Saturday, February 14, 2015

An Early Death Star

Near the beginning of Edmond Hamilton’s Within the Nebula (1929), the narrator, Ker Kal is summoned to a large planet encircling the star Canopus.  It is the galactic capital, where the great Council of Suns meets to determine policy for the vast collection of worlds represented there.  Ker Kal is from “Sun-828” a small, out of the way solar system, negligible except for all the human heroes that emanate from there in Hamilton’s stories.  Readers soon realize that Sun-828 is humanity’s designation in the enormous interstellar government.  It seems that the entire galaxy once again faces another dire threat to its existence.

This scene may have been the inspiration for the Galactic Senate that meets on the planet Coruscant in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999).  One of the pleasures of reading Hamilton is to discover the origin of some of the ideas later used in more contemporary space operas like Star Wars and Star Trek, among others.  There is also what author Walter Jon Williams describes as the “…vast scope, weird alien scenes, weird alien life forms, and world-smashing action…” one reliably finds in his interstellar tales.  In Hamilton’s “world-wrecker” stories, published from the late 1920s through the 1930s, the universe as we know it faced complete annihilation in nearly every novelette.  Salvation almost always came from a small handful of intrepid voyagers who manage to prevent a cosmic catastrophe with just minutes to spare.

Edmond Hamilton was a remarkably prolific author.  He published his first story, The Monster God of Mamurth (1926) when he was just 22 years old.  (See also A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication).  Over the next three years alone he published some 14 short stories and one novel.  (Hamilton was still actively writing well into the 1970s.)  A partial listing of titles published between 1926 and 1929 gives a sense of the scope of his interest:

Across Space
The Metal Giants
The Atomic Conquerors
Evolution Island
The Moon Menace
The Time Raider
The Dimension Terror
The Comet Doom
The Polar Doom
The Sea Horror, (also known as the Sea Terror)
Locked Worlds
The Abysmal Invaders
The Hidden World
Cities in the Air    

Williams, in his introduction to a fine anthology of the author’s work The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two (2009, Haffner Press), notes that evolutionary theory permeates much of these early stories.  Hamilton conceives of the universe as brimming with diverse life forms.  But less fortunate alien civilizations, in their desperate attempt to save their own worlds, inevitably come up with solutions that doom ours in the process.  It is striking that the salvation of one world always involved the destruction of another in Hamilton’s world-wrecker tales.  There is never the consideration of compromise, mutual problem solving, or rescue.

Within the Nebula was the third story in Hamilton’s “interstellar patrol” series, and though closely resembling the first two in formula, is interesting because it shows the further development of his favorite space opera concepts.  Space cruisers now travel at faster than light speeds.  A “thought-transmission device” expedites communication between members of Ker Kal’s team and the alien race they discover inside an enormous fiery nebula. Alien technology, used in the service of self-preservation, spells doom for the rest of the sentient universe.

In the story, Ker Kal and his two partners, a four-tentacled Arcturian and a muscular tree-man from Capella, are sent on a mission to investigate a flaming nebula that threatens to spin apart, effectively scouring the galaxy of any life forms in its path.  Deep inside the fiery globe they discover a metal sheathed planet, and a race of amoeboid creatures bent on saving the remnant of their civilization from the imploding flames of the nebula.  They are using an immense force beam projector to rotate the nebula, hoping that centrifugal force will dissipate it.  Typical of a Hamilton space opera, the story is very visual in orientation—one can easily imagine the episodes depicted on a movie or television screen.

Though it was not the author’s intent, some of the anachronisms in the story are amusing.  Despite their advanced technological civilization, the nebula creatures have not developed elevators to go up and down levels in their subterranean base.  Instead, they climb up and down vertical shafts like humans, by grasping pegs in the walls with their pseudopods.  Technology is operated by only a few levers and switches, so is easy to master by humans and extraterrestrials alike.  Power is transmitted through enormous electrical cables—easy to sever with a handy ax just moments before the imminent end of the universe.  (Why would the aliens have axes in a pile next to a nebula-grabbing force beam projector?)  In the absence of radar or other sensor devices, interstellar patrol members must gaze out the windows of their vessels to know where they are going in space.

On the other hand, Hamilton was progressive in his notion that a galactic government composed of peace loving representatives from diverse cultures is possible and desirable.  The composition of his interstellar patrols predates by forty years the multi-cultural crew on board the U.S.S. Enterprise.  Ker Kal’s team is ultimately successful because of the unique skills each member brings as a representative from a different world.  

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