Destiny’s Orbit by David Grinnell
Ace Books, 1961
Price I paid: $6.99 (although you could half that because it’s an Ace Double?)
Though Ajax Calkins was wealthy enough to buy anything on Earth his heart desired, the one thing he wanted most was strictly forbidden. That was a world of his own—a planet, however small, which would be his private kingdom in the sky. The Earth-Mars Space Administration stood in his path. They would tolerate no such Eighteenth Century derring-do in the commercial and workaday interplanetary channels of the Twenty-First Century. Empire-building was out.
But when an offer from a bearded stranger opened the way to just such an adventure, Ajax leapt at the chance. In his luxury spacecraft Destiny he shot out through the inner planets to the tiny world that waited a king—and, unwittingly to a monster outer-planet empire that waited a detonator for a cosmic war.
I know y’all aren’t my therapist, but I’m kinda mad at myself and I need to vent. See, I learned something today. I learned about Donald A. Wollheim, the author of this book under the alias David Grinnell. I learned what a huge frickin’ deal he was. On the one hand, I’m glad that even though I’ve been digging deep into the history of sci-fi for lo these seven years now there are still things for me to learn. That keeps things fresh. But on the other hand, geez, I feel like I’ve been running with blinders on.
Wollheim is an author who might be the reason this blog is able to exist in the first place. He is quite possibly going to be the most important science fiction author on my personal development as a human being outside of the obvious Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and so forth. And it’s all for the stuff he did outside of writing.
I’m gonna crib really heavily from his Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction pages here:
In 1936 he organized the first American science fiction convention. He later went on to become one of the most important editors in the field. He edited the first mass-market sf anthology in 1943. His daughter, Betsy, says that this was the first book containing the words “science fiction” in the title. Two years later he edited the first anthology of original science fiction. He went on to Avon books where he was able to bring authors like Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, and A. Merritt to wider audiences. And then he went to Ace, where he invented the Ace Double. It was there that he also published an unauthorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings via a legal loophole. This often casts him as the villain in Tolkien histories, but Wollheim did send Tolkien royalties, and Wollheim’s obituary in Locus asserts that the Tolkien boom of the sixties might not have happened if Wollheim hadn’t taken this first step in getting the Professor’s work into so many hands so affordably.
In 1971—and this is the fact that burns most because I’ve probably read it before and dismissed it—he left Ace and founded DAW books. DAW are Wollheim’s initials.
I just did a little digging around on this blog’s backside to check, and I’m glad that I started tagging books with the publisher because it allowed me to verify something. I have reviews of more DAW books than any other publisher, with 29. Right behind it at 26? Ace.
These stats might be a little wonky because I’m sometimes less than careful about the tags, but I think they’re still pretty telling. As of this writing there are 325 reviews on this blog, which means that Wollheim is directly or indirectly related to 16.92% of my reviews—if not more from connections I’m currently unaware of, or might be more vague. Should I count, um, every fantasy book I’ve reviewed, since he might be partially responsible for the existence of modern fantasy publishing? Or what about all the authors he introduced to the world but had book published outside of those two houses?
It’s possible that, as an editor, he’s done as much or more good for science fiction than Campbell. Plus there’s the added bonus that he wasn’t a fascist. I can’t find a lot regarding his political leanings, but an article I found by Jerome Winter for the Eaton Journal at the University of California, Riverside talks about Wollheim’s close friendship with John B. Michel and their membership in a group called the Futurians, who were interested in utopian left-wing politics and technocracy. Michel was openly Communist. That doesn’t mean that Wollheim was, too, but in 1937 Wollheim delivered a speech at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention on Michel’s behalf, where he denounced the fandom’s apathy toward the rise of fascism and declared that it needed to change and “smash the status quo.”
Hot damn, what a guy! And I only got this book because it looked kinda goofy and the other half of the Ace Double, a Brunner novel, is about time travel. I didn’t expect to find someone who, in another life, I might have been pals with.
