Thursday, September 28, 2017

Beyond The Black Enigma (Commander Craig #1)

Beyond The Black Enigma, by Bart Somers
August, 1965  Paperback Library

Clearly intended to be James Bond in space, Beyond The Black Enigma was the first of two novels to feature Commander John Craig; Bart Somers was prolific sci-fi author Gardner Fox. The story could easily have appeared a few decades earlier in one of the pulps Fox once wrote for; even the date in which the story occurs, the friggin’ 75th Century(!), gives it the feel of a vintage pulp.

And of course, despite taking place so far into the future, the world Fox gives us feels like the 1960s (or actually the 1940s); it is humorously quaint, with people still smoking cigarettes, writing on paper, even having “writing desks.” Square-jawed men stand around in offices smoking and drinking and discussing “girls.” The “science” throughout is preposterous and the characters have all the depth of Captain Future. None of this really could be seen as a criticism – I mean the only sci-fi I’ll read these days is pulp sci-fi – but the main issue is that Beyond The Black Enigma just isn’t very good. One suspects this is because Fox perhaps retconned some other manuscript into this James Bond-esque template; for in truth, he takes his gadget-wielding, superspy hero, sends him to a boring planet…and has him spelunking through ancient crypts and deciphering the “truth” in various stories from mythology.

Craig is a big blond-haired brawler who works as an agent for Alert Command, part of “the elite Investigation Corps, United Worlds Space Fleets.” He’s just got back from nearly a year of jungle warfare on some planet, and just wants to spend time with Elva Marlowe, his hoststuff main babe who makes her living as a fashion designer around the cosmos (despite which, and despite it being the 75th friggin’ century, Paris and New York are still the fashion meccas of the universe; as I say, this future is very quaint). But he’s summoned by his boss, Commander Ingalls, for a new mission – one that will have Craig fighting a menace “five light years away.”

As you’ll note, both Craig and Ingalls are commanders. This is because Craig apparently received a promotion sometime between the manuscript and publication stages. Craig is sometimes referred to as “the major” throughout, which implies that’s how he started before the publisher (perhaps) decided he should be “Commander Craig.” But for that matter, the novel is rife with typos and grammatical errors; “slowly turning slowly,” and “Craig felt his heart swell in his rib case,” and etc. Indeed, the novel is profoundly stupid, and these typos are really just the icing on the cake.

Craig’s assignment is to take his new ship, made of “densatron” metal and with “nucleatronic engines,” on a five light-year journey to confront the mysterious “black enigma” which has been known about for a thousand years but is only just now being seen as a threat(!). Two splace fleets have been lost in the massive black blob which eclipses an entire solar system, so far away; it’s like the Bermuda Triangle of outer space. For this impossible mission, Edmunds, “chief of Ordinance,” has whipped up a trio of gadgets for Craig.

First there’s the Imp, a metal rod that shoots a ray that causes people to implode. Next there’s a black box that “warps time,” so that if someone fires at Craig and he activates the box in time, it will shoot out a ray that will capture the bullet or ray or whatever’s been fired at him – and thrust it a hundred years into the future (or past; Edmunds isn’t really certain). In keeping with the moronic vibe of the novel, Edmunds fires at Craig point-blank, the shot captured in the box’s rays and thrust into the future, and Ingalls chuckles that someone standing there a century from now might catch a bullet in the face! But it gets dumber: Edmunds next produces “the halo,” a crown-like gizmo that unlocks the full potential of the brain. Slip it on your head and concentrate and you can make something from nothing; Edmunds jokes that the “boys in the lab” have been using it to make eggs, which pop right out of the thin air…tasteless, but edible.

These three items Craig tosses in a “sack” (it’s the 75th friggin’ century, folks, and all the guy has is a damn sack), hops in his ship, and heads on for his encounter with the black enigma. Already we realize the problem, here – our James Bond-esque hero is up against an enigma. Not a SPECTRE-like force or an enemy agent or something tangible that he can handle in his ruggedly virile two-fisted way. Nope, it’s a cloudy mass of nothingness that no one knows anthing about. And talk about underkill…Craig gets there, has a moment of foreboding, and then flies into it…and then takes a nap!!

