Short Sharp Adventures: World of the Masterminds / To the End of Time and Other Short Stories by Robert Moore Williams
At the very top of my Books to Read shelf I have a slowly growing collection of Ace Doubles. I usually work my way forward numerically, starting with the D series, but will occasionally jump back a few if a new addition arrives. Thanks to this habit (and some other haphazard literary tastes) I am still, pleasantly, stuck within the Ace Double D range.
The next one in the schedule is a well preserved book with both sides by the same author, Robert Moore Williams. Ace Double D-427 comprises a “complete” novel, World of the Masterminds, and a collection of short stories, To the End of Time and Other Stories.
Robert Moore Williams wasn’t an author I was familiar with, although Black Gate readers will have encountered the odd mention of him, including a 2015 review by Rich Horton of the Ace Double The Star Wasps by Robert Moore Williams, paired with Warlord of Kor by Terry Carr.
World of the Masterminds
I don’t often use the word serendipity, but I picked up this book a few days before Christmas, the same time that John O’Neill published an article on the Brian W. Aldiss/Harry Harrison anthology Farewell Fantastic Venus. You’ll see why that’s relevant in a minute.
Published in 1960, this Ace Double appears to be the sole English language edition of World of the Masterminds. With an interesting cover attributed to the legendary Ed Emshwiller, it’s a lengthy (by Ace Double standards) 167 pages, and starts with action on the very first line. The inside blurb reads:
SUPERMAN HUNT ON THE RIM OF THE STARS
A greedy, ruthless tyrant, Cyrus Holm, was on the march to conquer the entire universe. With his gigantic armada, he figured on turning the whole solar system into one vast personal empire.
And Burke Hartford was the only man alive who had any idea of how to stop him. To save the universe, he would have to gamble that the legendary Race X really existed. Because if they did – and if he could find them – their secret power would be the one perfect weapon in the fight against Holm.
It was an almost impossible task, searching throughout the galaxy for an unknown race that might not even exist. But in spite of the odds, Hartford knew he had to give it a try. Because the alternative was too overwhelming; universal annihilation!
Apparently not one to waste time on vivid descriptions and mood setting, Williams opens the book by having the hero, Burke Hartford, punch a Plutonian native in the mouth.
I hear incredulous gasps. Correct, a Plutonian. A native of the planet Pluto. The punch was landed on a Green Man, one of two warring races who inhabit a lowland fern forest which produces enough thin oxygen to sustain life. The other race being the Blue Men, whom Hartford has good relations with.
The Top Shelf
Here is the tie-in with Farewell Fantastic Venus. At the time this book was written Pluto was still a relatively new discovery, and the romantic concept of other races populating the Solar System was still alive. We quickly learn that there are frog like Venusians and thin red (of course) Martians, all of whom have also apparently visited Pluto. The reason soon becomes clear.
Hartford’s elderly friend Ed Teller has been searching for something his entire life. He is not sure what; that feeling, that knowledge just beyond the horizon, that something else is out there. Some superior being. Someone who has guided the various races through critical steps in their evolution. Teller calls this mystic organism Race X, and his lifelong search has eventually led him to team up with the adventurous Hartford, who is also a bit of a seeker. Their journey has led them to Pluto, to a hall of truce where the two races have been ordered to gather so that a mysterious Peace Maker may instruct them on how to end their current strife.
The action does not let up. From start to end I think events barely cover two days. We discover that Earth is run by mega corporations, the biggest being the Earth Police Inc, whose corpulent and corrupt leader also wishes to find Race X and forcefully take possession of their technology. Hartford and Teller are soon thrust into the thick of things, finding themselves exposed, double crossed and dismayed by rapid events that leave their plans in ruins.
I enjoyed this novel, and the fast pace had me eagerly turning pages. Mr Williams’ prose is solid and easy to read. He has a knack for spinning the plot in a new direction just as you think you know where it is going, and he kept me guessing a number of times. Some of his concepts are quaint by today’s standards, whereas others could easily fit into one of the current long running sci-fi franchises.
If you want a fast paced, action packed space adventure story, I recommend World of the Masterminds.
