The Imperial Stars
Series: Family d'Alembert
Reviewed date: 2019 Apr 24
This novella was the last piece of science fiction Doc Smith published, and it is the inspiration for the ten-book Family d'Alembert series by Stephen Goldin. So I read it.
I'm not impressed.
In the first chapter, Smith thrills with a gripping account of the d'Alembert's acrobatics performance. It's completely unnecessary to the overall story, but it was the only part of the story that I enjoyed without reservation.
The premise doesn't sit well with me. I can stipulate that the Empire of Earth is a good empire ruled by a benevolent Emperor who gained his position through hereditary right of primogeniture. Fine. But the d'Alemberts' mission is to find and kill an illegitimate child whose only crime is existing. Well, two crimes: existing, and possessing a Patent of Royalty given to him by the late Emperor Stanley Nine before the Emperor came to his senses. The real enemies to the throne are the schemers who plotted the whole thing decades ago, but Banion has to die. He's been hiding for 67 years, not plotting a coup, but he has to die. And not just him: the d'Alemberts are instructed to kill Banion's children and grandchildren too.
"Your job is composed of two equally important parts. One, to find the genuine Patent and to bring it in so we can check its authenticity and so Stanley Ten can destroy it with his own hands. Two, to kill Banion the Bastard and all of his blood. Goodbye and good luck."
As it is presented in the story, I cannot accept the premise that the d'Alemberts and the Empire are good guys.
I have some complaints about the meandering plot. In chapter VIII, Jules and Yvette go undercover on Earth as personal trainers. Ostensibly this is to spy on the local nobility to root out the traitors. In truth, this chapter exists only so Smith can get some characters naked. No sex, just lots of naked training in a gym. That is magnificently, superlatively, irritatingly Smithian.
They do identify a suspect, and they spend lots of time on her, at which point she slips up and reveals something. Or rather, Smith tells us she slips up and reveals something. I read those sentences closely. I analyzed them. I can't see it. In any case, it's a bust. They don't get enough to move forward.
Wrap it all up offstage
Finally, the end is a cheat. The whole mission was to locate the Patent and kill Banion. The d'Alemberts start at the top and arrest the Grand Duke who orchestrated the plot. Then the whole thing is wrapped up in two perfunctory sentences.
Since it is much faster to work such an inquiry from the top down than from the bottom up, full information was obtained in less than a week. And thus, while the resultant vacancies in the various services were many and terribly shocking, the menace that had hung over the Empire for sixty-seven years was at long last abated.
Hey man, what happened to Banion? Was he still alive? Where was he hiding? Did he get Nitrobarb treatment? A swift bullet to the head? Was the Duchess of Swingleton--the poor objectified girl from the massagerie chapter--part of the plot after all? Was she related to Banion? Did she get the Nitrobarb needle? And isn't it convenient that our heros the d'Alemberts get to skip out on the cold-blooded executions they'd originally been tasked with?
What if...Grand Duke Nicholas is Banion the Bastard?
And it suddenly occurs to me that the ending could be more satisfying if we assume that the Grand Duke Nicholas is actually Banion the Bastard in disguise. What an ending--What an ending! (I just now looked it up, and that's exactly how Stephen Goldin takes it in his novel-length adaptation.) But Smith never comes out and says this. He doesn't even hint at it. In fact, Jules and Yvette explicitly state otherwise, that Grand Duke Nicholas has no Stanley blood and that he's orchestrating a coup and planning to be the power behind the throne. So we're left with a perfunctory ending that is deeply unsatisfying.
Summary by chapter:
Chapter I: Jules and Yvette
Jules and Yvette d'Alembert put on an acrobatics performance at the Circus of the Galaxy.
The Flying d'Alemberts have been putting on an acrobatics show at the Circus of the Galaxy. Yvette d'Alembert is on the high wire. She is dressed in an attractive skin-tight silver suit and is powerfully built, with a physique that rivals the most rugged and muscle-bound of Earth men. Her brother Jules is perched far below.
Yvette and Jules sway in synchrony. As Yvette pushes off to jump, her wire breaks. She plummets. The other d'Alemberts throw trapeze bars and various apparatus toward her, but nothing gets close. Jules launches himself outward on his flying ring and intersects Yvette's fall. Their right hands connect as she crashes into him. She twists herself over and locks her legs around him, leaving his right hand free to grasp the ring again. With their combined momentum pulling them down, Jules hangs on while the nylon cable stretches a full seven feet under the enormous load. The audience is enthralled. At the point of maximum tension, his hands slip from the ring.
