There’s something extremely satisfying about Ace Doubles, the two-in-one paperbacks that dominated science fiction in the 1960s. Sure, they were often butchered edits of longer books to get them to fit the rigid format, but when they work they work. Many of the books that editor Donald Wollheim chose for the line were British imports he could afford (which is why so much E. C. Tubb and John Brunner shows up in the line), while a large number were imports from the pulp era. That’s how Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon made its way into a 1960s Ace Double, and it’s also how the above story, Robert Silverberg’s The Silent Invaders became one half of a 1963 Ace Double.
I finished reading The Silent Invaders about a week ago. It’s the latest in a recent Robert Silverberg binge, and I found it an extremely quick read after Brackett’s The Big Jump, which for some reason took me forever to read.
The Silent Invaders opens with one of the strongest first paragraphs I’ve read in years:
“The prime-class starship Lucky Lady came thundering out of overdrive half a million miles from Earth, and phased into the long, steady ion-drive glide at Earth-norm gravitation toward the orbiting depot. In his second-class cabin aboard the starship, the man whose papers said he was Major Abner Harris of the Interstellar Development Corps stared anxiously, critically, at his face in the mirror. He was checking, for what must have been the hundredth time, to make sure that there was no sign of where his tendrils once had been.”
Yeah! So Almer Harris is really Aar Khiilom, a highly trained religious warrior from the planet Darruu, who has come to Earth as a sleeper agent to ensure that the planet is not pulled into an alliance with the Darruuis’ hated foes from the enemy planet of Medlin, with whom the Darruui have warred for centuries. The Medlin also have sleeper agents on Earth, likewise surgically altered from their monstrous alien forms to look like normal Earth people.
Harris gets caught up in a Medlin honey trap and learns that Earth will soon be the dominant player in interstellar politics thanks to the emergence of a new race of psychic super-humans, forcing him to question the nature of his cultural conflict and twisting his loyalties.
Because the story deals with masked sleeper agents, you never really know who’s telling the truth and what the real deal is until the very end. Is there really a race of psychic Earthlings? Is Harris’s Medlin love interest telling the truth, or is she merely using him to further the ends of her evil race? Or is the whole thing a put on by the Darruui, who simply seek to test the loyalties of Aar Khiilom? I honestly couldn’t tell for two-thirds of the novel, which kept me turning each page at a rapid pace. When the truth is finally revealed, I couldn’t believe Silverberg’s audacity. I’ve read a lot of science fiction, but I’ve never before read about a super-advanced unborn psychic baby controlling things from inside its mother’s womb. It’s “holy shit” moments like that that make speculative fiction my favorite genre, and Silverberg is shaping up to be a master at this sort of thing.
As soon as I finish The Atlantic Abomination I am on to another Robert Silverberg story, this time a fantasy tale called “Spawn of the Deadly Sea”.