Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Many SF Fans no Longer Believe in Atomic Energy or Space Colonization

"Why Many SF Fans no Longer Believe in
Atomic Energy or Space Colonization"
by Jordan S. Bassior, (c) 2007, 2011

 I have noticed a tendency among science fiction fans, especially of a certain generation, to abandon the notions, popular half a century ago, that we are heading towards a future of cheap atomic energy and human expansion into outer space. This might seem mysterious, given that we in fact today have atomic reactors contributing to the power grid, and several Powers operating spaceships, while in the late 1950's to early 1960's few power reactors or spacecraft had actually been constructed. But there is a reason for this, and to understand why we must discuss some history.



In the late 19th century, a very few daring scientists and engineers first began to realize that it was, in fact, theoretically possible to construct and operate manned spaceships and space habitats. Given this, it occurred to them that humanity would eventually colonize other worlds and spread out beyond the limits of the Earth.

It should be remembered what a radical notion this was at the time. There was a whole cultural legacy, dating back to the earliest civilized days, of considering "the Earth" as the "mortal" sphere and consigning everything beyond the Earth to the realms of "the Heavens," a domain inhabited by the gods (and later, with Christianity, by dead mortals). Indeed, we see the remnants of this attitude today, when some religious conservatives argue against spaceflight as impious, and often doubt its reality.

During the early 20th century, this realization sparked some pioneering engineers, such as Robert Goddard, to actually begin experimenting with rocket propulsion. At the time, they were seen as crackpots by the general public, and even by much of the scientific community. The habits of thought of millennia are not easily broken.

At this same time, a few pioneering authors began to write stories about interplanetary flight and colonization (as opposed to mere interplanetary flight, which had been written about for centuries). These stories acquired a fan base, mostly made up from intelligent young men. Modern science fiction and its fandom was born.

Related to spaceflight, both because it offered great promise for the human future and because it was obviously necessary from a design standpoint to make interplanetary travel anything but a very expensive stunt, was the issue of atomic energy.

Now, even before Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, visionaries had speculated on the possibility of there existing energy sources far beyond any known chemical power plants. By the late 19th century, geologists had already realized that the Earth had to be orders of magnitude older than the lifespan (as calculated by physicists) of a chemically-fuelled Sun, which was one of the clues to the existence of mass to energy conversion.

Einstein, however, provided a theoretical justification for postulating an immensely more efficient and powerful method of energy generation. Beginning with H. G. Wells, science fiction authors envisioned futures in which humans mastered this new energy source, as they had mastered fire, and used it to provide cheap energy into the indefinite future (even by the Interwar Era it had occurred to some far-sighted futurists that coal and oil would not last forever).

And, of course, atomic energy would make spaceships practical. As rocketry went from theory to hard design and testing, it became obvious that chemical engines were seriously limited as a means of interplanetary propulsion. It became obvious to the science fiction community that (1) atomic power plants of some sort would someday be developed, (2) spaceships of some sort would someday be developed, and (3) atomic power would be used to make spaceships capable of interplanetary flight.

Now remember that, in the Interwar Era (1920's to 1930's) most science fiction fans did NOT expect to see any of this happen in their own lifetimes. Or at least not much of it. In the Interwar Era, the fastest and most capable aircraft in existence could fly at 200-300 mph across distances of a few thousand miles, remaining airborne for about a day. Going from there to orbital (5 mps) or escape (7 mps) velocity, and making journeys of hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of miles which would take weeks to months, was clearly something that was not going to happen in just a few decades.

MAYBE, if we were VERY lucky, we might reach the Moon by 2000. And maybe some of the fans would still be alive (though very aged) to see this Millennium achived.

Remember, also, just how isolated the spaceflight and atomic energy enthusiasts were in the 1920's and 1930's. The bulk of the population, even the bulk of the scientifically educated population, did not expect to see Man ever fly to the Moon or unlock the energies of the atom. Even science fiction writers were often pessimistic: read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, and please notice that both controlled (*) atomic energy and useful spaceflight were not achieved until millions of years in the future by a race as far beyond modern Man as we are beyond the chimpanzees. The New York Times famously mocked Goddard for failing to "realize" that rocket engines wouldn't work in a vacuum because they had "nothing to push against."

Then came World War II. And the German V-2 sub-orbital missiles. And jet and rocket aircraft. And the atomic reactor and the atomic bomb. And the Cold War. And suddenly, the pace of progress accelerated (**).

By the 1950's, atomic energy was no longer science fiction, but a wonderful and terrifying reality. Now, the problem wasn't that nobody believed that it could be achieved, but rather that it was being oversold. Promises were made about the near-future potential (***) of atomic energy (by 1975 or 2000) which were simply ridiculous.

Spaceflight was still deemed by many to be forever impossible, but this "many" no longer included most of the people knowledgable in aeronautical technology. In 1957 and 1959, when the Russians successfully orbited first a satellite and then a manned spacecraft, it became obvious to everyone that spaceflight (at least) would be part of the human future.

During the 1960's, the pace of development of both atomic energy AND spaceflight accelerated. Numerous commercial atomic reactors went into service. America and Russia mastered the challenges of orbital spaceflight. Finally, in 1969, the first men landed on the surface of Earth's Moon.


Now, imagine yourself a fan from the Interwar Era. You were born around 1900 to 1910. In your lifetime you saw aircraft progress from a curiosity to a weapon to a toy for the rich to a war-winning factor to a standard means of cargo and passenger transport. Then you saw rockets become first practical missiles and then develop into spaceships capable of carrying humans to the Moon. You also saw atomic energy progress from a theoretical possiblity to part of everyday life, as close to you as the light switch.

Obviously, you would be pretty optimistic about what the next few decades would bring, right? It would be pretty reasonable to assume that we would colonize the Moon over the next 10-20 years and begin colonizing Mars by 2000, correct? And as for atomic energy, clearly by 2000 the majority of the civilized world would be getting most of its energy from uranium, and the first fusion power plants would be entering service.

Now, imagine yourself a fan from the Postwar Era. You were born around 1930 to 1940, and you were in your teens to thirties -- in other words, your young manhood (or womanhood) when the most dramatic progress was achieved. You'd be pretty optimistic, too. And the older fans -- those Interwar Era fans -- would be encouraging your optimism.


Well, as we all know, that's not what happened. A mixture of social and technological problems greatly slowed progress both in atomic energy and in spaceflight after the early 1970's. At the same time, social changes led fans born after 1945 -- the Boomers -- to imagine that they were much wiser and more sophisticated than the generations immediately preceding. And finally, information technology advanced far more rapidly than anyone in 1950-70 would have expected.

A lot of Postwar Era fans felt cheated. Their elders had gotten to see all their technological dreams come true (****). But their dreams had (apparently) died stillborn. And the Boomers, of course, to the extent that they had ever believed in their elders' dreams, felt that these failures only proved that you "couldn't trust anyone over thirty."


Sour Grapes

Now, consider these two premises:

1) "There will be cheap atomic energy and interplanetary colonization -- but only after I'm gone, I won't benefit from or even get to see these wonders," as opposed to

2) "There will NEVER be cheap atomic energy and interplanetary colonization -- not in my time, and not in anyone's. I'm too sophisticated to believe in that nonsense."

Which belief offers more emotional gratification? In the first case, not only are you denied the promised wonders, but it's JUST your generation that is denied them -- other generations get to enjoy them. Your generation is in an unprivileged historical position. But in the second case, your generation is privileged to be the first one to realize that the promises were nonsense.

Or lies.

Which gets into another reason for the assumption, which is the "pathetic fallacy."

The Pathetic Fallacy

Historical forces, such as the development of technologies, don't have any emotions or intentions. They can't maliciously decide to lie to you. It so happened that the technological obstacles to the development of aviation in the late 19th and late 20th century have been high, while they were low in the early 20th century. It so happened that the technological obstacles to the development of computers in the early 20th century were high, while in the late 20th century they were low.

This does NOT imply that the same conditions will be true in the early 21st or late 21st centuries -- the trends could very well reverse, with the S-curve for transport entering an upswing and the S-curve for computers entering a downswing. And there'd be no foolishness in believing that this could happen.

