Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Exile," "Day of Judgment" and "What's It Like Out There?" by Edmond Hamilton

We continue to work our way through The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a 1977 Science Fiction Book Club Selection edited by Hamilton's wife Leigh Brackett.  Two of the next five stories in the book I have already written about on this here blog, but three offer an opportunity for me to type type type away.

"Exile" (1943)

This is a kind of Twilight Zonish story with a twist ending I predicted on page 2.  Luckily this story is only five pages long.  I guess you might also consider it "meta."

Four SF writers are sitting around, shooting the shit.  One of them, the moodiest and quietest of the four, explains that he once dreamed up a detailed geography, history and society for a barbaric world of violence and superstition in which to set a series of fantastic adventure stories.  In some amazing way having to do with a nearby power station's radiation, he realized that, by dreaming it up, he had created this world in another dimension.  Then he (stupidly) imagined himself into this barbaric world of violence.  When he got to it, he couldn't think himself back to his civilized peaceful home planet, and could only survive in the violent world by becoming a SF writer, using his peaceful home world as the basis of his fiction.

Of course, as we all knew from the start, the world of conflict and superstition he created is our own world!  (And, as all you science fiction scholars know, this idea of universes being the creation of authors from other dimensions is an important component of Robert Heinlein's later work, and also shows up in A. Bertram Chandler's later John Grimes stories.)

"Exile" is acceptable, largely because of its brevity, even if you are sick of obvious twist ending stories and misanthropic stories about how crummy the Earth and human beings are.  To be honest, to me, this story seems like filler.  Yet, after originally appearing in Super Science Stories, it has been included in several anthologies over the decades, including Milton Lesser's Looking Forward and various volumes with Martin H. Greenberg's name on them, some with and some without Isaac Asimov's name.  Maybe this story has the ability to blow the minds of people less world weary and cynical than I am, and satisfy the misanthropy of people even more world weary and cynical than I am.

No cow-man, lizard-man or owl-man appears
in "Day of Judgment," which is probably
for the best, because I hear lizard-man is a real
SOB when it comes to cross-examination.
"Day of Judgment" (1946)

Whoa, the cover of Weird Tales illustrating this story makes me think it is about the animals of the world sitting in judgment on the human race that has been eating them, riding them, and making them fetch our slippers for 3,000 or so years.  I hope we've got a good lawyer!

As the story begins, a cat-man and a dog-man with Stone Age weapons go to investigate the ruins of Manhattan--a meteor has fallen into Central Park. (Of course, these primitives don't use words like "meteor" and "Manhattan," but I can tell what they are talking about!)  As the story progresses (as if we hadn't guessed already) we learn that generations ago mankind destroyed human civilization in a nuclear war (I'm going to assume that the commies were to blame, but the illiterate cat-people and dog-people don't have any information to offer on this important issue) and that the radiation of all those bombs going off mutated the few surviving cats, dogs, bears, foxes, and horses, giving them human intelligence and human posture.  (If only the radiation had given some surviving humans superhuman intelligence and superhuman posture, whatever that might be.)

The meteor in Central Park is not natural at all--it is a space ship carrying the two surviving humans of the failed Venus colony.  (It failed because ships stopped bringing supplies from Earth, and a storm damaged those ships already on Venus.) The two humans are heartbroken to find the Earth ruined, but they have even bigger problems--the cat man wants to kill them tout suite, because the animal-people's lore is all about how evil humans were. The dog man, on the other hand, feels strangely protective of the two humans.  Their jury-rigged ship is out of fuel, so the two Venus colonists can't just bug out--they have to convince the cat-people to accept them, or the human race will be totally extinct!

This story is OK, no big deal.  A competent example of the many SF stories featuring cat people and the many SF stories in which humans have to plead their case before nonhumans who think we're dangerously violent, and one of numerous Edmond Hamilton stories about evolution and radiation. "Day of Judgment" hasn't been reprinted much, though it did appear along with Hamilton's "In the World's Dusk" in a 1982 anthology edited by Greenberg, Asimov, and Charles Waugh, The Last Man on Earth.

"Alien Earth" (1949)

I read and wrote about this story about a crazy botanist who can change the speed at which you experience life back in 2015.  Looking back at that blog post, I recall it as being one that was more fun to write than the average.  Am I supposed to admit that I laugh at my own jokes, both when I write them and then again when I read them a year and a half later?

"What's It Like Out There?" (1952)

I read this story back in my Iowa days, shortly after I had moved to the Middle West from New York, in a library copy of the paperback anthology of which it is the title story.  It is a pretty memorable story and still stuck in my mind some five years later, but I decided to reread it this week anyway.

"What's It Like Out There?," which first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, is a sort of serious, literary story about the psychological and social distance between men with dangerous jobs abroad, soldiers being the most obvious example, and the civilians back home who admire them but have no idea what really goes on in the danger zone. It is thematically linked to "Conquest of Two Worlds," in that both portray expansion into space as extremely dangerous, possibly immoral, and perhaps not worth the trouble.

It is the 1960s and United Nations expeditions are extracting uranium from Mars to fuel power plants on Earth.  Our narrator is a young sergeant in the UN forces, back from his first expedition to Mars, and is travelling across America, meeting the families of men from his squad who were killed on the expedition.  In flashbacks we witness the diverse array of horrible things that happened to these lost spacemen, but when talking to the earthbound families of his comrades the narrator softens the blow, lying and telling them their sons and sweethearts died peacefully.  There are no aliens to fight, so in addition to a mutiny that results from some spacemen going insane, Hamilton has to come up with all kinds of accidents and natural disasters, like rocket ship crashes, sandstorms, plagues, and lingering death from internal injuries due to extremes of acceleration, to get the tragic drama and bleak tone he wants.  These scenes of young men dreading death while strapped into claustrophobic vehicles, scrambling to fix a problem when every second counts, and dying in agony while surrounded by chaos, have the tone you'd expect to find in accounts of Allied servicemen participating in Operation Overlord or the strategic bombing of Germany.