Both Yvette and Jules plunge the remaining forty feet to the ground, land perfectly, somersault to their feet, bow, and exit the Big Top. The crowd cheers. The accident they thought they were witnessing was in fact the grand finale. Few in the audience can understand how the pair survived. Unknown to most, the Family d'Alembert is from the heavy gravity planet of DesPlaines. It is among the least hospitable of the 943 planets of the Empire of Earth.
Chapter II: The Brawl in the Dunedin Arms
Jules and Yvette try to meet a contact in a fancy night club, but they are violently ambushed. They kill the attackers, escape, then radio to the Service of the Empire (SOTE) headquarters.
The Circus of the Galaxy has been running for over a week in Tampeta, Florida, population fifteen million. After the evening's performance, Jules and Yvette d'Alembert disguise themselves as Delfians and slip away. Jules drives the pair to the Dunedin Arms, a fancy night spot. They take their place at the bar, where Jules orders an expensive bottle of Estvan's vodnak.
Yvette cries a warning as a blaster-beam incinerates the stranger next to her. She heaves the heavy vodnak bottle into the gunner, killing him. Jules launches himself toward a man at a nearby table, breaks the man's neck and takes his half-drawn gun, which Jules notices is dialed to ten. Lethal. He dials the gun back to stun, and stuns another goon. Meanwhile Yvette smashes another head, then grabs a goon by the ankles and throws him through a plate-glass window. Jules stuns another assailant. Jules and Yvette pick up the two unconscious goons, take them to their car, and drive to an empty stretch of highway. Jules punches some buttons and the heavy car transforms into a flying craft and leaps to an altitude of 190,000 feet.
Yvette remarks that their only Service of the Empire (SOTE) contact on Earth is now dead. This means there must be a leak in the organization, in the Head's own office. With no other options, they get on the radio and contact the local SOTE office. The office provides a beam to guide them to a new rendezvous point.
Chapter III: The Head
The d'Alemberts land at the SOTE headquarters and meet the Head of the SOTE.
Jules follows the beam and lands on the rooftop of a large building. The Head and his daughter Helena come out to meet them. Jules and Yvette have never before met the Head, so they verify his identity by comparing his retina to a pattern they have on file. The Head likewise verifies their identity via retinascope, except he knows their patterns by memory. They are his best secret agents.
Jules explains the botched rendezvous to the Head, who arranges to have the two captured goons revived and interrogated. The Head ushers Jules and Yvette into his plush, wood-paneled office; Helena gets everyone drinks. The Head admits the existence of a leak in the SOTE and will investigate, but the d'Alemberts' secret identity as SOTE agents remains safe: no enemy would have sent only six goons after Jules and Yvette d'Alembert. Ergo, the enemy did not know their identity. The Head moves on to other business, the reason for the rendezvous: a special assignment for Jules and Yvette. He reminds them that the Service's loyalty is to the Emperor, whoever that may be. Currently the Emperor is Stanley Ten, and have they ever heard of Banion the Bastard? They have not.
Chapter IV: Banion the Bastard
The Head explains: the late Emperor Stanley Nine had an illegitimate son, Banion, and unwisely gave him a Patent of Royalty. Jules and Yvette's mission is to recover the Patent and kill Banion.
The Head launches into a history lesson. The late Emperor Stanley Nine had a weakness for women. Henry, Duke of Durward exploited that weakness by hiring a woman to seduce the Emperor and bear him an illegitimate son, Banion. The Duke then married the woman (known as the Beast of Durward), thereby making Banion the Duke's son. Stanley Nine, still smitten, issued a Patent of Royalty for the boy, handwritten on Imperial parchment and signed by Stanley himself in carbon ink.
By the time Stanley Nine came to his senses and realized the danger Banion posed as a potential usurper, the Duke, the Beast, and Banion had escaped with the Patent. All records of the Patent have been suppressed, and the Beast and the Duke are long since dead. But despite decades of search, neither the Patent nor Banion--now 67 years old--have been located. Jules and Yvette's assignment: locate and recover the Patent so Stanley Ten can destroy it, and kill Banion the Bastard and all his descendants.
