Thursday, August 30, 2012

Retro Review - A Conquest of Two Worlds (1932) by Edmond Hamilton

"Retro Review -

A Conquest of Two Worlds

(c) 1932

by Edmond Hamilton

(including a Suggested Chronology)"

(c) 2007, 2012

by Jordan S. Bassior


This was my third-ever review of an Edmond Hamilton short story. It was also one of my biggest surprises, because while I had read it before, I was amazed that the story hadn't previously made a deeper impression on me. Since it is one of Hamilton's darker stories, this may be because I had previously rejected it for emotional reasons.

I guess this means I'm more mature, in terms of my ability to digest something tragic, than I was as a younger man.

I had to do a quick-and-dirty word count (get an average words-per-line times lines-per-page times pages of story) to determine that this work is only about 10,000 words long, and hence really is a "short story" rather than a "novella." I say this because I've rarely read a story as compact, in terms of the amount of plot squeezed into such a small space. While this is technically a "short story" by length, it is more like a short novel in terms of structure. More on this later, but this is essentially why my synopsis is going to be both rather cursory, and yet rather long.


The story starts by introducing its three main characters: Jimmy Crane, Mart Halkett and Mark Burnham. When we meet them they are young men (1), enrolled in "a New York technical school" (later textual evidence makes it clear that this is a college) (2). The terms in which they are first described evoke such strong feelings of warm happy nostalgia that they deserve a full quote:

"Crane, Halkett and Burnham had been an inseperable trio since boyhood. They had fought youthful foes together, had wrestled together with their lessons, and now read together, as an amazed world was reading, of Ross Gillen's stupendous exploit."

Reminds me of my own young manhood. Probably reminded Edmond Hamilton of his own manhood, and for sure it would have described the current, or recently past, lives of most of the Wonder Stories readership -- intellectual teenagers or young men. This is deliberate: Hamilton wants his audience to identify with them, because it makes what is going to happen to them -- and their friendship -- all the sadder.

Ross Gillen, a "stubby, shy and bespectacled Arizona scientist" (3) after 16 years of effort invents an atomic reactor which gets energy by fissioning atoms "with a simple projector of electrical forces of terrific voltage." (4) He then calls in Anson Drake (5) who helps him build "an atom blast mechanism that would shoot forth as a rocket stream, exploded atoms of immeasurable force, a tremendous means of propulsion." (6)

Gillen and Drake, over the winter, build a one-man rocketship (7). Gillen pilots it to Venus ("a landless, water-covered ball") and Mercury ("a mass of molten rock"), finding it impossible to land on either (8). Then he heads to Mars, discovering "thin but breathable air," an "arid world of red deserts and gray oases" fed by underground springs of water. It is inhabited by a race of humanoid sapient nomads, "man-like beings with stilt-like legs and arms, with huge bulging chests and bulbous heads covered with light fur." (9) He makes friendly contact with the Martians, and discovers large mineral and chemical deposits.

Gillen then proceeds to Jupiter, which has a solid surface and is warmed by its own internal heat to habitable temperatures at that surface (10). The giant world is "without oceans, warm and steamy and clad from pole to pole with forests of great fern growths. The Jovians ... were erect-walking creatures with big, soft hairless bodies and with thick arms and legs ending in flippers instead of hands or feet. Their heads were small and round, with large dark eyes. They lived peacefully in large communities in the fern forests, on fruits and roots. They had few weapons and were of child-like friendliness."

The Jovian humidity and gravity make Gillen ill, and he returns to Earth. He assumes that the worlds farther out are "hopelessly cold and uninhabitable," anyway.

The world goes "mad with excitement" at these radio reports (11). Gillen crashes on landing and is found dead in his rocket, but "with a smile upon his lips." (12)

Anson Drake (13) builds ten rockets for a second expedition. The nations of Earth set aside their grievances and form an "Interplanetary Council" to manage Man's expansion into space (14). They name Drake the commander of the planned Mars expedition. Crane, Halkett and Burnham graduate just in time to join this expedition (15).

