Front Lines and Frontiers: Sleeping Planet by William R. Burkett, Jr.

This post is the first in what will be a monthly series of reviews of classic science fiction books. I’ll be looking at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement. Some of the books will be famous, while others will be lesser known works. This time around, I’ll be reviewing Sleeping Planet by William R. Burkett, Jr., a book first serialized in Analog Science Fiction in 1964. The title may not sound action-packed, but the book itself certainly is…

Light spoilers to follow.

This particular book isn’t widely known, but it’s a personal favorite, and explaining how I came to choose it will give you some insight into my own reading tastes. As a boy, I was small for my age, shy, bookish and bespectacled. I found the world around me somewhat intimidating. But I was also blessed, as my father had filled our basement with adventure stories. He rarely threw anything out, especially books and magazines. He had all of the books from his childhood: books like Tom Swift, the Great Marvel Series, Don Sturdy, and Bomba the Jungle Boy; and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were westerns, military adventures, and science fiction books of all varieties….and SF magazines like Astounding/Analog and Galaxy.

In the mid-1960’s, Analog Magazine experimented with a new format. Instead of the old, paperback-sized digest format, the magazine grew to the size of the “slick” magazines like Life and Time. Perhaps because my dad shelved these larger issues differently than the digest issues, or perhaps because the larger cover paintings were so inviting, these were the magazines I read when I graduated from the juvenile novels. I don’t think I read these magazines when they first came out; instead I waited until somewhere around the ages 12 to 14. As it turned out, I’d picked a great age and a great place to start. Authors like Mack Reynolds, Murray Leinster, H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, James H. Schmitz, Christopher Anvil, and Randall Garrett caught my attention. I drank down their stories like a thirsty man in a lifeboat. And one book in particular stood out—Sleeping Planet, by William R. Burkett, Jr. This book had everything I was looking for: action, adventure, and plucky earthmen facing impossible odds. Like a ducking imprinting on its mother, I had found a point of connection with the story, and everything it had to offer.

The book takes place in the 25th Century A.D., a time when the human race has spread to the stars, and created what is called the Terran Federation. This Federation has encountered the Llralans, a race of orange-skinned, three-fingered humanoids who are close enough to human appearance to pass as human with the use of makeup and surgery. The Larrys, as they are derisively known in human circles, hold a large interstellar empire, driven toward constant expansion by fear of the unknown. The smaller but technologically superior Terran Federation has been a thorn in the Llralans’ side, and war has broken out between the two. The Llralans are now moving to attack the human homeworld, along with Mars and Venus, with an innovative weapon.

On the human side of the conflict, we have two primary viewpoint characters. Our first view of the attack comes from Bradford Donovan, a truck driver in London who lost his legs in a wild animal attack while working as a trapper on a Llralan-held world before the war. When the air raid alarms sound, he takes to a shelter, only to find that everyone except him has fallen asleep. When he ventures onto the streets, he finds them occupied by Llralan paratroopers. He uses a concealed pistol to fight them, but is soon overcome and captured. Meanwhile, in rural Georgia, a successful lawyer, James Rierson, is on his annual hunting vacation when he sees a buck stagger and fall into a coma. Making his way to civilization to report this unusual event, he finds everyone asleep, and the local robots at a loss to explain what happened. In the town of Baxter, he finds Llralan invaders. Armed only with his hunting rifle, he clashes with them, killing some and destroying one of their vehicles, and is able to escape.

In captivity, out of boredom, Donovan begins to taunt one of his captors. Finding that one of the guards is an ancestor worshiper, Donovan warns him that his own ancestor, Grandpa, is watching out for him. He continues this ruse with every Llralan he meets, and soon the rumors are spreading through the fleet about the malevolent “Gremper,” and the threat posed by the spirits of Earth’s dead, their actions no longer constrained by their living, but now sleeping, descendants.

On the Llralan side of the conflict, there are also two major viewpoint characters. The first is Security Chief Drelig Sjilla, also known as Donald Shey, a “mocker” who has been surgically altered to appear human. He has been embedded on human worlds to pave the way for the invasion. The second Llralan viewpoint character is Supreme Commander Martak Sarno. It is he who, as military governor on the Llralan colony world, Risstair, first explored the military value of an indigenous carnivorous flower, xil’tressk, which subdues its prey with a soporific vapor. The extract of this flower has been concentrated and refined into what is now called “Dust,” a substance that can put humans into a hibernation state, and has now subdued the people of the three worlds of Earth, Venus, and Mars. Sarno and Sjilla are tracking down the mystery of the “Unaffecteds,” humans who are immune to the Dust. Since humans who have previously been exposed to the xil’tressk flower are immune, and Sarno recognizes some of the names of the Unaffected from his days as military governor, the reason for their immunity is obvious. But with others, the reason is not so clear, and the unidentified “Spook of Baxter,” as the troops have begun to call him, has become a thorn in the Llralan’s side. As there might be more Unaffecteds out there, the Llralans put a high priority in solving the mystery.

