird aliens that make little or no sense.
While it is complete in itself, the ending of the story suggests that The Devil's Nebula is intended to be the beginning of a series, but I won't be looking out for any sequels.
Cyril Judd is a pseudonym for Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril who collaborated over two novels, both published in book form in 1952: Outpost Mars and Gunner Cade. I have owned a copy of the second of these since the late 1960s so thought it might be worth seeing if the story still stood up today.
On a far-future Earth, Gunner Cade is an Armsman; a cadre of professional soldiers highly trained from childhood, living ascetic and celibate lives completely detached from those of the Commoners. They are in the service of the aristocratic Starborn, who are constantly fighting each other, but swear allegiance to the Emperor who rules the planet – and Mars, colonised long before. This situation has lasted for 10,000 years, which was officially the date that the world and everything in it was created. There is no concept of evolution or change – everything must always stay exactly as it is and has always been.
Cade's rock-solid belief in the rightness of all of this begins to be shaken when he falls among Commoners who are planning rebellion, and he is unwillingly forced on a journey of discovery that steadily erodes his faith. Almost everyone he meets seems to want either to use him or kill him, but it should surprise no readers that he works out a satisfactory solution in the end.
While people can draw various lessons from this tale, it is more than a didactic thriller. The observations are laced with humour, and I especially enjoyed the official "Klin philosophy", based on an ancient book whose text is solemnly interpreted by Klin teachers to support the status quo – but we can understand that Klin was a cynic who usually meant something very different.
At almost 200 pages Gunner Cade is fairly long for the period in which it is written, but it's still a quick page-turner. It benefits from a relatively strong characterisation, at least as far as Cade is concerned – the viewpoint character throughout, whom the reader comes to understand and empathise with as he is gradually changed by his experiences. The only jarring note to modern sensibilities was the statement that the atmosphere of Mars, although thin, was breathable. Well worth reading again.