Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An ‘Astounding Story’ by Wandrei

An astronomer named Phobar in the 34th century must singlehandedly defend the earth and its planetary allies in Donald Wandrei’s Raiders of the Universes, (1932).  This story was published in Astounding Stories around the time that Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House saw print.  It is very typical of the pulp science fiction of the time, containing ridiculous dialogue, unpronounceable extraterrestrial names, zero characterization, and goofy retro speculations about future technologies.  Yet there is enjoyment to be had in the author’s imaginings of cosmic calamities and not a little of sociological interest:  what Wandrei envisions for the future says much about how he saw his present society and world.

Phobar the astronomer watches the stars nightly, using various gizmos to amplify distant stellar images.  He apparently is the only human being we meet in the story.  The first part of the tale is essentially a series of blog-like updates of what he observes in the night skies for several days in a row.  He detects what appears to be a line of newly created stars, eight in a row.  In fact they are the remnants of destroyed solar systems, and his calculations show that the menace is headed straight for our solar system.

Almost the next day, the ‘Dark Planet’ arrives in Earth’s skies.  The sun is reduced to a dull red glow as the massive death star draws off its energy for a source of power.  Phobar is transported aboard the alien vessel by an orange ray—explained in considerable technical detail later on—and has an audience with “Garboreggg, ruler of Xlarbti, the Lord of the Universes.”  Xlarbti is actually the name of the artificial planet that is the terror of all the universes.

Garboreggg wants earth’s radium as a fuel source, and issues Phobar an ultimatum: mine all the radium on earth and deliver it to the surface, where the orange ray can be used to transfer it to Xlarbti.  In case Phobar has any doubts about the overwhelming power of the ‘Dark Planet’, Garboreggg fires up one of the weapons on board and shoots a mile wide lightning bolt into the center of New York City, causing spectacular destruction.  But in his arrogance and hubris he also explains to Phobar how the master control panel works.  Big mistake for a super intelligent, all powerful space alien.

Phobar does some quick thinking, and conceals his plan from the telepathic powers of Garboreggg and his minions by focusing his mind on Homer, Plutarch, and nursery rhymes as a distraction.  A well aimed toss of his keys at the fateful fifth lever on the control panel causes all hell to break loose on board Xlarbti. 

Throughout Raiders of the Universes, the author feels compelled to explain details of the alien technology, often in terms of current earth technology.  The explanations are preposterous, but one can appreciate the effort.  There is a tradition in some fantastic fiction, perhaps traceable to gothic literature, where marvels must at some point be explained—in order to shore up the believability of the tale.  Wandrei’s story contains several detailed explanations. 

For example, the transporter device, (the ‘orange ray’) is explained in terms of current mining technology.  Wandrei has Garboreggg explain:  “The orange-ray that you felt is one of our achievements.  It is similar to the double-action pumps used in some of your sulphur mines, whereby a pipe is enclosed in a larger pipe, and hot water forced down through the larger tubing returns sulphur-laden through the central pipe.  The orange-ray instantaneously dissolves any portable object up to a certain size, propels it back to Xlarbti through its center which is the reverse ray, and here reforms the object, just as you were recreated on the disk that you stood on when you regained consciousness.”

Wandrei also makes some interesting remarks about 34th century Earth.  News of the death star’s approach is transmitted all over the world by radio and television; when urban populations riot in panic, order is restored with machine guns.  Religious fanatics begin to shout in the streets about the day of reckoning and the wrath of God.  “A billion eyes focused on Mecca…women and children were trampled to death by the crowds that jammed into churches.”  But in the technologically advanced Earth of 12 centuries from now, in an interplanetary society of scientific marvels, “the mad beating of tom-toms rolled across all Africa.”  It is a strikingly racist comment; Wandrei could not imagine the oldest continent and its people as an equal among others, even a millennium from now.

Donald Wandrei’s Raiders of the Universes is available at Project Gutenberg, along with work by such authors as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth, among others.

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