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.
‘Robert A Heinlein did more than any other writer to shape the Golden Age of science fiction and was, for well over two decades, the pre-eminent force in the field. ‘Orphans of the Sky’ first appeared in 1941, in the early days of his extraordinarily inventive and influential career.
The Jordan Foundation sponsored the Proxima Centauri Expedition in 2119, in an attempt to reach the nearer stars of the galaxy. But that was far in the mythic past. The original purpose of the Ship’s epic voyage has long been forgotten, and for generations the giant spaceship, lost between the stars, has been the only world that the people aboard have known. A strange civilisation has slowly developed, with its own superstitions, savage religion, rigid class structure and mutant outcasts. Then, one young man discovers the truth about the Ship and its destination, and a power struggle ensues that changes everything, for ever.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition.
Published originally in Astounding as ‘Universe’ and ‘Common Sense’ this early work by Heinlein may be also one of the first ‘generation ship’ novels of the genre, but by no means the best.
Presumably aimed at a juvenile readership it is centred around a young man called Hugh Hoyland, an apprentice scientist in the world of ‘The Ship’. Their sacred writings are manuals; works of physics and Ship’s records. Fiction is considered to be ancient records of real events. The ship’s inhabitants believe the Ship to be the Universe and that nothing can exist beyond its walls.
One day Hugh is captured by muties (mutants who live in the zero-gravity area near the hub of the ship), taken to see the control room, and begins to realise that everything his people believe is a lie.
Hugh manages to eventually unite the crew and the muties (which may also be a reference to Mutineers, since their current state of existence is due to a long-ago mutiny) and restarts the ship’s drive in order to complete the journey the ship set out on.
The boss of the mutie gang, Joe Jim may or may not have been an unconscious inspiration for Zaphod Beedlebrox of ‘the Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’ since he has two heads, one being Jim, one being Joe. The argue incessantly until they reach some kind of consensus.
Sadly, there is a rushed and rather improbable ending, following a somewhat unlikely series of events. Hugh manages to learn how to launch a landing craft from the ship only to discover that they are within spitting distance of a life-bearing world, and then safely lands the craft.
Most of the book has Heinlein’s trademark amiable readability but the denouement is too rushed and contrived and no doubt causes even Heinlein fundamentalists to raise an eyebrow or two at such convenient coincidences.
It was very popular in 1930s SF literature to have as one’s heroes two men (one often a scientist and the other a more active type) and one or two women (one sometimes the relative of one of the men and in a potentially romantic entanglement with the other).
Here we have this arrangement, with an All-American trio, but with the unusual setting of Bermuda.
Ghosts have been seen, white figures floating about the countryside and now women have been going missing. White women only. The native women have been left unmolested.
The trio soon discover that a man called Tako has arrived from the fourth dimension, originally to capture women as slaves and mistresses, since the population of his world has been decimated following a terrible war.
Tako then sets his sights on a full-scale invasion, beginning with New York.
Cummings seems to relish destroying New York, all of its enormous buildings collapsing on themselves as transdimensional bombs are placed in their foundations. The only building left standing is the Empire State Building which is housing the deadly weapon of destruction.
It is interesting to compare this with Sewell Peaslee Wright’s ‘The Infra-Medians’ as they both feature a trio of protagonists as described earlier and creatures from another dimension, although it is a much shorter piece.
One is intrigued by the suggestion that aliens are only interested in white women which says a lot more about the demographic of the readership than it does about the writer.
There is, one imagines, a long history of the foreign invader coming to one’s land and bearing off one’s women. Was Cummings writing for a primarily white young male audience, playing on deep-seated fears or exploiting fairly recent mythology which had already been enhanced by similar tales of female kidnap. Burroughs used it as a plot device several times, but then, if you have a kidnapped princess, it at least gives the hero something to do. The nature of the kidnapper, however, can often throw up some interesting cultural questions.
This fascinating paperback presents the first printed stories from some of the most famous names in the genre. The majority of them appeared in John W Campbell’s ‘Astounding ‘ with the exception of the Merrill & Aldiss stories which were published in ‘Space Science Fiction’ and ‘Nebula Science Fiction’ respectively.
Knight has arranged the stories chronologically so that we see not only the chosen author’s first published story but also a rough overview of the development of the SF short form (in particular the Astounding story) and the growing level of depth and sophistication over almost twenty years. Unsurprisingly, there is only one woman represented, since the sexism which was immanent within the publishing houses and the literary texts themselves did not begin to break down until the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties, at least in the US.
Many of the stories feature no females at all, and of those that do, they appear as only minor characters, such as Mrs Garfinkle in ‘The Isolinguals’ or the doomed young wife in ‘Life Line’.
‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937)
‘The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938)
‘Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939)
‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939)
‘Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939)
‘Loophole’ – Arthur C Clarke (Astounding 1946)
‘Tomorrow’s Children’ – Poul Anderson (Astounding 1947)
‘That Only A Mother’ – Judith Merrill (Astounding 1948)
‘Walk To The World’ – Algys Budris (Space Science Fiction 1952)
‘T’ – Brian Aldiss (Nebula Science Fiction 1956)
‘The Isolinguals’ – L Sprague de Camp (Astounding 1937) is a compact and humourous tale of an outbreak of genetic race memory. The people of New York are unaccountably struck with a strange malaise in that they begin to be possessed by the memories of their ancestors. An engineering officer of the XXXIInd legion of Rome finds himself in the body of a fruit vendor, a package dispatcher becomes a sergeant in Cromwell’s army, Mrs Garfinkle – a new York native, suddenly starts talking in the language of the ancient Goths, and the numbers of the affected are rising dramatically.
The logical thing happens of course in that people from the same era who speak the same language begin to band together into gangs of isolinguals.
Professor Lindsley and his son-in-law Pierre solve the mystery, which turns out to be a dastardly scheme by an extreme right-wing would-be dictator, which, in 1937 would have been a bit of a topical element.
‘The Faithful’ – Lester Del Rey (Astounding 1938) is a pastoral, somewhat romantic tale redolent of the work of Clifford D Simak who published stories based on a similar premise in Astounding which were fixed up as ‘City’.
Men have surgically and biologically modified dogs, increasing their intelligence and awareness, but shortly afterwards have destroyed themselves with war and biological weaponry.
Hungor Beowulf XIV sets out to collect the dogs together and they embark on a quest to find any men that remain. The last human, who is fighting off the plague with the help of longevity drugs, is discovered and leads the dogs to Africa where they find similarly engineered apes who become the hands of the dogs and ultimately, the dogs hope, will replace Man as their masters.
‘Black Destroyer’ – AE Van Vogt (Astounding 1939) is probably Van Vogt’s best-known short story and is often touted as the original inspiration behind ‘Alien’.
On the barren single planet of a star nine-hundred light years from its nearest neighbour, an Earth scientific expedition is discovered by one of the last remnants of an intelligent race, the Coeurl.
The Coeurl – desperate for the scarce and life-giving phosphorus which it drains from its victims – pretends to be harmless, but betrays itself as an intelligent being.
The most interesting aspect of this story is the discussion between the scientists in which they pool their expertise in order to deduce the nature of the beast.
By logical deduction (the rational man of logic is a frequent protagonist in Van Vogt novels) they deduce that the creature is not a descendant of the builders of the abandoned city, but one of its former residents, and therefore highly intelligent and practically immortal.
The story was later revised and expanded in order to comprise the first few chapters of Van Vogt’s fix-up novel ‘Voyage of The Space Beagle’. The rather inhuman ending of the original story, in which the crew plan to return and exterminate the Coeurl race is amended to a decision where the creatures are left to their own fate, presumably to die out from lack of essential phosphorus. It was not, however, a humane decision as much as one which presumably allowed the ship to continue its journey to other worlds unimpeded.
In ‘Life-Line’ – Robert E Heinlein (Astounding 1939) Heinlein grasps the opportunity to take a side-swipe at the scientific community who refuse to believe that Dr Pinero has developed a process by which he can measure a man’s lifeline, i.e. the length of his existence in the temporal dimension, and thus predict the date of his death. Heinlein explores the logical extrapolation of this, in that insurance companies, whose existence depends on statistical probabilities of mortality rather than certainties, would go out of business.
The actual science or mechanics of the process in unimportant, and indeed, Pinero refuses to discuss the nature of his invention. The notion forces one to ask oneself questions, such as ‘Do you really want to know the exact date and time of your death?’
‘Ether Breather’ – Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding 1939) is a slight but humourous tale in which mentalities who can perceive and manipulate wavelengths begin to interfere with experimental colour TV transmissions. Although the story, seen from our perspective in an age where Colour TV is a reality, seems somewhat dated, the characterisation and dialogue is excellent and even today says a lot about the attitude of Americans regarding what they find acceptable for broadcast.
Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Loophole’ (Astounding 1946) is an interesting example of a story written in the form of communications between individuals, in this case between High Level Martian officials, concerned as to Humanity’s recent developments in atomic power.
Unusually for Clarke, the solution is one of decisive military action which destroys the Martian civilisation threatening the Earth and seems at odds with his later, more pacifist work.
