Orbit One by Mel Jay
Modern Promotions, 1966(?)
Price I paid: none
IN THE DEPTHS
a strange intelligence was directing the destruction of the little band of humans on Kolar.
So far the colonists had been beset by fires and floods, hurricanes and tidal waves. Glen Bridger, their leader, knew these catastrophes were occurring too often to be the world of Mother Nature. But the new planet had been explored and was completely uninhabited.
Kolar must be concealing some alien life force. But where?
There’s…a lot to start with here.
1) I’m not sure where I got this book. I thought at first that Joachim Boaz sent it to me, but I’m starting to doubt that. This is because I keep the Joachim books in one place and all the other ones in another place, for no particular reason other than laziness. This one wasn’t in the Joachim pile, but it’s possible I moved it. I don’t remember buying this book. It could be that someone else gave it to me.
2) Golly, this book is beaten up. Water damage on the bottom, the cover’s coming apart, a Revco sticker saying this book is 29¢ (I love that). The cover is also really faded, I think. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to look like that. Whatever the case, I’m sorry.
3) The back cover is lies.
4) The publication data for this book is a bit scattered. Even the ISFDB doesn’t know the publication date for this paperback edition. The hardback by Arcadia House came out in 1966, which is what the copyright date in this edition says, but there’s no indication of when the paperback was released. Given the extreme shoddiness of this paperback, I assumed Mel Jay was a one-off author of marginal significance, but
5) Mel Jay is a pseudonym for the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, an Anglican priest whose Wikipedia page says he has written more than 180 books of science fiction, Christian teaching, and Forteana. It’s also clear that the Wikipedia page was written either by himself, a family member, a big fan, or some combination. Still, an impressive career. He also looks really good for 81 years old.
6) He should not be confused with Mel Bay, whose instructional books have introduced millions of people to the joy of playing music, myself included.
Now that all the preliminaries are done, let’s talk about the text itself, shall we? It wasn’t bad! It was very readable, although I took issue with a few things, as you’ve probably come to expect. The pacing wasn’t great and the ending left a lot to be desired, but the characters were relatable, if a bit too perfectly good, and the writing was clear and easy to follow.
Man, I feel like I’m coming off as pretty backhanded with the praise here. I don’t mean to. It’s just that this is one of those books that didn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy in one direction or the other until I was finished. It was fine while I read it, and then I put it down and went to do something else and realized that golly gee, it was not at all satisfying.
So our main character, Glen Bridger, is not the leader of a colony, despite what the back of the book says. He is, in fact, the head of security, and he’s investigating the apparent suicide of the real leader of the colony, Fletcher Starbuck.
The book kicks off with Starbuck crashing his rocket ship, from the point of view of one of the other colonists, Big Dan Jeffreys. When Jeffreys goes to investigate the crash, he can’t find Starbuck’s body anywhere. We have a mystery!
Also contributing to this mystery is the fact that Starbuck was a fine and upstanding fellow who fought hard for the rights of his colonists. There was no reason for him to commit suicide, and when a suicide letter shows up saying that he did it because he was defrauding the colony and siphoning off funds, it only deepens the mystery, because such an act would be extremely out of character for Starbuck.
More mysteries start to happen. A note from an anonymous source tells our colony that there’s about to be a big disaster. Radiation levels are about to rise to lethal levels and there’s nothing anybody can do about it, so take precautions and hope to survive. Sure enough, this is exactly what happens, and everyone takes the precautions and survives, other than the fact that all the crops are ruined and the animals are all dead.
I’d say there’s no time to wonder about what caused this or who warned everybody, but that’s exactly the opposite of the case. It’s all anybody does, and it’s all anybody continues to do when something similar happens an additional FOUR TIMES.
The colony gets a warning just before
- A hurricane
- Widespread fires
and I’d add the last one, a volcano, but I don’t think there was actually a warning before that one?
And the responses to these disasters are, on the main, wondering just what the crap is going on.
There’s speculation that some alien force is trying to remove the colonists so that the aliens can take over the planet for themselves. Since the colony has never encountered anything more advanced than some small mammals on this planet, the aliens must be coming from somewhere else. Bridger decides that maybe the aliens are from another planet in the system, so he heads off to the nearest, simply called Orbit One because nobody has gotten around to naming any of the other planets in the system besides Kolar.
One of the more interesting elements of this book is how the planet on which our colony sits is largely unexplored. Despite the book taking place somewhere in the 30th century or thereabouts, colonization is still largely a shovel-and-plow affair. The colonists are much too concerned with mere survival to go around exploring the planet apart from the bare minimum to make sure it doesn’t kill them all outright.