There are technical problems, which cause a great loss of life. Half of the crew is temporarily incapacitated by "space sickness" (combined UV radiation, weightlessness, and depression). Two of the ten rockets are destroyed in "a meteor swarm" (16), and one is destroyed upon landing. Of the remaining seven, three are damaged in the landing, leaving only four functional ships. The survivors (including Burnham) are plagued by "Martian fever," an environmental disease (probably partially psychological in nature).

At first the Martians are friendly, and some men (including Halkett) learn their language and culture. However, when the Martians learn that Earth plans to colonize Mars, their mood becomes more hostile. Tensions rise, and one of the guards "wantonly shoots" a Martian. The natives rush the camp.

Drake quickly adapts the plasma rockets into atomic flamethrowers (17), and with this and other Earth weapons the Earthlings beat off the Martian attack. Drake is besieged, and the Interplanetary Council orders him to return.

Because he has only four working rockets, he cannot bring back all his men. He sends many (including the trio) back in those four, and remains with some of the men to try to repair the other three. The Martians attack again, and overwhelm the camp. Drake and all his men are slaughtered (18).

This outrages the people of Earth, which helps to justify actions that they might have undertaken anyway out of greed for the Martian natural resources. An Army of the Interplanetary Council is organized, and a hundred rockets are constructed for a third Martian expedition. Technology is improved: plasma cannons ("atom-blast weapons") and atomic bombs (from the descriptions, small tactical devices) are built. "Magnetic field" meteor warning systems (19), UV shielded viewports (20), and "recoil harnesses" (to reduce acceleration injuries and somehow also space sickness) are added to the new rockets as design improvements. "Special oxygenation treatments" are devised to reduce the effects of Martian fever. Richard Weathering, who had been Drake's second-in-command on the earlier expedition, is to command this one (21).

Crane, Halkett and Burnham, who are quite valued for their previous experience, join this new Army, and are at once commissioned lieutenants (22). Halkett is uncertain about the morality of participating in the conquest of Mars, but Crane and Burnham help persuade him to join in the expedition. Crane even doubts that there will be any fighting (23).

Showing the superiority of the new designs, 97 of the 100 rockets land safely. However, they are attacked by the Martians almost immediately after landing. The Martians have developed group tactics and incendiary weapons (24). Fortunately, Weathering quickly got his men grouped, brought the rockets together, and entrenched, deploying his "atom blast" plasma cannons to defend a perimeter. Crane commands one and Halkett another of the atom-blast batteries.

The Martians try to keep Weathering besieged but Weathering sends out parties to devastate the nearby oases which are the source of Martian food supplies. Crane leads one of these missions. The Martians are forced to pull back from the Army camp (25).

Having secured local mastery, Weathering then splits his force into three divisions, sending two of them to establish forts at two other points forming a triangle of three forces around the equator of the planet (26). He commands the division at his first base: the two new bases are placed under Crane and Lanson (27).

Weathering sends 80 ships back to Earth for reinforcements, and 50 new rockets are constructed back there. More and more men and machines come from the Earth to Mars.

The Martians launch a final desperate offensive that overwhelms Lanson's post, with the loss of his whole garrison. It is largely Halkett's personal courage and energy, in command of the atom-blasts, that saves Weathering's main base from a similar fate (28). Weathering puts Halkett in command of the relief expedition that retakes Lanson's fort.

More and more men come to Mars and the Martian resistance fades out. Weathering establishes more and more forts and devastates a wider and wider area of the oases, driving the Martians out from much of their former territory. Within a year, there are 50 such forts. By now, Crane has become Weathering's second in command, and Halkett and Burnham each command a fort.

Under Weathering's authority, Crane launches a campaign of systematic genocide (29), clearing out the Martians from first one and then another region of the planet. The survivors are herded into camps. Within a year, 75% of the Martian race is dead, and the remainder are little threat. Earth has conquered the Martians.

Weathering is congratulated by the Interplanetary Council. He and Crane return to Earth, where Crane is given command of the expedition to Jupiter. Crane bids a fond forewell to his old friends Halkett and Burnham.