The story works, though maybe it is a little long and repetitive--the narrator meets and lies to one family after another, each section of the story following the same structure. Maybe just one family would have been enough?

"What's It Like Out There?" seems to be one of Hamilton's most admired stories, and has appeared in many anthologies, including the hilariously titled Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction from 1966--that's La science-fiction pour ceux qui detestent la science-fiction to you Frenchies! In a fascinating commentary, the editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Samuel Mines, used the occasion of this story to talk about how the SF of the 1930s was a load of garbage for children and drooling imbeciles but now SF is mature literature, and put forward "What's It Like Out There?" as an example of this new grown up science fiction.

The literature that is considered "serious" or "mature" is generally literature about how everything sucks.  The Iliad and The Aeneid, Julius Caesar and MacbethMoby Dick and In Search of Lost Time,  these are all tragedies or, at best, stories about how life and the world are horrible and you have to make the best of the bad situation of your city getting burned down or your ship sinking or your friends and lovers betraying you.  Hamilton's "What's It Like Out There?" certainly strikes those tragic notes, and so it makes sense that Mines would see it as "grown up science fiction."  But another SF editor, John Campbell, Jr., famous for grooming such titans of SF as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, may have thought that, if it "grew up," SF would lose the thing that made it vital and distinctive.  In his essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," (written in 1980, published in The Engines of the Night) Barry Malzberg describes a meeting with Campbell.  Malzberg complained to Campbell that Analog was "antiliterary" and didn't deal with the "real issues," like how technology was "consuming" and "victimizing" people.  Campbell responded with assertions like these:
"I'm not interested in victims...I'm interested in heroes.  I have to be; science fiction is a problem-solving medium, man is a curious animal who wants to know how things work and given enough time can find out."
"If science fiction doesn't deal with success or the road to success then it isn't science fiction at all."
"Mainstream literature is about failure....a literature of defeat.  Science fiction is challenge and discovery."
Looking back from 2017, it is easy to poke holes in the assertions of all three of these important SF professionals--I certainly don't think all of the SF of the 1930s was trash; I think technology has liberated and empowered people, not consumed or victimized them; and lots of canonical science fiction stories, even many stories published by Campbell himself in Astounding, are full of darkness and despair.  (Malzberg has a good essay on this in Engines of the Night called "Wrong Rabbit.")  However, each of these theories of what SF is or should be (perhaps we should call them "ideologies?") opens up interesting ways of looking at individual SF stories and at SF history as a whole.

As does "What's It Like Out There?" itself.  We often hear a lot of blah blah blah about how America lost its innocence and/or respect for the authorities with the murder of JFK or in Vietnam or because of Watergate or whatever, and how the SF establishment was shaken by the New Wave and  Malzberg's pessimistic stories that questioned the space program.  And yet here is a pessimistic SF story doubting space exploration written over ten years before all those events, written by a guy most famous for extravagant space operas.  Science fiction, its history, and the people who write it, are more complicated and heterogeneous than they sometimes get credit for being.

"Requiem" (1962)

I read "Requiem" in 2013, in a library copy of a 1974 edition of Sam Moskowitz's Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction. 


Our exploration of Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett's best work is approaching its completion.  In our next episode we look at the last two stories in The Best of Leigh Brackett.  Stay tuned!


  1. "What It's Like Out?", says James Gunn, was first written in 1933, but Hamilton couldn't find a publisher for it for almost 20 years.

    I recently read Henri Barbusse's autobiographical WWI novel Under Fire. There's a section where the narrator and his comrades find themselves, despite their resolve, just telling the home-front civilians what they want to hear when they ask what life on the front is like. I wonder if Hamilton was inspired by that. (Though, as you said, there are other examples.)

    I also have a theory that Hamilton may have taken some of the plot details of the story from Adolphus Greely's disastrous Arctic expedition.

  2. Brackett, in the intro to The Best of Edmond Hamilton, tells the story of the creation of "What's It Like Out There?" this way: Hamilton wrote a story about a hellishly difficult Mars expedition in the early '30s and nobody would buy it. Then in the 1950s, Brackett saw it and judged it salable with a rewrite, and Hamilton shortened it and made it more human and more oblique. It sounds like Hamilton added the "serviceman lies to civilians" angle that is so striking in the 1950s rewrite.

    Where can I read James Gunn's description of the story's history? Do you think Gunn based his account on Brackett's 1977 intro, or that maybe he had some other source, maybe direct contact with Hamilton?

    Thanks for the interesting comment!

    1. The information came from James Gunn's intro to the story in The Road to Science Fiction #2: From Wells to Heinlein.

      I suspect Gunn got it personally from Brackett or Hamilton. Gunn seems to admire both of them enough that I came across an appreciation of both in an interview done with Hamilton and Brackett in 1977.

    2. Cool, thanks for the cite!

      I actually think I've seen that anthology on the shelf at a book store here in Columbus...maybe I should buy it tomorrow. Or stand around in the store reading all the intros.

    3. The interview, if you haven't come across it, is at http://www.tangentonline.com/interviews-columnsmenu-166/1270-classic-leigh-brackett-a-edmond-hamilton-interview

    4. Wow, I just got a chance to read the interview at Tangent Online of Brackett and Hamilton, and it really is fun and insightful. Hamilton and Brackett come off as likable--and really good comedians!--and they provide great stories about the SF world and in particular Ray Bradbury and John Campbell, Jr. A great piece of SF history!

      Thanks so much for the link!