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So Alone Without You

The Men and the Mirror

By Ross Rocklynne 

10 Mar, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Ross Rocklynne’s 1973 The Men and the Mirror is a collection of hard-SF puzzle stories. The stories were first published between 1936 and 1946; most of them appeared between 1936 and 1940.

Pirate Edward Deverel flees across the Solar System, pursued by Interplanetary Police Force Lieutenant Jack Colbie. On Mars, Deverel had stolen fortunes from wealthy travelers. Now he must face justice… but only if Colbie can catch Deverel and having caught him, can keep him.

I’ll start by complaining about things that were beyond the author’s control. Publisher Ace omitted the title of the final story from the table of contents. To compound this error, the text of The Bottled Men” runs into the text of And There Was One. This isn’t the only Ace MMPB from this specific period I have with such issues. 

As he explains in his introduction, Rocklynne was aware of certain deficiencies in his writing. His prose did not sparkle, his characters were not memorably rounded, his plots plodded. How then to stand out?

Rocklynne’s solution was to make his fiction memorable in other ways. Each tale turns on some bit of applied physics that the protagonists must master to survive their current predicament. A respectable tactic seen in authors from Clement to Niven.

Not having read this collection since the 1970s (now more than twenty years ago), I forgot that there are only three Colbie and Deverel stories. However, as noted in Rocklynne’s commentary, The Bottled Men” is Colbie and Deverel by another name. Rocklynne did begin another Colbie and Deverel story but abandoned it as an exercise in pointless nostalgia.

While the writing is nothing much, the stories take on a comic aspect by the third iteration. Just how often can the same two men stumble into traps requiring physics knowledge to survive? Also, as the series goes on, one cannot help but notice that Colbie seems to be engaged in a catch-and-release program. The two men are not so much arch-enemies as doting chums.

The highlight of the collection is Rocklynne’s commentary on his stories. The author has a realistic view of his fiction and of his place in SF, but he doesn’t allow his various deficiencies as an author get him down. And why should he? Although obscure now, Rocklynne enjoyed a prolific career until physical disability sidelined him in the early 1950s. When he did return to SF in the late 1960s, one of the places he appeared was in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions.

The Men and the Mirror is out of print. I confess I am a little surprised that Wildside does not offer an edition, either deadtree or e.

Now for the individual stories.

The Men and the Mirror • interior artwork by Waldman

A generic illustration of a spaceship launching from a planet. Why do SF novels no longer feature frontispieces? I for one blame the Thor Power Tool Decision.

Introduction (The Men and the Mirror) • essay

A cheerful introduction from an author fully aware of his authorial shortcomings.

At the Center of Gravity” • [Colbie & Deverel] • (1936) • short story

A determined Colbie chases charmingly roguish Deverel to the planet Vulcan. Vulcan is unexpectedly hollow, which both men discover when they fall through the same hole into the interior. Is escape possible or will they end their days bobbing up and down through the planet’s center?

Two details leap out:

  • I cannot see how Vulcan could be natural (although the men think it is).
  • It’s clear that Deverel is smarter than Colbie… although Colbie can catch up, given time.

Jupiter Trap • [Colbie & Deverel] • (1937) • novelette 

A determined Colbie chases charmingly roguish Deverel to the planet Jupiter, where the pair are trapped in an underground lake. Is escape possible or will the two men end their days trapped in the subterranean lake?

This features an example of Chekov’s Waterfall. Although it’s technically not a waterfall

Luckily for the two men, Colbie happened to have on board a pair of fearfully expensive Jupiter suits, necessary for survival on Jupiter. Otherwise, this would be a very short story indeed.

The Men and the Mirror • [Colbie & Deverel] • (1938) • novelette

A determined Colbie chases charmingly roguish Deverel to the planet Cyclops (whose name is conferred on the planet following the events of the story). Discovering Deverel deathly ill, Colbie nurses Deverel back to full health, after which the pair explore the planet’s dominant feature, a vast concave frictionless mirror, or, as Colbie and Deverel discover after contrivedly falling into the depression, almost frictionless. Is escape possible or will the two men end their days in a series of slowly decreasing oscillations across the mirror?

Cyclops is a rogue world, only recently captured by the sun thanks to well-timed interaction between Cyclops and Jupiter. Various uses are suggested for the thousand-mile-wide mirror, but nobody considered that perhaps it was part of the means by which Cyclops was sent between the stars.

As the title of the collection suggests, this is the most memorable of the three stories, if only due to the series of stupid decisions that the men must make to end up trapped on the surface of the mirror.

Letter (Comment on The Men and the Mirror) • (1938) • essay by Robert D. Swisher

Swisher graciously provides a hilarious math-heavy explanation as to why Rocklynne’s method for saving the men could not possibly work. While not an SF author, Swisher was an avid fan, a frequent contributor to letter columns and with his wife Frances Kerr the creator of the Swisher Index.

They Fly So High” • (1952) • short story

A mad scientist proves unexpectedly persuasive.

The Bottled Men • (1946) • novelette

An impending marriage to the beautiful and entirely off-stage Susan is imperiled by the science marriage board’s impression that Interplanetary Police Force Lieutenant Jack Colbie Solar System Associated Guard Lieutenant Marc Sturm is a loser, Sturm sets out to capture Pirate Edward Deverel career criminal and veteran escapologist Gull Norse to prove that he isn’t. Having captured Gull, Sturm wastes little time getting trapped with his prisoner in a mercury lake on Vulcan. Is escape possible… well, you know how this tune goes.

The Vulcan in The Bottled Men” is less dubious than the Vulcan in At the Center of Gravity.”

It’s weirdly important to Gull that Sturm and the Patrol not think poorly of him. Sure, Gull is the bad guy but he’s not a bad guy. He has ethics and morals… of a sort.

And Then There Was One • (1940) • novelette

A corrupt businessmen’s glee at having captured the world food market is short-lived. Kidnapped by the mysterious Voice, the businessman and his minions are placed in a trap from which escape may be granted to those who survive long enough. Unfortunately for most of the villains, the Voice provided only enough food for one of them to survive. The tale becomes a race to see who can murder whom the fastest.

This tale takes an oddly anti-business stance for something first published in Campbell’s Astounding. If hardworking men are cunning enough to get a monopoly on food, why should they not use famine (real or threatened) to maximize profit? I suspect the Voice may well be a Roosevelt supporter.

Was the title lifted from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None? That seems unlikely, as the Christie appeared under that title in the US just one month before the Rocklynne story.