Conquest of Earth by Manly Banister
Airmont Books, 1964
Originally published by Bouregy, 1957
Price I paid: 75¢
Earth’s elusive masters tolerated only one planet-wide organization—the Scarlet Order of Men. Only the most favored of the People could enter the Institute, as children, to undergo rigorous training. Those unfit for the Order became Blue Brethren, servants and guides of the People, aiding and instructing them as loyal members of society, under the rule of the benevolent Trisz.
First things first: the cover to this book is quite good. I like it. There’s not a lot going on, but there’s an attention to detail that I appreciate. The guy up front is well-rendered. I don’t know what all that sciencey looking stuff laying around is. This cover doesn’t have much at all to do with the book. Probably Ed Emshwiller had it lying around and sold it to Airmont—a publisher I’m wholly unfamiliar with—for a couple bucks.
I like the person in the background who is all “Heyooooooo.”
The back cover is notable for giving us little to no plot information at all. The details are accurate enough, but there’s not much on what to expect from this novel.
Manly Banister, who has an excellent name, only published this one novel. He also had some short stories, but he’s known more for his five-issue fanzine The Nekromantikon in the fifties. One thing I regret is being born after the era of fanzines. I’m sure they exist in some form or another today, mostly online, but pre-Internet fandom is more fascinating to me. I have to wonder if it was as toxic as fandoms today. These rose-colored glasses I just picked up tell me it wasn’t. Let’s be honest, though, we all know there were numerous instances of published letters that went
“Dear Weirdzine, my name is Mary U. and I just wanted to make some comments on the recent “At the Mountains of Madness.” I thought that it—”
“Hold up there, Mary! Don’t you know that if women read Weird fiction, it makes their uteruses fall out!?! Get back in the kitchen!”
I’m being flip and reductive and a lot of women were forefront in fan culture, including responder-to-the-blog and Sime/Gen creator Jacqueline Lichtenberg, but I can’t shake the feeling that some things have always been the same.
So what does Conquest of Earth have to say for itself? That’s a tough question, it turns out, but at least we can rest assured that what it does have to say, it says with a lot of purpleness. It’s not as bad as plenty of the pulp I’ve read before, but boy howdy. There’s no mistaking the influences on this one.
Our hero is Kor Danay. He’s twenty-five and perfect in mind and body. When we meet him, he’s being inducted into a group of people called the Scarlet Brotherhood, or the Scarlet Order of Men, or the Scarlet Sages, or whatever. It seems to have a bunch of names, but the chief thing that people are called when they’re admitted to the Order is just Men. That…probably says a lot about what book we’re reading.
Kor is ready for his final exam. The exam happens, and we get a taste of what the Scarlet Sages are capable of. It turns out to be a lot. A lot a lot. Kor’s final exam has him be teleported to another world somewhere in the universe. He has to figure out where he is and teleport himself back to the exact spot that he left. For full points, he has to complete this in 3.2 seconds.
We see Kor utilize the abilities at his disposal. He slows down the passage of time. He expands his consciousness until he is able to hear the ticking of his instructor’s stopwatch from what turns out to be about 3000 light years away. And then he teleports himself back. In all, he does it in a little over a second.
So yeah, the Scarlet Sages have some incredible abilities at their disposal. But there’s more! It turns out that Kor is the best one of them all, because of course he is. There is an ability theoretically possible to Scarlet Sages, although none have ever attempted it and survived. It involves calling what is referred to as “The Fire Out of Heaven.” All initiates are invited to try this skill at their final examination, although failure means death.
Kor doesn’t fail. He’s the first to manage it. It’s explained that this has something to do with his “uniquely separable mind.” A “superconsciousness” is mentioned. It seemed a lot like a subconscious. It’s where intuitive logic comes from. Kor’s ability, then, comes from being able to willingly throw information into his superconscious mind and let it take care of itself without needing things like logic or language to get in the way.
I kinda like that. This book dealt a lot with things “beyond language” in a way that would probably have made Lovecraft proud, although at least when Manly Banister mentions that something is indescribable, he doesn’t immediately proceed to attempt to describe it.
Kor, his abilities proven, is sent out into the world to serve as a Scarlet Sage. The main rule is that he’s not allowed to use his powers, lest people find out they exist. The main problem is whether the Trisz find out these powers exist.
The Trisz rule Earth, and many other planets besides. Their arrival on Earth has been lost to time. The book never states when it takes place, but we get some clues that say it’s pretty damn far in the future. The sun has gone red, for instance. The moon is coming closer to the Earth and even approaching the Roche limit, where it will break up and form a ring. Now, current science says that this is something unlikely to ever happen (the moon is actually getting further away), but I’m willing to give a book from the fifties a pass on that one.
The Trisz are “utterly inhuman.” They’re not even corporeal. They’re barely even visible. Most people in the world are pretty chill with Trisz rule. The Scarlet Sages are not. Their main deal is that the Trisz are holding humanity’s development back. Humankind would be even more powerful than the Trisz by now, they argue, if they hadn’t interfered. There’s also the fact that the Trisz, for some reason, are carting off the water from Earth to some unknown destination. Earth is drying up. Never mind that there’s plenty of water elsewhere in this very Solar System that would probably be a lot easier to sweep up. Saturn’s rings aren’t exactly doing much at the moment.
