Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-631, $0.50, 189pp, 1967 [1]

This second book installment of Professor Jameson’s adventures contains the fourth through sixth magazine installments and, given that the opening and closing stories are novellas rather than novelettes, this is a significantly longer (though still short) book. Incidentally, there is an oddity in the two book titles: in the last volume, we had a world of the double sun and, in this one, we have a sunless world. I guess it all averages out.

In the first tale, we go “Into the Hydrosphere.” The Zoromes discover a planet which appears to consist entirely of water – not just over the surface but through and through. On reaching the surface, they find cities of kelp and make ultimately friendly contact with the native Plekne. However, they meet another race, the Uchke, on much less friendly terms as the Uchke regularly send out raiding parties from parts unknown to enslave the Plekne. It is during a fight with them that Professor Jameson and a companion are hurled into the water. After a desperate struggle to regain the surface despite their metal bodies, they are swallowed by a sea creature. After fighting their way out of the unfortunate animal, they plummet to the bottom. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out that there is a tiny rocky core to the waterworld. Not only that, it is a hollow rocky core with a sort of Pellucidar inside which is the Uchke base. And there are yet more revelations in store as the Zoromes help lead the Plekne below to revolt against the Uchke. Much fighting and many cataclysms ensue.

As in the last Jameson review, I have to make incidental spoilers to the prior story to describe the next (which the third story aptly describes as a “parade of worldly events”). In “Time’s Mausoleum,” the Zoromes find out that the Uchke’s science actually comes from the Qwux who once enslaved them. They succeeded in revolt and the Qwux, being sybarites, are content to be kept in comfort by the Uchke in exchange for their scientific knowledge. So the power of the Uchke is broken by the simple expedient of the Zoromes carrying off the one Qwux who knows anything about space flight. He’s also working on time flight, so to speak. Time travel, as such, is impossible but it is possible to create a machine which can move through space and view that space’s past. The Zoromes are on their way back to Zor but will pass by the Earth again and Jameson excitedly encourages the Qwux to work on his machine. On arriving at Earth, there follows a time-lapse journey through humanity’s past (with a special emphasis on Jameson’s life and death). At the start of this point, we get the priceless line “‘That-that’s me!’ Professor Jameson exclaimed, rustling his tentacles nervously.” It very economically gets at some of the essence of Jameson’s long strange trip. It’s interesting that Stapledon had only had a single hardcover U. S. edition of Last and First Men at the time this was published and I wonder if Jones read it because the future vision culminates in a pulp-man’s Stapledonian look into the past which is our future. It ties in Jones’ “Durna Rangue” series and perhaps other stories, demonstrates that he was remarkably pessimistic about space travel, only giving it to us in the twenty-third century, and that he was only somewhat optimistic about humanity, indicating that humanity was extinct in the solar system after five million years. There follows a fairly arbitrary disaster for the climax of the story.

In the third and title story, the Zoromes encounter a weirdly dim star and, when they think they’re leaving the system after passing all its planets, they encounter another world which is huge but strangely light. They also soon realize it is a rogue planet – the sunless world. Since the Zoromes are always eager to explore, they land. Once on the airless surface, they are attacked by strange headless symmetrical animals. When these are rebuffed, the creatures flee to a cave and the Zoromes follow. Third verse, same as the first. (Or similar.) Once below, they find the world is hollow and, while peering into the internal abyss, the ledge they’re on collapses and they find themselves plunging into it. This time, however, there’s no center at all and they end up on the opposite side. There, they find piles of bones reminiscent of “The Planet of the Double Sun” and meet Ielee of the Ayt of Ome. His people are not slaves to the headless creatures as such, but to their own superstitions. The old, feeble, or criminal Aytons are sacrificed to the creatures and it’s death at the hands of their fellows if they refuse to go. Once again, the Zoromes fight against the creatures and for the Aytons as well as encouraging them to fight for themselves, despite the Zoromes having initially been held prisoner by the Aytons who refused to surrender their superstitions. And, as if this weren’t enough, a rescue party of Zoromes (who had inadvertently driven the creatures into Ayt causing a massive battle) bring word that the rogue planet is going to collide with the third world of the system if the Zoromes’ efforts to disintegrate that world fail. More epic cataclysms ensue.