Although James Rierson has escaped from Baxter, he finds himself caught in a net of search parties, who are driving him back toward the town with the goal of killing or capturing him. On a Llralan ship, Sjilla attempts to gain Donovan’s confidence by posing as a fellow human prisoner, but fails. He then travels to Baxter to see what he hopes is the capture of the Spook, with Donovan in tow. The Llralans corner Rierson in a local store, but he fights his way out, and captures a crewman on a flivver staged on the store’s roof. The soldier reacts with fear, and refers to him as “Gremper.” Rierson sees the soldier’s fear, and plays along, forcing him to fly the craft north so he can hide in his native Atlanta. Donovan is heartened to see that someone is using the Gremper myth against the invaders, but soon finds himself locked into a cell without contact with anyone. In the empty streets of Atlanta, Rierson encounters robots looking for a human to give them guidance. They tell him of Llralan plans to awaken human women to use as mind-controlled prostitutes (a plan that evokes the Japanese “comfort battalions” of World War II). Rierson realizes that urgent action is required, but is unsure how to proceed. He can’t go toe to toe with the invaders, even with robotic help. But could the legends of Gremper give him a force multiplier that will help him prevail?

I’ll end my recap there to avoid spoilers. You can trust me that there’s more action to be had, and a lot of clever improvisation on the part of the plucky humans. After all, as we all know, the materially superior force doesn’t always prevail. In the words of Napoleon, “In war, moral factors account for three quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one quarter.” You know the humans will try to capitalize on that moral factor, so they can prevail in the end, and how they do it is a fascinating and enjoyable read.

As always with older SF books, there are some anachronisms a modern reader must overlook. The book is set four hundred odd years from now, but gets a few things wrong about that future. While there are flying cars and all manner of energy weapons and spaceships, there are also mentions of mimeograph machines, shortwave radios, and record players. As in many books that preceded interplanetary space probes, Mars and Venus are described as naturally habitable worlds. Population figures for the human worlds are lower than the current population of Earth alone. Diversity among the human characters is significantly lacking. There are few female characters in the book, mostly wives and girlfriends mentioned in passing. The thought that women might serve in the military, either ours or an alien military, is in this fictional world apparently more far-fetched than the idea of flying cars. But the book is notable in giving us, in the form of the legless Donovan, a disabled protagonist who overcomes pretty much every challenge he faces.

Despite its wartime setting, Sleeping Planet brims with optimism. It was written at the dawn of the Space Age, a time of new frontiers. The humiliations of Vietnam, and our muddled Middle East interventions, were still in the future. This was the era of the New York World’s Fair, and the promise of a “great, big, beautiful tomorrow.” While the threat of Russian and Chinese communists lurked overseas, a danger that clearly inspired the idea of the Llralan invaders, it was a world where a young American could imagine there was no threat that couldn’t be overcome with his wits and his trusty hunting rifle—a young American much like William Burkett. One of the remarkable things about this book is the fact that Mr. Burkett wrote it at age 18, and published it at age 20. But despite this auspicious start, he soon turned his attention from fiction to a career in journalism, and then to public affairs. He also did work related to his lifelong love of hunting and the outdoors. After retirement, he turned his attention back to writing SF, and in 1998, Harper Prism printed two more of his books, Bloodsport and Blood Lines. These books were fun adventures, and set in the same universe as Sleeping Planet. Unfortunately, sales must have been disappointing, because even though the second book ended abruptly, no additional volumes appeared. Mr. Burkett has recently been involved in some small press efforts, and a new book, A Matter of Logistics, appeared in 2013, and another, A Footnote to History, appeared in 2015.

Despite its minor anachronisms and blind spots, Sleeping Planet is as fun and enjoyable a read today as it was back in the ‘60s. You know from the start that the good guys (in this case, the humans) will win, but there are a lot of twists and turns in how they get there. The action scenes, especially the battle of Baxter, are as gripping as any in literature. There is a light touch and sardonic humor that carries throughout the tale. As an analogy for guerrilla warfare, Sleeping Planet is as informative as many a military textbook, but far more enjoyable. And it has a positive, brash optimism toward the future of the human race. The book is rare enough that you probably won’t find it at your local used bookstore, but with an internet search, you should be able to find not only used copies, but also more recent small press trade paperback and e-book editions. If you’ve never encountered it, give it a try—you are in for a treat.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a strong background in military history. Each month, he will be reviewing a classic of the field, and giving it a fresh look.

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