But we can perceive this as history "falsely promising" us "flying cars and spaceliners" around 1950 and then reneging on the promise. And our system of perceptions are geared to the needs of survival in hunter-gatherer bands, where if Firespear says he'll share the meat from his next kill if you give him some veggies, and then he eats it all himself, it most definitely was a malicious false promise on his part.

And it definitely does demand a pessimistic appraisal of Firespear's next promise. And you WOULD be a fool for believing him the next time he made you the same offer.

This "pathetic fallacy," I submit, is why you often get such passionate, even irrational assertations from some fans today -- perhaps especially those from the Boomer generation -- that widespread cheap energy and space colonization are forever impossible. They've been "lied to" before and "won't get fooled again" -- not grasping that they have NOT been lied to, simply SELF-deceived by the shape of the S-curves of technological history.

Which has no "intent" at all, only a tendency towards progress due to the ratchet effect.


There will be cheap atomic power. And there will be a human colonization of space. And, there will also be transhumanity owing to the application of advanced bio- and cyber- and nano-technology.

Which will happen first is anyone's guess. But one sort of advance does not preclude the others -- multiple simultaneous paths of advance have happend historically, and they will happen again in the future.

It will be a more interesting, rich, and exciting future than the poor mind-crippled Mundane Science Fiction movement can possibly imagine.


(*) Uncontrolled atomic energy was achieved more than once, earlier in that universe, but with disastrous consequences.

(**) Partially owing to the end of the Great Depression, which meant a widened aviation market and more monies available for large research projects, but the military races were more dramatic and terrifying, and hence more widely noticed.

(***) Atomic energy really will, in the LONG RUN, offer electricity "too cheap to meter" for the sorts of purposes that we normally use electricity in the home today. But there was no way that this was going to happen by, say, 2000, and possibly not even by 2050. Simply not enough time was being given for design, redesign, and conversion work. And especially not enough time for the needed social changes.

(****) Even the flying cars, from the POV of the rich. Please consider what a "helicopter" is and does. Then reflect that helicopters were science fiction until World War II.  If you want to see a helicopter used like an aircar would be used in later science fiction, watch the climax of Things to Come (1936).  (Technically, it's an "autogyro," but what's that kind of difference between fans?)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Weapons Technology of the Future

"Weapons Technology of the Future"

by Jordan Bassior,
(c) 2000, 2006, 2010

What Will Weapons Technology Be Like ...

... 100 Years From Now?

A combination of:

1) Personal body armor designed to keep you alive and unhurt in the "heavy damage" zone of a nuclear explosion, and containing sealed life support capability. Probably with strength augmentation.

2) A direct-fire weapon capable of firing through moderate terrain obstacles, such as trees and small boulders, and at least having enough energy to damage. Probably a high-frequency laser or magnetic gun.

3) An onboard computer, neurolinked to the operator, and enabling him to control a variety of semi-autonomous drone weapons systems, which would be used to deliver:

4) Indirect fire in which the missiles would actively seek out targets, and could be launched in a "loiter" mode and recovered if they did not find worthwhile target. Warheads would be up to tactical nuclear firepower.

5) Partially because of (4), the inidividual soldier would have interception weapons (small lasers or machine pistol caliber firearms) mounted on his armor as point defense systems, but still:

6) Anything which you see you can usually kill. So the soldiers would use networks of drone sensors, datalinked to their onboard computers, to enable them to see the enemy without being seen. Still:

7) Mobility would be vital. So the soldiers would probably also have some sort of personal transport system; perhaps an ATV bike, or an aerodyne flight pack. All movement would be under cover of terrain where possible; if by flight, the onboard computer would enable high-speed terrain following. Additionally:

8) AFV's would still exist, but would fight at over-the horizon ranges. They would range from small armored utility vehicles to massive Bolo-like "landships", and would in all cases carry significant anti-projectile defensive weapons. Some of these would be point defense, some area defense. Their main armament would be "brilliant" missiles and recon drones, similar to but more capable and longer ranged than the types the infantry would carry.

9) In general the size levels of combatants would extend farther both up and down.  Some of the units would serve as "carriers" for smaller units, which in turn might serve as "carriers" for still smaller units, ranging all the way up from the aforementioned "landships" down to clouds of mini-, micro- and nano-scale drone combatants.  Escort and interception tactics would become vital.

10) Aircraft would either be very high-performance terrain-following gound attack types, or very high altitude (probably orbital) fighter types.

I think you can see from this, by the way, why I don't think we'd stand a chance against an intelligently planned interstellar invasion!

... 200 Years From Now?

1) Personal infantry arms would be able to shoot through heavy terrain cover (large rock formations). The brilliant missiles and drones would be capable of ranging anywhere within thousands of miles.

2) AFV's would be mostly gigantic and triphibious (able to fly or submerge). A single such vehicle, unopposed, could dominate a continent.

3) Soldiers would not fight in their own organic bodies, but rather download edited copies of themselves to command the war machines.

4) Combatant forces would be clouds of vehicles ranging from the gigantic triphibious ships all the way down to swarms of nanodrones, with smaller vehicles basing from and escorting the bigger ones; by now the doctrines would have been developed in detail.

... 500 Years From Now?

Surface and space combat merge, as do infantry and armor. Combat is between "vessels" capable of air, space, land, and water mobility. A single such vessel can dominate a whole planet with ease. The "people" who do the fighting (and for that matter form the society) are vast Personalities of what we would consider superhuman intellect and emotional scope; if they use organic bodies, they would do so purely as "devices" (in the computer jargon sense) ... and that sort of "device" would be poorly suited to combat in this era!


Giants in Twilight

"Giants in Twilight"
by Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2006, 2011

They stand in twilight.

Great gray giants, battleships of flesh
Living cruisers of the land
Trunks questing, tusks tossing
They cross the veldt.


You can feel their rumbles
Too deep to hear
The air trembles
With their slow calls.

They move as families
Walking to waterholes
Stripping the forests
Remaking the land.

Dominance herds them
Memory guides them
Love, it unites them
On their endless quest.

What do they think
What do they feel
What do they know
In those vast brains?

Do they remember?

Once, they feared nothing,
Roamed Pliocene plains
Vanished forests of old
Five continents theirs.

See little man-apes
Squealing in terror
Fleeing the rush
Of a calf’s playful charge.

Time passed.

Now there is fear
Now there is fire
Now there is shouting
And stabbing of spears

See now the man-apes
Armed with their making
Not quite so little
Masters of all.

Time has passed.

Now see the giants
Shrunken in numbers
Wander the landscape
Last of their kind.

They know the fear
They know the fire
They know the fierce
Stutter of guns.

Do we remember?

It took courage
To slay the giants
Armed with nothing
But torch and spear

It takes no courage
To slay the giants
Riding a jeep with
Machine-gun in hand.

There is honor
In slaying a giant
Risking your life
To feed your kin.

There is no honor
In slaying a giant
Running no risk
For the ivory trade.

If we slay giants
Without mortal reason
We do not grow
To giants ourselves.

When we slay giants
When we slay beauty
For nothing but greed
More the dwarfs we.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jack Williamson, "The Prince of Space" (Retro Review, 1931)


When I saw the title of this story, I was reminded mainly of a couple of really bad Japanese movies, which I saw on MST3K. On the other hand, the writer was Jack Williamson, so I hoped it would be good.


By the year 2131 (1) there is regular spaceflight to the Moon. A pasenger ship, the Helicon, is found drifting with everyone aboard horribly murdered. Blame is put on the "Prince of Space," a notorious pirate. A big reward is put on the pirate's head.

William Windsor, a reporter, decides to try to interview Dr. Trainor, a noted scientist who has built a 2-mile high skyscraper for the purpose of putting an astronomical observatory on the roof, gaining the benefits of a mountain location in the middle of New York City (2). He has had no luck getting an interview before, but to his surprise he succeeds in doing so now. He meets Dr. Trainor, the scientist's beautiful daughter Paula (3), and the scientist's mysterious sponsor Mr. Kain (4). They tell him, essentially, nothing.

A couple of days later the Moon Patrol is launching a mission to hunt for The Prince of Space and Windsor is invited along as special correspondent. Captain Brand, the leader and Named Character of the expedition, is an old friend of the reporter.