Jumping ahead, we later learn that there’s only one Trisz, and all of the ones humans have ever seen are just projections of it. Also, that Trisz resides in a different universe, and it is the only thing in that universe. It feeds on life energy, because of course it does, but that doesn’t explain the whole water thing. It does explain why it’s actively helping humans colonize the galaxy, though. More food.
The Scarlet Sages know a lot of this stuff, but not everything, and they’ve sent scouts out through the universe to try to find the Trisz homeworld. (They don’t know yet that it’s a different universe.) Kor is a little disappointed that he’s not destined for the Scout Brigades, but is instead sent to a place called Ka-Si to just chill out for a while.
So this book does a thing that I like, but the only reason I like it is because it’s so cheesy and corny and hacky. I especially like it when I don’t realize it’s happening for a while, which is what happened here.
Okay, so Kor is in Ka-Si. I didn’t think anything about the name of this city at first. I thought that it seemed a little King James Old Testament, but that was fine. But later we learn that Ka-Si is on the river Mizzou. Is it starting to hit yet? It didn’t hit me yet. It hit me when it was stated that the Mizzou eventually flowed into the river Mis-Pi.
And yeah, that’s where it hit me. They’re in Kansas City. This book does the thing where even far in the future, places have the same names but shifted around. Add some hyphens, trim some syllables, modify some consonants, you’ve got yourself some newfangled place names. Never mind that it’s likely been millions of years and that place names are often unrecognizable (or changed completely) within decades or centuries. It amuses me deeply.
Later, we enter the city of Den-Ver.
I’m serious. I didn’t make that up. That’s all Manly.
Kor’s adventures are numerous and it’s clear that this book was a fixup of some novellas. I’ve learned to accept that in theory, but it doesn’t make the book much more entertaining to read. In other books, things get recapped a little too often to make for a good novel, but this time it was the opposite problem. You could tell where the pieces were stitched together because there were big shifts in plot that didn’t have an awful lot to do with things like cause and effect.
Kor shows up in Ka-Si. He meets a woman named Soma and a Blue Brother named Pol. The Blue Brothers are teachers and tutors and stuff, people who were almost worth making Scarlet Sages but didn’t quite hack it. At first they seem to be working against him, but it turns out they’re on his side. Kor runs up against the “benevolent” Trisz on a few occasions, avoiding murder not once but twice. The second time is a good little doozy. He’s thrown into some kind of matter converter. The manages to teleport himself out (he’s allowed to use his powers if it’s a life-or-death thing, conveniently), and then teleports in individual molecules from across the city that add up to the exact chemical composition of his body, thus fooling the Trisz.
Did I mention that Kor is ludicrously powerful? I mean, wow.
Kor and Soma fall in love (because of course they do) and then another big shift happens. This is the biggest one and it was so out of place. The Scarlet Sages recognize Kor for his efforts and skills and decide to send him and Soma off into the galaxy to look for a planet worth colonizing. The couple have a grand old time until their last day, when Soma gets snatched up by a Trisz that happened to be wandering past. Kor’s mind snaps and we get about twenty pages of him wandering around the wilderness of this primitive planet, meeting up with some Stone Age natives and hanging around with them, and then finally being found and brought home by his fellow sages, where he recovers without a problem.
This does apparently matter to the story, because Kor says that it was while he was wandering around like this that he figured out everything he needs to know in order to bring the book to a close. Yeah, there are about twenty pages left, and they’re a pretty big letdown. Basically, Kor says he realized how he’s able to call The Fire From Heaven (which, incidentally, just seems to be pulling stuff out of a star), what his “uniquely separable mind” is all about, and what the Trisz are and how to defeat them.
So the end of the book is him explaining this for a bit, and then the last five pages are everybody putting a plan into action with no setbacks and the Trisz are destroyed the end.
Did I like this book? That’s a hard question, actually. Yeah, the ending sucked, but it stood out as a perfectly serviceable pulp novel until that point. It had a lot of the same problems that plenty of pulps do:
- Bad prose
- An overarching concern with Manhood
- One woman
- She ends up being a woman in a fridge
- A rambling plot with little flow
- An awful ending
- No chance of the hero failing
But it was also pretty original compared to plenty of pulp. The Scarlet Sages, and Kor especially, were insanely powerful, but the powers were interestingly considered and consistent. The book had some things to say about the nature of conqueror vs. conquered, about power and how tyrants strive to keep it, and so on. It was pretty relevant to the modern day, at times. The Trisz act benevolent but keep their controlled populations uneducated and squabbling so that they never serve as a threat to their power. Sounds familiar!
I’m not gonna say you should pick up this book unless you’re looking for a real pulpy deep dive, but I’m also not going to tell you to run away from it, either. It’s got some things worth thinking about and pulling from if you can get through all the rest of it. Golly gee, that’s the whole reason I started this blog!