On Earth, Crane prepares an expedition of 200 rockets. Exoskeletal powered armor (30), bone supplements, and respirators are devised to protect the men from the Jovian gravity and humidity.

Despite the best precautions, 16 of the 200 rockets are lost en route to Jupiter (31). This is largely due to casualties in the Asteroid Belt (32). The surviving 184 rockets land in Jupiter's southern hemisphere.

Jupiter is a hostile environment. The respirators work only imperfectly, and many men come down with "Jovian croup." There is dangerous wildlife: "some of them disk-shaped things that enveloped anything living in their bodies and ingested it directly" (33), and huge worms. Only by keeping their plasma cannons at the ready are operations possible.

Crane makes peaceful contact with the Jovians. Crane wants to avoid a repeat of the war with the Martians. He finds them to be as intelligent and even more peaceful than the Martians at first contact: unlike the Martians, they use their spears only against the wildlife (34).

Meanwhile, back on Mars, Halkett and Burnham each command a fort. Halkett sees swarms of miners and businessmen descend upon Mars, swelling new towns and profiting from the blood shed by his comrades. The surviving Martians are confined to the reservations and abused and scorned by the human immigrants.

Halkett confides his moral qualms about this situation to Burnham, but Burnham does not understand. Burnham sees the displacement of the Martians as inevitable, and is quite happy with the successful growth of the human colonies on Mars.

Halkett goes to Jupiter, where Crane welcomes him as an assistant in the Jovian venture. Crane is enthusiastic about the future possibilities of Jupiter as a home for Man, and assures him that he means to try to keep the peace wit the Jovians Halkett learns the Jovian language and becomes a valuable interpreter for his old friend.

But trouble soon breaks out in a lethal brawl between Earthlings and Jovians at one of the human forts. The Jovians send a delegation demanding a cessation to Earthling immigration to Jupiter: Crane refuses, and then some nameless fool slaughters the Jovian delegation as it leaves the fort (35). The Jovians go on the war-path.

The Jovians swarm the twelve human forts on Jupiter, one of them commanded by Halkett. The natives are almost unarmed save for spears, but they are physically powerful and outnumber the Earthlings 10,000 to 1. The humans man their atom-blasts and hold on, awaiting reinforcement from Earth.

One post falls, but the Jovians merely take prisoner its men rather than slaughtering them: they are less bloodthirsty than were the Martians (36). This is especially remarkable as they lost hundreds of thousands of their own poeple taking the position (37).

Crane receives his reinforcements and the crisis is past. He systematically strengthens his forts and eventually establishes a network of a hundred, gaining control over the southern Jovian hemisphere in a protracted struggle with atom-bomb and atom-blast, slaughtering countless Jovians.

Then, shockingly, Halkett turns traitor! While commanding an atom-blast battery "anvil" and Burnham and an officer named James (38) the "hammers" in an envelopment battle, Halkett refuses to fire on the retreating Jovians and lets them escape. Crane, saddened, tries to find a way to help his old friend avoid court-martial, but Halkett confesses that he failed to fire because he felt sorry for the Jovians.

Halkett is shipped back to Earth and court-martialed. At his trial he passionately cries out for the rights of the Jovian natives (39). He is sentenced to ten years in a military prison, where he works on atom-blast and atom-bomb production lines.

After five years, he is released for good behavior (40). And promptly disappears.

Crane prepares for two years, builds a mighty army and invades the Jovian North Hemisphere. His advance is slow but systematic. The Jovians attempt guerilla fighting using the forests as cover, but Crane's forces blast away the forests as they advance to counter this strategy (41).

Then the IPC army encounters an unexpected setback. The Jovians counterattack, this time with atom-blasts and atom-bombs!

They are being led by Halkett, who on his release defected to the Jovian side and taught them secrets of advanced technology (42).

The population of Earth furiously demands the death of Halkett. The Council orders Crane to refrain from any negotiations with the renegade. Crane and Burnham are stunned by the treason of their former friend -- Crane refuses to believe it, while Burnham insists that it must be true. Finally, Crane accepts reality.

