Reviewed date: 2022 Dec 13
Arcturus Landing was first published as Alien From Arcturus and I'm unsure whether it was expanded or just revised and retitled. I bought the original Ace Double edition to compare, and it does have some differences. The main character is named Johnny Parent in Alien From Arcturus but is Malcolm Fletcher in Arcturus Landing. As far as I can tell that is the only difference.
One wrinkle to beware of: the Archive.org edition of Alien From Arcturus contains the text of Arcturus Landing with the name change to Malcolm. I'm not sure how the good folks there got that wrong, but they did.
My Arcturus Landing edition has an error on the back cover: it still refers to John Parent rather than Malcolm Fletcher: "Unless John Parent's star-drive program is successful, mankind will remain trapped in the solar system, forever."
At any rate, it's a short book, competently written with some fun parts and also some real pacing problems.
Earth and the Federation
The Galactic Federation has quarantined mankind in their own solar system until such time as humans prove themselves worthy to join the Federation by inventing faster-than-light space travel. There is some careful limited trade between Earth and the Federation, and this influx of alien technology has allowed Earth to begin terraforming and colonizing Venus. It's also improved the general standard of living immensely; the average man doesn't even have to work if he doesn't wish to. Still, being essentially prisoners in the solar system doesn't sit well with humanity, so many people, Malcolm Fletcher among them, are working to discover the secret of faster-than-light space travel.
Malcolm Kenneth Fletcher (Mal) works for the Interstellar Trading Company (The Company.) The Company is a conglomerate that's involved in just about everything, but especially in space travel (slower-than-light only, naturally) and trading with the Federation. The Company is so large, so profitable, and so powerful that it is the government in all but name.
Peer Vanderloon and the Sparrian
Mal is on the verge of a breakthrough when his supply order is canceled and he's summoned to a meeting with Peer Vanderloon, the President of the Board. The book calls him the Chairman and the President interchangeably, but the point is he's in charge. Peer Vanderloon isn't technically the largest stockholder in the Company--that honor belongs to his nephew Dirk Ten Drocke--but Vanderloon has managed to get himself appointed trustee of Dirk's shares. Permanent trustee, if Vanderloon has anything to say about it.
Vanderloon warns Mal to drop his line of research. The Company has been secretly helped by an alien race known as the Sparrians, who wish to help humanity safely develop a star drive. Because the Federation's rules state that humanity must develop the star drive independently, the Sparrians can't help too much, but they can give nudges and warnings. Mal talks to a Sparrian who explains that Mal's particular line of research is hazardous and Mal will only end up killing himself and perhaps a surrounding city block or two.
Mal, Dirk Ten Drock, and Margie
Mal is not convinced, but without the Company's resources he can't continue his research. Fortunately Dirk Ten Drocke and his secretary Margie waylay Mal and tell him the truth: there are no Sparrians helping humanity. It's a ruse by the Company. The Company is making a fortune with things just the way they are, and so they quash any promising research into faster-than-light star drives.
Dirk makes Mal an offer: help him break into the safe in his uncle's house and steal ten million in cash. That will give Dirk enough money to pay lawyers to sue his uncle and end the guardianship, giving Dirk control of the Company. In return, Dirk will fund Mal's star drive research.
Mal agrees to help. In a sequence that delighted me, Mal and Dirk are terrible criminals. Their break-in attempt is so inept and so loud that armed guards immediately come running, and they only barely escape. They fall in with Peep, an alien with a violent temper who is on Earth to learn non-aggression and pacifism. Mal, Dirk, Margie, and Peep decide to double-down on crime. They have to hide from the Company, so they decide to steal a spaceship and fly to the remote New Dorado colony on Venus where they will blend in with the locals. They steal a pleasure yacht from one of Dirk's dilettante friends. They are the dumbest criminals ever. A giant pleasure yacht on the rough-and-tumble frontier planet of Venus is the most conspicuous thing in the whole solar system so it's no surprise when they are immediately taken into custody.
Fortunately for them they are in the custody of the Underground, not the Company. Oh ho, there's an underground? Yes there is. The Underground very much wants a faster-than-light star drive so they fund Mal's research. They keep Mal hidden in the Venusian jungle, away from the Company's clutches, while he works.
At this point the story bogged down. Mal works feverishly to finish his star drive. There's a lot of clumsy character development happening. Dirk grows from a trust-fund dandy into a serious, thoughtful adult. Mal and Margie become romantically involved. The alien Peep talks a lot. (Don't forget the alien Peep.) It's rough.
A deadly deadline
At some point the Underground informs Mal that he'd better hurry up, because it turns out humanity has a deadline. The Federation only gave Earth a limited amount of time to invent a faster-than-light star drive, and if the deadline passes then the Quarantine will become permanent. The deadline is only days away, and the World Council's President has been summoned to Arcturus to explain to the Federation why humanity has failed.
The Star Drive
Mal works more feverishly. He finishes the calculations for his star drive--success!--then collapses from exhaustion before he can finish constructing it. It's too late! The Company finds them, arrests them all, and locks them in a warehouse.
The warehouse is the spaceship
With the calculations in hand, the actual construction is simple and Mal completes it with items on hand in the warehouse that is their makeshift prison. He flies the whole warehouse to Arcturus to meet with the Federation.
Peep is a hero
Again, pacing problems. After way too much boring talk and sightseeing on Arcturus, Mal finally hears the whole story. It turns out the deadline had expired and his star drive was too late to count. But Peep is a person of some importance, and Peep used his own influence to demand the Federation re-open the question of Earth's Quarantine.
I liked Arcturus Landing. I liked the first half better--the second half bogged down a bit. I'm not sure I liked the character of Peep, and I very much didn't like how the most important question--getting Earth's Quarantine lifted--was handled offstage and explained in a pedantic lecture after the fact. But overall I liked Arcturus Landing. It's not a great book, but I sure had fun reading it.