Tuesday, September 12, 2017

City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton

"But the main problem will be morale, Hubble."  He thought of Carol, as he added, "I don't believe these people can take it, if they find out they're the last humans left."
When I recently saw the Fawcett Crest 1974 paperback edition of City at World's End on the shelf at a used bookstore, buying it was what the kids call a "no-brainer."  First of all, it's by MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton. Second, there's the beautiful Paul Lehr cover.  I even like the lowercase aesthetic they are pulling here--this theme is continued on the inside, with the chapter headings printed in a fun lowercase font.  I'm always tickled when it looks like the publisher made an effort to produce a book with some kind of design vision in mind. (The chapter headings in City At World's End seem to be in the same font I enjoyed when it was used by our friends at Belmont for their volume containing Kris Neville's Special Delivery and Dave Van Arnam's Star Gladiator.)

Fawcett really goes the extra mile in selling this book--the first page tries to convince you that City At World's End is a serious examination, even a prediction, of a possible future for the human race!  They go so far as to quote "eminent biologist N. J. Berrill," whom Wikipedia is leading me to believe was like a British version of Jacques Cousteau!  Awesome!

It is the middle of the 20th century, in America's Middle West, where, in Middletown, home to 50,000, Kenniston, a scientist, is walking to his job at an industrial laboratory.  Almost nobody who lives in Middletown knows that the lab is an important component of America's defense establishment!  But somebody knows, and that somebody (the identity of whom Hamilton leaves mysterious, but I'm guessing this somebody has a name like "Josef" or "Zedong") detonates one of those new super-atomic missiles that everybody has been talking about right over Middletown!  But instead of vaporizing the town, the explosion shatters the very fabric of space and time and transports Middletown and all its inhabitants millions of years into the future, to when the sun is weak and red and the land is dry, desolate and cold!

City at World's End is one of those books in which a crisis leaves the common people, at best, at a loss, and more often ready to panic or riot, and, since the leadership they need is not forthcoming from the political class (the mayor of Middletown is short and "pudgy" and at one point described as "a crushed, frightened little man"), real men have to take charge.  Kenniston and his boss Hubble are just such men, as is a local businessman who owns a big trucking company and was some kind of logistics guy during "the last war," which I assume must be World War II.  The eggheads explore the creepy landscape beyond the newly transported town and discover a deserted domed city.  With no source of coal, everybody will freeze to death if they stay in their houses, so the scientists and the trucking magnate organize and lead an exodus out of Middletown and into the domed city--the dome will (they say) help retain heat.  This domed city also has hydroponics tanks the scientists will be able to get running again so nobody will starve, and a shaft leading to the Earth's core, presumably built by the original inhabitants hundreds of thousands of years ago to tap its heat; unfortunately today the core is quite cool.

In hopes that there are people elsewhere on the Earth, Kenniston figures out how to transmit messages with some equipment found in "New Middletown," and eventually some people who have heard the transmissions arrive.  But these people aren't Earthers--they are the descendants of humans who left Earth millennia ago to colonize the galaxy; these people now rule the entire Milky Way from their capital in the Vega system, and they have brought some of their alien friends with them! One of these alien races looks (as you can see on the cover of the issue of Startling Stories in which City at World's End first appeared) like over-sized teddy bears!  And another like humanoid cats!  The human Vegans, representatives of the Governors of the Federation of Stars, study old Middletown and do administrative work while the ursine Capellans and feline Spicans--these furry people are technical adjuncts attached to the mission--help get the atomic power and plumbing and so forth in New Middletown running again.

City At World's End is dated in a way that 21st-century readers may find interesting, amusing or aggravating.  For example, the Earthwomen characters, when they are on-screen (which is not too often), are always going hysterical, weeping, or complaining and just generally getting in the way.  The leader of the Vegan expedition, Varn Allan, is a woman, a slim and cold-hearted blue-eyed blonde (sexy!), who eventually crumbles under the strain and admits she wishes she had been a party girl instead of volunteering for the Federation space navy.  And if the mayor formerly known as Warren Wilhelm Jr. is right, and most people want a mayor and wider government with dictatorial powers, they won't be happy to see the mayor of Middletown portrayed as an ineffectual boob who outsources all leadership duties to scientists and businessmen and the Vegan Federation governors depicted as imperious, contemptuous and callous jerkoffs.  On the other hand, the novel has a hopeful anti-racist message--the adults of Middletown are initially suspicious of, even repulsed by, the non-human aliens, but their children immediately embrace them, and of course in the end they turn out to be very nice and helpful.
The big, furry Capellan sounded like a blood brother to every repair technician on old Earth.
He [Kenniston] discovered one day that he was working beside the humanoids as naturally as though he had always done it.  It no longer seemed strange that Magro, the handsome white-furred Spican, was an electronics expert whose easy unerring work left Kenniston staring.
Under their fur, these freaks from other solar systems are just like us!  (Like getting stuck on a far-future worn-out Earth that has been abandoned by humanityhumans working and fighting side by side with aliens is a recurring theme in Hamilton's work.) In fact, the 20th-century humans have more in common with these furry weirdos than with the humans of the far future, because the furries, as relatively young races, still have a passionate independent streak and a love of their home planets, while the future humans, who have had atomic power and space travel for millions of years, are a bunch of cold and obedient drones who do whatever the government tells them and have no feeling whatsoever for the Earth!