I find this interesting because the narration states that this method of colonization isn’t used because it’s effective. It’s used because it’s cheap. The people backing the colony financially are quite fond of low safety margins in the hopes of high profit margins. One of the things that made the former administrator, Starbuck, so beloved was his willingness to stand up to the Big Business types that cared more about money than human lives. The book never quite comes out as anti-capitalist. It seems to fall more on the side of promoting some sort of ethical capitalism, and while ethical capitalism is a lot like a benevolent dictator or a monopole magnet, it’s nice to dream about.
Anyway, Bridger flies over to Orbit One, whence the name of the book cometh, and finds…absolutely nothing. Not even a hint of something. He just comes back home and declares it a pointless waste of time.
I know what you’re thinking. “Surely this is a red herring! After all, he named the book after it, right! It can’t be just a pointless reference to a pointless part of the plot, can it?”
I hate to say it, but you’re thinking WRONG.
Nope, the conclusion of the book comes thusly:
It turns out that Starbuck isn’t dead. Bridger sees in him in a crowd and then follows him. He follows him into a deep chasm (this planet is freakin’ overflowing with deep chasms). Inside the chasm he finds a gigantic computer with a weather control device. Starbuck is enslaved to the giant computer via some kind of psychic dingdang.
Instead of charging head-on, Bridger does the smart thing and goes and gets some help. The problem is, the smart thing is also the boring thing and the word-count-friendly thing. He goes and spends a few pages explaining what he saw, and then he heads back.
This time he’s able to confront Starbuck, who comes to his senses just enough to exposition. He had to fake his suicide because of the computer. The computer is causing all the catastrophes so that the human colonists will leave. Starbuck was able to shake off the effects of the psychic slavery just enough to send a warning to the colonists before everything happened.
It turns out that the Ancient Masters of this planet are sleeping beneath its surface, waiting for the computer to wake them up. A very long time ago they nuked the surface of their world and then had to flee underground until the radiation dissipated. This is despite having a computer that can control the weather, including radiation levels, as we learned first thing in the book.
The trigger to wake up the Ancient Masters would be the arrival of some other species on the planet. Their logic was that if someone else could inhabit the planet, it must be fine, so it’s time to wake up. See, I kind of like that, although I feel like there’s a lot that could go wrong with it and it’s a really indirect way of going about things when you have a giant computer that can control the weather and radiation levels, so you’d think it would have some kind of way of measuring the weather and radiation levels so that it could go about its job.
But first, the computer has to get rid of the invading species, and for some reason it needs a member of that species to do it, so that’s what happened to Starbuck.
I read somewhere that Fanthorpe’s novels have a tendency to end abruptly. It seems he has a reputation for hitting his contractual word count and then saying OKAY DONE. Whether that’s true or not, I get where someone might get the idea, because here’s how this book ends.
Bridger explores the underground cavern where the computer is. He finds some frozen pods that contain aliens. He calls the army and the army kills all the aliens. They then speculate that they can use the weather computer to make the planet nice.
There’s never even a moment’s thought toward, perhaps, communicating with these aliens? Trying? Maybe a little? Yeah, they were using crazy tech to wipe out the colonists, but can you really blame them for that? It’s their planet! The humans were invading it!
Just run in and kill everybody while they’re in cold sleep. It’s the human way.
I guess the most you can say about this book is that it was written for a check. That much is obvious, and it’s not a problem. Author’s gotta eat. And honestly, for a book that was so obviously written to make a mortgage payment, it was pretty good. Not great, certainly, but acceptable enough. There wasn’t much problematic with the book in terms of, you know, ethics. It didn’t even have swear words.
Come to think of it, though, there were no female characters that I can remember? Uh oh.
The book really felt like a YA novel. That’s something else I won’t hold against it. Nothing wrong with YA, it’s just that there’s a certain style it tends to have, especially in the sixties. Like I said, the book didn’t have any cusses, didn’t mention sex, and very few, if any, humans died or had violence happen to them. An entire alien species was wiped out, but that doesn’t count. What really made it feel like mid-sixties YA, though, was the use of exclamation points. There were a fair number of them in narration, usually saying stuff like “The mountain was huge!”
I guess what I’m saying is that this is an extremely forgettable book, but if you find your third-grader reading it, maybe don’t feel like you need to take it away from them. That’s the best I can say about it.