Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Edmond Hamilton's "Outside the Universe" (1929)

The late 1920s saw a period in which "space opera" really established itself as a genre. E.E. "Doc" Smith's multi-volume series (Lensmen, Skylark, etc) is probably the most famous writer of early space opera, but Edmond Hamilton also created a shorter series involving the Interstellar Patrol, an alliance of different alien races from the Milky Way galaxy (the most famous modern version of this idea is Star Trek's "Federation of United Planets"). 

Hamilton's novel Outside the Universe (the last of the Interstellar Patrol stories) was serialized in Weird Tales from July to October 1929, featuring title illustrations by C.C. Senf. In 1964, the serial was collected and published as a single novel by Ace.

In this story, the Interstellar Patrol encounter an invasion force from another galaxy ("another universe"). After the vanguard force of these "serpent aliens" defeat the Patrol, the narrator's single surviving ship is tasked with seeking out help from the serpent people's old enemy from the Andromeda galaxy. However, on the way across intergalactic space the IP ship is captured by the serpent people and taken back to their dying galaxy. After a daring escape, they eventually make it to Andromeda and obtain the help they need to defend the Milky Way from these invaders. 

The book is brimming with large scale space battles and fleet maneuvering. The science is obviously dated and completely at odds with modern science, but one can enjoy it just as an adventure. It's very much as if Hamilton described a naval war between three continents, but moved it out into inter-galactic space and filled it with bizarre aliens and super-weapons. For example, although the main character is a human (the only one featured in the entire book), his most trusted ship mates are a crablike alien and a robot-like alien. In space, the races use different kinds of technology to manipulate space "ether" in order to attain faster than light speeds. Various super-weapons include "attractor (tractor beam) ships", "sun-swinging ships" (antigravity) and high radiation death beams. The Andromedans are armed with some kind of "implosion" beam. 

In any case, although the prose eventually gets a bit repetitive (these were meant to be read over several sittings spread a month apart each, after all), there is a real "kitchen sink" aspect to it, and the tactical elements of the space battles hold up nicely. 

There's an excellent review of the book here as well.