This comes out when it is revealed that the Governors of the Federation of Stars are ordering the Middletowners to move from the dying Earth (a phrase Hamilton uses repeatedly, inevitably reminding one of Jack Vance's famous stories, the first of which were published the same year as the magazine version of City at World's End) to some more economically viable planet for their own good, whether they like it or not.  The people of Middletown resist, but Varn Allan and her conniving male subordinate, who wants her to fail so he can take her job, insist that Federation word is law and the Earthlings must move. In contrast, the furries share the Middletowners' "provincial patriotism" and would like to loosen the hold of the Federation on their own peoples (they themselves have been forcibly evacuated from beloved homeworlds in the past.)  So the Cappellans and Spicans give Kenniston some legal advice--he has the right to go to Vega to argue Earth's case.  What gives the Earth a legal leg to stand on is the fact that a new process has been proposed by which the cool inner core of a dying planet like Earth can be ignited so the planet can flourish again, even with a weak red sun.  So Kenniston rides the ship to Vega with his furry pals and the haughty hotty Varn Allan, on a quest to get permission to have the process tested on the dying Earth's core.  (I know, this now sounds a little like Gene Wolfe's 1980s Book of the New Sun and its fifth volume, The Urth of the New Sun, doesn't it?)

On Vega Four we get one of those Earth-on-trial scenes that we encounter in SF pretty regularly; Robert Heinlein's 1958 Have Space Suit--Will Travel and James Blish's 1961 The Star Dwellers, books I have read, come to mind at once, but I know there are plenty of others--among those I haven't read is a Jack Williamson fix-up called The Trial of Terra which Joachim Boaz wrote about back in 2011.  The rulers of the galaxy decide that the violent and rebellious 20th-century Earth people must be taught to obey, and that the core ignition process is too dangerous anyway, so Kenniston's request is denied.  Luckily, the scientist who developed this planetary core ignition theory has his ship and staff all juiced up and ready to go, because Kenniston convinces him to defy the Federation Governors and take him and his furry friends to Earth and try the process anyway!  Varn Allan tries to stop them but Kenniston just kidnaps her and drags her to Earth, where everything turns out great for everybody, except Allan's scheming lieutenant, I guess.  Even Kenniston's fiance Carol, relieved she can move out of the dome city and back to her old house, is willing to free our hero from their engagement so he can explore the galaxy (and space babe Varn Allan's pants!)    

I like the plot of this one, and Hamilton seems to be putting some extra literary effort into it; compared to much of his other writing, there is more human psychology (how people respond to the story's bizarre events--resorting to prayer or to the booze, threatening to riot or blaming scientific progress, etc) and relationship material (among her many complaints, Carol is angry that Kenniston kept his real job at the lab a secret from her, and fears their future together is doomed because she loves stability and the old comfortable things while he is fascinated by the new), more fancy images and turns of phrase, and more literary devices like personification and metaphor ("...past the playground that looked as forlorn as though it knew the children were going, never to return.")  The stuff about how government is incompetent and callous and full of selfish self-important jerks, the distinction between young passionate societies and old staid ones, and the anti-racist stuff, add additional layers.

A good novel.  City at World's End brought to mind the much longer and apparently (I haven't read either of them) much more ambitious / pretentious novels of Samuel R. Delany (1974's Dhalgren) and Stephen King (2009's Under the Dome) which, I think, have similar premises.  Might those novelists have been familiar with City at World's End and influenced by it?

City at World's End seems tohave been a hit with readers and has been reprinted again and again since its first publication in 1950 in Startling Stories; you can read the original printing complete with 1950 illustrations at the internet archive.  (This is a pretty impressive issue of Startling, with work by Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Doc Smith, Virgil Finlay and Frank Belknap Long, and letters from Robert Silverberg--who praises Norman Daniels' "The Lady is a Witch"--and Isaac Asimov--who jocularly complains that in a recent issue his name was misspelled and makes a tepid joke about the tame sexual content of van Vogt's "The Shadow Men," an early version of The Universe Maker, a British publication about which I said nice things on Amazon in 2012.)

1 comment:

  1. I read this book a few years ago and had a meh reaction to it. Not bad, not good. But a reader recently left a comment on my review, pointing out that I overlooked, or at least didn't mention, certain things. Coupled with your review, I'm tempted to believe I dismissed it too quickly...