Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 15, 2019


Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser (1965)

Milton Lesser would soon be better known as Stephen Marlowe, a pseudonym he used and then legally adopted.  As Marlowe, mystery readers may best know him as the author of the best-selling paperback series about P.I. Chester Drum, others may best know him as the author of such best-selling novels as The Shining, Colossus, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, and The Valkyrie Encounter.  In the early Fifties Lesser was a hack writer who most often published stories in the Amazing Stories stable, with occasional jaunts to Ray Palmer's Imagination and other lesser magazines under his own name and as "Adam Chase," "Darius John Granger," "C. H. Thames," and "Stephen Wilder," reserving the Marlowe name for the mystery magazines and for his early paperback mystery novels.  As "C. H. Thames," he wrote a popular SF series of ten stories about Johnny Mayhem; one addition Mayhem story was published under the "Darius John Granger" name.

After his name became Stephen Marlowe, he seemed to abandon the SF field, first for the mystery field as Marlowe, "Andrew Frazer," Jason Ridgeway," "C. H. Thames," and "Ellery Queen" (he ghost-wrote the first EQ paperback novel that did not feature Ellery Queen as a detective), then for the hardcover best-seller field.  Lesser/Marlowe was always a readable author who in his later career became an accomplished one.

Lesser's early SF work fit his name aptly.  It was lesser.  His audience was basically uncritical teenagers eager for fast action, facile characterization, improbable ideas, and a hero who would conquer against all odds -- in other words, old-fashioned space opera.  Not that there's anything the matter with that.

Which brings us to Secret of the Black Planet, a paperback "original" novel that's neither original nor a novel.  It's really two novellas that were published in back-to-back issues of Amazing Stories:  "Secret of the Black Planet" (June 1952) and "Son of the Black Chalice" (July 1952).  In the first sectin, we meet a circus strongman called Bok-kura, the strongman of Jupiter; Bok-kura has no memory of his past -- just of his past few years as Bok-kura.  It turns out that he is really John Hastings, a well-known space explorer who vanished and was thought dead after discovering a mysterious asteroid.  (SPOILER:  The black planet of the title is really this black asteroid, which isn't even an asteroid but an alien-made construct.)  And John Hastings may be immortal.  Whatever happened on the asteroid gave him super-regenerative powers -- he cannot be killed and may not even age.  He finds himself caught between warring factions from Venus and Mars but somehow manages to rediscover the lost asteroid, hook up with a beautiful girl, and bring the secret of immortality back for a select few.

Twenty-five years later, Hastings' son Johnny finds himself in the middle of another battle.  Because the nature of gaining immortality -- via an alien machine -- it is impossible for all but a few to reap the benefits.  The numbers do not allow the majority of humanity to become immortal; there are only so many people who can use the machine at any one time -- to many people to use just one machine.  Now this is where Lesser ignores basic mathematics (just as he later ignores basic physics and the laws of relativity) -- there are a million immortals now in the three-world system.  Everyone else feels left out and resent those who are immortal.  War is brewing.  Anyway, Johnny has figured out how to survive an interstellar trip in a starship and heads into space to try and find the race that not only designed the immortality machine, but also "seeded" the planets with lifeforms that eventually evolved to be human.  It's a small starship, but a girl smuggles herself aboard, they fall in love, and marry in the hokiest ceremony in the galaxy.  Eventually they find another black "asteroid," occupied by a five-million-year old robot who guides them to another galaxy.  Can they find the answers they seek and return to Earth in time to stop the bloodshed?

The writing is simple, fast-paced, facile...Great stuff for the hidden teenager inside of you.

I should note that the second section falls victim to Belmont Books' cheap production standards.  Stick with it.  the rewards are slight but they are there.

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