Well, now that I’ve spent 800 words talking about the author, should I talk about the book I read? I have to admit that some of my opinion on it has changed since learning so much about the author, but on the whole I have to report that it wasn’t anything mindblowing. It had some pretty good bits. It also had a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. My response to this protagonist is pretty complicated now that I know about Wollheim’s own leanings. I can’t decide whether I’m supposed to root for him or not.
The protagonist in question is named Ajax Calkins. Calkins is a bored rich kid, a third-generation inheritor of massive generational wealth. His grandfather invented something called Calkans, a means of reducing the space between atoms in materials, thereby shrinking them. This process is key to spaceflight, and led to the expansion of humanity throughout the inner Solar System and asteroid belt.
Calkins himself doesn’t want anything to do with that. He’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got a Great Destiny. He wants to live out his fantasies of being like heroes of old, people like
…such glorious heroes and benefactors of mankind as Pizarro, Rhodes, Clive of India, and William Walker.page 14
So what we have here is a kid who idolizes the worst Imperialist shitbags human history has ever created, and wants to live up to their example. Great, that’s just great. Is the reader supposed to be on board with this? I don’t know!
Calkins wants to build his own empire. Specifically, he wants to find some wild, untamed land and conquer it. Unfortunately, there are no such places left. The inner Solar System has been colonized either by humans or Martians. The asteroid belt is completely charted and claimed. The outer Solar System is still largely unexplored, but it’s too far away to be practical. At least, I think that’s the reasoning given. One of this book’s high points is giving Space the credit it deserves for being huge. There’s no FTL in this book. In physics terms, it’s fairly hard science fiction all around.
In a lot of other ways, the book is speculative and imaginative in ways I enjoyed. For example, Mars is inhabited. Wollheim did a great job of making the Martians interesting. For one, there are lots of cooperating species on Mars that all work together peacefully. He might lose a point or two for making them just Earth animals but bigger and sapient, but whatever. The Martians are all analogous to varieties of Earth invertebrates.
The main one we interact with during the book is named the Third Least Wuj. He’s analogous to a giant spider. I say “he” because the book did, but the Wuj doesn’t actually have a sex or gender role. Or he has an ambiguous one? This isn’t my lane. Adult spider-Martians do—web-spinners and egg-layers, to be precise—but until the Wuj hits a certain age, he doesn’t even know which one he’ll become. I just thought that was neat.
Calkins meets the Wuj on Mars. Prior to that, he received a message from somebody saying that there’s an opportunity for him to live out his dream of building his own little empire. The message is from a guy name Smallways and the text is perhaps a little too obvious about how he looks human but in a strange way. We’re introduced to the fact that there are hostile Saturnians in this Solar System right around the same time we meet him…
But Calkins doesn’t suspect a thing. Smallways shows him the location of an asteroid he can take control of. There are miners on it, but they need money and supplies. They’ll make Calkins their king if he can put his considerable wealth toward their mining efforts. He happily agrees. The asteroid is a Trojan, lying in Jupiter’s orbit but holding a position ahead of Jupiter in a sort of three-body problem that the book explains but is over my head. There are in fact several such asteroids in a little cluster, named after heroes of the Trojan War. Yeah, that means that one of them is already named Ajax. Destiny!
Calkins is opposed by the Earth-Mars Space Administration (EMSA), and in particular an agent of that administration named Emily Hackenschmidt. Emily is, of course, smokin’ hot. Calkins spends a lot of the book being annoyed with her and attracted to her.
The story bounces around a lot in ways that made me think that this is a fix-up, but I can’t find any evidence that it is. My feeling is mostly because each of the chapters ends on a cliffhanger. There’s sometimes a sense that Wollheim might simply have needed to throw in some filler, which is wild because this is already a short book. It’s 114 pages. If it tops 50,000 words, I’d be surprised.
The main thing, however, is that Ajax takes over the asteroid Ajax. He defies the EMSA in its efforts to stop him. The Saturnian government acknowledges his claim and offers its assistance. This sets off a series of events that increase tensions between these two governments, leading eventually to a space battle leaving the EMSA forces decimated and a Saturnian invasion fleet heading, unopposed, toward the inner Solar System.
