The Legion of Space – Jack Williamson (1935)
They were the greatest trio of swashbuckling adventurers ever to ship out to the stars! There was giant Hal Samdu, rocklike Jay Kalam and the incomparably shrewd and knavish Giles Habibula.
Here is their first thrilling adventure – the peril-packed attempt to rescue the most important person in the galaxy, keeper of the vital secret essential to Humanity’s survival in the deadly struggle against the incredibly evil Medusae.’
Blurb from the 1983 Sphere paperback edition
ER Burroughs employed a device of using a prologue to explain to the reader how his ‘factual’ accounts of John Carter’s exploits on Mars managed to find their way to a publisher. Here, Williamson does much the same thing as the first chapter, set in a contemporary USA, tells of old John Delmar, who is convinced of the fact of his death within a matter of weeks. John Delmar, it transpires, is receiving telepathic broadcasts from the future and has been writing the future history of his family. Pioneers and scientists, they eventually found an Empire within the Solar System and become despotic and corrupt rulers before being overthrown and replaced with a democratic system.
Our hero, John Ulnar, is a descendant of this future historian and is embroiled in a plot to restore the Empire. A young girl, Aladoree Anthar, is the hereditary guardian of the secret of a simple but devastating weapon known only as AKKA. To gain control of AKKA and implement a coup, the Ulnar family (unbeknown to John) have made an alliance with the Medusae from the hellish world which orbits Barnard’s Star. Aladoree Anthar is kidnapped and it is up to John and his trio of companions to travel to the world of the Medusae, rescue Aladoree Anthar and stop the great tentacled beasties in their secret plan to invade and conquer Earth.
It’s a simple but effective tale which suffers from rather obvious errors such as humans being able to live and breathe in the open atop a three thousand foot building on the Martian moon, Phobos, or indeed on Pluto’s moon, Cerberus.
One also wonders why Williamson’s Falstaffian character Giles Habibula is never told to shut up, since his rambling oratories and complaints appear with depressing regularity from his first introduction.
‘Poor Giles Habibula, aged and crippled in the loyal service of the Legion, now without a place on any planet to rest his mortal head. Hunted through the black and frozen deep of space, driven out of the System he has given his years and his strength to defend. Driven out to face a planet full of green inhuman monsters. Ah me! The ingrate System will regret this injustice to a mortal hero!’
He wiped the tears away, then, with the back of a great fat hand, and tilted up the flagon.[p70]
On the positive side, Williamson’s settings are colourful and inventive and in describing larger cosmological issues such as the functions of dust-clouds and nebulae as the wombs for the creation of new star systems, he is very much in tune with current thinking on the issue.
It’s a novel which seems very hastily written for serialisation in ‘Astounding’ and not subsequently revised for book publication. This does however, give the story a fast-paced edge.