Nine warships set out. In cislunar space they encounter a mysterious big blue-glowing metal globe. The globe refuses to respond to their signals, so they open fire. Their weapons are completely useless, the globe blows them up one after another, and Brand, commanding the last surviving ship (5), decides to ram.

The globe fires first, and they are wrecked.

Brand and Windsor are saved from the wreck by Captain Smith (6), commanding the Prince of Space's personal cruiser, the Red Rover. The Red Rover takes them to the Prince of Space's lair, a mile-long, mile-diameter rotating space hab (7). There they discover, to Windsor's surprise (because he doesn't know he's in that kind of story) that the Prince of Space is none other than the mysterious Mr. Cain!

It turns out that the Prince of Space did not attack the Hyperion or the Moon Patrol fleet. Instead, the attackers were invaders from Mars (which only one human expedition, which vanished decades ago, has ever visited). The Martians apparently want to conquer the Earth, a fact of which the Prince of Space became aware some time ago (8). He built his hab as a last refuge for humanity after the Martians enslave all other Earthmen (9), and has been kidnapping the best people he could get off the spaceships he's been capturing to populate the place (10).

Well, with this explanation, Captain Brand is inexplicably convinced that the Prince of Space is a good guy and that he should enter the Prince's service. Apparently such niceties as loyalty to the Moon Patrol, respect for basic human rights, and even the Prince's obvious insanity don't matter compared to the emotional attraction for a True Byronic Hero (11).

It so happens that the first Martian invasion sphere has landed in Mexico. Ordinary people, apprised of this information, might consider contacting the authorities -- American, Mexican, Boy Scouts, whoever -- but of course such is not for the Prince of Space. Instead, they fly down to Mexico, land, and engage the Martians in Thrilling Personal Combat with beam-riding hyperexplosive-firing bazookas versus the Martians' subtactical atomic bomb launchers.

This gets some of the Prince's troops killed (12), and their first look at a real live Martian. We discover that the Martians are nasty multitentacled plant monsters with a taste for human blood (13).

There's also some character development. It turns out that the Prince of Space was a rich and important person (who, oddly, nobody can now recognize) who was tricked by a Deceitful Woman and thus doesn't believe in love anymore. It also turns out that Paula has a huge crush on him. Hmm, Love ... Line Segment?

So the Prince of Space puts Captain Brand in command of the Red Rover (14). Windsor tries to warn the world about the Martians but apparently few people believe him, despite his producing a Martian corpse. This is bad, because the Prince of Space needs two tons of vitallium, which is very expensive, and with general disbelief the vitallium is not forthcoming.

Being a space pirate, the Prince has a solution -- he raids one of the Lunar convoys carrying it back to Earth (15). Then the Prince of Space collects all the Named Characters and flies off to Mars, to put his plan into effect and end the Martian menace.

Travelling to Mars, they discover that the Martians are building a giant version of their invasion spheres -- one a mile in diameter and easily big enough to contain a big invasion force. They also discover that the Martians have enslaved a gray ape-like bipedal race and that this is from where they normally get their blood.

Windsor literally stumbles over the skeleton of the leader of the last Earth expedition, the one which vanished (16). With the skeleton he finds the guy's diary. This details that the Martians murdered the expedition, and mean to conquer the Earth (as if anyone really doubted either fact by this point in the story).

Paula, in despair that the Prince of Space will never love her, wanders out into the Martian desert to die (17). The Prince of Space saves her.

The Prince of Space and Dr. Trainor, now with the vitallium and the intelligence as to the Martian plans, launch from Mars. They build the "vitomaton," which is the Ultimate Weapon that they were collecting all the coupons for in the earlier parts of the plot.

Intercepting the Martian sphere they fire the Vitomaton, which generates a vortex of living energy that eats matter. The vortex destroys the Martian sphere's missiles, then the Martian sphere. Undaunted, the Martians launch a swarm of gigantic atomic bombs, meaning to destroy the Earth if they cannot have it. The Vitomaton destroys the swarm of atomic missiles and then the planet Mars (18).

Saving the Earth (and destroying Mars) apparently constitutes a courtship (19), because the Prince of Space then kisses Paula, and declares her his bride (20).

Dr. Trainor and William Windsor return to Earth, where nobody believes what happened. Astronomers can't explain why Mars changed colors (21) and then disappeared. The Prince of Space is still a wanted man. And the Vitamoton is packed away safely (?) in Dr. Trainor's safe.

Life goes on (22).


Williamson actually says, on the first page of the story "Incidentally, the reader might be warned at this point that Bill is not, properly speaking, a character in this narrative; he is only an observer," and he's not kidding (23).

William Windsor has, essentially, no personality. He is described as "a hard-headed, grim-visaged newspaperman of forty," and that's really all we ever learn about him. He wants to be a multimillionaire, and is thus tempted into the story by the reward on the Prince of Space -- well, who wouldn't want to be a multimillionaire? He is intelligent and has physical courage. And that's it.

Captain Brand is an idiot. He's described as "bluff," which in this context must mean "thick as a brick." He at no point makes any useful suggestion -- even his space combat tactics (the one field he should be an expert in) show no real talent or imagination. He wins the convoy battle against the Moon Patrol, but from the story's own internal evidence, it's quite possible that the tactics used were more the Prince's than his own.

Dr. Trainor also has no personality. He's "a mild bald man with kindly blue eyes and a slow, patient smile," which is pulp conventional code for "He's a Good Guy Scientist, not a Bad Guy Scientist." He's there basically to provide occasional exposition and technical support.

Paula Trainor has too much personality. The long (and inexplicable) character description given by Windsor on first viewing her (see notes) actually does match her behavior in the story. She comes off as an impulsive manic-depressive, and probably the LAST person I would want to have anywhere in the vicinity of a camera-sized device that can disintegrate a whole terrestrial world! (24)

The Prince of Space also has a lot of personality. And Captain Nemo wants it back. What's more to the point, Williamson was obviously of the belief that Nemo was morally heroic (I incline more towards Philip Jose Farmer's point of view that Nemo was a Miltonian antihero) and means the PoS to be the same, but the Prince's behavior belies this.

Look at the evidence. He turns pirate and inflicts suffering (and presumably death) on strangers simply because one woman severely harms him. He shows a complete and narcissistic lack of interest in anyone else's feelings, fate, or even basic human rights (he kidnaps two thousand people to populate his City in Space). He has a frightening charisma.

AND he has as his good buddy and father-in-law a brilliant scientist who knows how to build Weapons of Incredibly Massive Destruction. Does _anyone_ see a potential problem with this?

Yes, pulp heroes were often ruthless. But the Prince of Space makes Dick Seaton or Doc Savage look like extremely nice guys by comparison, because he has a demonstrated willingness to turn against his OWN people for fairly flimsy reasons. It seems to me that it is purely auctorial fiat that the ending of this story is to be deemed happy.


The world of 2131 is a reasonable but rather conventional pulp science fictional future. New York City has bigger buildings and moving walkways. Rich people now own "heliocars," which essentially means "helicopters" or "aircars." The world's power comes from the mildly radioactive element "vitalium" which can convert sunlight to electricity; there are several large solar panel arrays in various Earthly deserts for this purpose. Spaceships use "positive beams" -- essentially ion blasters -- both for propulsion and as main armament. Vitalium mines are located on the Moon, a spur to colonization and the reason why there is a Moon Patrol to protect the mines and ore ships.

Substitute "tri-helium" for "vitalium" and "fusion power" for "solar power" and it might even look a lot like a plausible 2131 from the viewpoint of 2006.

We learn absolutely nothing about the Martians or their culture aside from the fact that (1) they are vampiric plant monsters, (2) they have atomic missiles and energy shields, (3) they have enslaved a possibly sapient race of gray apelike bipeds, and (4) they are Not Nice Guys. And we never will learn anything about the Martians or their culture, because Mr. Byronic Hero over there -- you know, the one with the psycho wife? -- disintegrated their whole damned planet. Good going, pal. Isn't there some intermediate level of destruction between "ignore their invasion fleet" and "destroy their whole world?" (25)

Some of the superscience is kind of cool. The Prince of Space has man-portable "motor torpedoes" which use the postiive beams to drive 50-lb hyperexplosive warheads made of "trainite" (Dr. Trainor's special mixture) right to the target, with a control system reminiscent of a modern wire-guided missile but without the wire. The Martians have several sizes of their atomic missiles, ranging from what appears to be about a 100-250 TNT ton-equivalent tactical missile to a roughly 10 kiloton range anti-ship one to the God only knows how powerful planetbusters they were going to smash Earth with in the final battle. The Martians also have a blue energy screen that can repel the postiive rays (26).