The Flip Side
Flipping the book over one finds a handsome cover by Ed Valigursky, for To the End of Time and Other Stories, by Robert Moore Williams. The inside blurb reads:
BEYOND THE FRONTIERS OF SPACE AND TIME
There are no barriers in the imaginative vision of top-notch science-fiction as Robert Moore Williams demonstrates in his new collection of stories. The wonders of the universe, big and little, probed by his pen are many.
The mystery of Mars?
See WHEN THE SPOILERS CAME
The enigma of time?
See TO THE END OF TIME
Think about LIKE ALARM BELLS RINGING
The search for Utopia?
Turn to WHERE TALL TOWERS GLEAM
Each story is a thrilling adventure in super –science.
“To the End of Time”
The title story first saw publication in the July 1950 issue of Super Science Stories, which featured Robert Moore Williams’ name on the cover. It opens on Venus, where we meet Thorndyke, a psychologist sent to locate the source of a mystic song, “To the End of Time.”
When the song was smuggled to Earth and translated, it caused all kinds of social unrest. Following the trail to a taboo plateaux, Thorndyke is abandoned by his superstitious Venusian guides. He plods on and soon lands in trouble.
This tight story moves swiftly, sticking to the core plot as Thorndyke unravels mysteries and, though unfortunate events, swiftly penetrates the inner sanctum of the enigmatic Noro people. The Noro are also the source of the troublesome song.
If you’ve already read World of the Masterminds it soon becomes apparent that Williams does not subscribe to a shared universe across his stories, as these Venusians are not frog like in appearance.
While enjoyable reading and somewhat quaintly dated, this story a thing of its time. It’s a fun read for sure, but you can skip it without much regret.
“To the End of Time” was reprinted in the 2014 collection Time Tolls for Toro and Other Tales (see above).
“Where Tall Towers Gleam”
The next story, “Where Tall Towers Gleam” is quite different. It was published just a month later in the August 1950 edition of Fantastic Adventures. The opening paragraph really struck me. I would love to have the talent to come up with something like this:
Like a child taking holiday, the wind ran whooping down the hillside. Having gained speed in this mad slide, it ran hilariously through the willow trees, crossed the brook, and raced still whooping up the hill where the red clover grew. From the top of that hill — as if the purpose of this whole manoeuvre had been to gain all possible speed for this one effort – it leaped madly into the sky as if striving to reach there some heaven of the winds.
The story concerns two young children who meet a mystery man, who can speak without moving his mouth, something they have witnessed before. There are hints of robotics. Mr Williams dangles additional clues as the children, using a device given to them by the strange man, travel to a shining city nearby.
The children quickly discover a beautiful urban center where things are not quite right. It appears to be some sort of construct where things don’t work unless switched on. Birds only sing and fountains only tintibulate when told to.
While thoroughly enjoyable, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending. There were too many elements I would have loved to have explained in a little more detail. Was it set on Earth, or another planet? In the future or the present? What was that shining city “Where Tall Towers Gleam?”
Perhaps that was the author’s intention. To have the reader fill the gaps with their own imagination. I certainly have some ideas. All in all this story remains memorable, purely because it doesn’t feed the reader answers.
First published in the November 1949 issue of Startling Stories, the third story, “Homeward Bound,” is a slim tale weighing in at a seven pages. Clever and humorous, it makes a nice filler read when you have a few minutes to spare.
“When the Spoilers Came”
The May 1952 issue of Planet Stories proudly proclaimed “War Maid of Mars” by Poul Anderson and “Doomsday 257 A.G.!” by Bryce Walton on the cover. Also hidden inside is a gem by Robert Moore Williams. At five chapters spread over twenty nine pages, the Table of Contents labeled “When the Spoilers Came” a novelette.
This was my favorite story of the collection. Its themes of greed, respect, responsibility and reconciliation are as relevant today as when it was written, in some ways perhaps more so!
The story is about an earthman trader called Boyd Larkin, who has made Mars his home for the past seven years. No easy feat, as explained by the opening paragraph:
To stay alive five years on Mars, you have to have a nose for trouble. You have to be able to smell it before it happens, to catch the odoriferous tang of it in the dry wind blowing across the red deserts, to sense it in the shifting shadows of the sunset. Otherwise you might not stay alive on Mars for five months, let alone five years. Or five days, if you happen to be in the wrong place.
