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Behold the Stars

Behold the Stars by Kenneth BulmerBehold the Stars front
Priory Books, 1965
Price I paid: 75¢

Man had discovered a means of colonizing the galaxy. Through a system of instantaneous matter transmission, men, machines, anything, could be sent light years away in seconds!

Only, men were not the only beings in the galaxy who were expanding, and at 200 light years from Earth the alien Gershmi people made their claims clear, with guns!

It would have been a fair fight between equally matched races, had not the very matter transmitter boxes which had made mankind’s expansion possible, suddenly began to put men back together, 200 light years from Earth, with their will to fight removed, so that Earthmen were marching with white flags of truce straight into Gershmi fire!

So the cover of this book is just…I don’t know. I can’t even describe how awful this cover strikes me. Lazy, lazy, lazy. An eye in space? What’s that all about? Why is there an eye just floating there? Is it a flying eye? Is this a sequel?

I eventually came to the conclusion that it’s more than just some random eye flying in space. My interpretation of this cover is that it’s a reflection. Like, somebody’s looking through a window on a space ship or space station out at the universe and they’re standing really close to the glass. Why don’t we see the rest of the reflection, I hear you asking? It’s because it’s an alien who is invisible except for the eyes. Boom! Mind blown!

My little explanation has absolutely nothing to do with this book, but then again neither does much else about this cover, so I don’t see a problem with it.

The book itself was a pretty mixed bag. Usual mix of interchangeable characters who don’t do much coupled with a story that didn’t do much. There was also a weird sort of heavy-handed moral at the end that caught me off-guard. But there were some really good points too!

For one, the sci-fi element that the book hinged on was super clever! I just absolutely loved it. Let me see if I can make it make sense without the context.

Okay, so humanity has found a way to transport matter almost instantly to any point. Distance is no longer an issue…sort of. The thing about this matter transporter is that you need a transmitter and a receiver. You can’t just point it at a place and send stuff. You have to be able to pick it up on the other end.

The answer to this, for the purposes of colonization, is still good old fashioned space ships. You send them out, transmitter/receivers on board, and let them get to the destination. Once there, you can send colonists and supplies through to your heart’s content.

But since there’s a teleporter machine on the ship, that means you don’t have to crew it! You set the thing flying through space following the standard rules of physics (there’s no hyperspace or subspace or anything in this universe to allow FTL travel apart from the matter transmitter). Occasionally you send a person or a small crew through to check on the ship, see if it needs any repairs or course corrections or whatever, and then they come home in time for lunch.

I am so keen on this idea that I just can’t stop thinking about it. I want it to be real.

So our protagonist, David Ward, is one of the people who jumps through the universe fixing ships and making course corrections as needed. It’s a pretty well-paying job, and somewhat prestigious. David used to be in the army, though, and that makes him even tougher than your usual teleporting mechanic, which is something I’d love to have on my resumé.

Unfortunately it doesn’t really come up all that often?

In the book, I mean.

So we first meet David as he’s showing up to an army reunion party. The book goes to great lengths to talk about their camaraderie, their old times, and the fact that they were probably the best at what they did, whatever it was. They were an elite army unit, dedicated to protected human interests throughout the galaxy.

But really this is all just to start the plot, as it is, in motion. One of the old gang isn’t there, and it just so happens to be David’s closest friend, Stephen Jordan. It’s not like Stephen to not show up for one of these things. David tries to get in touch with him and can’t. Something might very well be up.

There’s also talk about some folks out in space called the Gershmi. Apparently they’re pretty bad dudes. They like to fight. That’s really all we know about them. We try to talk to them, reason things out, and they keep shooting. It’s not the first interestellar conflict we’ve had in our history in space, but it’s one that nobody wants to see. It’s actually kind of interesting how this was handled. Humanity doesn’t want a war, but they’re preparing for it while trying their best to avoid it. It’s actually, I dunno, rational? Rather amazing how much we can mature by the year [FUTURE YEAR NOT FOUND].

So the bulk of the book hinges on trying to figure out where Stephen is. He’s unreachable. His girlfriend doesn’t know where he is. Incidentally, his girlfriend is a gorgeous heiress, so the idea that he just up and left her is thrown out pretty quickly. Said girlfriend is named Stella, incidentally, which bugged me a little bit. See, the name Stella comes from the Latin for star, so naming a person that in your science fiction book just smacks of…something or other. Excess but useless cleverness? It was never commented on or anything, but I’m the kind of person who makes a note of that kind of stuff. It’s like writing a book about a plucky young Congresswoman named Columbia L. Washington.

The L stands for Liberty.

Between that plot element and the forthcoming war with the Gershmi, the plot just sort of plods along for a while. David gets sent on a mission to check out a starship only to find it’s landed on some planet and the Gershmi have set it up as a trap. He escapes. We meet some military guys. We meet a lady named Julie who is, rather amazingly, not astoundingly gorgeous, although she’s described as “full of life” and that makes her pretty attractive in her own right. David and Julie start to fall for one another.