While Jones obviously respects science in the abstract as a good, intelligent, modern way to go about things (and have great adventures), his concrete notions of it are odd. The idea that removing one being from the interlocking and ever-evolving web of science will forever prevent the Qwux/Uchke from having spaceflight again is naive and the reader will not be able to catalog all the preposterous impossibilities in these stories but will note instead the two times something is scientifically accurate (when Jones has a character note the effects of an absence of atmosphere on light refraction and the one time he seems to associate mass and gravity. On the other hand, having stories about almost brown-dwarf-like stars and rogue planets in 1934 is prescient and his Zoromes anticipate Charles Stross’ interstellar robots (though I think Stross is wrong about that as an absolute requirement).

His style doesn’t seem to change, giving us odd poetry like “the headless inhabitants of the hollow planet,” weird phrases like “opined the buried Professor,” conundrums like “avenged a thousand-fold many times over,” scintillating dialog like “Quiet your fears, 21MM392. It is I, 744U-21, your very good friend,” and inadvertently comical dangers like “The Uchke are coming with their tools! They are about to take our heads apart!”

If these are dealbreakers, these stories are definitely broken. Jones is not a very good writer. However, if you can just get acclimated (swimming around after the shock of diving into these waters has worn off), these really can maintain interest. He is some sort of visionary. The crazy worlds and strange lifeforms, while unmoored from almost any sort of physics or biology, are fascinating, the action (usually) gallops, and the concepts for 1930s America are pretty radical. Like many activists, the Zoromes blunder in to fight for justice with insufficient information and a chance they’re actually doing wrong but, in this ideal world, they are almost always right. Unlike today’s activists, they are moderate. A specific point is made about how they do not intend to wipe out the Uchke, for instance, but only to “remove their menace.” The Uchke themselves, seem to suffer from a sort of battered child syndrome where the abused become abusers. Yet even the Qwux are allowed to go their way and the spaceflight-expert prisoner becomes essentially one of the crew. There is an excessive reliance on physical appearance as an indicator of intelligence but that appearance only has to avoid being brutish – how many arms or legs or whether you’re purple or not has no bearing. What is important is intelligence itself. Jameson observes that one species is “happily unburdened with the theological superstitions and weird practices which the Professor had found were all too common among the less intelligent order of creatures to be found among the worlds of the universe.” He also notes that some creatures’ “intelligence was not sufficiently developed for them to conceive of worlds other than their own. In this, they were not far removed from many people the professor had known during his Earthly life…”

Rather than attacking our science fictional grandfathers for any lapses we think we see in them, I think it’s much more amazing how they were among those who broke the fetters of conventional wisdom and were able to conceive of purple-skinned friends and multi-legged -armed and -eyed machine men adopting people from multiple worlds into their ranks as they zip through the cosmos seeking knowledge and understanding. This deserves respect and honor. While the second tale is a poorly structured mess, the other two are as good (or whatever the word is) as the best in the first volume and all three convey what is ultimately a large-scale broad-minded revelry.


[1] Original publications:

  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Time’s Mausoleum” (Amazing Stories, December 1933)
  • “The Sunless World” (Amazing Stories, December 1934)

3 thoughts on “Review: The Sunless World by Neil R. Jones

  1. I have this book, and the first one, still in my collection, purchased new back in the day. I only remember the concept, that of immortal mechanical beings exploring the galaxy, and the fact that the stories were pretty badly written. I don’t know if Ace released any more stories in the series, but this book was as far as I went with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chuck!

      Those books must be in great shape. (Mine are not bad but have probably been through more than one owner.) That is the basic concept and “pretty badly written” is also right. 🙂 Ace actually released five volumes but I don’t have the last one.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Review: Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones | Featured Futures

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