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


  1. Peaceful solution raises the question of how long we want these folks as neighbors.

  2. Oh, indeed it does -- the Star Stealers had previously shown themselves to be highly aggressive and with absolutely no respect for any non-Star Stealer life. Merely pointing out that the issue isn't even discussed in the story.