Saturday, May 17, 2014

Outlaw World by Edmond Hamilton

Front and back of my copy
In 1939, Mort Weinsberger concocted the character of Captain Future, and over the next twelve years 27 stories about Captain Future appeared in science fiction magazines.  Most of these stories were written by Edmond Hamilton, prolific SF author and husband of Leigh Brackett.  The Captain Future stories were reprinted in paperback in the 1960s and 1970s, and I recently purchased a few of these.  This week I read Outlaw World, choosing it essentially at random; it is the 19th Captain Future adventure.

My 1969 printing of this 1945 tale has a cool Frazetta cover (albino King Kongs chasing people up a cliff!) and, on its last page, an advertisement for a book on astrology aimed at women. All the women who paid 60 cents for a paperback about an evil scientist who is stealing radium are enjoined to spend ten bucks for a hard cover book ("truly a collector's item") that will tell them when to make "major purchases."  Hopefully someone was there to warn these ladies that the best time to make the major purchase of a ten dollar book of nonsense is never.

The universe of Captain Future is one in which the planets of the solar system, and some of the moons and asteroids, have atmospheres and ecosystems that can support human life. All the planets, or most of them, seem to be home to humanoid civilizations (late in the book it is suggested that thousands of years ago people from Deneb colonized the planets of the solar system, and we are their descendents.) The interplanetary trade in radium is critical to the livelihood of the system’s populace, and a mysterious band of space pirates has been severely disrupting this trade. The government’s space navy (the Planet Patrol, HQ in New York) has no luck deterring or catching the pirates, so Captain Future (Curt Newton, HQ on Luna) takes up the case!

Curt Newton is a genius scientist, but in this book he spends most of his time acting like a naval officer or a CIA operative.  Which is just as well; I don't want to read a book about a guy sitting at a desk taking notes and attending boring conferences.  Newton travels incognito on a radium hauling merchant ship, looking for clues, and gets captured by the leader of the space pirates, an obese Uranian scientist who uses his genius for evil!  (There are three genius scientists in this novel.)  There are gun fights with energy pistols, space naval battles, encounters with monsters, tense moments in a pirate stronghold.  Newton does take some time out from piloting space ships and shooting people to prove his science bona fides by building a detection device in his lab.

Starring a guy with a name like "Captain Future," I was afraid that this short novel (126 pages) would be annoyingly silly and childish; fortunately, it didn't sink to that low a level, though it is quite simple.  There is essentially no style other than a fast pace, and Captain Future and his milieu are not particularly memorable, unlike, say, the protagonist and setting of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom books or Tarzan of the Apes.  Hamilton doesn't seem to be trying to convey any ideology or ethic (unlike, say, Leigh Brackett with her anti-government theme in Alpha Centauri or Die! or M. John Harrison with the anti-business and anti-industry attitude he gives Pastel City).  Outlaw World is nearly all action and cliffhangers, but, Hamilton succeeded in keeping my interest as Newton and friends journeyed from one planet, asteroid or space ship to another, overcoming some challenge at each one.

There are lots of characters, and each has only one or two personality traits--Simon the Brain is a genius scientist who consists of a disembodied brain in a hovering robotic box, Grag is a hulking robot who loves his alien pet, Bork King is a loyal and brave Martian.  These aren't deep characters, but they are likable.  All the good characters have an opportunity to display their positive qualities and contribute to the victory over the evil Uranian scientist.  There are also comic relief moments--in order to sneak among 18-foot tall white apes Grag, who is like seven feet tall, is painted white, and his disguise is such a success that he is adopted by a female ape who thinks he is an ape baby.

Outlaw World is a simple trifle, but it is pleasant and inoffensive.  It is not ambitious, but it seems to accomplish its aims, and I was never bored or irritated.  Fans of old-fashioned space opera like "Doc" Smith's Lensmen books or Jack Williamson's Legion of Space stories may like it.

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