My contribution this week to Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books Friday is a fast-paced science fiction thriller from the fifties, Eric Frank Russell's Three to Conquer.
First appearing as a three-part serial titled Call him Dead in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in August, 1955, Three to Conquer was published in book form the next year in the U.S. and one year later in Russell's native England.
It's 1980, and man has firmly established himself on the moon and is considering taking the next steps to Venus and Mars. Back on Earth, Wade Harper does not pay much attention to outer space; he is a microforger, one of the few people on earth who can design and build delicate instuments to work at the microscopic level. Wade is also a telepath, perhaps the only one on earth. He is smart, has a very strong sense of what is right, and is willing to follow up on that sense -- which, over time, had resulted in the jailing of least nine murderers. Wade is a perfect Cambellian/Astounding hero of the fifties.
Driving home from a business meeting, Wade psychically hears an anguished plea from a dying man. Stopping, he finds a wounded state trooper a few hunderd yards from the road. The officer dies, "telling" Wade that he had been was shot by three men, one of them tall and blond.
He reports the incident to the state police, is questioned, then goes off on his own to find more information. Backtracking the trio's probable route, Wade finds where they had stopped for gas; he gets a description of the car, the two men in the front seat, and something else -- the men were all wearing the same outfits, something like a uniform, and they had a frightened girl in the back seat. The gas station attendent was able to stop a state police car and tell the officer about the girl. The officer took off down the road fast, and soon ending up dying in front of Wade.
Although the police had not been able to trace the men, they did find the "frightened" girl. Her story was that she had missed her bus and the three men had offered a ride and had dropped her off where she wanted to go. She didn't learn any of their names. The three strangers had nothing to do with the murder. The girl herself had a solid reputation in the community and had never been in any kind of trouble. There was no reason to disbelieve her story.
Wade goes to see the girl, and gets a psychic shock. He immediately shoots and kills her. The girl had reacted to his telepathic probe, something no has ever been able to do, and she reacted with an instant, alien hatred. Who ever that girl been, something inhuman had taken over her brain.
Knowing he will soon be charged with the girl's murder, Wade makes his way to Washington, gives himself up to a unsuspecting agent outside the FBI building, and then proceeds to bully his way to the head of the FBI to warn them of an alien invasion -- all done with an uberman flair that was common in the John W. Campbell-influenced fifties sf.
The three mysterious men in uniform had been astronauts on the first, secret voyage to Venus. Taken over by something, they returned to earth early, hid their spaceship, and began to plot Earth's invasion. It's up to Wade and the FBI stop them.
Three to Conquer is not a major novel, nor is it major Eric Frank Russell, but is an interesting book to keep you occupied for several hours. It reads fast, rushes things at the end, makes a few slight false turns, but, in the end, evokes that special magic the was 1950s science fiction.
For more Forgotten Books, go to Patti Abbott's blog PATTINASE.
Eric Frank Russell was one of the most frustrating writers of the '40s and '50s...only because he could be brilliant at times, and rather half-assed in the next story. But, among other things, he was the only conscious artist (I leave out van Vogt, perhaps unfairly, and a certain cultist) who stuck with Campbell in the 1950s who had his own, rather than editorially-assigned, fascination with psi powers, including telepathy...he and JWC were kindred spirits thus, hence the foundation of UNKNOWN to house SINISTER BARRIER, which could've fit into ASTOUNDING...ReplyDelete
I agree that Russell was an on-again/off-again type of writer, but I have loved him ever since i read THE SPACE WILLIES when I was a teenager.ReplyDelete
My theory on his mindset: Russell's mother was bitten on the ankle by Charles Fort while she was pregnant with him. It's interesting to note that Fort's LO! was serialized in the pre-Campbell Astounding. Russell's collection GREAT WORLD MYSTERIES further reveal his interest in the strange.