With the exception of howlers such as the Far Too Much Information description of Paula, which sounds as if he took it wholesale from his own story notes, Williamson's descriptive talents are sound. You can tell from the style that he will develop into a good writer, once he matures. And of course he did develop into one of the greatest, a Grand Master of Science Fiction. He died only this year, and wrote continually during most of his life.


"Superscience Conquers All," I guess. There's also a strong moral theory of the need for the superior individual to do what is necessary to serve the greater good. This is rather creepy, given that neither the Prince of Space nor Paula act with much in the way of any moral maturity at any point in this story -- the only even slightly mature reflection the Prince makes is at the very end, and even there he essentially convinces himself that he had no choice but to destroy an entire inhabited planet, including an innocent slave race, when in fact he had a number of other obvious choices.

All I can say about that is that Williamson's philosophy improved over time. Though he always did favor the notion of the superior individual acting to save society -- and there's nothing wrong with that, IF said superior individual isn't a ranting violent megalomaniac, as the Prince impressed me as being.


This story is seriously frightening in that Jack Williamson seems to have considered it as having a happy ending. It's interesting in that it demonstrates two ideas that Williamson would use again, in some far better stories: the Ultimate Weapon and the Superior Man.


(1) Uncoincidentally, precisely 200 years after the story was published -- there is a strong temptation in some science fiction to set stories some round number of years after the time in which they are being written. This is a bit childish, but forgivable as it has no effect on the story's internal logic.

(2) This makes very little sense for three main reasons. First of all, there are mountains higher than two miles: why not put the observatory on top of such a mountain instead of building a very tall tower? Secondly, the skyglow coming from New York City would mess up observation -- Williamson should have known this as it was already a problem to 1920's astronomers. Finally, since they have space travel, why not simply put the observatory either in orbit or on the Moon?

(3) I knew there'd be writing trouble when I read this:

"Paula Trainor was an exquisite being. Her large eyes glowed with a peculiar shade of changing brown. Black hair was shingled close to her shapely head. Her face was small, elfinly beautiful, the skin alomst transparent. But it was the eyes that were remarkable. In their lustrous depths sparkled mingled essence of childish innocence, intuitive, age-old wisdom, and quick intelligence -- intellect that was not coldly reasonable but effervescent, flashing to instictively correct conclusions. It was an oddly baffling face, revealing only the mood of the moment. One could not look at it and say that its owner was good or bad, indulgent or stern, gentle or hard. It could be, if she willed, the perfect mirror of the moment's thought -- but the deep stream of her character flowed unrevealed behind it.
"Bill looked at her keenly, noted all that ..."

Now, this is a poetic description. You can see from this that Jack Williamson would one day be a really good writer. But -- this is one of the worst violations of "show, don't tell" that I have ever seen, because it violates both letter and spirit of that writing rule.

You see, the problem is that Bill has just laid eyes on this girl for the first time in his life. I could understand if he knew her well -- then he would have had the opportunity to see her in various moods, get an insight into how her expressions reflected her personality. However, I cannot for the life of me -- unless we assume that 22nd-century reporters are telepaths -- see how he could possibly be observing all this in a single glance.

"Looked at her keenly" indeed!

(4) Proof that Tormented Byronic Heroes have to be coy about aliases.

(5) With the only Named Characters onboard, it had to be the last surviving ship. Them's the Rules.

(6) Specifically an alias; this wasn't just Jack Williamson running out of names :)

(7) Possibly the first such space hab in the history of science fiction, though Konstantin Tsiolovsky originated the idea, as he did so many others, back around 1900.

(8) Yet couldn't be bothered to warn anyone about. Even though, as we will see, he bothers to do numerous more difficult and dangerous things. Oh, those wacky Byronic heroes, ya gotta love them, down to the last Nemo.

(9) As you can see, the PoS is not what we'd call an "optimist."

(10) One rather wonders why some 2000 of the "best people" the Prince can capture are ok with leaving their lives behind and being enslaved by a violent Byronic madmen -- one would imagine that they might try a revolt, or signal, or something -- but apparently this never happens, or if it does Williamson doesn't really care about it. I do think that Gray Rogers was "Doc" Smith's answer to the question of the inherent morality of populating a space habitat by enslaving random captives.

(11) Really, this level of charisma is difficult to explain without Eddorian mind control. Gray Rogers made a lot more sense.

(12) Including Captain Smith, which is surprising because he had a Name. Though not much of a personality. And a guy called Walker whom we didn't know before, but I bet that if an unknown force ever throws the island of Nantucket back to 1250 BC, the people on Nantucket will have an easier go of it.

(13) Vampiric Martians are of course right out of Wells' War of the Worlds, though I did like the plant-monster touch. While we're on the topic, wouldn't it make more sense for blood-drinking vampires to drink from cattle? They're less likely to put up a fight, and as bigger animals their bodies contain more blood. Ah, well ...

(14) He seems to have no fear that Brand will return to his former Moon Patrol allegiance, which supports my theory of Mind Control.

(15) A battle in which Captain Brand comments that he's fighting his old comrades, a battle in which a few of the Moon Patrol men get killed -- yet there is no real moral problem with this, not even on the part of Captain Brand himself. Again, Mind Control.

(16) This is an extreme example of the "Rainy Day on Mongo" syndrome -- the tendency to treat whole alien worlds as if they were the size of small villages. There is truly no logical reason why Windsor finds the skeleton or diary -- he just happens to be walking across the same tiny bit of Mars that the guy died on. And find the skull exposed rather than buried by the sands.


(17) As opposed to talking to the Prince of Space about this, or settling for somebody else. Even though as far as we can tell, the sum total of their relationship before this has been friendship. Paula, as near as I can tell from this, is as extreme a manic-depressive as a MSTing of her character description would imply. Nobody seems to consider her action all that crazy, just "impulsive."

And, for the information of anyone who doubts this, this WOULD be insane behavior even by the standards of the early 20th century. It would even be at least a little bit impulsive by the standards of Barsoom.

(18) This concept of an Ultimate Weapon capable of destroying literally anything also appears, more famously, in the form of "AKKA" in Williamson's Legion of Space stories.

(19) Dinner, movies, some dancing, a long moonlit walk -- such may be sufficient for ordinary mortals, but not for a Tortured Byronic Hero and a Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.

(20) Apparently, being a power-crazed Byronic Hero means that you can marry someone simply by kissing her and declaring her your wife. This is of course a moot point, as Paula was willing to kill herself rather than be deprived of his love, but it is odd, especially by 1930's moral standards.

(21) To blue (the Martian energy shield) then green (the vitomaton vortex). The color changes really shouldn't worry them as much as the planet then vanishing forever.

(22) And, apparently, the Prince of Space continues to rule his 2000 captives in his City in Space. Never the mind ...

(23) Using a rather bland character as an auctorial point-of-view in limited third-person narrative is not exceptional. Explicitly warning the reader of this fact is, however. I assume Williamson did this to avoid getting the readers too interested in Windsor -- if so, he shouldn't have bothered, because Windsor isn't all that intereresting anyway.

(24) I mean, really. Someone who will credibly attempt suicide because her crush-object, someone she has never actually had a romantic relationship with, just wants to be friends, is someone to whom you would not want to hand a straight razor, let alone an operational Doomsday Device. It makes me seriously worry that Paula's father is keeping that thing -- apparently, even the Prince of Space sees the problem with actually having the Vitamoton around Paula, but it may not have occurred to anyone that Paula probably knows the combination to her father's safe. Or (since she was hanging around when he built it) that she may know how to build another one. I shudder to imagine her PMS, or their marital disputes. Though they would probably kiss and make up:
"Princie, I'm sorry I got so mad at you ..."
"It's all right, Paula."
"I'm sorry I wrecked our bedroom ..."
"It's all right, Paula."
"I'm sorry I disintegrated Venus ..."
"It's all right ... wait a moment, WHAT did you do?"

