Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was an American science fiction writer. He was married to fellow science fiction writer Leigh Brackett. Crashing Suns, published in 1965, is a collection of some of his very early work in the genre dating back to the 1920s.

It has to be emphasised that this is very very early space opera. In fact in some ways these stories mark a transitional phase between the scientific romances of the late Victorian era and the space opera of the early part of the “golden age” of science fiction.

These stories recount the adventures of the Interplanetary Patrol, later renamed the Interstellar Patrol. They are very much space opera in general theme but they take place in a very different universe compared that to the universes we find in later space opera. In the late 1920s it still seemed quite possible that planets such as Saturn and Jupiter would be habitable. The nature of the great gas giants was as yet not generally understood. These are also stories that still assume that the vast reaches of outer space are not vacuum but are filled by that mysterious substance known as the æther. Light was believed to be propagated by means of waves in the æther.

In actual fact the æther theory had been pretty much abandoned by the 1920s, having been rendered unnecessary by relativity. At least it had been abandoned by physicists but to non-scientists like Hamilton relativity was still new-fangled esoteric stuff. Hamilton understood that faster-than-light travel was a problem but his understanding of the problem was rather primitive. My impression also is that despite his love for epic scale Hamilton really could not conceive of the ramifications of the vastness of interstellar space.

Most of the science in these stories is completely fanciful and would not have been wildly out of place in the works of Wells and Verne. For some readers this might be a problem. For me it just adds to the charm and the fun. This is Flash Gordon stuff but I happen to love Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The best way to enjoy these stories is to pretend that they take place in an alternative universe in which all the laws of physics are different. It’s easy enough to accept magic in a fantasy story so it’s really not that much of a problem. And I rather like the idea of a universe that works in a late Victorian manner. 

The novella Crashing Suns, one of Hamilton’s most famous works, first appeared in 1928. It takes place a hundred thousand years in the future and it can’t be accused of lacking ambition. A dying red giant star is on a collision course with our sun! Mankind has only just developed the technology to achieve interstellar travel. A brilliant young scientist has designed an interstellar drive which creates its own waves in the æther which the spaceship then rides. Young Interplanetary Patrol cruiser captain Jan Tor is put in command. His mission is to reach the dying red star and find a way to stop it!

This story has delightfully goofy science, high adventure and an epic space battle. Most of all though it has sweeping scale. This is pure pulp space opera and it’s terrific fun.

The Star Stealers is on an equally gigantic scale. Aliens are trying to steal our sun! There are might space battles and lots of breathless excitement and you have to love the idea of an inhabited sun, with cities on it.

Within the Nebula concerns another threat to the galaxy. The vast nebula at the centre of the Milky war has started to spin. If it keeps spinning it will fly apart, ending death and destruction to all the worlds of the Federation. A new star cruiser, designed to withstand intense heat, is dispatched to discover the cause of this impending disaster. The three crew members, of three different species, penetrate into the heart of the nebula itself. Inside they find a strange world and the source of the menace but it seems they may be powerless to avert the coming catastrophe.

The Comet Drivers presents yet another deadly menace to the galaxy - a gigantic vampire comet! As the story title suggests this comet does not follow a random orbit - it is controlled by some form of intelligent life. Intelligent but distinctly unfriendly.

The Cosmic Cloud presents the interstellar civilisation with yet another horrific threat - a gigantic cloud of darkness at the centre of the galaxy. This is a region of absolute utter darkness. There is no light at all. Not a glimmer. Of course it’s impossible that any kind of intelligent life could survive under such conditions. Or is it? This world of darkness is one of Hamilton’s most unsettling concepts.

Hamilton’s style is pure pulp. There is absolutely zero characterisation. It’s all action and all on the vastest scale and the breadth of imagination is nothing if not impressive.

As you may have gathered by now these five stories are all variations on a single theme. A massive heavenly body of some kind is about to destroy the galaxy, there are malevolent aliens directing these events, these aliens are entirely evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, the heroes are captured and must escape, there is a race against time and there is at least one huge space battle. It’s a formula that was working for Hamilton at the time and he stuck to it quite rigidly.

It’s interesting to contrast Hamilton’s early work with the early work of his wife Leigh Brackett (here’s the link to my review of some of her early stories). Brackett was interested in the fate of individuals. Hamilton is interested solely in the fate of galaxies. Brackett was fascinated by the past, by ancient civilisations. Hamilton writes about a 200,000-year-old civilisation but he tells us not one single thing about its history. In fact he tells us very little of any kind about this civilisation.

Of course these tales were written by Hamilton when he was in his mid-twenties. He may have developed a much greater sophistication in his later books. These stories did however establish him as a writer of space opera. His faults, like his stories, are on the grand scale. Those faults are balanced by real strengths - breathless pacing and non-stop excitement. Their pulpiness makes E.E. Doc Smith seem subtle and polished. But they are fun and the odd late Victorian scientific concepts give them a distinctive flavour. 

The quality of the five stories, written between 1928 and 1930, is quite consistent. All are fun in their own way.

Recommended, especially if your tastes run to early space opera and you have no problems with wildly unrealistic science.

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