Saturday, January 10, 2015

Etheric Bombs vs. De-Cohesion Rays

Something that the malevolent tentacle-people of a distant galaxy have in common with the villainous M&M-shaped people of Alto is a dying sun at the center of their solar system.  Fearful that their technologically advanced civilizations will perish in the waning light of their respective solar stars, both contrive to use our sun to revive their own, dooming all of humanity as a result.  This means interstellar war, a desperate struggle for survival, a clash of human and alien civilizations.  Absent from these conflagrations is any hope or even possibility of communication and diplomacy among the warring parties.

Edmond Hamilton’s The Star-Stealers, appeared in the February 1929 issue of Weird Tales.  It is one of his earlier interstellar patrol stories, and is similar in many respects to his first offering, Crashing Suns (see also Doomsday Deferred for the Eight Worlds).  The earlier tale introduced the “Eight Worlds” inhabited by humankind, at a point in time when technological advances were about to propel them beyond the solar system into interstellar space.  The Star-Stealers takes place a bit later in stellar history, when the Federation includes nonhuman species from other star systems, and has extended its range across the home galaxy. 

The mission of the interstellar patrol is not so much “to boldly go where no man has gone before” as to keep space piracy in check among the member worlds and maintain the peace.  However, it is impossible not to compare Hamilton’s space opera stories to Star Trek.  Most of the drama takes place on the bridge, the weaponry is similar, and there is even “a great rectangular plate of smoothly burnished silvery metal which hung at the bridgeroom’s end-wall, the one indispensable aid to interstellar navigation.”  Surely this is an early version of the view screen used on board the Enterprise and similar vessels of the mid to late 23rd Century.  It appears that the future society Hamilton creates possesses an interesting history and evolution—which is similarly displayed in the various incarnations of the Star Trek series.

Hamilton’s space operas contain interesting anachronisms.  Without Mr. Spock’s ‘sensor readings’, the crew must look out windows to see what is happening around their space ship.  The nautical metaphor—unavoidable in space adventures—is emphasized by “wheel men”, alarm bells, small spaceships that are called “boats”, and the hierarchy of officers lead by a captain.  Neptune is identified as the planet furthest from the sun, the “Eighth World”. 

Readers may recall that Pluto was not discovered until 1930, and later suffered the humiliation of being downgraded to a “dwarf planet” in 2006.  In 2005 there was talk of a tenth planet with the initial discovery of Eris, but it was also downgraded to dwarf status.  Thus Hamilton’s “Eight Worlds” remains an accurate depiction of the solar system, at least as a collection of planet sized bodies.

Interstellar ship engines are not powered by dilithium crystals as in Star Trek but move by generating vibrations in the ether.  This was a popular theory of the time.  It proposed a medium or substance to account for the transmission of electromagnetic waves.  The ether was believed at one time to fill the apparent emptiness of outer space.  In The Star-Stealers several of the fleet’s ships fall prey at one point to “etheric whirlpools”, and the weapon of choice used by the nefarious tentacle-people is the “etheric bomb” which resembles a photon torpedo.  The aliens’ sophisticated technology is compared to one of the more complex technologies on Earth in Hamilton’s time: “It’s the switch-board of the thing!”  (That is, the old fashioned telephone switchboard of the early twentieth century.)     

The characters have no fear of radioactive material or radioactivity!  In The Star-Stealers, an away team walks about the surface of a dead sun, still faintly glowing like radium.  That radioactive material could be very hazardous was not generally known until the late 1920s, when the “Radium Girls”—women who painted watch dials with radium as an occupation—brought suit against their employer after contracting severe anemia and necrosis of the jaw. 

In Crashing Suns, the M&M-shaped denizens of Alto plan to crash their sun into ours and put their planetary system—now dwindled to a single world—in the place of Earth and its sister planets.  In The Star-Stealers, the evil aliens maneuver their enormous dead sun—the “dark star”—along the edge of our galaxy, hoping to use their sun’s powerful gravitational pull to steal our sun and planetary system and put them into orbit around their chilly world.  Our sun would then become a kind of orbiting heat lamp into which the tentacle-people would cast Earth and her fellow planets in order to brighten the blaze.  The preposterous science of Hamilton’s story is more a veneer for what seems more like a whimsical myth or fairy tale than what we would classify as science fiction.

The formula for Hamilton’s interstellar patrol stories includes: the discovery of an evil extraterrestrial plan, an initial skirmish that is disastrous for the heroes, incarceration, a suspenseful escape, and a final conflagration between Federation fighters, (armed with De-Cohesion Rays) and the tentacle-people’s conical attack vehicles, (loaded with Etheric Bombs).  At the very last minute, the alien apparatus—in this case a “gravity condenser”—is destroyed by the captain, averting the destruction of the entire solar system. 

The Star-Stealers is organized into six episodes, most ending with a cliffhanger like this one:

…and for a single moment we hung motionless along the chain’s length, swinging along the huge pyramid’s glowing side at a height of hundreds of feet above the shining streets below.  Then the creature raised one of its tentacles, a metal tool in its grasp, which he brought down in a sharp blow on the chain at the window’s edge.  Again he repeated the blow, and again.  He was cutting the chain!

(This scene is depicted on the cover of the February 1929 issue of Weird Tales). 

Despite its formulaic character, The Star-Stealers has its charms.  There is an interesting description of Neptune, where the story begins, which explains the technology needed to render the cold planet habitable for humans.  The ship’s second-officer is a young woman named Dal Nara, “descended from a long line of interstellar pilots”, who is known to be “resourceful and quick-witted.”  The appearance of a competent, professional woman is relatively unique in the pulp fiction of the time.  The captain and his crew members' experience on the glowing surface of the dead sun, where there is a breathable atmosphere, flowing water, bizarre vegetation, and “a metropolis out of nightmare”, is an adventure in itself.   

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