Later, back at the Circus, Yvette tells Jules that she recognized the Head as Grand Duke Zander von Wilmenhorst--"one-half Stanley blood and the fifth from the Throne itself." The two go to the main tent and watch "Yvette" and "Jules" d'Alembert perform. It turns out Jules and Yvette are stage names. Our heroes will slip away from the Circus on assignment and the public will never know they are gone.
Chapter V: Citizens of Earth
Jules and Yvette decide the SOTE is compromised, so they conduct their mission entirely on their own. They go to the planet Algonia and offer themselves as bait. Eventually they're ambushed; they subdue the attackers.
Jules and Yvette review the data spools the Head provided them. Eighty-nine agents of the SOTE have perished or vanished in search of the Patent and Banion the Bastard, most likely betrayed by a traitor in the SOTE itself. So they will rely on themselves only, presuming the SOTE cannot be trusted.
Jules and Yvette decide the quickest way to locate the enemy is by offering themselves as bait. They get the SOTE to issue them credentials as "ex-Puritan Citizens of Earth," Purity being the only high-gravity planet in the Empire besides DesPlaines. Then they head to the planet Algonia, where they make an ostentatious display of wealth and entitlement. They stay in the penthouse suite at the Hotel Splendide, tip lavishly, and make a practice of taking long hikes into the remote back-country where they can be easily ambushed and kidnapped. It takes longer than they expect, but eventually they are ambushed by ten hoodlums. Jules and Yvette subdue their attackers, then Yvette injects them with "talk-juice" so they'll be ready for interrogation when they awake.
Chapter VI: Storming the Castle
Jules and Yvette interrogate their attackers. Based on what they learn, they storm the castle of the Baron of Osberg. They catch eleven conspirators but get little useful information from them.
Jules and Yvette drive the nine surviving hoodlums to an isolated country estate they had secretly rented earlier, and interrogate them. The hoodlums' big boss on Algonia is the Baron of Osberg. They give the hoodlums a twelve-hour stun and set off to the baron's castle.
The castle is protected by a fifteen-foot high concrete wall topped with electrified barbed wire, but Jules and Yvette simply leap over the barrier. Stunners drawn, they begin stunning the guards even before their jump is complete, and continue stunning anything that moves as they proceed to cross the yard. Yvette takes care of the garage and the rest of the outside guards while Jules enters the castle and makes his way to the large common room. Eleven men are in the common room. Jules stuns them. The castle secure, Jules places a call to the local SOTE office.
Before the local SOTE arrives, Jules and Yvette question the eleven men but find out little. Borton (the local SOTE head) arrives and remarks that Yvette and Jules have used Nitrobarb to question the men, one of whom is the Baron of Osberg himself. "Half of them will die, I see." Jules says they will all die. Borton wants to know why he wasn't let in on this operation beforehand. Jules points. One of the eleven is Borton's assistant Alf Rixton. A traitor.
Jules instructs Borton to take credit for the bust so as not to blow their secret identity.
Chapter VII: The Switch
Jules and Yvette follow up on the clues they got from the Baron of Osberg. All evidence points toward the planet Durward, but they realize it's a trap, so they head to Earth instead.
Jules and Yvette read the morning's newspaper account of the daring SOTE raid, wherein Planetary Chief Borton's crew apprehended a network of traitors and executed the ringleaders, including the Baron of Osberg. Jules and Yvette leave Algonia and shed their secret identities; said identities being picked up by Gabby and Jacques, other members of the d'Alembert family. Jules also enjoys a brief meeting with Yvonne, his fiance.
Algonia yielded only a cryptic clue, so Jules and Yvette take a step back and re-evaluate the original premise. The Duke of Durward was always presumed to be behind the entire plot, but what if he wasn't? If he had a backer who is preparing to stage a coup, it would have to be somebody powerful and rich: a Grand Duke. Yvette points out they can't go "sticking nitrobarb into Grand Dukes at random." Jules suggests they put some CPAs on the job and see which planets are experiencing suspicious economic growth curves.
Meanwhile, they have to follow up on their lead, so they enter a bar and utter the code phrase: "I was told to ask for the Blinding Flash and say the Deafening Report sent me." After a brief but violent battle, the d'Alemberts subdue their enemies. They interrogate the traitors, and the evidence points them conclusively to "one man in one city of the planet of Durward."
