Friday, October 31, 2014

Captain Future and the Restless Natives of Titan

Titan is the largest moon orbiting the planet Saturn, and the second largest moon in the solar system after Ganymede, which orbits Jupiter.  It is half again as large as our own moon. The planetoid is described as one of the most earth-like worlds in the solar system—that is, resembling a frigid, primordial earth before the arrival of oxygen or reliable bodies of liquid water.  Think of Planet LZ-426, visited by the hapless crew of the Nostromo in the 1979 film Alien. 

Titan has a dense, windy atmosphere—mostly nitrogen with clouds of ethane and methane—and surface features shaped by erosion and volcanism, as they are on earth.  Titan has rivers, floodplains, lakes and seas, albeit of liquid ethane and methane, and seasonal weather patterns.  The sky has an orange cast to it, the result of photochemical interactions in its atmosphere.  Rock and ice make up the surface of the planet, which is rich in hydrocarbons.  Beneath the surface may lie a vast subterranean ocean of salt water.  Titan is one of several locations in the solar system suspected of harboring a form of life, probably microbial.

Not as much was known about Titan in 1950, the year Edmond Hamilton published his story, The Harpers of Titan*.  The Saturnian moon was fertile ground for a number of pulp science fiction adventures in the early to mid-twentieth century.  Hamilton was an established author by the 1950s, having written for various periodicals for a quarter of a century.  The Harpers of Titan is a ‘Captain Future’ story, but one of the later ones, and it shows the author’s transition to stories addressing sociological themes.  It is not a ‘space opera’, which is the subgenre Hamilton was notorious for in the 1930s and 40s.   

In The Harpers of Titan, the large moon is inhabited by a race of primitive humanoids with dark hair and coppery golden skin.  Their principle city is Moneb, set in a valley surrounded by hills overgrown with enormous lichens.  It is a very windy planet, (which contemporary astronomers have since confirmed).  Earthmen have settled here and established a mining colony.  They have begun to intermarry with native women, and influence the local culture and economy. 

Not everyone is happy about this. A faction on the ruling council intends to overthrow the monarchy and turn the city against the earthmen.  Taras, a leader of the opposition, rails at the council:

“We of Moneb have too long tolerated strangers in our valley—have even suffered one of them to sit in this council and influence our decisions…The stranger’s ways more and more color the lives of our people.  They must go—all of them!  And since they will not go willingly, they must be forced...We cannot fight the Earthmen with our darts and spears.  Their weapons are too strong.  But we too have a weapon, one they cannot fight!”

Taras and his minions intend to unleash the deadly psychic power of “the Harpers”.  These are nearly mythological creatures with the power to lure men to their deaths with the hypnotic, music-like vibrations they produce. 

This may be a bit of a stretch, but it is striking to note that the natives of Titan are people of color, and that their very alluring weapon is a kind of music.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the time this story was published, African-American blues, jazz and gospel music were beginning to coalesce with Western swing and country music to form what would soon be called rock’n’roll.  Is this image of “the Harpers” an echo of concerns about the emerging influence of new musical styles?   

Curt Newton, “whom the System knew better as Captain Future”, decides to intervene.  Captain Future is very similar to Clark Ashton Smith’s character of Captain Vollmer of the ether-ship Alcyone—both are prototypical Captain Kirks.  The author describes Newton, a.k.a. Captain Future, commander of the spaceship Comet, with these words:

And there was Curt, stubborn, reckless, driven by the demon of his own loneliness, a bitter searcher after knowledge, a stranger to his own kind.

Captain Future leads a motley crew that includes Otho, “the lean, lithe android” and Grag, “a dark immobile giant in the shadows”, a clanking robot that almost never speaks.  Grag may be an early version of Gort, the alien robot who responds to “Klaatu berada nikto” in the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still.  However, by far the most interesting member of the Futuremen—as Newton’s crew are called—is Simon Wright, a disembodied human brain housed in a levitating metal box.  He is really the focus of The Harpers of Titan.  Hamilton introduces him at the very beginning of the story:

His name was Simon Wright, and once he had been a man like other men.  Now he was a man no longer but a living brain, housed in a metal case, nourished by serum instead of blood, provided with artificial senses and means of motion. 

The body of Simon Wright, that had known the pleasures and the ills of physical existence, had long ago mingled with the dust.  But the mind of Simon Wright lived on, brilliant and unimpaired.  

Simon—which is how he is addressed throughout the story—has nearly extra-sensory visual and auditory perception, but cannot experience physical sensation or emotion.  He is sort of a Mr. Spock or a Lieutenant Commander Data in a box.  The author uses this unusual character to explore the nature of human identity and the impact of a biological or mechanical interface on its expression. 

Simon’s unique experience of having his mind transferred from a human body to a machine comes in handy when a key pro-Earthling Council Member in Moneb is assassinated.  With the advanced technology available on board the Comet, Captain Future and his men are able to reverse the process Simon underwent, and reanimate the murdered council member in time for a very important vote.

But wait…remember the prime directive!  But they don’t, and in any case the prime directive would not be formulated or ratified by the Federation for another two decades.  As with all colonial interests, it is impossible not to meddle in the local politics.  Though the science is a bit shaky in The Harpers of Titan, Edmond Hamilton’s character of Simon Wright is a haunting vision of mankind dissociated from human emotion and sensuality by its ever encircling technology.


*Not to be confused with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s wonderful 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan, a completely different kind of work.

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