Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Quest Beyond the Stars by Edmond Hamilton

In May I purchased four volumes of the Captain Future science fiction adventure series; all four written by Edmond Hamilton.  I read the nineteenth volume, Outlaw World, in June.  Today, after returning from a road trip to New Jersey, the land of my birth, and Manhattan, my old stomping grounds, I finished the ninth Captain Future novel, Quest Beyond the Stars.  My copy is the Popular Library printing from 1969 with the Jeff Jones cover painting I am calling "Study of Four Spheres."  The last page of this edition is an advertisement for a set of paperback reference books which we are told are "indispensable" should you aspire to "get-ahead."  Quest Beyond the Stars first appeared in magazine form in 1942. 

Front and back cover of my slightly water-damaged copy
The Captain Future stories are set in a universe in which planets like Mercury and Venus, as well as Earth, have indigenous human life, and these civilizations are united under a system-wide government.  (It appears that the entire galaxy was seeded with human life in the distant past by people from Deneb, so wherever Captain Future goes he meets people who are more or less human, albeit with different colored skin and of various heights and girths.)  At the start of this story we learn that Mercury is in trouble: atmosphere plants (perhaps inspired by those on Mars in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom books?) produce the air Mercurians need to breathe, but the raw materials consumed by the plants are running low.  As a result, the System government is forcibly transporting the population of Mercury to Ganymede.  Apparently Ganymede is not exactly the garden spot of the solar system, because in the first chapter a Mercurian starts a riot by claiming the government is lying about the materials shortage, and is just drafting the people of Mercury to colonize Ganymede for their own purposes.  Luckily Captain Future is there to quell the riot by out-debating this climate change denier.

Don't you dare call it pulp
Captain Future, whose real name is Curtis Newton, is a genius scientist, and pledges to solve the Mercury crisis in a way that will save the Mercurians from having to move to crummy old Ganymede.  Hamilton lays some real life (if nowadays exploded) scientific theory on us, referring to Robert A. Millikan's theory that cosmic rays are the "birth cries" of new atoms being "created" out there some where.  If Newton can find out where these atoms are created (by transforming radiation, Hamilton explains), perhaps he can figure out how the process works and reproduce it on Mercury to fuel the atmosphere plants.

Our man Curt quickly modifies his space ship so that he can travel "two thousand times the speed of light," and he and his team (the "Futuremen") blast off from their moon base to find the "Birthplace of Matter."  The Futuremen include Simon Wright, AKA "The Brain," a genius scientist whose brain was removed from a decaying body and placed in a levitating box, Otho the synthetic man who broods because he is different from natural men, and Grag, the seven foot tall robot.

Winter 1942 publication
The Birthplace of Matter turns out to be hidden in an almost impenetrable cloud of dust billions of miles in extent.  Newton and company, on the outskirts of the cloud, meet people from all over the galaxy who have been shipwrecked while trying to get to the Birthplace.  These aliens join Newton's crew and with their help the Futuremen penetrate the cloud to a clear space inside; here they discover several star systems.  The green people from one of these systems are at war with the white people from another, and our heroes do the sorts of things we expect people to do in an adventure story: they get captured, they sneak through ventilation ducts, they liberate a beautiful princess from a dungeon, they participate in energy gun firefights and a space naval battle.  At the end of the book they achieve their hopes, a technology that will abolish scarcity and put a lot of economists out of business.

Quest Beyond the Stars is a good example of 1940s SF; it glamorizes science and scientists while still primarily being a swashbuckling adventure.  I found it a diverting entertainment; as a kid I loved laser gun shootouts and space naval battles a la Star Wars and Space Battleship Yamato, and I guess I still do.  Quest Beyond the Stars might also deserve some diversity points--while it is true that our hero is a redhead and he rescues a blonde princess from vicious non-whites, the princess is a brave leader of soldiers and among Newton's comrades are courageous and honorable red and blue people.

If I'd had these books I might today still be in NYC, a titan of Wall Street or a dean at Columbia 
I've enjoyed both my encounters with Captain Future, and I will definitely read the other two Captain Future books I bought up in Minnesota, and pick up any other volumes I encounter in my travels.     

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