Monday, September 18, 2017

The Valley of Creation by Edmond Hamilton

"It is true, outlander.  You now inhabit the body of the wolf, Asha."
The strong wild thought of the stallion interrupted.  "The power of the ancients!  The punishment of those who transgress the brotherhood!"
In our last installment we talked about Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon.  At the risk of becoming the Hamilton-Brackett Book Blog (which doesn't sound like a bad fate, actually) today we are talking about The Valley of Creation, a novel by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton. The Valley of Creation first appeared in Startling Stories in 1948, but the edition I read, a 1964 paperback from Lancer, prints a revised text, copyrighted 1954.  The indispensable isfdb warns us that that "1954" is a typo for "1964," and reminds us that in a 1976 interview Hamilton admitted that three chapters of this novel were written by Brackett!

(Check out the issue of Startling at the internet archive--L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Vance and Henry Kuttner also contribute stories, and don't miss the Virgil Finlay illustrations or Marion Zimmer's long letter in which she assesses Finlay, Kuttner, and a host of other SF figures, and presents "Ode to Startling," her poem honoring the magazine!)

The cover illustrates the reprint of the
1937 Kuttner story
The protagonist of The Valley of Creation, Ohio-born Eric Nelson, served in the U. S. Army in the Korean War and became addicted to the dangerous life of a fighting man!  (And you thought being addicted to KitKats was unhealthy!)  So for ten years he has been a mercenary, fighting for petty warlords against the communists in the mountainous regions where China, Tibet and Burma meet, his comrades including a patriotic anti-communist Chinese man but mostly American adventurers like himself and European criminals unable or unwilling to get conventional jobs.  In the first third of The Valley of Creation Nelson and his four mates are hired by Shan Kar, a weird guy of unusual ethnicity from an obscure, hard-to-reach valley.  Before they reach the valley a beautiful woman of the same mysterious race as Shan Kar, named Nsharra, tries to seduce Nelson, and, while he is distracted by her feminine charms, she sics her wolf on him!

Nelson survives this assassination attempt and he and the four other mercs, guided by Shan Kar, make it to the valley of L'Lan, where they learn the whole crazy situation they have gotten themselves involved in.  In L'Lan, wolves, eagles, horses and tigers are as intelligent as humans!  Shan Kar is the leader of a human faction that thinks humans should have exclusive governmental responsibility over the valley, while Princess Nsharra and her father are leaders of the establishment, called the Brotherhood, which includes most humans and all the animals--they think there should be legal equality between human and animal, as there has been for time immemorial. Very much in the minority, Shan Kar's Humanites will need outside help to win the civil war they are starting against Nsharra's Brotherhood.  In the ancient past the people of L'Lan were masters of super science, but while they still live in the elaborate cities of bubble-domes and high towers built by their ancestors, the current inhabitants of the valley have lost the ability to produce mechanical devices and so fight with swords and bows--in such a setting the mercenaries' grenades and automatic weapons may be decisive.

At the novel's halfway point Nelson gets captured while on a botched commando raid against the Brotherhood's main city.  As anybody who read the back of the book was expecting, the Brotherhood punishes Nelson by blowing the dust off an ancient wonder of super science--a mind switching machine!--and transferring Nelson's mind into the body of a wolf! (The wolf is installed in Nelson's own form, but for some reason, instead of exploring the joys life offers those with thumbs, he just sleeps.  Another loose end is the question of why being put in a wolf's body is considered a punishment if everybody in the Brotherhood is considered equal.  I'm afraid Hamilton didn't think all of this stuff through.)

The scenes in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf are by far the best part of the novel, as the author compellingly describes the emotions of a man so transformed, rendered inhuman but also imbued with new abilities and new perceptions.  In that 1976 interview, which has been mentioned before on this blog, first by commenter marzaat, and which I strongly recommend to classic SF fans, Hamilton says that some consider the chapters of The Valley of Creation Brackett wrote the high point of the book, strongly suggesting that she wrote these very wolf's-eye-view passages.

People in these Hamilton/Brackett stories often switch sides, and as we've been expecting, Nelson turns against the Humanites and his fellow mercenaries (as does the Chinese merc, who gets killed seconds later by one of the Eurotrash mercs.)  Back in his human body Nelson helps lead the fight against the Humanites, but his former comrades-in-arms outmaneuver him and take the Brotherhood's city.  Nelson and Nsharra go into a cavern in which is embedded a crashed alien space ship and via an ancient recording learn the amazing truth about the valley of L'Lan and about the human race!

