Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Four stories by Edmond Hamilton from the 1920s and '30s


In the past I've mentioned Del Rey's cool Best of series of paperback collections of stories by classic SF authors; in fact, back in early 2016, I read 1978's The Best of Eric Frank Russell, which has an introduction by Alan Dean Foster, cover to cover.  In 1977 Del Rey put out a volume dedicated to MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton, edited by Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, as well as a book of Brackett stories edited by Hamilton.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we'll be reading both of these collections of classic adventure SF.  First up, four stories from The Best of Edmond Hamilton that first appeared in genre magazines in the 1920s and early 1930s.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" (1926)

On its second appearance in Weird 
Tales, "Monster-God" didn't get
a cover mention; I hope Hamilton 
this didn't feel like he'd got demoted!
This is Hamilton's first published story, and it is actually mentioned on the cover of the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared, which must have been very exciting for a writer early in his career.  The Best of Edmond Hamilton is actually dedicated to the editor who bought the story, Farnsworth Wright, who edited Weird Tales from 1924 to 1940. "The Monster-God of Mamurth" has seen quite a few reprintings, including a second Weird Tales appearance in 1935.

"The Monster-God of Mamurth" is a solid Lovecraftian-type story, complete with lost city, alien and/or prehistoric god, and invisible monster.  (Though I label these elements "Lovecraftian," they were not invented by Lovecraft, and Hamilton didn't necessarily get them from Lovecraft stories; in fact, I think Lovecraft's big lost city and invisible monster stories, like "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror" and "At The Mountains of Madness" were published after "Monster-God of Mamurth."  Lovecraft's "The Nameless City" was published in an amateur periodical in 1921, but was not widely available until the 1930s.)  Hamilton includes a (mercifully brief) frame story--our narrator is a white trader in the North African desert, and one night an American archaeologist who is near death crawls into his camp.  The archaeologist luckily has the strength to take up the narration for fourteen of the story's sixteen pages, telling us how he stumbled on written evidence (an inscription on stone in Phoenician) of a previously unrecorded ancient city, and went there by himself, even though the people who wrote the inscription and all the Arabs he talked to strongly advised him to stay away.  At the ruined city he explored an invisible temple and had to fight for his life against an invisible monster, much like a spider the size of a horse, presumably the god worshiped by the city's long dead citizens.

Hamilton paces the story well, and the descriptions of dealing with an invisible building and an invisible enemy are good.  More action-oriented and less extravagantly written than your typical Lovecraft story; maybe we should call this one "Howard-like"--after all, the archaeologist escapes the multi-limbed god, and it is via an adrenaline-powered feat of desperate strength, not by using his noggin or some dusty old book!

"The Man Who Evolved" (1931)

I've already written about the second story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, "The Man Who Evolved," so I'll be skipping it here.  I read it in Isaac Asimov's fun and interesting 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age.

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" (1932)

First appearing in Wonder Stories, "A Conquest of Two Worlds" would be reprinted 16 years later by Startling Stories, whose editors heralded it as a "Hall of Fame Classic"!  Then Donald Wollheim, the hero behind DAW books and so many other laudable (and a few questionable) SF projects, selected it in 1951 for his Every Boy's Book of Science Fiction.  Sounds like a must read!

"A Conquest of Two Worlds" is a sort of "future history" in 32 pages of Earth's expansion into the rest of the solar system, a history which, as Brackett tells us in her spoiler-rich introduction to the volume, is surprisingly "downbeat" and "realistic."  This story, Brackett relates, is a response to SF stories in which the Earthman is portrayed as having the right to take over other planets, which are universally inhabited by evil monsters.  In this story the people of Earth are portrayed as driven largely by emotionalism and greed, while the aliens are largely sympathetic.