Crane's advance resumes, though this time more cautiously. The Jovians have only a few atomic weapons and handle them inexpertly, but their possession of any at all, coupled with their numerical superiority, makes them a force to be reckoned with. The Earth forces have the advantage of command and control, however, as the Jovians as yet also have few radios (43). Crane uses this advantage to deliver concentrated thrusts into the Jovian lines (44). He also uses the advantage of airmobility conferred to him by his rocket ships to redeploy his forces more rapidly than can Halkett (45).

Though Halkett gave the Earthmen a nasty surprise, Crane is backed by the power of a civilized planet, and the outcome is inevitable. Halkett is forced to retreat, building one after another defense lines in an attempt to delay defeat as long as possible (46).

Halkett establishes a vast refugee camp near the north pole where he collects millions of Jovians, and also large quantities of war materials including his arsenal of atomic weapons. Crane attempts a drive against this base, but Halkett concentrates his forces and builds fortresses around it. Crane systematically reduces these fortresses Finally it comes down to this: the last stand of Halkett and the Jovians against Crane and the Army of the IPC.

At this moment, Crane violates the instructions given him by the Interplanetary Council and treats with Halkett by messenger. The rebel refuses to surrender unless the Jovians are given back their planet. Crane neither wants to kill his old friend nor to continue slaughtering the Jovians, but he certainly cannot grant Halkett any such terms.

Crane and Burnham personally treat with Crane under a white flag. Crane again refuses to surrender, claiming he has "a way out" for the Jovians. He wonders what Gillen would have thought of the outcome of his great discovery (47). Crane bitterly regrets the circumstance that has led to the trio of Burnham, Crane and Halkett being split and put on opposing sides of a great war.

Crane and Burnham leave. The order is given to attack. In a bloody battle, the IPC Army carries the Jovian works. As the Jovian situation becomes hopeless, there is a vast explosion.

Halkett has detonated the atomic arsenal. Halkett, and the last rebel Jovians, alike perish.

Crane sends the message: "Last Jovian base taken and renegade Jovian leader Halkett dead. Jupiter undre complete control Accept my resignation from Council Army. Crane."

And the war is over.


I said that this was a short story in length, and a novel in structure. Note that there is neither unity of time nor place -- the events described take something like 13-14 years, and take place over almost all those years, rather than just being a few scenes separated by a lot of offstage time. They also take place on three planets -- Earth, Mars and Jupiter. The sheer volume of incident is also remarkable for a tale only 10 thousand words long.

How does Hamilton do this? By ruthlessly paring away detail. To begin with, whole hard-fought battles, sometimes campaigns, are described in a paragraph or less (48). Characters are even more ruthlessly reduced to the attributes essential to the story. Of the three main characters, we get a strong sense of their personalities only as regards their opinion of Terrestrial imperialism: everything else we fill in ourselves.

While reading this, I was struck by the difference between how Hamilton wrote this, under the constraints of 1930's pulp sf, and how someone would write this today. For this is a very early example of the genre which we would now call "military science fiction," complete with the focus on battles and the protagonists' rise in rank through the course of their experiences.

Suppose that David Drake, Eric Flint, or David F. Weber had written "A Conquest of Two Worlds", blessed as they would be now by the ability to easily sell books to publishers and to their audiences. This would be a novel, more likely a trilogy of novels, with the characters fully delineated and the battles and technologies described in loving detail.

In a sense, ACoTW is almost an outline of its tale, rather than a fully realized story. This is both good and bad -- the story does not bog down, but I was left wishing for more specifics. I don't know that I ever finished a story, especially a short story, wishing more powerfully that people wrote fanfics on science fiction this old.

The second thing that is amazing is how dark a story this is for one about Man's expansion into space. As I mention in the Notes, ACoTW appears as you enter it to be setting up the "brave inventors and exlorers open Space to Man" situation. The hope of atomic energy enabling spaceflight was near-universal in the fan community of the 1930's (49); Halkett, Burnham and Crane are idealized versions of fans: smart, brave, and technically knowledgable, they are the kind of people with whom the audience would identify completely.

