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