The plot: Some egghead invents an atomic power source--atomic propulsion systems and energy weapons soon follow. The boffin takes a single trip to scout out the inner planets and Jupiter, then dies in a crash upon landing on Earth.  The people of Earth quickly form a sort of world government, build a fleet of atomic rockets, and send out expeditions to exploit the vast natural resources of Mars and Jupiter; in a series of episodes that recall events in the history of British exploration and imperialism in North America, Africa and elsewhere, the Earthmen trigger and prosecute tremendous wars against the stone-age Martian and Jovian natives!  Like American Indians, the Martian and Jovian populations are seriously diminished and the survivors end up on reservations!

Besides depicting Earth settlement of Mars and Jupiter as resulting in immoral wars, Hamilton keeps reminding us how dangerous space travel and exploration are with many mentions of rocket ship crashes and illness due to cosmic rays and extraterrestrial environmental conditions.  This is a story drenched in pessimism, and unrelieved by the idea that challenges excite humanity to noble deeds of heroism, and in this it reminds me of Hamilton's 1952 story "What's It Like Out There?", which I read four or five years ago, during the Iowa period of my life, having borrowed from a university library via interlibrary loan a number of books of Hamilton stories.  "What's It Like Out There?" appears in The Best of Edmond Hamilton and I will be rereading it as part of this series of posts on Hamilton and Brackett.    

Most of "A Conquest of Two Worlds" reads like an encyclopedia entry about a military campaign, but there are dimly realized characters whose careers are pegged to the campaigns to conquer Mars and Jupiter.  In the last dozen pages of the story one of these characters, 60 years before Kevin Costner would do it, 70 years before Tom Cruise would do it, and almost 80 years before whoever the hell is in Avatar would do it, turns against his modern and imperialistic people and culture to join the primitive Jovians and aid them in their doomed struggle against the Earth!

While it is interesting as a pioneering example of a revisionist anti-Western-imperialism story, "A Conquest of Two Worlds," because it is dry and the characters are flat, is not very entertaining, so I'm awarding it merely a passing grade of "Acceptable."

A PDF scan of the issue of Wonder Stories in which "A Conquest of Two Worlds" appeared is viewable at the internet archive.  There you can see the included illustration by Frank Paul (depicting a major spoiler), a portrait of Hamilton, and an editorial introduction that tells you the story is about the crimes of the white race and greedy businessmen (everywhere I look I'm finding spoilers for this story.)  But that's not all!  The owner of the magazine hand wrote one-line reviews on each story's first page, and while he or she gushes about Jack Williamson's "The Moon Era" (and check out Williamson's slick hairdo and cool spectacles!), "A Conquest of Two Worlds" gets panned as "timeworn" and "hackneyed."  Ouch!

"The Island of Unreason" (1933)

Another piece that appeared in Wonder Stories and was accorded "Hall of Fame" status by the people at Startling, who only waited twelve years to reprint this baby.  As I learned at isfdb, "The Island of Unreason" also appeared in a mysterious 1946 publication along with another Hamilton story, "Murder in the Clinic."  This odd little book, published in Ireland by London outfit Utopian Publications, was part of a British series of books and magazines of short fiction by American authors whose covers were adorned with drawings or photos of naked women.  While many of the stories are by legitimately popular and important SF authors like Robert Bloch, Jack Williamson, Clark Ashton Smith and Ray Bradbury, it is hard not to suspect that the real selling point of the books was their covers, most of which you can see at isfdb, should you be curious.

"The Island of Unreason" takes place in a socialistic technocratic future that fetishizes "reason," efficiency and cooperation, and condemns emotion and individuality.  When Allan Mann, Serial Number 2473R6, an engineer in City 72 (the future name of New York City--what kind of media bias is this?--NYC should be Number 1!) questions handing over the atomic motor plans he has been working on for two years to another engineer because he wants to finish the designs himself, he is charged with a breach of reason.  The authorities exile him for an undisclosed period to the Island of Unreason, where there is no government.  Now, I know all you Kmele Foster fans out there are thinking an island without government would be a paradise ("please don't throw me in that brier patch!"), but the inhabitants of this technocratic society, including Mann see a place without government as some kind of living hell!  The director of City 72 thinks by exposing Mann to life outside the paternal state will teach him how essential government really is ("cure" him of "unreasonable tendencies.")