Detailed Synopsis

  1. The Swarm From Space: While patrolling the perimeter of the galaxy, Dur Nal’s Interstellar Patrol ship spots a swarm of objects approaching from outer (inter-galactic) space. The swarms soon turn out to be hostile spaceships.
  2. Chased Through the Void: When all other ships of Dur Nal’s patrol are destroyed by the aliens’ death beams (some kind of radiation which doesn't harm the ships themselves), he orders a retreat and radios the Federated Suns so that they can prepare a trap within the galaxy itself. He then races towards the interior. Although the alien ships are faster than his own, he briefly tricks them by leading them into an “ether maelstrom”. As the chase continues, Dur Nal navigates through a double star, after which a hundred of the pursuing alien ships are ambushed by ships of the Interstellar Patrol.
  3. Death-Beam and Crimson Ray: A massive fleet battle ensues. Unfortunately, the alien ships use “attractor beams” to immobilize and destroy the ships of the Interstellar Patrol. The only ship to evade the slaughter is Dur Nal’s ship, which breaks through the enemy line in a ramming maneuver. Unfortunately, this maneuver compromises his ship’s hull. With only minutes to spare, he orders his crew to attempt to board a lone enemy vessel.
  4. A Struggle Between the Stars: Dur Nal’s crew leap onto the enemy ship and once inside, destroy the serpent aliens within. They pilot the ship towards Canopus and the Council of Suns. However, when they arrive, IP ships rise up, taking them for an enemy force.
  5. For the Federated Suns!: After using signal lights to alert the IP ships, Dur Nal passes out. He later awakes and learns that the Council of Suns has studied the ship’s records and learned that the serpent people come from a galaxy whose suns are all dying out. After an initial failed attempt to conquer the Andromeda galaxy, they had then decided to conquer the Milky Way. Dur Nal is given a new mission: use the captured serpent ship to reach Andromeda and ask for their help. Dur Nal and his crew head out into intergalactic space.
  6. Into the Infinite: During a journey of several weeks, the ship contends with heat and radiation whirlpools. Eventually nearing the Andromeda galaxy, a few dozen ships approach them. Unfortunately, they are serpent ships and one of them rams Dur Nal’s ship.
  7. The Gates Of A Universe: Dur Nal’s ship is captured. He and his shipmates are then taken aboard an enemy ship prisoner, as the entire force heads back to the serpent peoples’ galaxy, which lies closer to the Andromeda galaxy than the Milky Way. As they approach the serpent galaxy, they see that the entire galaxy is protected by a force shield. After passing through a gate guarded by two large fortresses, the serpent men and their prisoners debark on a planet. There they see a giant cone-shaped death beam weapon under development, which, when completed, will be able to end life on entire planets with just one shot. During a prisoner struggle, first mate Jhul Din and a few of Dur Nal’s other compatriots escape in one of the ships.
  8. The Hall of the Living Dead: Those of Dur Nal’s men who fought a delaying action to permit Jhul Din’s escape are brought to a museum where they are put into a conscious suspended animation. Fortunately, Jhul Din eventually returns and breaks them out.
  9. A Dash For Freedom: Dur Nal quickly frees the other (older) prisoners of the museum and their attack against their long-time captors provides Dur Nal and his allies time to make it to their stolen ship and escape. When they near the serpent galaxy's force shield gate, they quickly dodge downwards, leading the serpent people’s pursuing ships directly into the line of fire of the gate fortresses. In the confusion, Dur Nal’s ship eventually pushes past the gate portal and heads towards Andromeda.
  10. Flight and Pursuit: Dur Nal’s ship is pursued as it races through space, with the faster serpent ships slowly catching up to them. They buy some time by navigating through a radiation maelstrom but ultimately are forced to make a last stand outside the Andromeda galaxy. Fortunately, unknown ships swoop in and attack the serpent people’s ships.
  11. Into the Andromeda Universe: The green-gas-based Andromedans drive off the serpent ships, and make contact with Dur Nal and his crew through a thought-vision device. Dur Nal has his ship follow the Andromedans to their galaxy where they see that the Andromedans have situated their stars so that they form circles around collected planets. Dur Nal heads towards the central planet, but his ship begins to break up from the strain.
  12. The Council Decides: Dur Nal’s ship is “caught” by the Andromedans and they land safely. He sees that the Andromedans’ central planet is mostly without a cityscape, since they build structures heading underground. They also have “sun swinging” ships with which they use to arrange the positions of their suns. The Andromedans agree to stage an attack on the serpent galaxy, but the serpent people make a surprise attack on the Andromedan central planet and capture their sun-swinging ships, their main advantage. Dur Nal's friend metallic friend Korus Kan is also captured while insde one of the sun swinging ships.
  13. The Sailing of the Fleet: Despite the loss of their most powerful weapon, Dur Nal leads the Andromedan fleet to the serpent galaxy where they are met by the enemy fleet at their galactic gate. A massive battle takes place, until the Andromedans stage suicide attacks on the two guard fortresses. The Andromedan fleet lands on the serpent peoples’ central planet, but Dur Nal is horrified to learn that the serpent people have already left for the Milky Way, and that the defense of their gate was only a delaying action.
  14. Back To the Galaxy: Dur Nal leads the Andromedan fleet back towards the Milky Way. On the way they are suddenly pulled into a heat maelstrom by the waiting attractor-ships of the serpent people. Some of the rearguard Andromedan ships escape the attractor beams and circle around to destroy the serpent ships. As the surviving fleet approaches the Cancer cluster (the serpent peoples’ foothold in the Milky Way), the enemy fleet rises out of the system to meet them.
  15. An Armageddon of Universes: The two fleets engage in a massive battle. Andromedan suicide bombers gain a momentary advantage on the serpent ships. A wandering “dark star” (neutron star) passes through the battlefield, also throwing the serpent ships into confusion. However, a new squadron of serpent ships then emit “ether currents” behind them, which scatters the Andromedan fleet. On the brink of disaster, Dur Nal’s fleet is saved by the arrival of ships from the Federated Suns, newly-built since Dur Nal had begunhis trip to Andromeda.
  16. From Outside the Universe!: A massive three-fleet battle erupts, with each fleet forming various strategic positions. In one phase the serpent ships begin making suicide attacks of their own, throwing all three fleets into disarray. The battlefield drifts through a double-star, causing more havoc. Eventually the serpent ships flee back to the Cancer cluster and make a last stand. This gives the serpent people in the cluster time to complete their giant cone-shaped planet-destroyer and launch it towards the Andromedan and Federated Suns fleets. Just before the cone destroys the fleet, the lost Andromedan sun-swinging ships (led by Korus Kan) swoop in and cause the entire Cancer cluster to implode on itself, destroying the cone planet destroyer in the process.
  17. Outward Once Again: It is revealed that Korus Kan had used the sun-swinging ships to destroy their captors, but by the time they returned to the Andromedan central planet the fleet had already departed. The Andromedans depart back to their own galaxy and Dur Nal escorts them to the edge of his own galaxy.