Why, the development of atomic energy and spaceflight even leads to a World Government! Keep in mind that this was written at a time when the League of Nations was beginning to come apart, when in fact the world would be at war again in another 5-9 years. About the only way this could have been better is if someone had found an immortality serum on one of the new worlds.

And yet it all goes So Horribly Wrong. Human greed and aggression makes it impossible to live peacefully with the Martians or the Jovians (50). Conflict leads to genocidal war, the more inevitable because nobody on the human side in a position to decide really wants to end it. The reason why Halkett is so horribly disillusioned at the coming of the exploiters and speculators to Mars is that they make it obvious to him why -- and for whom -- he and his comrades fought, killed, and in many cases died in battle.

What makes the story even darker is its resolution. The good guys do not win. Halkett is ground to dust in the mills of History, and with him most of the Martians and Jovians (51). Crane triumphs, but his triumph is bitter: at the end he realizes how thoroughly he and his friends have been used, and he resigns his commission. Burnham, alone -- because he's the least intelligent of the trio -- never fully understands what happened, but I doubt that he's happy at the end.

And Earth, now confirmed in the virtues of imperialism and with a system for conquest in place, presumably will go on with its aggression. We do not know if there are any other inhabitable planets in the Solar System (52), nor any other sapient races, but obviously if there are any, the Army of the Interplanetary Council will subdue them and take their worlds.

This is darkness beyond even annihilation, because what Hamilton is saying is that WE are the evil Invaders From Space. This might be a common sentiment today -- so common, indeed, that it has become more than a bit silly as a plot element -- but it was fresh when Hamilton wrote this tale, and the impact is powerful.

Notably, Hamilton does not let the ultimate evil of the cause detract from the heroism of the deeds. The Earthmen are shown fighting technical problems, hostile wildlife, and disease. What they do, even with their superior technology, in beating off native hordes vastly superior to their own, requires courage and determination. We moderns should remember this: just because a cause is bad does not mean that its adherents are cowards (53).


The story, sadly, does not name a single real year. However, we can construct an internal chronology, which we can perhaps relate to the real world by the obvious fact that World War II probably never happened.

Now, in fact, Ernest Rutherford first split the atom in 1919, and published his findings in 1921. Let us take this year as the point when Gillen first began working on the "problem of atomic power." This means that Gillen succeeds in 1937 -- a very good year to distract the energies of the Great Powers from war!

On this tentative chronology, we get

Y-21 (1916) Birth of Jimmy Crane, Mart Halkett, and Hall Burnham.

Y-16 (1921) Ross Gillen begins working on the "problem of atomic power."

Y0 (1937) Gillen develops his atomic engine and launches on his historic explorations of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. He crashes and dies on his return to Earth.

Formation of the Interplanetary Council by the Great Powers of Earth, to avoid war between the Earthly nations over Martian and Jovian resources.

Anson Drake launches his 10-ship expedition to Mars. Halkett, Burnham and Crane are among the crew. Disaster, defeat and retreat.

Y1 (1938) Weathering leads his 100-ship expedition to Mars. Halkett, Burnham and Crane are among the officers. Establishment of first permanent Terrestrial forts on Mars.

Y2 (1939) A network of 50 Terrestrial forts established on Mars.

Y3 (1940) Subjugation of Mars by system of forts and destruction of oasis-plants; annihilation of three-fourths of the Martian race.

Y4 (1941) Crane given command of the expedition to Jupiter: he spends a half year on Earth preparing 200 ships, with equipment and men. Halkett grows increasingly disillusioned on Mars; Burnham also on Mars.

Y5 (1942) Crane lands on Jupiter, establishes system of forts in the Southern Hemisphere. After a time Halkett and Burnham come to join him.

Earthmen kill Jovians; Jovians rise against Earthmen. Heavy fighting: Crane barely holds on. Halkett first fights heroically, then refuses to fight. Halkett is court-martialled and sent to prison.

Y6-Y9 (1943-46) Slow, systematic conquest of South Jupiter by Crane's forces.