Long ago, aliens who had destroyed their own world with their technology were searching for a new home when they crashed on Earth.  Unable to breathe our atmosphere, they genetically altered the five most advanced species they found in the valley--the ape, the horse, the tiger, the wolf and the eagle--so they could transfer their alien minds into them. This was how the ape developed the intelligence that marks humankind! Some intelligent apes left the valley to colonize the world and become its master, but for some reason the other four intelligent species never left the valley.

(Hamilton's body of work includes numerous stories with bizarre explanations for how humankind arose--check out "The Accursed Galaxy" and "Devolution" from the 1930s, for example.)

Nelson manipulates events so that Shan Kar hears the recording, and he switches sides and, as he dies from bullet wounds, helps finish off the mercenaries and orders his followers to abandon their sinful rebellion.  Nelson of course stays in the valley to live with Nsharra, who is now ruler of L'Lan, her father also having died on the fighting. Not only does Nelson have the hots for Nsharra, but he couldn't stand to live in the outside world, where people treat horses like slaves!  (This is pretty bogus, in my opinion--the deer and rabbits and mice in the valley don't have intelligence, so the intelligent tigers, wolves and eagles devour them with a clean conscience--why shouldn't the intelligent humans outside the valley exploit the unintelligent horses out there with similar insouciance?)

The Valley of Creation is a below average performance from our man Hamilton. Firstly, the characters and setting are just plain boring.  Secondly, building an entire story around talking horses and wolves, even if all the talking is via telepathy, feels too childish and goofy to me for a serious adventure story, which this is meant to be (there are no jokes and there is tons of blood and death.)  Thirdly, the novel feels kind of cobbled together, with too many loose ends, some of which I have already pointed out--The Valley of Creation's moving parts just don't move together smoothly enough.

Another problem is that it is way too obvious that Nelson is going to switch sides and help out the Brotherhood.  The fact that Hamilton chooses some of the most beloved and romanticized animals possible--horsies, eagles, tigers and wolves--is an obvious sign who the real good guys are--why not challenge yourself, Ed, and try to make us side with rats, spiders and cockroaches?  Shan Kar tortures an eagle on page 25 of the 159-page book, making him pretty unsympathetic from the get go, and his urge to rebel against the egalitarian status quo of thousands of years makes no sense, so Nelson has no philosophical reason to stick by him.

Shan Kar's lack of any motivation for his rebellion is a good example of how weak the characters in this book are.  The animals haven't started causing trouble all of a sudden, so his rebellion has no rational practical basis, and the fact that Shan Kar changes his tune when he hears the recording that proves humans and animals are equal indicates that he has no personal emotional reason to rebel, no lust to be dictator of the valley or get revenge on the horses because stepping in a pile of manure ruined his first date or something.

It is also too obvious that Nelson is going to end up with Nsharra, as she is the only woman in the book--who else could Nelson end up with?

If we compare Valley of Creation to some of the other Hamilton/Brackett novels in which guys go to other worlds and get involved in their disputes that we've read recently, Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla and City at World's End and Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, the deficiencies of Valley of Creation are thrown into sharp relief.  The characters in those other books, in particular the villains and the people who switch sides, are all more interesting, more believable, and more nuanced.  Shan Kar's rebellion makes little sense, but it is easy to see where Loki (in Valhalla), the Sarks and Rhiannon (in Sword), and the galactic government (in City) are coming from, and the changes of heart of Ywain the Sark, Rhiannon the Martian god and Varn Allen of the galactic government, are more surprising and satisfying as drama than are Nelson's and Shan Kar's.  In Sword there are two beautiful princesses (a pyschic Sea Kings princess as well as war-like Ywain) whom the reader might suspect the hero will end up with, and in City at World's End the main character has to choose between his nice (if boring) fiance and gorgeous space babe Varn Allen.

(City at World's End also pushes Hamilton's anti-tyranny and anti-racism themes in a far more sophisticated and compelling way than does Valley of Creation.)

I don't want to say Valley of Creation is bad-- the story comes to life for those chapters in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf--but it is certainly disappointing.  I guess we'll call this one barely acceptable, and tell you to read all the other Hamilton books you see before this one!

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