I would not wish to spoil this story (sorry couldn’t resist) for potential readers. Robert Moore Williams does a good job setting the opening scene and preparing the reader for what’s to come. It’s a thoroughly compelling read and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.
Perhaps proof of its pedigree is that it has been reprinted twice, in Time Tolls for Toro and Other Tales as well as the 1970 collection When Two Worlds Meet (see above).
“Like Alarm Bells Ringing”
The final story in this 108 page collection is also the oldest. “Like Alarm Bells Ringing” was first published in the January 1947 edition of Amazing Stories.
It’s a story with a dire warning about nuclear war. It is written from the point of view of universal overseers, who see Earth as a tiny blip in a lesser populated part of the galaxy (one starts to wonder if Douglas Adams may have been influenced by this story), and who have to come to terms with the fact the Earthers have discovered how to split the atom.
“Like Alarm Bells Ringing” was enjoyable, if a little predictable by today’s standards. For its time it may have been seen as quite inflammatory.
There’s an interesting coincidence buried here. After reading “Like Alarm Bells Rining” I looked up when the first H bomb was tested – a few years after this story was written in 1952. The bomb was designed at the suggestion of Dr. Edward Teller. Now go back and look at the name of Hartford’s friend in World of the Masterminds…
For me this Ace Double delivered full value. I was not disappointed once, and I’ll eagerly pick up the next Robert Moore Williams story I come across. Fortunately he was prolific as well as talented so there are many titles to choose from.
Recent coverage of Ace Doubles here at Black Gate includes:
D-351 The Sun Smashers by Edmond Hamilton / Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson
H-51 The Crown of Infinity by John M. Fawcett / The Prism by Emil Petaja
D-205 Who Speaks of Conquest? by Lan Wright / The Earth in Peril edited by Donald A. Wollheim
D-84 The Rebellious Stars by Isaac Asimov / An Earth Gone Mad by Roger Dee
D-413 The Man with Nine Lives by Harlan Ellison / A Touch of Infinity by Harlan Ellison
D-391 The World Swappers by John Brunner / Siege of the Unseen by A.E. Van Vogt
Tony Den’s most recent post on Black Gate was a review of the Archipelago Kickstarter Reward Booklet. His personal website Runequest.orc is migrating to Word Press at a pace that makes most glaciers appear like raging torrents by comparison.
In my limited experience, Williams is hit or miss. I’ve only read two of his novels (both in Ace Doubles). The Darkness Before Tomorrow was just terrible, one of the worst things I’ve ever read in a lifetime misspent among the paperbacks.
It says a lot about me that I was willing to read another Williams after that. But I was, and a couple of months ago I read King of the 4th Planet…which I rather liked. Go figure.
1. You got the Emsh and Valigursky covers mixed-up. The former did the short story collection, the latter the novel. (And for one time at least, the Valigursky illustration is superior.)
2. That’s a fine group of Ace Doubles you have there. A lot of good reading to be had. And a lot of not so good writing, too.
3. Williams wrote a novel called THE DAY THEY H-BOMBED LOS ANGELES. A kind of goofy but fun story.
Thomas, thanks for the heads up. I will definitely be looking for more of Williams’ books, will have to take each as it comes.
Scratter, thanks for the correction. The styles are both quite similar to my not so artistic eye. For sure there are undoubted orchids and onions among that mix of books. Will keep an eye out for that Williams novel.
It’s striking that Emsh and Valigursky seem to have drawn the same man on their respective covers!
Delighted to see someone else covering the Ace Doubles. That’s one I haven’t seen.
One of the best things about Ace Double is how easy they are to collect. Aside from a handful of titles (good luck getting the Dean Koontz ones) copies can usually be had for very little. I often get two copies (a quadruple!) of the same title, a fine one for the shelf and a beater to read.
I forgot to add my appreciation for your interesting article. I really enjoy it when Black Gate has a piece on old school science fiction/fantasy writers. Hope you do some more.
Thanks for the kind words. I will definitely publish more. It is thanks to the Black Gate community that I have gained a taste for old school science fiction. Actually it was the article in an early BG that got me into the Ace Doubles, something I had until then simply skipped over without a second glance in flea market stalls and second hand shops
Glad I found one you had not yet covered! I checked Strange at Ecbatan and of course Black Gate’s history before I wrote this.