Mann is dropped off on the island and, while initially horrified, quickly learns to cope without all-powerful government with the help of the "unreasonables" already there, who have a primitive village and a rough and ready sort of social order.  When his sentence is up and the government agents arrive to bring him back to City 72, he decides he'd rather stay on the island.

This is a better story than "A Conquest of Two Worlds" not just because I like anti-big government stories, but because it focuses more strongly on individual characters and presents more vivid pictures of societies.  It is actually amusing to watch Mann, a member of "the world's fiftieth generation of vegetarians" who is used to eating the "mushy pre-digested foods" rationed out by the government, sleeping in a government dormitory and having sex with women whom the "Eugenics Board" orders him to impregnate, respond and adapt to a world in which he has to eat fresh meat, sleep on the ground, and compete for sex partners because people get to choose who they have sex with based on their own far-from-logical preferences.

While I am contrasting them from a literary and entertainment point of view, I think we can see strong thematic similarities between "The Island of Unreason" and "A Conquest of Two Worlds."  Both feature a character deeply embedded in his society, an elite member of that society, in fact, who changes his mind about that society after being exposed to a different, less technologically advanced, society.  Both also evince a level of skepticism about modernity and progress and make an argument that a concern for material well-being can lead a society to abandon traditional morality and compromise people's freedom to an atrocious degree.

Good.

"Thundering Worlds" (1934)

Back in March we read the story from this issue
attributed to Heald, a collaboration with
H. P. Lovecraft
Over the course of this blog's life we've seen a range of types of stories from Edmond Hamilton: mad scientist stories, stories about evolution, today a weird lost city story and two nakedly political stories expressing views about Western imperialism and the role of the state in our lives.  But Hamilton is perhaps most famous for his epics about interstellar warfare conceived on the grandest possible scale with the highest possible stakes, wars in which civilizations maneuver the very planets and stars like so many aircraft carriers and battering rams as they seek to avert or inflict genocide. "Thundering Worlds," first seen in Weird Tales, is just such a story.  I read "Thundering Worlds" during the same period in which I read "What's It Like Out There?", but I have no compunctions about reading it again.

It is the far future, and the human race has colonized all nine planets, and the system is ruled by a council consisting of the leaders of each of the nine worlds.  Our narrator is the top official of Mercury, and as the story begins he describes how mankind is under a terrible threat--Sol is cooling off and the nine planets will soon be uninhabitable! The solution to this crisis is to construct atomic thrusters of mind-boggling size on each of the nine planets and then drive them like huge ships across the black void of interstellar space to a new sun!

The Mercurian's narrative relates how the nine planets go from one star to another, looking for a home.  One star produces radiation that is deadly to human life (radiation looms large in Hamilton's oeuvre), while another star system is inhabited by hostile aliens, and a terrible space naval battle between swarms of human and alien craft results.  By some terrible coincidence, these aliens (amoeba people) live in a star system whose sun is about to go nova, so they have the idea of hijacking the solar planets to escape certain doom.  When the Solar space navy repels their invasion, the amoeba people construct their own colossal atomic engines and the nine solar planets are soon pursued by four amoeba planets!

When the human migrants finally find a suitable star to orbit their worlds around, a showdown with the amoeba people is inevitable.  The narrator decides that Mercury will make the ultimate sacrifice--all the Mercurians evacuate their little world and then the narrator rams it into the lead amoeba planet, causing a five-planet pileup that wipes out the amoeba race and leaves us humans masters of all we survey!  Go Earth!

This is a fun story.  The first-person narration and a sort of rivalry between the narrator and the rulers of Pluto and Jupiter means it doesn't fall into the trap of sounding like a dry encyclopedia article that "A Conquest of Two Worlds" does.  I'm a little surprised "Thundering Worlds" hasn't been reprinted more often; maybe its lack of social or political commentary made it less attractive to editors.

**********

All worthwhile reads by World Wrecker Hamilton, and pleasantly diverse in their subject matter and tone.  In our next episode we start The Best of Leigh Brackett with three of her stories from the 1940s.

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