Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"After a Judgment Day," "The Pro," and "Castaway" by Edmond Hamilton

It's the final installment of our look at The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a collection of stories published in 1977 and edited by the author's wife, Leigh Brackett.

"After a Judgment Day" (1963)

Throughout his career, Hamilton wrote stories about evolution and the related topics of radiation and mutation, and stories about the plight of somebody who finds himself the last man on Earth. We've read a bunch of such stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and Hamilton also dealt with such themes in his comic book work; for example, in "Superman Under the Red Sun," a story appearing in Action Comics # 300 (May 1963), Superman is tricked by the "Superman Revenge Squad" into travelling a million years into the future, where he encounters land-whales (the descendants of whales who have adapted to an Earth without oceans) and eagles which, due to radioactive fallout, have acquired the ability to shoot lighting bolts from their eyes.  Kal-El also finds that the human race has vacated the planet, making him The Last Man On Earth!  (Luckily, there is a robot version of Perry White available to keep the Man of Steel company.)

"Superman Under the Red Sun" was the cover story of Action Comics #300 (the other story in that issue was about Supergirl's horse...zzzzzzzzzz...) and one of Hamilton's other cover stories that very same year was "After a Judgment Day" for Fantastic, a story which is like a more adult, more apocalyptic remix of the same elements from that Superman story.

Martinsen is a scientist on a lunar research base; from this base robots designed to mimic humans travel to distant planets to collect data and then return.  Because their bodies resemble human tissue and organs, any effects suffered by the robots while walking around on the alien worlds serve as a good predictor of how real humans would react to those alien environments.

During Martinsen's tenure at the moon base a plague strikes the Earth--a previously-harmless bacteria, mutated by radioactive fallout, wipes out the human race in short order.  Most of Martinsen's comrades return to Earth, leaving Martinsen alone on the moon with a single colleague who has turned to popping sleeping pills for comfort (there is no booze on the base.)  And the robots, of course, though they have not been programmed to make conversation (unlike the Perry White robot in Action Comics #300.)  Martinsen, in a last romantic gesture, prepares a recording describing highlights of Earth history and culture, gives a copy to each of the robots, and then programs them to search the universe for intelligent life to present the recording to.  With luck, Earth's memory will thus be preserved.  After the robots have departed, fanning out across the galaxy, Martinsen and the pill-popper return to Earth to die.

This story is alright; it tries to pull the old heart-strings but didn't really do it for me; in that respect I think Hamilton's "Requiem," for example, is more successful.  The title "After a Judgment Day" comes from a poem by G. K. Chesterton, an epic of over 2,500 lines about 9th-century hero King Alfred called The Ballad of the White Horse. Chesterton is one of those important writers (he is one of Gene Wolfe's favorites, I hear) I haven't gotten around to reading yet.  Maybe someday.

"After a Judgment Day" has not been one of Hamilton's more popular pieces; besides The Best of Edmond Hamilton the only place it has reappeared has been in a 1972 magazine, Thrilling Science Fiction, that consisted of reprints of 1960s SF stories.

"The Pro" (1964)

If you are reading MPorcius Fiction Log, you probably already know that Barry N. Malzberg is one of the great historians and critics of SF, and that Malzberg considers his own career and the entire SF field to be a disappointment, a sort of failure or missed opportunity.  In his 1980 essay "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction," included in The Engines of the Night, Malzberg talks about two Robert Silverberg stories from the early '70s ("Science Fiction Hall of Fame" and "Schwartz Between the Galaxies") that, according to sad sack Barry, are a message from Silverberg telling us that "science fiction is doomed by its own nature and devices to be a second-rate form of literature." Malzberg goes on to discuss the hopes of the Futurians (that SF could "save the world") and those of "the field's best writers--Kornbluth, Clifton, Budrys, Heinlein" (that SF could "change society" and "alter institutions and personal lives") hopes that were, he suggests, unrealized.

Malzberg points out other SF stories and novels that, he believes, posit that "science fiction is junk" or "contemptible" or mere "comfort," including his own Herovit's World (1973) and Galaxies (1975), Samuel R. Delany's 1967 "Aye, and Gomorrah" and Edmond Hamilton's "The Pro."

(NB:  I think you should buy and read The Engines of the Night, but I have to warn you that my 1984 Bluejay edition, at least, was not properly fact-checked or copy-edited.  In the essay at hand Malzberg tells us Silverberg's "Science Fiction Hall of Fame" appeared in Infinity Three, when in fact it appeared in Infinity Five, and he refers to Silverberg's story "Our Lady of the Sauropods" by the name "Our Lady of the Stegosaurs."  Maybe such errors are rectified in the later enlarged edition from Baen which bears the title Breakfast in the Ruins?)