 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

H.G. Wells' "The First Men In The Moon" (1901)


Three years after The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells published another "space alien-oriented" science fiction novel titled The First Men In the Moon (initially published as a serial in The Strand from December 1900 to August 1901). The First Men In the Moon has several very interesting aspects which differentiate it from Wells' previous science fiction explorations. For one thing, the narrator, Mr. Bedford, is a somewhat unprincipled entrepreneur, whose primary drive for financial gain makes for an interesting contrast with Mr. Cavor's interest in pure scientific advancement. Although The Invisible Man also featured an anti-hero as its main protagonist, that novel was not told from a first person perspective. The aliens which Bedford and Cavor encounter have a fascinating insectoid nature, which was fairly novel at that time. He also suggests the concept of living (organic) computer brains when describing the specially-bred Selenites who function as cultural encyclopedias.


From a practical standpoint, Wells book cleverly describes how an anti-gravity element could be used to navigate through space (through the use of shutters which allow gravity to re-exert its hold in certain desired directions). Various other well thought-out considerations for space travel and for a "first contact" scenario are also explored.


Many of Wells' novels (such as The Time Machine) contain a sociopolitical subtext, and this novel is no exception. The latter half of the novel clearly takes an anti-war/anti-imperialism stance, and criticizes mankind's tendency towards racial conquest.


From a literary viewpoint, it both looks backwards and points the way forwards. Because most of the action takes place miles below the lunar surface, it can be see as a fusion of three separate Jules Verne books: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Around the Moon (1870) (Wells even mentions Verne's work in the novel itself). The Selenites are bred from birth for specific societal functions, a concept which would be further explored in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). The decidedly un-romantic idea of leveraging travel to the moon for monetary gain would later see one of it's most thorough treatments in Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, half a century later.


