Not everything that Edmond Hamilton wrote was space opera, though he is one of a couple authors credited with establishing that category of early science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. His skill and sensitivity as a writer continued to develop markedly over time. The increased sophistication, compared to earlier efforts like The Star Stealers (1929), is displayed in Hamilton’s masterful What’s It Like Out There? (1952). Isaac Asimov considered this one of Hamilton’s best stories, and recommended a late 1970s collection of the author’s more accomplished work, The Best of Edmond Hamilton, (1977).
The titular question “What’s it like out there?” is repeatedly asked of the narrator of the story, Sergeant Frank Haddon. Recently back on earth, he has just gotten out of the hospital after a bout of Martian fever. He is one of the few survivors of the ill-fated second expedition to Mars. People see him in uniform and ask him this question over and over again. This being a post-World War II science fiction story, they might just as well be asking him “What was it like over there?”, that is in Europe or Asia.
Very early in the story, Hamilton makes the connection between spacemen returning from the disastrous Martian expedition and American soldiers returning from the recent war. (In the timeframe of the story, the second Martian expedition was launched in the mid-1960s.) A cab driver strikes up a conversation with him somewhere in L.A.:
“Well, well,” he said. “Tell me, how was it out there?”
“It was a pretty dull grind in a way,” I told him.
“I’ll bet it was!” he said, as we started through traffic. “Me, I was in the army in World War Two, twenty years ago. That’s just what it was, a dull grind nine-tenths of the time. I guess it hasn’t changed any.”
Hamilton’s graphic descriptions of the hazards on board a primitive rocket as it takes off from Earth and lands on the treacherous surface of Mars closely resemble the dangers on a battlefield, including the terrible casualties among the men. The soldiers live in Quonset huts on Mars, and the noisy claustrophobic spacecraft resemble the innards of battleships and submarines. Hamilton’s intent is to deglamorize spaceflight, and metaphorically, the war. Haddon has nightmares about what he saw and experienced on the expedition, and the sounds of airplanes bring back vivid, terrifying memories. The narrator’s symptoms are identical with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before Haddon can return to his home in Ohio, he has a mission to complete on earth: he must visit the families of several of the men who did not make it back, and tell them something of what befell their loved ones on the red planet. Every time he is asked “What’s it like out there?” he is forced to lie, or at least be conservative with the truth—which becomes ever more excruciating when he talks directly to family members and sweethearts. These vignettes form the backbone of the story—each one is skillfully and movingly done. There is much that is left unsaid, because words are inadequate. But the unadorned truth would be salt in the wound.
Haddon cannot tell the truth. The expeditions must go on because Mars has the uranium needed to fuel the world’s nuclear power plants, providing cheap energy and shoring up the economy. (Haven’t we heard an argument like this many times?) So he artfully creates ennobling explanations of how loved ones came to die on Mars. But he suffers acutely from the burden of keeping two different versions of the truth in his mind.
There is a touching scene mid story when Haddon visits the fiancé of one of the men who died of the Martian fever. From the man’s letters to his girlfriend, he discovers that his colleague was a romantic idealist about the trip to Mars. The young woman shows Haddon some of the deceased man’s prized possessions—a cupboard full of old science fiction magazines:
I took one out. It had a bright cover, with a space-ship on it, not like our rockets but a stream-lined thing, and the rings of Saturn in the background.
The description sounds like the December 1950 cover of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an issue that Hamilton may have had at hand while he was writing this story. Or he may have been referencing an earlier pulp magazine. The author seems to be looking backwards to a less cynical time, before the war, before the need to express the war’s aftermath as a metaphor about Mars—the god of war.
Haddon’s most difficult time is when he finally reaches home. As a local celebrity, he must give a speech to the townspeople. He toggles back and forth between the official line he is encouraged to speak, and the awful details he remembers but must remain silent about. What’s It Like Out There? is full of irony, cynicism and sadness. As the story draws to a reflective close, Haddon may eventually make some sort of peace with himself, but not yet. His inability to express the truth about his experience keeps his own wounds open.
Hamilton’s story continues to be relevant today; we remain preoccupied with war. Though the reference point appears to be World War II, What’s It Like Out There? was published at the height of the Korean War, which began in 1950 and concluded in 1953—Hamilton may have been thinking of more than one military engagement. In the story, the concern for securing sources of nuclear fuel eerily echoes our involvement in Middle Eastern wars which appear to have no end in sight. Finally, the author reminds us powerfully of the human costs of war, especially the spiritual and psychological symptoms that arise when the truth about war cannot be spoken.