Five Tours in the Galactic Security Service: Backflash (Simon Rack #3) by Laurence James

Five Tours in the Galactic Security Service: Backflash (Simon Rack #3) by Laurence James

Backflash (Sphere Books, January 1975). Cover by Bruce Pennington

Here’s another review of an obscure (at least to me!) 1970s SF novel. I found it on the free table at Boskone this year. It is slim, and I knew nothing about it or the author, so I figured it was worth a look.

Laurence James (1942-2000) was a British writer and editor, who published dozens of books between 1973 and his all too early death. He wrote in a number of fields, but mostly SF, and he was probably best known for a long series, Deathlands, which still continues with some 150 books published to date. James wrote over 30 novels in the series, most of the first 33 or so, which appeared between 1986 and 1996. All of the books (to this date) are published as by James Axler. I was completely unaware of these books or any other work by James until now.

The Simon Rack series comprises five volumes published in 1974 and 1975. Backflash is the third. It appears (though as I haven’t read the others I’m not sure) to be mostly a flashback to the first Simon Rack adventure by internal chronology (and perhaps that’s the reason for the title.) It opens with Commander Simon Rack of the Galactic Security Service confronting a madman who has stolen an experimental weapon and gone on a killing spree. As he corners him, the madman shoots — and it appears that the weapon’s effect includes messing with the brain’s sense of time, and Rack starts to experience his past life, on the planet Zayin.

US editions of the first three Simon Rack novels: Earth Lies Sleeping
and War on Aleph (Zebra Books/Kensington Publishing, 1974), and
Backflash (Pinnacle, 1975). Covers by Vincent DiFate and Carl Lundgren

Rack, a young Midman in the Galactic Security Service, considered promising but with a habit of getting into trouble, has gone off base with the alluring Lilaen, in hopes of losing his virginity. But Lilaen is really planning to set him up to be robbed or worse by a gang of locals. Luckily, Ensign Eugene Bogart is also out having illicit fun, and he rescues Rack. The two kill a couple of their assailants (including Lilaen) and escape through another building — therein encountering two men obviously up to no good: the morbidly obese criminal mastermind Hayley Corman and a member of the “Thinker” caste on Zayin.

Rack and Bogie end up having to escape to the desert, and their only hope is to make it to the storied fortress of the “Arty” caste, which has been engaged in a struggle for control of the planet with the Thinkers for a long time. But no one has ever escaped the Artys’ castle, and when the two are captured, all seems lost (though Simon does at last get to lose his virginity with a beautiful Arty girl.) But it seems the Artys have changed their strategy, and they are willing to let the two men go (though to face certain death in the desert.)

James’ dedication to Kenneth Bulmer in Backflash

And then they encounter Corman again, with his effeminate sidekick Joel. Simon tries to warn the Artys that Corman is on the side of the Thinkers, but Corman tricks him, and seems to gain the upper hand — and of course all Corman wants is his own ends: to steal the precious Arty treasures including their creativity enhancing drug.

And — well, you can see where this is going — at the last minute Simon and Bogie will find a way to foil Corman’s plans, though neither the Thinkers nor the Artys will come off well, and of course Corman will escape to be the villain in other Simon Rack novels. And Simon and Bogie realize that they are natural partners and will apply to become a two-man team in one of the more interesting branches of GalSec.

So, on the face of it, that seems a routine SF adventure of its era: plenty of implausible action, no plausible science background at all, some sex, and a rapid pace. The frame story — the struggle years later against the madman with the experimental weapon — is resolved drip by drip over the course of the novel, as Simon’s consciousness wavers back and forth in time, but it’s not an interesting story, and its only point seems to be either to pad the novel out to the contracted length, or to justify the flashback to an origin story of sorts.

Sphere editions of the Simon Rack series: Earth Lies Sleeping, Starcross, Backflash, and
New Life for Old (1974-1975). Covers by Bruce Pennington and Patrick Woodroffe

This could never have been a good novel, but it could have been an ordinary bit of paperback fare, except for me it didn’t even reach that level. I don’t think the prose is very good, though in a sense it’s efficient. The plot is a shoddy mess, not really bothering to make real sense. The situation on Zayin — the conflict between the Thinkers (who are tiny men that use their engineering skills to build big robots in which they travel) and the Artys (who use drugs to create exceptional art which they then hide away) — is paper thin speculation, really pretty stupid.

And there are minor bits that irritate — such as the grossly homophobic description of Hayley Corman and his relationship with his sidekick, or catamite, who is described as a “hesher.” There are tons of references to pop culture — movies and rock and roll, basically — dating from about 1940 to 1970. Most of these irritate (such as the claim that Harvey Corman was literally mentored by Casper Gutman (the villain of The Maltese Falcon, played by Sidney Greenstreet in the movie) even to the point that his catamite — or gunsel — is named Joel.) I will say that one extended joke/pun series, in which Bogie quotes Buddy Holly songs to Simon’s complete confusion, was amusing enough.

Bottom line: not a good novel at all. It does seem that the Deathlands series was pretty popular, so either James improved as a writer, or he found a vein that he could mine effectively that resonated (and perhaps still does) with a certain readership.

Rich Horton’s last article for us was a review of The Mote in Time’s Eye by Gérard Klein. His website is Strange at Ecbatan. Rich has written over 200 articles for Black Gate, see them all here.

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James Davis Nicoll

Based on the one Axler I read, James’ success was in no way based on improving skills.

Mark Pontin

The most distinguished thing about this book is that it got a cover by the great Bruce Pennington. (Though one that’s undistinguished by Pennington’s standards.)

John ONeill

Bruce Pennington is amazing.


Rich, I applaud your courage for reading a book from the free table by an author you’d never heard of — I am certain I would not have been brave enough to make such a gamble with my free time or my aesthetic sensibilities.

Eugene R.

I guess if your protagonist is named “Bogart”, it follows that his nemesis “Corman” will be modeled on Sidney Greenstreet’s notorious Caspar Gutman. Just not in a good way.

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