"Masters of the Lamp" is a 1970 novel by Robert Lorry, published as one half of an Ace Double, with the other side being "A Harvest of Hoodwinks", a short short story collection by the same author. "Masters of the Lamp" is a more conventional novel, following a single story for about 130 pages.

The cover has a picture of a white bearded prophet, a weird squid thing, a face, some colored circles. And the tagline:

Send a spy to find a God
So there is obviously a lot going on here!
The book takes place in an indeterminate far future, and follows a man named Sham Odell, who is a spy for a galactic intelligence service---the exact political and social outlook of the world isn't really explained in detail--- and he is doing spy stuff, like tracking people in dive bars, when he is summoned for an assignment: two agents have been killed, and he is being sent, along with a sexy femme fatale lady spy, to find out why. Their destination is a planet inhabited by religious cultists of all beliefs, one of which sects carry an emblem of the titular lamp. There are a number of science-fiction concepts thrown in here: artificial coffee, Tri-D pictures, warp drives, giant brains in vats, laser blaster battles, short circuit devices for the brain, all used to drive forward an espionage story that manages to pack way more twists into the book's length than I would expect. It kept me reading, although the short format (and presumably aggressive editing) made some of the twists underwhelming. Since 130 pages doesn't give much time to introduce characters, the plot twist that a character is not who we thought they were makes less sense given that we only met them for a page or two. Still, it kept me reading, and was much more cohesively written than the anthology that makes up the other side of the volume.

One thing I noticed in this story was its cynicism, which contrasted with the idealism found in many Ace Doubles. Many Ace Doubles feature an idealistic hero who stands up against "the system", where in this story, the protagonist is an admittedly amoral operative for the authorities. This could be just the author's style, but I also look at it in terms of when the book was written: by 1970, the audience, and the general public, would have been more cynical and jaded than the audience of 1962 or 1967. Also, in the book's treatment of religious cults and psychedelics, we can see the social concerns of the tail-end of the 1960s coming in.

Despite the book's plot sometimes moving too quickly, and its scattered approach to science-fiction concepts, I found it both a fun book to read, and an interesting record of how science-fiction, like much of American culture, became more cynical as the 1970s begin.

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