Saturday, September 20, 2014

With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda

Clark Ashton Smith created vividly imagined worlds in such dark fantasies as The Dark Eidolon (1935), The Empire of the Necromancers (1932), and The Isle of the Torturers (1933).  He was also skillful in depicting the unusual terrain, ecology and architecture of alien worlds in proto-science fiction like The City of Singing Flame (1931) and The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis (1932).  Though set on other planets and involving alien creatures, ether-powered space ships and trans-dimensional portals, there is little attempt in these stories at scientific explanation of the strange phenomena—not that there needs to be!  Rather, the author exaggerates the biology of earth to create new life forms, or has his characters compare extraterrestrial societies to ancient or primitive cultures on earth. 

Smith’s forays into science fiction are still essentially fantasies, but with more of an emphasis on action and adventure than in some of his other stories.  His colleague H.P. Lovecraft made a few similar attempts in the emerging field of “scientifiction”, chiefly by sprinkling his horror fantasies with gadgets and metallic contraptions, both terrestrial and alien.  For example, Lovecraft’s interesting novella The Shunned House (1928) contains a ghostly vampiric entity that is dispatched with a “specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with peculiar screens and reflectors…”  (Lovecraft’s 1931 alien invasion story, The Whisperer in Darkness, is his most successful effort at science fiction in my opinion.)  The third member of the famous Weird Tales trinity, Robert E. Howard, apparently avoided the field of science fiction altogether.

A decade ago, scholars of Smith’s work were able to recover the manuscript of an unpublished story that had been lost for many years.  The story was called The Red World of Polaris, and it was published for the first time in a small collection of the same name by Night Shade Books in 2003.  It is one of a handful of stories that feature Smith’s character of “Captain Volmar”, whom the author describes as “that thin, austere mariner of the interstellar gulfs, who had dreamt of circumnavigating space and thus becoming the Magellan of the constellations.”  In some respects, Volmar resembles Robert E. Howard’s Puritan strongman, Solomon Kane, in personality and motivation, though Volmar leads a crew of astronauts on board the ether-powered space ship Alcyone.  

Captain Volmar also appears in Clark Ashton Smith’s A Captivity in Serpens (1931, also known as The Amazing Planet), Marooned in Andromeda (1930), and The Ocean-World of Alioth (1989).  The latter only exists in the form of a synopsis.  Marooned in Andromeda was intended to be the first of a series of adventures to be published in Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories.  Regrettably, only two of these saw print in Smith’s lifetime.

Captain Volmar is introduced in Marooned in Andromeda, but only appears at the beginning and ending of the story.  Readers may not immediately like him: he is presented as a heartless, dictatorial and monomaniacal leader.  Three of his men, overwhelmed by homesickness and the awful anxiety of being in deep space for so long, attempt a mutiny in order to turn the ship back to earth.  Volmar abandons the trio on a planet orbiting Delta Andromeda, leaving the men wounded and without food, water or weapons.

As soon as there is daylight on the planet, the men experience a series of adventures—misadventures really—that involve encounters with a primitive society, giant predaceous plants, dinosaur like creatures, a deadly insect attack, and mysterious, monolithic ruins.  At one point in the story they are about to be sacrificed to a very Lovecraftian deity.  As is typical of a Smith story, the planet’s bizarre terrain, eerie architecture and hostile ecology are vividly, almost poetically described.  Readers can easily picture in their minds the horrors the three men discover on the alien world.  Rescue finally comes when Captain Volmar has an unexpected change of heart—but not for all.       

In their opening and closing remarks, the editors of the Night Shade collection, (Ronald S. Hilger and Scott Connors), provide interesting history about the Captain Volmar stories, and put these tales in the context of Smith’s relatively brief career as a fiction writer and his interactions with H.P. Lovecraft.  They also make the unavoidable comparison to that captain and crew of another star ship, namely the U.S.S. Enterprise. There is certainly a Star Trek feel to the Captain Volmar stories, as there is in Smith’s other proto-science fiction, for example The City of Singing Flame and The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.  The latter could easily be a Star Trek episode about yet another doomed landing party.  Though not clearly established, it does seem that the work of Clark Ashton Smith could have been one source of inspiration for the TV show.  

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