Synopsis

  1. Mr. Bedford Meets Mr. Cavor at Lympne: The narrator, Mr. Bedford, moves to the small village of Lympne in order to work on a play with which he hopes to sell and satisfy some outstanding debts. By accident, he runs into a strangely-attired inventor named Cavor, who has been working on a substance (“Cavorite”) which will negate the effects of gravity. When Cavorite is properly treated, its “opacity” to gravitational waves will allow it to become weightless. Bedford convinces Cavor that they must go into business together to market this scientific breakthrough.
  2. The First Making of Cavorite: One day, a “cyclone” erupts over Cavor’s house, causing damage for miles around. It turns out that, due to a boiler accident, Cavor had successfully created a Cavorite shield, which had then forced all of the air above the surface of the shield to funnel out into space. This event could have theoretically drained the entire atmosphere of Earth if allowed to continue indefinitely, but fortunately the shield had also been sucked up in the chaos.
  3. The Building of the Sphere: Cavor comes up with the idea of covering a sphere in Cavorite panels so that they can use it to journey into space and visit the moon. By opening “window blinds” of Cavorite panels, they can use the restored gravitational pull of bodies in space to pull the sphere where they want to go. Bedford is at first skeptical, but then the idea of an interplanetary travel franchise restores his enthusiasm.
  4. Inside the Sphere: After grabbing some last-minute reading material for the journey, Bedford and Cavor seal themselves in the sphere. The Cavorite is “activated” in a final heating stage and the sphere takes off into space. A sense of weightlessness affects everything inside the capsule.
  5. The Journey to the Moon: During the journey, Cavor discusses the possibility of insectoid life on the moon. After a while they fall asleep.
  6. The Landing on the Moon: Cavor uses the shutters to slow the capsule’s descent (using the attraction of the sun), and the sphere eventually lands in the shadow of a crater wall. Inside the sphere, Bedford and Cavor wait for the sun to rise so that it will be warm enough to go outside.
  7. Sunrise on the Moon: As sunlight spreads over the landscape, the material on which the capsule sits (frozen air) begins to evaporate, which sends the sphere tumbling once more. Fortunately, the travelers are only slightly injured due to the lower gravity of the moon.
  8. A Lunar Morning: As the sun continues to rise, Bedford and Cavor marvel as the lunar landscape come to life: seed beds burst and grow at amazing speed, instantly producing a colorful flower bed.
  9. Prospecting Begins: The two men carefully test the atmosphere outside the sphere and discover that breathable air exists on the moon. After a period of leaping amongst the vegetation (with the aid of the low gravity), they realize they have lost sight of the sphere.
  10. Lost Men in the Moon: While searching for the sphere, the men hear a rhythmic booming sound coming from below. They decide to hide from whatever may emerge from below the surface. They soon hear the “bellowing of great beasts”.
  11. The Mooncalf Pastures: Gigantic “mooncalfs” (pale, flabby cattle-like creatures) come into view, herded by armored, insectoid “Selenites”. Terrified, Bedford and Cavor desperately search for the sphere. Eventually succumbing to hunger, they begin eating some lunar mushrooms, which causes them to become intoxicated. Emboldened by the food’s effects, Cavor charges the Selenites but falls unconscious. The two men are captured and brought below.
  12. The Selenite’s Face: The two men awake bound in a chamber and realize that they are a mile underground. Bedford gets a close look at a Selenite.
  13. Mr. Cavor Makes Some Suggestions: The two men begin blaming each other for their situation. The Selenites eventually give them some slices of mooncalf, which they greedily eat.
  14. Experiments in Intercourse: The two men are led out of their small chamber into a much larger cavern which is dominated by a gargantuan engine of some sort. In order to demonstrate to the Selenites that the two men are not brainless cattle, Cavor tries to communicate interest in the engine. The Selenites prick the two outraged men with a goad rod.
  15. The Giddy Bridge: When the men are motioned to cross over a plank bridge into a dark abyss, they resist due to its flimsy, dangerous nature. When one of the Selenites pricks Bedford with its goad again, Bedford explodes in pent up anger and smashes a few of the fragile Selenites. The two men escape into a tunnel which leads towards a glowing light.
  16. Points of View: Taking a rest in a phosphorescent cavity, the two men debate their next course of action. Cavor believes that the Selenites they have met so far are probably of a “rustic” nature, and that the more advanced members are deeper down inside the moon and may be more sympathetic to communication. Bedford however, has noticed the existence of gold on the moon, and can only think of escaping back to Earth and returning with an armed party in order to plunder it. When sounds of Selenites approach, they ascend further.
  17. The Fight in the Cave of the Moon Butchers: The men emerge into a cavern where groups of Selenites use axes to harvest meat off of dead moon calves for processing. Soon more Selenites begin to emerge from behind the men, armed with crossbow-like weapons. Meanwhile, the moon butchers begin throwing their hatchets at them. Surrounded, Bedford finds an iron bar and goes on a maddened, murderous rampage. Due to the low gravity, Bedford’s strength is enhanced and he drives off the Selenites.
  18. In the Sunlight: After Bedford and Cavor finally reach the surface, the two men continue to argue about how this discovery will affect both the moon and Earth. Cavor fears that his scientific breakthrough will result in a great war between men and the Selenites. Nonetheless, the men split up in order to more efficiently search for the sphere.
  19. Mr. Bedford Alone: Bedford eventually finds the sphere, but when he goes back to inform Cavor, he finds a bloody note, indicating that Cavor has been recaptured by some of the more “civilized” Selenites. With the lunar night coming (and the Selenite cavern entrance now sealed), Bedford barely makes it back to the sphere before he freezes to death.
  20. Mr. Bedford in Infinite Space: During the ensuing weeks-long journey through space, Bedford begins to lose his sense of self-identity, and struggles to maintain his sanity.
  21. Mr. Bedford at Littlestone: Bedford lands in the sea near the English shore town of Littlestone. When he finally drifts onto the beach, he goes inside a hotel and orders some food. When news gets around that Bedford has two bars of gold with him (stolen from the Selenites), a curious boy named Tommy Simmons sneaks into the sphere and takes off with it into the sky, never to be heard from again. With his plans of riches (and attempted rescue of Cavor) now shattered, Bedford changes his name to Blake and publishes an account of his travels.
  22. The Astonishing Communication of Mr. Julius Wendigee: Two years later, an astronomer searching for signals from space begins receiving transmissions from the moon, apparently from Cavor, who has managed to survive amongst the Selenites. Bedford works with Wendigee to decipher and organize the transmissions.
  23. An Abstract of the Six Messages First Received from Mr. Cavor: To Bedford’s chagrin, Cavor first describes his former traveling partner as being a hot-headed fool. He then continues to describe the interior of the moon as being a kind of hollowed-out sponge, with a great sea at its core. The Selenites breed mooncalves on the surface and harvest bizarre lunar fish from the central sea. They travel back and forth between the surface and the sea (a distance of 200 miles) by balloon.
  24. The Natural History of the Selenites: Cavor describes Selenite culture: Each member of Selenite society is bred to handle a specific task (such as farming, carrying, thinking, remembering, etc.), and when workers are not needed, they are drugged into complacency. The Selenites have no books, since individual Selenites are bred with gigantic brains which function as living storage devices (organic computers). Selenite young are borne by queens who then distribute the newly-born to celibate nursemaids.
  25. The Grand Lunar: Cavor is brought before the leader of the Selenites, the Grand Lunar, who is essentially a gigantic brain with eyes supported by a small torso. Cavor is asked to describe how Earth society works, as well as the wars that are fought upon the surface of the planet. The Selenites generally find the ways of man to be inefficient or insanely dangerous. At this point a jamming signal begins to “censor” Cavor’s messages to Earth.
  26. The Last Message Cavor Sent to the Earth: Cavor reveals to the Selenites that he is the only Earthman who has the secret of Cavorite (and thus, space travel). The Selenites apparently begin actively limiting his transmissions. In his last recorded message, he expresses regret for being so forthcoming to the Selenites and tries to pass on the secret of Cavorite, but this last message is cut off.