Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doomsday Deferred for the Eight Worlds

“…the planets of our system will perish like flowers in a furnace, in that titanic holocaust…”

Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns was originally published in two installments in the August and September 1928 issues of Weird Tales.  It is one of the earliest examples of the “space opera” subgenre of science fiction.  Space opera is characterized by travel through vast regions of interstellar space, strange planets, weird extraterrestrials, large explosions, and a great deal of action.  Hamilton is credited with being the inventor of this form, which we can still find echoes of in modern day productions like Star Wars and Star Trek.

To put this in the context of what his peers were writing at the time, Crashing Suns appeared along with Red Shadows, one of Robert E. Howard’s first stories featuring Solomon Kane.  In those same issues were Frank Belknap Long’s self-evidently titled You Can’t Kill a Ghost, and Clark Ashton Smith’s The Ninth Skeleton.  H.P. Lovecraft did not have anything in these particular issues, but earlier in the year had published his classic tales The Call of Cthulhu, Cool Air, and The Shunned House, the latter two in different publications.  At this time Weird Tales had been established on newsstands for about five years.  The original magazine was published from March 1923 until September 1954.

The plot of Crashing Suns is pretty straightforward and probably the least interesting aspect of the story.  An advanced alien race of “globe-men” in the Alto solar system contrives to alter the pathway of their sun so that it will crash into our sun, completely destroying Earth’s solar system.  This is their solution to an eons long problem: the star Alto is dying—cooling and shrinking and providing less life giving warmth.

If the globe-men can crash their dwindling sun into ours, they can revive the star for eons longer, and so avoid extinction.  The downside is that all of the inner planets of both systems, including Earth, will be destroyed in the collision, leaving only a couple of habitable worlds in the outer orbits of the Alto system.  It would be a new beginning for the globe-men, but a disaster for Earth and the end of human civilization.

A war ensues—“a battle beyond space”—involving advanced weaponry, heroic sacrifices, alien espionage, split second decisions, and many close calls.  Since the narrator of Crashing Suns is none other than Jan Tor, the commander of the mission and renowned officer in the new Interstellar Patrol, readers may suspect that a positive outcome is likely. 

And this is what is appealing about the “Interstellar Patrol” stories of Edmond Hamilton.  In contrast to H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Hamilton’s tone is relentlessly positive, energetic, and optimistic.  Not overwhelmed by anxiety or a sense of inescapable doom, (Lovecraft).  Not succumbing to the downward pull of decadence and decay, (Smith).  Not perishing in a melee of senseless violence, (Howard).

And yet, stunned as we were by the thing he had told us, our knowledge was in some ways a relief.  We had discovered, at least, what had swerved Alto from its course, and if science and intelligence alone could cause the sun to veer from its path, science and intelligence might steer it back into that path.

The alien threat to the universe as we know it will be effectively combatted with science and technology in the hands of a capable and courageous military.  Crashing Suns appeared ten years after the end of World War I, and ten years before the beginnings of World War II.

There are interesting and entertaining anachronisms in the story.  Radar and other sensor technologies had barely been invented yet, so the crew of the space ship have to look out large windows to see where they are going.  The ships travel by generating vibrations in the ether—a theoretical medium or substance thought necessary for the transmission of electromagnetic waves.  It was believed at one time to fill the voids in outer space.  (This is also how the space ship Alcyone operated in Clark Ashton Smith’s Captain Volmer stories.)  Interplanetary communication is accomplished through “telestereo”.

There is a Supreme Council of the League of Planets—only eight were known at the time—that seems unencumbered by a congress or a supreme court.  It is composed largely of scientists, engineers and rocket pilots who rule presumably on the basis of their technical expertise.  The future human race is interesting linguistically; like the hero Jan Tor, everyone has monosyllabic first and last names.  Extraterrestrial biology is somewhat preposterous—the globe men resemble enormous, multi-legged M&Ms, (plain, not peanut).  Nevertheless, the head alien works at a desk, and sketches designs for battle cruisers on good old paper. 

There are apparently no women at all anywhere in the known universe.
The speculative fiction of nearly a century ago can give interested readers some insight into how people of the time may have thought or felt about the future.  In the midst of a battle with the globe-men, Hamilton has his character Jan Tor say:

And now I was slanting our own ship down again, swooping headlong down through space while the hissing rays from our own hull seared down toward the enemy ships below.  A wild exultation thrilled through me, now, that sheer joy of battle which will ever last in the heart of man, no matter what centuries of peace are his, and I laughed crazily as we rose and circled and swooped again upon the whirling ships below.

Hamilton and others like him believed that the future held ongoing opportunities for war.  The universe, like the world at the beginning of the twentieth century, was filled with enemies. Sooner or later they must be fought and vanquished.  Certainly in the short term, in the next several decades that followed Crashing Suns, Hamilton was prophetic.

 Edmond Hamilton’s work has been discussed in earlier posts.  See also:

3. Almost But Not Quite Eden (The Seeds From Outside)

A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication (The Monster-God of Mamurth)

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