(25) What makes this worse is that, right after he destroys Mars, the Prince of Space does a little monologue about how tragic it all is:

"A terrible thing .... It is a terrible thing to destroy a world. A world that had been eons in the making, and that might have changed the history of the cosmos ... But they voted for war. We had no choice."

Now, this isn't even true. The Prince of Space has his ship with its superweapon, which he has just demonstrated can stop mile-wide invasion spheres and whole volleys of gigantic atomic bombs. He has his City in Space. He could obviously intercept future Martian fleets and choose to destroy only those objects threatening his forces or the Earth.

Basically, as far as I can tell the only reason he destroyed Mars was that Mars attacked Earth and then it refused to surrender. Not that he explicitly asked it to surrender, either. One might argue military necessity, because of the risk that if he didn't destroy the Martians right NOW the Martians might figure out how to destroy him and the secret of his weapons would die with him, but nobody ever makes this point.

The fact that he seems to have destroyed Mars in a snit fit is scary. What if the Earth pisses him off some day?

(26) Quite plausible, since a strong electromagnetic field would stop weapons whose effects were based on the impact of charged particles.

(c) 2006, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Monday, February 21, 2011

How To Make a Family Conspiracy Theory

How To Make a Family Conspiracy Theory

by Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2006, 2011


I knew someone at work who was convinced that the Rockerfellers and Rothschilds are the Root of All Evil in History. This has led me to consider the basic method of constructing a "family" centered Conspiracy Theory. Here are my conclusions.

Pick A Family

You can't have a good family conspiracy theory without a family to make the conspiracy. So pick a family, any family.

Well, it works best if they are a rich and influential family. This is because a rich and influential family actually will be near the levers of power and hence they make more plausible scapegoats on which to blame bad events. Besides, there's more of a cachet in speculating about the, say, Adams' (the family that gave America two Presidents and several notable intellectuals) or Talbots (the family that produced Prime Ministers Salisbury and Balfour) than about the, say, Bassiors (the family that produced me).

Call them the Family Of Evil (FOE for short). Now that you've decided who the FOE is, you are ready to construct your conspiracy theory.

Degrees of Connection

Now play "degrees of connection" between the FOE and various historical events. If you read any decent biographies of any notable members of the FOE (or even better a biography of the FOE as a whole) you should be able to discover numerous major historical events that members of the FOE actually were directly responsible for. This usually won't be anything openly evil, at least not by the standards of the day (you may get lucky and find a Nazi-trading Prescott Bush or someone like that), but keep track of them. They are the grist for the mill of your Conspiracy Theory.

But go a step farther. Try to determine who the friends, associates, close acquaintance, in short the connections of the FOE are. If you've picked a prominent family to be the FOE, you should be able to find rather a large number of historically important individuals with whom they had some contact. (For instance, with John Adams and John Quincy Adams, your list would include many international figures, every American statesman and virtually every political or literary individual in the state of Massachusetts).

Now, what did these people do? You will probably find that, without going beyond one degree of connection / separation, a good chunk of the elite of the human race is connected to the FOE; take it to two or three degrees and you will have the whole elite. Write down some of the important things that these people did.

The Family Rules

If we were writing real history, we would simply note that the family was connected to these important historical persons and events. But this is a Conspiracy Theory and they are the FOE, so you must keep in mind that in fact any important historical event that any member of the FOE or anyone they knew was connected with was in fact done at the command of the Family of Evil.

Did Arthur Balfour help out Winston Churchill at some stage of his political career? Obviously this was not some mere alliance such as is common in politics. Obviously, the Talbots, FOE, was pulling the strings and Churchill was their mere puppet. In fact, this means that every single thing that Churchill did was actually at the behest of the Talbots! And if we add in all the people who Churchill knew ... it's easy to see that the Talbots secretly manipulated the whole history of the 20th century!!!

One nice thing about this mode of causative "reasoning" is that it is reversible. If we have decided to make the Churchills the FOE, we can decide that it was the Churchills who were callling the tune and the Talbots who were dancing to the music.

The Family Is United

In any real family, there will be disputes. Even in fairly patriarchal cultures, like medieval Europe, members of the family will disagree with the nominal patriarch and insist on doing their own things; perhaps rebelling against the family. (Look at the history of the Norman Kings of England). In less patriarchal cultures, like Victorian England, members may straight out ignore the wishes of their family. Today, family members will often act in complete disregard of family wishes.

Well, not in the FOE.

You must understand that in a FOE, the normal state of affairs is that anything that any member of the family (by blood, adoption or marriage) does is all part of the FOE's gigantic Evil Conspiracy. Choices of college, spouses, and friends are all elements of the Master Plan. No one in the FOE simply hangs out with someone because they are roomies in college and become lifelong friends. It's always a calculated component of the Conspiracy.

Unless they are Rebels, of course. You can tell when someone is a rebel from the FOE because something bad happens to them or their friends. If the bad thing happens to them and is fatal, end of story, and chalk up a remarkable lesson of the FOE's malign power. If the bad thing happens to a friend or is not fatal, either they continue to Rebel (turning away from their Family Evil) or they are chastened and return to the fold.

The merits of this approach is that it makes the personal political. Everything that any member of the FOE does can now be connected to the FOE's overarching design. Bonus points for a family that actually does do something nasty to a troublesome family member, such as the way that Joe and Rose Kennedy handled their horny retarded daughter. For triple bonus points, imply that the nasty thing was somehow directly connected to the evil plan (maybe the Kennedys were experimenting with unholy antediluvian genetic biomancy and it went wrong on the girl?).

Oh, they KNEW

In real life, many of our actions have consequences which are not predictable to us at the time we do them. This is how we get into a lot of trouble, or at least embarassing situations.

But we are not the FOE. The FOE knows the exact consequences of anything they do, generations into the future. Thus if any bad consequences flow from anything they do, they must have been part of the Evil Conspiracy.

To take the Talbots, one thing that Arthur Balfour is famous for is his partition of Palestine and the Transjordan after World War One, which formed the basis of the later UN plan that created the states of Israel and Jordan, and which (thanks to Palestinian diplomatic incompetence) failed to create the state of Palestine. Now, one might reasonably wonder whether a statesman acting around 1920 could have been aware that this would result in a permanent and contested division which would in turn lead to six wars and be used as an excuse for Islamic sociopaths almost a century in the future, right?

Shame on you! This is a Conspiracy Theory! Of COURSE the Talbots knew exactly what they were doing! It was all a cunning ruse to ... [insert goal here] ... and the whole history of the 20th century has been a protracted working-out of their Sinister Design.

The usual rationalization for this sort of thing is that, because the FOE either is part of or is connected to the Secret Masters of the World and of All History, they have special knowledge regarding long-term trends. For instance, the Talbots, being a FOE, would have been well-aware by (say) 1919 of the fact that there was going to be a Second World War, which side would win, and what the rough shape of the world would have looked like in 1948 ... since, of course, the Secret Masters were already planning to make things turn out that way.

History All Happened at Around the Same Time

This is really a more general case of "They KNEW." If we were writing real history, we would watch out to make sure that we were keeping our events in the proper chronological relationship, and in particular avoiding anachronistic motives. For instance in reality it is very unlikely that Prescott Bush, when he was drilling for oil in the 1930's, had the goal of dominating Lunar tri-helium reserves anywhere in his mind, given that flights to the Moon were deemed impossible and both nuclear fusion and tri-helium's importance as a fuel for same were unknown in that era.

But when it comes to the FOE, toss those rules aside! The Talbots probably had some idea of fomenting the Arab-Israeli Wars back when they were serving Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century! How? Um, John Dee (mumble-mumble) Necronomicon (mumble-mumble) Knights Templar. FOE's have truly amazing resources

Pick a Goal

You might be surprised that I'm putting this last, when logically it should be first. But remember, you are uncovering part of the Secret History of the World. You don't know what the goal of the FOE is when you set out -- it's not as if they print it up in little brochures and give it away at free seminars, now is it?