"The Pro" is a psychological study, its subject Jim Burnett, who, like Hamilton himself, is a science fiction writer with decades of work and a multitude of stories in pulps, paperbacks, and hardcovers behind him.  His son Dan is a member of the two-man crew of the first manned mission to the Moon.  Our story covers the day of the launch and the day preceding, as Burnett wrestles with his emotional responses to his son's participating in this historic, but dangerous, mission: the fear that his son may be killed and guilt that, through his writing, he may be responsible in some way for inspiring the whole space program and encouraging his own son's risky role in it, as well as envy that it is his son, and not he himself, who will be among the first to step on the Moon.  An interesting subtheme is the idea that the writer is a spectator of life, rather than a participant--Henry Miller said something to this effect in that thrilling, shocking, first chapter of Sexus, and it has always stuck with me.
Dan's the pro, not me.  All we writers who daydreamed and babbled and wrote about space, we were just amateurs, but now the real pros have come, the tanned, placid young men who don't babble about space but who go up and take hold of it...
Burnett's powerful but ambivalent feelings--he jocularly brags that he "invented" space travel one minute, then is vigorously denying that his writing and science fiction in general deserve any credit for inspiring the space program the next--feel very authentic.  This is what a real person is like: unsure if he has done the right thing, unsure even what the right thing is, almost always rationalizing, sometimes breaking down from regret or guilt or fear.  An effective story.  "The Pro" first appeared in F&SF (in the 15th Anniversary "All Star Issue") and then in various venues, including T. E. Dikty's Great Science Fiction Stories About the Moon (1967) and Mike Resnick's Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF (1992).

(I feel like I have to put in my two cents here and assert that I certainly do not consider science fiction a failure.  Most importantly, I don't think providing comfort or escape or entertainment is bad, or pointless; why shouldn't people have a little comfort or pleasure in this brief life full of trouble?  Beyond that, I think it obvious now (and almost as obvious in 1980) that SF has been influential, has made a mark on society. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster and Tarzan of the Apes are as central to our culture as Robinson Crusoe and Romeo and Juliet.  King Kong and 2001: A Space Odyssey are considered among the greatest works of cinema.  Popular TV and movie franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Alien are essentially the themes and visions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, A. E. van Vogt and Leigh Brackett projected on a screen, and I think half the TV shows my wife watches are about people with special powers or people living in a post-apocalyptic world. Lovecraft, Burroughs, Blish, Brackett and Bester are enshrined in the Library of America, and Jack Vance gets a glowing write up in the New York Times.  We are told that the people who were responsible for putting a man on the moon were inspired by SF, while libertarian intellectuals like David Friedman report being inspired by Robert Heinlein and statist intellectuals like Paul Krugman announce they were inspired by Isaac Asimov.  This all sounds like success to me.  What would sound like success to the Futurians, to "the field's best writers," to Malzberg himself?  Science fiction triggering the development of a communist utopia?  An anarcho-capitalist utopia?  A culture in which people like Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore and Barry Malzberg get the critical attention Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow get, or an economy in which they get the kind of money Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp get?  Such absurd and extravagant hopes are bound to be dashed.  I think Thomas Disch is much closer to the truth when he claims science fiction has conquered the world than is Malzberg with his lamentations.)

"The Castaway" (1969)

"The Castaway" appeared in SF historian and editor Sam Moskowitz's anthology The Man Who Called Himself Poe, apparently a collection of stories about Edgar Allan Poe or written in his style. Most of the included pieces seem to be reprints, but a few, including Hamilton's contribution, were specifically written for the collection.  "The Castaway" would reappear in the collection What's It Like Out There? as well as The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

"The Castaway" stars Edgar Allan Poe himself.  A woman comes to his office, tries to convince him that she is a traveler from an idyllic far future, inhabiting the body of a 19th-century woman.  She informs Poe that another such far future traveler's mind inhabits his body, but, because he has greater than average intelligence and will, his native mind has dominated the interloping mind instead of vice versa.  The submerged future personality's memories have, however, expressed themselves in his fantastical stories--"The Domain of Arnheim," "The Tale of the Ragged Mountains," and "William Wilson" are specifically mentioned.  The mind supposedly submerged within Poe's brain is that of the future woman's lover, and she tries, through conversation, to get it to emerge so it can return to the future with her, but she is frustrated by Poe's powerful personality, and returns to the future alone, leaving the 19th-century woman she was dominating to wake up in horror in Poe's office, from which she precipitously flees.

Not bad.  I could not muster the energy to read The Ballad of the White Horse, but maybe this week I will read the three Poe stories Hamilton invokes in "The Castaway."


