Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space was serialised in Astounding in 1934 and later published in book form. Williamson’s idea was to take the classic adventure tale The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père, combine it with a larger-than-life character based on Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff and then turn it into a space opera.The results were highly successful and several sequels followed (the last of them being published as late as 1983).
The Legion of Space is a fine example of the space opera of the pulp era. Williamson did not quite have Doc Smith’s gift for space opera on a truly epic scale. Williamson was probably aware of this. While Doc Smith would portray space warfare on the grand scale Williamson opts instead for a tighter focus, giving us space warfare on a more human scale.
The book starts with an old soldier in 1945 setting down his recollections of the future. He has, or claims to have, the ability to remember events that will happen in the future. His descendants, the Ulnar family, will play crucial rôles in the history of humanity for the next thousand years. Over the course of this coming millennium humanity will colonise the rest of the Solar System and will eventually reach a nearby star where they will encounter an advanced and very dangerous alien civilisation. Our own civilisation will see democracy decline and fall to be replaced by an empire, only to have the empire collapse and democracy resurgent. An Ulnar will become emperor. After the fall of the empire the family will survive and continue to cherish imperial ambitions. In the thirtieth century an Ulnar will make a fresh bid for empire, while another Ulnar will be the champion of democracy.
This vast story forms the prologue to the novel. The novel itself focuses on a period of a few months during which a handful of will decide humanity’s destiny.
John Ulnar has just graduated from the Academy and is now a member of the famed Legion of Space, sworn to defend democracy and civilisation. The young officer owes his chance to serve in the Legion to a powerful and influential kinsman, the commander of the Legion itself, Adam Ulnar. Adam Ulnar is now the leader of the purple faction whose aim is to put an Ulnar once more on the imperial throne. Young John Ulnar however knows nothing of his kinsman’s treachery or of the even more dangerous treachery of his uncle Eric Ulnar.
Eric Ulnar led the ill-fated expedition to Barnard’s Star. They discovered the civilisation of the Medusae, an ancient and malevolent race. One of the five ships comprising the expedition returned safely, bringing with it tales of madness and death.
Our species is not defenceless. We have a super-weapon but the weapon is so terrifying that its secret is known only to one living person at a time. That person in the thirtieth century is a young woman. John Ulnar has been assigned to protect the life of that young woman. It will prove to be a difficult task but he will find three faithful allies in the form of three ill-assorted but courageous legionnaires.
John Ulnar is of course a science fictional version of d’Artagnan while the three legionnaires are the Three Musketeers. One of the three, Giles Habibula, is the Falstaff character. Giles is a broken-down old soldier much given to grumbling but he has some surprising talents, having been a master thief in his youth. Giles Habibula can not only open any lock devised by man, but any lock devised by any intelligent race.
The story is, like The Three Musketeers, an outrageous tale of adventure with countless narrow escapes and fights against seemingly impossible odds. The four heroes, along with the girl who holds the secret to human survival, will journey across the stars to take on the Medusae in their stronghold.
Williamson might not have Doc Smith’s genius for describing space battles on a galactic scale but he can certainly tell an exciting story. He can also create characters who are more vivid and colourful than Smith’s. His villains are complex and their motivations are believable. Williamson also makes use of what were then the exciting new-fangled ideas about time and space developed by physicists like Einstein. Williamson is bold enough to predict faster-than-light travel and to offer an explanation for it that at least sounds vaguely plausible. He can also create a very effective atmosphere of strangeness and menace.
If The Legion of Space cannot quite equal Smith’s Galactic Patrol it is nonetheless supremely entertaining and thrilling space opera of the highest quality. Highly recommended.