What you do is you look at the most important historical events that you can blame on ... heh, I mean connect to the machinations of the FOE, and then decide what their effects on the world were. And then this was obviously the goal of the FOE from the very start, from the moment that Sam Adams began brewing beer or Prescott Bush drilling for oil or Joe Kennedy running rum, or whatever it is that the FOE did to first become rich enough that you noticed them.

There is bound to be some goal that makes sense, once one remembers that History All Happened At The Same Time, and when one considers just how much history a family prominent for even a few generations is likely to be directly connected to.


I hope I've shown just how easy and fun it can be to construct a Family Conspiracy Theory. I also hope I've shown people just how silly the whole idea actually is.

One last note: I've assumed a Family of Evil because most people choose to imagine Conspiracies seeking Evil ends. But actually the logic works basically the same for a Family of Good (FOG), or simply a Family of Influence (FOI). You can even have multiple families, playing something like the Steve Jackson Illuminati card game with the whole world!

I'd tell you more, but the agents of the Rockefellers are coming to take me away ...


The Star-Rover

"The Star-Rover"

By Yael R. Dragwyla©
1984, 1997 by Yael R. Dragwyla

Across a world too free and wide
For me, I see him stride;
The plains of ice lie white beneath the sun,
And when the day's course is run
They turn to flame and cobalt,
Then to diamonds on black silk.
The tumbled giant's blocks
Of basalt rocks
Moraine across the glaring land,
Dropped there by a careless angel's hand
After Creation's work was done,
To wait for Weather,
Nature's contract-salvager,
To cart them off for making other worlds.
In this world of blowing rock
And adamant ice he stands,
Shielding glare from his questing eyes
With impatient hands,
Searching the skies
For a bridge to other worlds
And other plains
And savannas green and golden
Under yellow suns,
Maroon mountains
Under Tyrian moons
And violet stars,
Topaz rivers
Under rainbow skies,
And the sight of another
Human face.
He paces, all alone,
Relentlessly, then stops
And once again looks out into space,
Remembering green gravity wells
And golden suns,
Remembering blue time,
Hurtling down amethyst canyons of extension,
Measured by dimensions not of mass, but music.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And then, down from firedeeps
Of emptiness, there sweeps
A saffron buttress of flame;
He calls her name,
Raging with joy,
And runs to meet her!
And now he will go home again -
Hah! Don't believe it!
Cradles comfort and feed -
But glory nourishes the soul.
And so, back into the black hole
Of uncertainty he'll go again;
Each time may be his last
(This one almost was -
Remember that fragile,
Silver, crumpled thing
Lying broken on the plain behind,
With seventeen smashed eternities
Stillborn in the charred womb
Of its cindered guts,
And only you survived?) . . .
But then, a man can die of fear
In a nightmare in his own bed.
Better, at least, to die awake,
Knowing what it is that kills you.
And who knows? On the other hand,
You may yet find El Dorado
Or the Fountain of Youth -
At least, there's the hope
Of one more binge and one more woman!
- All right, all right, admit it:
Who knows why?
The stars, my friend, have got you by the guts,
And the only way to stop the pain
Is to draw close to all of them again -
Out there where the Phoenix nests
And the Lords of Chaos reign . . .
And where you see, now and again,
The uncertain ghosts of angels' footprints
And hear moaning whispers of joy
From behind the gates of the Lord of Hosts
And out of the silken green glades of Pan.

Comments:  This poem is from a fine Northwestern lady who is a lifelong science fiction, fantasy and horror fan, and one of the simultaneously most logical and mystical people I know.  I welcome her to Fantastic Worlds, and hope to see more of her here. :-)

Yael Dragwyla is Polaris93 on Livejournal; many more of her writings can be found here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Retro Review - Edmond Hamilton - "The Star Stealers" (1929)


The short stories of Edmond Hamilton, especially his early short stories, are a bit difficult to find. There's the famous anthology The Best of Edmond Hamilton, but even that tends to select from his middle to later work, for the obvious reason that Hamilton improved as a writer as his career continued, and especially after he met and married Leigh Brackett.

So, when I had the chance to read an early Hamilton story in the  anthology Space Opera Renaissance (ed. Hartwell and Cramer, 2006), I had high hopes. Those hopes were, largely, fulfilled. What is more, reading this story made me aware of a major early influence on the genre as a whole.


The story begins aboard an FTL cruiser in the service of the Federation of Suns, commanded by Captain Ran Rarak (1), returning to the Solar System from a two-year patrol of the Galaxy. The cruiser lands on a terraformed Neptune, outermost planet of the system (2) and the main interstellar port.

There, Hurus Hol, a high government official, orders Rarak and his cruiser to investigate a mysterious dark star which is plunging out of intergalactic space on a difficult-to-explain trajectory towards the Solar System. Hol joins them onboard as mission director. Accompanied by a fleet of 50 fast but unarmed courier ships, they proceed to the black star.

Nobody in this Universe has apparently done much voyaging in intergalactic space, and it comes as a surprise to them that there are powerful subetheric vortexes, one of which claims several couriers (3). After this apparent "Random Encounter," they make their way to the mysterious black star.

Surprisingly to them, but not to anyone who's read a lot of science fiction or knows that Hamilton was into mega-scale engineering long before it was routine in the genre, the black star is inhabited and has numerous cities on its surface (4). The fleet moves in to investigate -- and the aliens attack with conical drone-missiles (5) tipped with "etheric bomb" warheads!

Rather swiftly the whole fleet of unarmed courier ships is shot down, save for one possible survivor which may have fled back towards Sol (6). Rarak's cruiser defends itself capably with its "deadly de-cohesion" rays, shooting down most of the cones before they can close to impact. One of the cones nevertheless hits the cruiser and it is shot down, coming to a crash landing on the dark star's surface.

Fortunately, nobody is hurt and the damage is repairable. Even more fortunately, the aliens seem to believe that the cruiser is hors de combat and don't adequately investigate the crash site (7).

In a tradition that would be copied in many future science-fictional works, a party consisting of Rarak, Hol, and the only other two named characters in the story goes on foot to investigate the nearest alien city, where they have seen a curious very large structure. They are captured and Rarak is knocked unconscious.

Rarak awakes weeks later (8), conveniently allowing Hol to summarize what he has learned of the aliens (through their telepathy) in the meantime rather than describing it.

The aliens evolved in a star system which was isolated in the intergalactic void. Consequently, though they developed an advanced technology they could not develop interstellar travel. Stuck in their star system, they faced extinction as their sun began to burn out. They kept themselves alive as long as possible by feeding their planets to its fires, one after another (9). Eventually they were out of planets, the star died anyway, and they colonized its surface.

But they knew that they had only put off their eventual extinction, because their star was still dying. They had only one chance. They were approaching the Milky Way on a trajectory which would cause them to pass by and fly off into intergalactic space again, but not if they could help it! They built colossal "gravity condensers" (tractor beams) which could be focused on a given star and used to exchange momentum with that star. They could, theoretically, slow their own star enough for the Galaxy to capture them -- at the price of tearing a star out of the Milky Way and hurling that sun into the void.

Guess which star they picked? (10)Well, no way is Our Hero going to stand for that! And if he needed further motivation, one of his (Named Character) pals got vivisected while he was in Sleepy Land. So Rarak and his friends Bust Out and make their way back to the cruiser (which, deprived of Named Characters, simply waited around for the weeks that Rarak has lain unconscious, instead of sending out a search party or anything like that) (11).
They get back to the ship with the cone-drones in hot pursuit and occasionally making pyrotechnic displays (which nevertheless fail to kill or even really hurt any of the Named Character escapees). Rarak decides that he must knock out the gravity condenser (conveniently located in the city they scouted out) (12).

The cruiser takes off, and is attacked by a swarm of the cone-drones. At this point, Dal Nara, one of the Named Characters who went off with Rarak on the expedition, informs Rarak that the "ray-tanks" are empty and thus the cruiser is defenseless! (13).

They are about to be destroyed by hundreds of the cone-drones when the Solar Fleet shows up to save them (14), having been summoned by the one courier ship that got away. The Fleet blasts the cone-drones to bits. But the Fleet doesn't know about the gravity condenser and thus isn't bombarding the installation.