And so we bid a fond farewell to The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett.  I feel like this has been a very enjoyable and profitable project, and I'm happy I have more Brackett and Hamilton stories available to me both on my own bookshelves and at the internet archive.  For a personal look at these two giants of the SF community, their careers and their relationships with people like Ray Bradbury and John W. Campbell, Jr., check out an interview of Hamilton and Brackett conducted in 1976 by Dave Truesdale and Paul McGuire III pointed out to us a few days ago by commenter marzaat, available at the link.


  1. Oh "Sad Sack Barry" -- I like him anyway although I'm finding myself disagreeing more and more with his actual assessments of the genre and stories themselves. I've announced a Barry N. Malzberg resource page I'm developing where I'll post all the reviews of his work I've found over the years online. If you happen across any articles on him or cool reviews in your SF perambulations let me know! (I'll include yours as well). As for Hamilton, I've not read any of his work so far --- thanks for going through all these stories.

  2. Malzberg himself, with his grand self confidence, his obsessions, his varied career as writer and editor in several genres, and his view that his own life and that of genre writers and maybe even that of all 20th century people is a tragedy, is a fascinating character. A lot of his work lacks compelling characters, but every thing he writes is like a little episode in the saga of, or maybe a tile in the mosaic portrait of, Barry N. Malzberg himself. So I am willing to read anything he writes, or is written about him, to gain insight into and entertainment from his ideas or his antics.

    One of the weird things about Malzberg is that he will often say how most SF is crummy and so many SF writers and editors are incompetent and all that, but I rarely read anything by him attacking a specific writer for a specific reason. He attacked Lovecraft in a 1989 short story, "O Thou Last and Greatest!" but, as I remember it, his criticism of Lovecraft was oblique (he wouldn't refer to Lovecraft by name) and insubstantial.

    If I can do a little psychoanalyzing, I think Malzberg, who sees himself as a struggling writer and editor, identifies with all SF writers and editors and so is inspired to praise them and defend them. On the one hand I find this endearing, but on the other hand the iconoclastic recklessness of a Thomas Disch, who will not hesitate to attack universally loved icons like Ray Bradbury or a darling of the academic set like Ursula K. LeGuin, is exciting and provides new ways of looking at authors who have enjoyed a (perhaps ossified and obscuring) positive critical consensus.

    A Malzberg resource page is a good idea. I just read a good review of Engines of the Night / Breakfast in the Ruins from 2009 by Russ Alberry. I think Engines of the Night is great, and Alberry does not, but his description of the volume is pretty accurate.

    I'm glad you liked my posts on Hamilton--I enjoyed reading almost all those stories.

  3. Disch’s review of Engine of the Nights agrees with Mporcius on a number of points:

    The Engines of the Night so candidly asks to be censured that any reviewer is put into the position of the sadist in the classic joke, who, from a more refined cruelty, refuses to grant the masochist the beating he begs for. Rarely does a book appear that is at once so self-loathing (one of the author’s favorite characterizations of himself) and so self-serving (a subject on which he is more reticent)’s destined to be understood by anyone who bothers to read it and used as a cautionary example of how the practice of hack writing, too long indulged, can sap the character, warp the judgment, and turn to jelly the prose of writers who can’t resist a fast buck. The author (who, as a special, Dantean torment, shall remain nameless in this review) would seem in his own darker moments to endorse even the harshest of these judgments, but he also suffers fits of megalomania when he insists that his career has been peculiarly congruent with the history of all science fiction, and that he embodies a kind of tragic fate that dooms him (and all science fiction) to mediocrity, oblivion, and a pauper’s grave. He loves to cover himself with ashes and tell sad tales of the deaths of writers, such times as his word processor isn’t on automatic pilot and churning out such portentous piffle as this… As a critic, the author is careless, ungenerous, and fainthearted. He praises the work of his friends out of proportion to their merits, especially that of Robert Silverberg, which so often echoes the author’s lamentations on the futility of writing sf. There is scarcely one generalization about sf in the book to which some significant exception cannot be made, either because the author practices defensive reading or because he writes faster than he thinks. And for all his constant insistence on the essential, inescapable second-rateness of all sf, he never has the guts to come out and say that any particular book by any particular writer is bad. Indeed, there is scarcely a senior member of the sf establishment that isn’t kowtowed to at some point and scarcely a junior member that gets mentioned. All in all, a shameful performance. And you can quote that on the cover of the paperback

    - matthew davis

    1. A great example of Disch's merciless and iconoclastic, but nevertheless grounded in reality, criticism. It is hard to disagree with Disch's characterization of Malzberg and his book, but I enjoy Malzberg as a writer and as a character regardless, and Engines is still full of interesting info and opinions. (And of course Disch has his own oversized ego and psychological issues.)