All this because a bored rich asshole wanted a country of his own. Is this that Affluenza thing?
I can’t remember exactly why it happened, but Smallways is the reason this book takes a major turn. He suggests altering the orbits of the other asteroids in this little cluster so that any invasion forces would be unable to take over Ajax. This doesn’t work out, and it turns out to be intentional. What it does is reveal that Smallways is, in fact, a Saturnian spy. Saturnians are gelatinous creatures of a sort, and Smallways was basically a shell. It also reveals that Ajax isn’t a regular asteroid. It’s a relic of the ancient civilization that once lived on the planet that became the asteroid belt. It’s a space station, or maybe a vessel? They never move it.
After a quick nonessential side-adventure that I think might have just been filler, Calkins comes back to his space station to learn about that pesky Saturnian invasion fleet. I guess it’s not totally unexpected, but it turns out that this space station has some weaponry on it, a bunch of long-range missiles. Calkins and the Wuj quickly learn how to use them, repel the Saturnians, and earn the respect and acknowledgement of the EMSA. He and Emily share a kiss, and everything works out well for everybody.
So yeah, here’s the thing that bothers me. It’s clear that Calkins is a piece of crap. I hate him and everything about him. He’s not only a wholly terrible person whose declared heroes include perpetrators of genocide, his own actions have disastrous results. His actions killed people. He’s a colossal screw-up.
And what consequences does he face for all this? None! He gets the planet and the girl!
So while I would like to think that Wollheim was giving us a story with an anti-Imperialist message, I just don’t know!
One possible reading of this story is “Yeah, bad guys win all the time. Sorry, I know it sucks.” I’m not sure if the tone of the story supports that, though. The book was largely just a whiz-bang adventure story, at least as far as I felt. Others might have a different take on that, and that’s fine. I’d like to hear ’em!
It’s my understanding that there’s a sequel to this book, co-authored with Lin Carter. I’d like to think that it’s the story of Calkin getting his comeuppance, but I won’t hold my breath.
I wasn’t wild about this book, but it had its moments. It had some imagination behind it, but perhaps lacked a bit in the application of that imagination. The story didn’t grab me and in fact repulsed me, but there were some details in the work that I really did like. I liked the Martians and the little details he gave us about their lives and culture. I wish the book had been more of that.
Ultimately, I don’t think it would be a controversial statement to say that Wollheim is much more important for his editing and publishing work than for his writing output. And that’s fine! I respect him all the same.
5 thoughts on “Destiny’s Orbit”
Wollheim also edited what was to me the superior “World’s Best” annual anthologies of the 70s and 80s (meaning I agreed with his picks more than some of the other series) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Annual_World%27s_Best_SF
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The sequel with Carter is called Destination: Saturn and, when I first read it in 1970, was the funniest book I had ever read. They, or maybe Carter, went for a full-scale farce, so be warned.
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That sounds just like something Carter would do, and like something I’d really enjoy. Thanks, I’ll try to find it!
DAW and Del Rey (who published my first novel), were both SF writers turned editors. I never liked Wollheim much as an author, but his contribution as an editor is monumental.
I think your words “just a whiz band adventure story” are as close as you are going to get to a deep inner meaning on this one. That was his schtick. He wrote the Mike M.A.R.S. books, and a lot of things I read as a kid an then forgot.
Oddly enough, I just read one of his oldies but not so goodies about six months ago. The back of the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Megapack (don’t laugh, I was reading this stuff when I was ten years old and it’s good to have cheap nostalgia) is padded with three additional novels, Norton’s Star Born, the Rip Foster novel, both first rate, and The Secret of the Ninth Planet by DAW. What a stinker. I ignored it for a couple of years but finally I couldn’t stand having it sit there unread so I dived in — and wanted my few hours back.
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I’m certainly not opposed to cheap nostalgia! Or even not-so-cheap nostalgia—I recently (but still pre-COVID) spent entirely too much money on a blu-ray set of classic Godzilla movies because I remembered staying up late to watch them on cable as a kid.