Another example of this literary technique (with a much cleverer twist ending) is AE Van Vogt’s ‘Dear Pen Pal’
Poul Anderson’s ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ (Astounding 1947) is the first of two consecutive stories which reflects America’s then paranoia of the consequences of Nuclear war and the ethics of dealing with Human Mutation. It is interesting to contrast this story – which is a male-perspective overview of the possible future of society as a whole – with the following story by Judith Merrill which focuses on one woman’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth in a world suffering from radiation poisoning, although both stories pose the question of whether mutation affects the integrity of the Human Race.
Judith Merrill’s ‘That Only A Mother’ (Astounding 1948) gives us a very personal and moving account of a mother’s story from late pregnancy (in a time of atomic radiation) through to childbirth and beyond, interspersed with correspondence to her husband, on active service in the Armed Services.
The daughter is a prodigy and learns to talk at an early age but it is only when the father eventually arrives home on leave that the true state of affairs is discovered.
It is refreshing to finally see a female perspective, and indeed a main female character, and particularly within the pages of ‘Astounding’.
Interestingly, Merrill seems to imply that fathers would not be so accepting of their mutant children as Anderson suggests, rather optimistically, in his tale.
Walk To The World – Algis Budrys (Space Science Fiction 1952) is another pastoral tale, this time of wanderlust, told by a the son of a retired Space Captain, now running a farm on a colony world.
It’s notable for its vivid and detailed descriptions of the characters involved, and though superficially a simple tale, is actually a fairly complex portrait of a man’s relationship with his wife, his son and his home as well as ultimately questioning the American way of doing things. It’s a subtle piece, well-written and again redolent of the work of Simak.
Brian Aldiss’ ‘T’ (Nebula Science Fiction 1956) is, surprisingly, rather weak in its premise, although very creatively constructed and well-written.
The denizens of another galaxy have seen Man spread out to colonise our own galaxy and now are invading theirs, so they create a fleet of twelve ships containing genetically-engineered beings (composed of merely an arm and a simple brain) which are sent off on a path back through Time and Space to destroy Earth before Man has even evolved.
Due to an elementary error on the part of the aliens, the wrong planet is destroyed and Earth is left to evolve as destined.
Although simplistic, the concept of the ships and their guiding hands are creatively and ingeniously conceived and described and foretell some of the brilliance and originality of Aldiss’ later work.
This would be of interest to those researching Campbell’s work. It’s one of the Ace Double releases from 1966, which featured two novels back to back in one volume (with two front covers).
The Ultimate Weapon (from 1936) is a bit of a vintage piece. Back in the day, heroes of space were built like brick outhouses, had an IQ of 209 and were, for the most part, filthy rich having made a mint from a science-based private business.
Buck Kendall is no exception and, having accepted a bet from his friend and Technical Engineer, Rad Cole, has taken up extraterrestrial mining and is – at the start of this tale – zipping around the outer Solar System hunting for rare minerals. They are therefore the first to witness an advance scouting party from the system of Mira, a vast red variable sun whose output of radiation is getting a bit too much for the residents of its habitable worlds. They have set their sights on our Solar System as a new home and don’t intend to let the humans stand in their way.
Serialised in ‘Amazing’ this is essentially a tale of rapid scientific development on the part of the humans in order to repel the highly advanced invaders.
The Solar System has to suffer a lot of death and space battles before Kendall comes up trumps with the Ultimate Weapon, developed around the concept of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
It reads a little like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, although Smith at least understood literary concepts such as pace, drama and suspense and whose aliens, however dated they may seem today, came across as fully-rounded alien individuals.
The Brain Stealers of Mars (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1936)
The Double Minds (Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1937)
The Immortality Seekers (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1937)
The Tenth World (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1937)
The Brain Pirates (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1938)
Penton and Blake are pioneers of atomic power, and having caused devastation on Earth with their experiments, have taken to space in a nuclear rocket and through these five stories visit various planets and moons of the Solar System, all of which have life and civilisations of various kinds.
Despite the fact that ‘The Brain Stealers of Mars’ has to be one of my favourite SF titles, the tales are somewhat dated, but have a nostalgic charm which many may appreciate.
Originally serialised in Astounding in four parts, this is a standard tale of derring do following the launching of attacks on the Earth from a giant cannon on Venus. As seemed to be fairly common at the time, the story involves conflict between a savage, rapacious and fairly uncivilised race (in this case red-skinned), and a more enlightened (fairer skinned) race. Some humans get kidnapped and taken to Venus where they escape and attempt to enlist the help of the beleaguered civilised folks. Meanwhile on Earth, a rocketry specialist is working against time to develop interplanetary ships for defence and invasion before Venus comes close enough again to get its planet cannon going.