Although this part is kind of interesting. Julie is painted in a pretty good light! She’s strong, capable, smart, and clever. Those are the qualities that make her so attractive to David. And I can respect that. It’s even stated that in this future universe there’s no place for weak women, since mankind needs strong people of both sexes to ensure its success in the galaxy. She’s even pretty sex-positive, at least as far as a book from 1965 can tell us. At the very least she’s equally aggressive in pursuing a relationship with David as he is with her, and the book lauds her for that. No slut-shaming here. And that’s pretty cool.

In another section we meet a dude named Nkomo. He’s an African. We don’t see as much of him as we do Julie, but he’s also presented in a pretty positive light. He’s at least competent at what he’s doing, which is pretty forward-thinking for the time this book was written. He’s neither an incompetent savage nor a magical Negro. He’s just a dude, doing his job to the best of his ability. So good job, Kenneth Bulmer.

We find out that Julie is working for the government in some capacity and her mission is to figure out what Stephen is up to. She manages to wrangle things a bit so that David is equipped to go searching for him. They figure out what planet he’s on and, through a series of interesting little gambits involving almost getting David killed, he winds up on this planet with a suit of power armor.

It’s your pretty standard power armor, granting David increased agility and strength. He’s able to cover a lot of ground quickly.

Actually it’s basically the same power armor from Starship Troopers, which was written about six years before this book came out. I only just put that together. Not complaining, mind you. Not claiming Bulmer ripped off Heinlein.

David eventually finds Stephen. He’s hidden with a bunch of other people underneath some kind of camouflage field so that no one overhead can see what’s going on. What’s discovered is actually the weakest part of the book and the source of the awful moralizing this novel ends up doing.

See, Stephen works for a company named Ransome Stellar Corporation. They’re one of the companies that build the boxes used for matter transmission. And they’ve got a crazy scheme they’re working on.

The CEO and founder of the company, Old Man Ransome, lost a son in the last interstellar war. The war is mentioned a lot. Humanity apparently found a group of people called the “Venies” which sounds like they come from Venus but it’s never once verified that that’s the case. As a result, he’s got a plan to end all war forever so that no one would ever have to go through the pain that he once did.

That’s not all that bad, is it? Well, wait ’til you figure out how he’s doing it.

RSC makes a lot of the teleportation boxes, and he’s had his company working on modifying them. Basically he’s setting it up so that every time somebody teleports somewhere, a little piece of their brain is removed. It happens slowly and over a large number of jumps (that’s why it hasn’t affected our hero yet), but it’s removing the part of the brain that is warlike and xenophobic. Basically it’s removing the part of the human brain that hates aliens.

Okay that’s pretty monstrous and pretty deserving of punishment in its own right, so once it’s discovered and stopped you’d think the book would be over. You’re wrong.

The end of the book details the fact that a group of soldiers has transported to a planet under attack by the Gershmi. Instead of fighting, they just put down their guns and put up a white flag, offering to surrender to the aliens and make friends with them. The Gershmi respond by blowing them all to hell. Ransome’s little plan is costing human lives and making us lose the war. And this is bad.

So what happens? Well, back on the warfront things just sort of…work themselves out. The Gershmi surrender, and the book ends on a sermon about how pacifism is a really bad idea.

It just goes on.

And it’s not even a particularly engaging argument. Basically it’s the old “If everybody were rational and peace-loving, pacifism would be a really great idea. But since we live in a universe where people are going to shoot at us, it’s suicide to be a hardline pacifist.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the same argument against pacifism that’s been touted since we realized we couldn’t get along with the Neanderthals. Not exactly new moral ground we’re covering here.

Ugh, I don’t know. I’m guessing this book started as really neat premise involving colonization via transporter, but then it got sidetracked in some kind of a Cold War argument about why we couldn’t just get rid of all our nukes and hope the Commies would do the same. Again, not exactly new ground.

Although it occurs to me that the time this book was written was when the Vietnam War was really starting to be a big deal. The first major protests against it started happening in ’64, so it was something Bulmer was probably aware of, despite the fact that he’s an English author. Was Bulmer calling out the growing peace movement? Was this a rebuttal of claims that the US—or the West in general—shouldn’t be poking around in Central Asia? Am I reading too much into this?

One last thing I want to mention. I’ve commented before on how it bugs me a little bit when a science fiction book insists on referring to Earth as Terra. This book had a new one, and it’s one that I actually really kinda like. Earth is called “Solterra” in this book. Not always, it goes back and forth a bit, but on the whole, that’s the term for Earth in this universe. And for some bizarre reason, it stuck with me. Maybe I just like the sound of it? I don’t know. I might start using it, though.

Kenneth Bulmer wrote a lot, and I mean a lot, of books under a lot of names. Of note is apparently the Dray Prescot series, which covered something like fifty books. Mushroom eBooks working on getting them all out in electronic format and you know what? For $2.99 a pop I’ll probably give one of them a go. They look like some more standard pulp fare than this book turned out, and I’m not gonna say that’s a bad thing.

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