So Rarak decides to ram the condenser with his cruiser (15). He does this, the condenser is smashed, and for whatever reason involving Hamilton's technological assumptions this doesn't even slightly damage the cruiser. The aliens for some reason break off the attack, Rarak and the Solar Fleet fly away triumphant, and the dark star sails off into the intergalactic void, its population apparently doomed (16).


Virtually nil. The characterization, or lack thereof, is the weakest part of this story. There are only four named characters -- Ran Rarak (the Captain), Hurus Hol (the High Government Official and Scientist), Dal Nara (the Second Officer and Official Sidekick) and Nal Jak, the taciturn but alert "wheelman" (helmsman or pilot in modern sf-nal parlance).

Ran Rarak seems to have no personality beyond being a Hero and enjoying interstellar travel. Hurus Hol is a Mouth Which Walks source of exposition -- because of the plot structure we don't even get to see his telepathic negotiations with the aliens, which might have been interesting. Dal Nara is cheerful, perky and bright, which she does show a couple of times in action, making her by far the most emotionally present character in the story. Nal Jak exists as far as I can tell only to get vivisected (off camera), which pisses off Ran Rarak because they are old friends.

What makes matters worse is that the non-named characters seem to have zero initiative, unless it is to do something convenient to the plot from the Hero's POV. And if it is more convenient to the plot to have them FAIL to do something they logically should have done (like check if their ray-tanks had any fuel in them) then they fail to do that thing.

The effect is of a world mostly populated by rather stupid robots with a few rather bland real people doing everything that needs to be done. Needless to say, this is a bad effect, and not one entirely excusable because of the era -- other pulp stories being written around the same time, such as the Doc Savage series, had much better characterization, even of unimportant one-shot characters such as enemy guards. Even some space opera of the day was better-characterized -- look at The Skylark of Space, for example (17).Hamilton would get a LOT better at this aspect of writing. If he hadn't, he wouldn't be famous today.


This is pretty good. One reason is that this story was part of a series; another that High Concept was one of Hamilton's writing strengths, even this early in his career.

His description of the terraformed Neptune is very short but reasonably colorful, and in the process of doing so he gets to describe in passing several other aspects of his Federation, a good technique because it makes us actually care what happens to the people of his future world (18).

Rarak's space cruiser is pretty cool, despite the fact that it apparently has no name (19). It has "de-transforming generators" (whatever that means) capable of propelling it at almost 1000 C (Warp 10 to ST: TOS fans) (20). It also has "deadly de-coherence rays" (21). The ship has no energy shields, but does have an unreasonably tough hull, as it demonstrates by surviving a hit by an etheric bomb, a crash on the dead star's surface, and ramming the gravitic condenser, all without taking any severe damage. It appears to have artificial gravity and inertial compensators, since people can stand and walk normally inside it regardless of any normal maneuevers: these are not perfect and sometimes crew are thrown about the "bridge-room."

This is clearly the spiritual ancestor of many science fictional space cruisers :)

The aliens seem physically rather Lovecraftian: here's Hamilton's description:

"... Imagine an upright cone of black flesh, several feet in diameter and three or more feet in height, supported by a dozen or more smooth long tentacles which branched from its lower end -- supple, boneless octopus-arms which held the cone-body upright and which served both as arms and legs. And near the top of that cone trunk were the only features, the twin tiny orifices which were the ears and a single round and red-rimmed white eye, set between them."

They in fact seem, physically, a bit like the Great Race of Yith, from Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time." This is interesting, because "The Star Stealers" was published in Weird Tales, in 1929 -- almost a decade before the publication of Lovecraft's story -- which also centers on a human being trapped in an alien city. It is possible that Lovecraft was influenced in his choice of body-types by Hamilton's tale.

The alien culture, however, is never described. This is a serious failing, because we never get a sense of the alien motivation beyond the desire for sheer survival: it's not obvious why this survival necessarily requires the abduction of the star of an inhabited system, nor why the aliens are so callous as to do so if they have any other stars to pick, nor why it's impossible for the Federation and the aliens to come to some other solution.

It's also a rather silly failing, because the very structure of the back-story makes it obvious why the aliens might be callous and indifferent to peaceful solutions. They are a telepathic species who have been trapped in their star system long enough for their sun to go out -- even in 1920's physics terms, that means hundreds of millions of years. They probably don't even grasp the notion that any form of life other than their own even MIGHT have any moral claim on them. Their culture is also probably very stagnant and ritualized, since there can't have been much opportunity for change by outside stimuli.

All this is plausible, but it doesn't occur to Hamilton to even consider it a problem. And this is not purely a 1920's pulp failing -- compare with Skylark of Space (1919), in which "Doc" Smith gives the various alien races that Seaton encounters all sorts of varying cultures and thus motivations to either help or hinder the heroes. Even Wells, in 1899, gave his Martians at least three good motives to invade the Earth and care little for the fate of the human species. And Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels focused heavily on alien cultures -- they were in many ways early examples of the "first contact" genre.

Because of this failing, we have no way to judge whether or not the Federation is justified in simply hurling the Dark Star back into the intergalactic void, resulting in the aliens' presumed ultimate doom (22). This is a serious flaw, because of the story's theme.

The alien technology, what we see of it, is somewhat interesting -- the cone-drones (or kamikazes) with their etheric-bomb warheads; and the giant gravity condenser. The battles are sparsely but interestingly described. One particular point is that Edmond Hamilton realized that energy-beams, while they lasted, would provide a highly effective defense against missiles -- this is very advanced thinking for an era that was just beginning to grasp the air threat to surface warships!

There are a couple of scientific oddities involving the Dark Star itself. For one thing, why does Hamilton (or Rarak, anyway) assume that it and the Milky Way Galaxy are mutually inacessible just because it is now out of the range of the gravity condensers? It is clearly within range of Federation starships, and the aliens probably have a lot of wreckage to examine. Not having read any of the other books in this series, I don't know whether or not Hamilton ever addresses this obvious point.

The biggie, however, is this:

Even granted that the Dark Star has condensed to a solid body, or at least formed a solid crust, whose surface is at a temperature consistent with people walking around on it unprotected, and has been terraformed by the aliens to an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere -- granted the assumptions of 1920's science which make this seem plausible --

How does the Dark Star have a surface gravity around that of the Earth's? I could make some assumptions about this, given the fact that we know that the aliens have achieved tremendous control over gravity, but Hamilton did not explain or even mention the issue. The "normal" surface gravity of the Dark Star should have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of times that of the Earth, given 1920's physics assumptions (23).


Here Hamilton shines -- he was already a poetically gifted prose author. His images of the austere beauty of deep space, of the crowded shipping lanes around Neptune, of the strange cargoes from alien worlds, and of the creepy surface, city and inhabitants of the Dark Star really make the story. One can see already hints of the the greater writer that Hamilton would become by the Golden Age.


The grandeur and wonder of space and space travel, and the harshness of the struggle to survive in an uncaring Universe. Generally well done, but marred by the lack of description of the alien culture, which leads one to wonder whether it was really impossible to come to a peaceful solution.

ConclusionThis was a good science fiction story by 1929 standards, and it was fun to read today. For me, one of the big revelations of this story was that the oldest roots of Star Trek stretch back further than "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" or A. E. Van Vogt's "Space Beagle" series. It is very clear to me that the basic character premise of this story -- heroic space captain commands star cruiser in the service of a peaceful multi-species Federation, fending off dangers to the peoples of that Federation -- is identical to that Roddenberry used for Star Trek. Indeed, this series (called the "Interstellar Patrol" in the Hamilton sites I accessed) may have been one of the strong inspirations for "Doc" Smith, in particular.

I'm very glad that I was able to read this story, and wish I could locate the others written in that universe.


(1) - Everyone in this story has a name which is not based on anything from English. This sounds "pulpy," but when one considers that the setting is at least 200 thousand years in the future, it's perfectly plausible -- why wouldn't names change over time? Hamilton's love of alliteration is also clear in some of the names, something which he would repeat in his scripting of Superman comics from the late 1940's through the early1960's.

(2) -
 A statement outdated the year this story was published with the discovery and designation of Pluto as a "planet," and then once again validated this year with the removal of the official "planet" status from that small world.

(3) -  In the light of later developments, it is quite possible that the vortex represented hostile action, so this is less silly than it sounds. It is odd that nobody has ever flown outside the Galaxy before, but then Ranak's cruiser is an advanced ship with a newly-invented drive: maybe earlier ship classes weren't capable of such a voyage?