The evidence pointing to Durward is too pat, too good to be true. So the d'Alemberts head for Earth.
Chapter VIII: The Massagerie
Jules and Yvette open up a snooty massagerie on Earth, take on snobby nobility as clients, and fish for a good lead. The evidence points to Grand Duke Nicholas of Sector Twenty.
Emperor Stanley Ten and the SOTE Head discuss the case. The Circus of the Galaxy is in Durward acting as a diversion, while Jules and Yvette are undercover and have set up a "massagerie de luxe" on Earth, "The House of Strength of Body and of Heart". The Head speculates that Jules and Yvette have identified a suspect who they think is interested in bodybuilding, and have set a trap.
The massagerie is snooty and exclusive, which attracts the snobby nobility of the Empire. Yvette gets a feeling about the Duchess of Swingleton, who is supposedly the daughter of the Grand Duchess Olga but might possibly be Banion's daughter or granddaughter. She's hiding something. Jules accepts her as a client, insults her, belittles her, and then spends day after day training her. She attempts to seduce him but he pays her no attention. Finally she makes a more brazen pass, which he shoots down with cruelty. She explodes, and in doing so, lets slip a crucial bit of information. Jules plays it cool and she never realizes she's revealed anything.
Chapter IX: The Fortress of Englewood
Jules, Yvette, and a SOTE team storm the Grand Duke's castle and crack open his safe, where they locate the Patent of Royalty. The Grand Duke is arrested, interrogated, and the whole conspiracy is unraveled from the top down in less than a week.
Jules and Yvette do not have enough solid evidence, but what they do have points to the Grand Duke Nicholas and the Grand Duchess Olga of Sector Twenty. The Grand Duke is too powerful for the d'Alemberts to touch without proof, so they take what they have to the Head. He concurs.; they cannot move against the Grand Duke unless they can find the Patent--which is likely in the Grand Duke's vault at the Castle Englewood.
"Three days later, the news media announced that Emperor Stanley Ten had had a heart attack."
The Emperor will recover, but Crown Princess Edna takes charge temporarily. She throws a party and invites thirty-six Grand Dukes and their families, and nobody dares decline. While the Grand Duke Nicholas is occupied at the party, the d'Alemberts and a team of the experts descends on the "starkly impregnable" Castle Englewood. They locate the enormous vault in a tunnel under the castle, and Jules gives the order to burn through the eight-inch-thick steel wall.
The moment the vault is breached, the entire area is slammed by twenty-five Gs of artificial gravity. The DesPlainian guards inside the Grand Duke's vault manage to put up a valiant fight, but the d'Alemberts and their crew win. The Patent is recovered from the vault.
The Duke and Duchess are arrested and then questioned under nitrobarb. With full knowledge of the entire conspiracy, the traitors throughout the Empire are rounded up in less than a week. The threat to the Emperor is ended.
Chapter X: Bill, Irene and Edna
Emperor Stanley Ten thanks Jules and Yvette d'Alembert for their service and loyalty.
Jules and Yvette visit the SOTE headquarters. Lady Helena greets them with kisses, Jules especially. Jules permits her attentions, then lifts her up and holds her out at arms' length. He squeezes her to demonstrate his strength. Helena admits she had intended to make Jules fall in love with her, but she realizes that with his DesPlainian muscles, he is simply too strong for any relationship with an Earther.
They all step into the Head's office and are astounded to see Emperor Stanley Ten, in person. And the Empress Irene and Crown Princess Edna. Jules and Yvette kneel, but Stanley Ten tells them to get up, and furthermore, "during this visit and hereafter in private, my friends, to you two I am Bill." Jules and Yvette can't bring themselves to be that familiar; they settle for calling him "sir".
Princess Edna serves everyone drinks and remarks that it's a shame the d'Alemberts cannot be publicly acknowledged for their service. Stanley Ten tells Jules and Yvette they are more important to the Empire than he is. He's merely the Emperor, and the Empire only exists because of the loyalty of people like the d'Alemberts.
Stanley Ten explains his pet theory that "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" is not true. Power corrupts, yes. But when people get absolute power they use it fo the good of mankind. The Empire will endure so long as it remains worthy of loyalty.
Then, Stanley Ten turns to the d'Alemberts and says: "Thanks."