I don’t know the first thing about Gardner Fox, but I’ve gotta hope that Beyond The Black Enigma isn’t a typical example of the dude’s work, cause this book sucks in a major way. Craig takes his little nap and then gets around to exploring the solar system which has been swallowed by the enigma…he finally settles on the third planet from the sun, figuring it will have life. From here the novel becomes a tiresome, repetitive trawl. Long story short, a vaguely-described alien race called the Toparrs have taken over this planet, Rhythane, enslaving the native folk.

That time-warp stuff isn’t limited to Craig’s box. The Toparrs wear belts which can take them past, present, and future. Craig is shocked when he lands and his ship promptly disappears; it’s because it’s been sent to the future, which is where it develops the two missing spacefleets are. Meanwhile he hooks up with a native gal, named Fiona, a “little pagan” with “faintly slanted eyes.” She’s one of the few native survivors of the Toparrs, and of course falls quick for the rugged Earthman, though it takes a while for Fox to get to the expected sex scene – and even then it’s relegated to nothing more than, “In the quiet night, [Fiona’s] sigh was loud.” Whether that’s a sigh of satisfaction or frustration is something Fox doesn’t elaborate on.

As mentioned, after imploding a few Toparrs with the Imp, which is still in that damn “sack,” Craig spends most of his time studying the mythology of the native peoples, as well as exploring the crypts beneath their fallen and deserted old city. It’s preposterous in how stupid it is…here our hero is, “five light years away,” ostensibly to stop a “black enigma” from swallowing the known universe but also to find out what happened to the missing space fleets sent to research the place, and all he does is basically rob a few graves and then sit around and listen to myths, trying to discern the “truth” in them.

Eventually he’ll get hold of a Toparr belt and send himself (and Fiona) to the future, where he finds the missing few thousand spacemen. They’re being used as slaves by the Toparrs, who worship a computer-god that looks like a “surrealist mobile.” Gradually Craig will learn that the enigma was created by this computer eons ago, and somehow it took on its own life, swallowing planets, even causing the Toparrs to leave their ancestral homeland to come to this one. Craig, armed with a sword he finds when the Toparr computer-god sends him into a sort of promised paradise to sway him over to its side, ends up smashing all the controls and destroying the enigma.

Fox has finally hit his word count; Craig, who had been falling in love with Fiona, basically shrugs her off in the final sentences, figuring his fling with her was just one of those things(!) and that she’ll eventually marry some member of her tribe and have lots of kids…indeed, it’s a “good thing” that Fiona likely thinks Craig is dead(!). Fox doesn’t even give us a reunion between Craig and Elva Marlowe; Craig just plops on his ass and begins waiting for the Alert Command ships which will no doubt soon be on their way, given that their monitors will have detected that the enigma no longer exists.

This book was really a wearying read, so dispirited and juvenile that it became a chore to get through. A cursory glance through the second (and final) installment, Abdandon Galaxy!, would indicate that it’s a more entertaining bit of pulp sci-fi. Surprisingly though, Beyond The Black Enigma actually received a second printing, in 1968. Here’s the cover:


Johny Malone said...

The covers are very good!
What are the other space spies? I've always been interested in reading spy-sci-fi novels, but there is not much information on it.

Jerry House said...

Fox, like many other pulp writers, wrote whatever he could sell: SF, Sword & Sorcery, Historicals, soft-core sex, sports, westerns, horror, and film tie-ins. He's probably best remembered as a comic book writer, having written more than 4000 stories and being the co-creator of such characters as Hawkman, The Flash, and the original Sandman, while also creating the concept of the Multiverse for DC Comics.

Gus Sheridan said...

Yeah, Fox was a force of nature in his day. For good or ill, he was the man who gave DC Comics a "multiverse."

Marty McKee said...

Fox is one of the four or five most important comic book writers of all time. In addition to the achievements mentioned above, he wrote the second Batman story ever published.