(4) -  Reading about the "inexplicable" trajectory of the star made it obvious to me that this would be one of those stories in which a super-powerful alien race had put some sort of engine on their homeworld and was flying it around as a giant spaceship. By the way, Konstantin Tsiolovsky was the first to come up with this idea, around 1900.

Oh, and the "inhabited" star concept isn't a scientific error on Hamilton's part. The star had died and its surface temperature was in the humanly-habitable range. This would be very improbable by modern astrophysical theory, but in 1929 nobody really understood nuclear fusion, and in any case the aliens had obviously terraformed the dead star.

(5) - Or, possibly, kamikaze fighter-craft. We never find out which.  Incidentally, Hamilton was writing both before the Japanese made kamikaze tactics famous, and the first surface-to-air missiles were employed, by the Germans, in World War II.

(6) -  This represents an annoying tendency in the old pulps, which was continued in quite a lot of modern video science fiction, in which a large fleet is assembled most of whose components apparently exist in order to get destroyed as a narrative device to convince us that the enemy really means business. As in this story, it is accompanied by incredibly inept tactics -- why did the whole fleet have to move together as a unit to investigate, and why didn't Ranak or Hol order the unarmed couriers to try to escape back to the Solar System? After all, one normally would have "couriers" to carry messages, not to serve as so many sacrifices to the God Of Putting Enormous Explosions In Space Opera Stories! All I can say is that an awful lot of (never-characterized) brave men and women die in these tales in order to make the hero look good.

(7) - This struck me as more than a bit stupid on the part of the aliens.  You'd think they'd want to find out how the Federation's technology worked, and capturing an intact wreck would advance that end, right? 

On the other hand, they had apparently had little or no experience with any other races for a very long time (as we find out later), so maybe they had forgotten how to fight wars intelligently -- in particular, the importance of studying enemy capabilities.

(8) - And yet neither permanently physically nor impaired in any way, shape or form. Oh, for the convenient knockouts of pulp stories, which put you out of action for whatever amount of time the author finds convenient, but do no lasting damage!

(9) - Remember again that in 1929 nobody knew why a star actually shined: one common assumption was some sort of nuclear fission, and under that assumption (because nobody really knew how nuclear fission worked either) feeding extra matter to the "matter-energy furnace" would make sense.

(10) - Given the number of stars in the Milky Way, and the position of Sol (which is NOT at an arm edge), we got awfully unlucky. On the other hand, Hamilton's Galaxy is generally inhabited, so someone was liable to get unlucky; furthermore the details of Sol's positioning within the Galaxy were not as widely known in 1929 as they are today.

(11) - This gets into another bad pulp cliche: most characters are just spear-carriers who do not take any action if left alone; even most of the Named Characters do nothing useful until the One and Only Hero tells them to act. Sometimes we complain today about mega-novels with dozens of characters being hard to follow: well, this is what space opera looks like with only one dynamic character!

(12) - Unless they picked that city originally when making their descent because of the gravity condenser being located there (which is nowhere stated or even implied), this is VERY improbable. The dark star is supposed to have been a super-supergiant (bigger than Betelgeuse): its surface area would thus be many orders of magnitude larger than the Earth; the chance of landing anywhere near the gravity condenser would seem low. If I were rewriting this story, I would change it so that they were attracted to that city because of "unsual etheric emanations" from it -- the way that the technology works this would actually make sense. But Hamilton didn't consider this point.

(13) - I have no idea what the de-coherence ray is using for fuel. I do find it a bit curious that nobody bothered to tell Rarak that the ray-tanks were empty BEFORE he launched his attack on the gravity condenser. It's almost as if it's because only a Named Character would think of paying attention to a detail like that.

(14) - Just In The Nick Of Time rescues like this were a cliche the pulp stories beat to death, then tenderized the remains and sold them to fast food chains. It's even stupider when it's Just In The Nick Of Time across long interstellar distances.

(15) - It is never explained why Rarak can't simply contact the fleet by radio and tell them to bombard the condenser. This is a serious plot flaw, in my opinion, because the fleet is obviously very close to them, so signal lag shouldn't matter that much; and if Hamilton wants to believe, in 1929, that his super-duper science-fictional space cruisers don't have radios, he has absolutely no excuse -- one of the obsessions of early hard sf was radio and radio-like technologies!

(16) - Oddly, despite the fact that the Federation has starships capable of reaching the dark star, and that Hurus Hol, a high government official, was in telepathic contact with the aliens, and that in the story universe that this is a part of, the Federation includes many different races, it seems never to occur to Hurus Hol, or anyone in the story, that the Federation's starships offer an obvious solution to the isolation and long-term doom of the Dark Star aliens. This may or may not be a fatal error -- it is possible that Hurus Hol tried to suggest this to the aliens during their telepathic conversations while Rarak was unconscious. Still, it should have been mentioned, at least in a "I offered them a peaceful solution but they rejected it" sort of way. I can only assume that the idea didn't occur to Hamilton either.

(17) - That early in his career, E. E. "Doc" Smith had not yet mastered the art of characterization either, but he did a smart thing -- he called in a writer of romance fiction to help him on the book to improve his character writing. The result is that even the first Skylark novel seems to be about real people, which is one of the reasons why it made a strong impact on the nascent science fiction community.

(18) - Hamilton seems to have gotten the point, in this and other early stories, that the emotional impact of threatening a fictional world with destruction is greater if you actually tell the readers something sympathetic or interesting about that fictional world. Not all writers of the era realized this, so he should get points for this.

(19) - One annoying attitude common to a lot of early 20th century science fiction was the notion that numbers were somehow more "scientific" and "futuristic" than names, with the result that nobody actually named anything. This notion is present in Gernsback's most famous story, as expressed in the designation of the titular character.

(20) - This may be one of the first explicit FTL drives in science fiction. In Skylark of Space, "Doc" Smith originally assumed that one can travel FTL by simply applying sufficient thrust. Hamilton never describes the principle of the "de-transforming generator," but one might imagine that what it does is prevent the distortion of space, time and mass (the "transformation") experienced at high velocities. Since this distortion is normal, this would make it a "warp drive" in modern parlance.

(21) - One of the many "disintegrator" beams common to much early and some later science fiction. It projects some sort of energy which produces green light as a secondary effect, and works by destroying the "cohesion of particles" in the target. I would assume that it is disrupting chemical rather than nuclear bonds, because targets simply glow with a green light and fall to pieces, rather than violently exploding.

(22) - They have, of course, committed numerous acts of war against the Federation, including firing on their fleet, destroying 49 courier ships, and torturing a prisoner to death, And they were planning to hurl Sol into the void, presumably inflicting the same fate upon its system as they suffered themselves (they didn't realize that with starships the Federation could in the long run rescue the inhabitants). So they clearly aren't nice guys.

(23) - Given modern physics assumption, it would of course have collapsed once it stopped burning, gone off as a quasar-scale supernova, and left a large black hole behind. We may imagine that the aliens did things to prevent this from happening, since this chain of events would have been Incredibly Bad from the alien POV.

(c) 2006, 2011 Jordan S. Bassior

The Fall of Oz

"The Fall of Oz"

by Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2006

I warned you all. Oh, no, you said. The Gnome King just wants peaceful atomic power. Oh no, you said. Surely he must realize that Oz is an American ally, and what would happen to him if he used his arsenal.

So you didn't want to hit their reactors.

And now the Emerald City is a smoking ruin and Ozma's missing, possibly dead; American boys are dying on the Other Side of the Rainbow trying to winkle his troops out of their tunnels; and nobody knows when this war will end or how many will die before it's through.

And the images -- the pitifully half-melted Glass Cat; the few burnt rags that used to be the Patchwork Girl, still talking because the Potion of Life can work even if there is only a few bits left ...

The horror. The horror ...


Practically everything referenced in this short-short is the creation and property of L. Frank Baum and his heirs, save where copyrights may have lapsed.  Atomic power, nuclear weapons, US military intervention, and foot-dragging on foreign policy are all too real, as is "the horror," though Joseph Conrad referenced it in The Heart of Darkness. :)