Y10 (1947) Crane begins preparations for the invasion of the Jovian Northern Hemisphere. Halkett is released, and defects to the Jovians.

Y12 (1948) Crane invades the Northern Hemisphere. His forces advance, and then are repulsed by counterattacks with atomic weapons! It is now realized that Halkett has defected to the foe.

Y13 (1949) Reorganizing, and advancing more cautiously, Crane conquers the Northern Hemisphere.

Y14 (1950) Halkett's Last Stand, and Suicide. Jupiter conquered. Crane resigns his commission.

And thus we complete the first half of the 20th century, with Man standing triumphant over the ruins of two races, and many of those who in OTL no doubt supervised the murders of the Jews and Ukranians in charge of the reservation-camps on Mars and Jupiter. What may not Man accomplish in the second half of this most momentous century -- or beyond?

The Interplanetary Council

This world government is formed to prevent the Great Powers from fighting wars over possession of Martian and Jovian resources.  By my chronology this happens in 1937, which is an interesting point in time from a historical viewpoint.

Now, note that before 1937, nothing happens which should have much affected large-scale history.  We may thus presume that this Council included not only America, Britain, China and France, but also Imperial Japan, Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

This is important because we know (as Edmond Hamilton certainly did not in 1932, when among other things neither Hitler nor Stalin had yet come to full power) that this list of Great Powers includes four extremely nasty aggressor-states:  Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy -- the four Powers which were in fact to start World War II in our time line (54), and three of which were to commit among the most massive acts of genocide in human history (though curiously, not the most, as Red China is in 1937 merely some northern provinces).

In fact, 1937 is the year in which the first of the group of wars that were later to be known as "World War II" started in our time line -- the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.  These wars never happen, because far richer and less well-guarded prizes attract the aggressors to Mars and Jupiter.  It's not so much that this horror is averted, but that this horror falls upon the Martians and Jovians.

Much of the behavior of the Interplanetary Council, which seems so ruthless from our point of view, can be explained by remembering two things.  First, the group of statesmen upon whom everyone is counting to render fair and rational decisions includes Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the Japanese military junta.  Second, even the democracies were much more ruthless in the Interwar Era than is the case today.

What's more, there are institutional factors to consider.  While America and Britain seem to be (based on the names of the persons prominent in the Army) the dominant players on the Interplanetary Council, they obviously can't be completely cutting out the dictatorships, or World War II wouldn't have been averted.  This means that, among the statesmen who are setting policy on how to deal with the natives of Mars and Jupiter are Hitler and Stalin.  As we know, even the characters from the democracies have but scant sympathy for the natives.  How much sympathy do you suppose the Nazis and Communists have for non-humans?

One wonders at the politics of the military organization of the IPC Army. Were formations integrated, with any commander and any troops mingled willy-nilly? Surely, such a policy would have been difficult for practical reasons (think of all the languages!) and also for political reasons (how eager would Fascists be to serve under Communists, or vice versa? Would either Fascist of Communist states feel comfortable letting their nationals absorb foreign ways?).

It's more likely that troops were separated into national contingents, at first (in the smaller-scale early Martian fighting) perhaps very small ones indeed, especially for the smaller Powers such as Belgium, Holland or Spain. This could lead to some tremendous "color," especially given that characters famous in our time line might very well have leaped at the chance to join the Martian and Jovian Expeditions.  Military men such as Patton, Rommel, Guderian, Zhukov, Yamamoto ... or for that matter, among the ""scientists of Earth" such luminaries as Tesla, Einstein, Heisenberg, Fermi and Sikorsky.

Generational Dynamics

Those perusing the chronology may notice that the Interplanetary Wars were fought between 1937-50, which means that the people who fought the wars were the very same "G.I." or "Greatest" Generation who in OTL fought World War II and the Korean War. Essentially, war on Earth was averted by the diversion of human aggressive energies to Mars and Jupiter.  One may also assume that the Great Depression ended with the deployment of atomic power and the tremedous demand for war materiels.

One wonders what happens next.  With Mars and Jupiter now firmly under Earthly control, a lot of wealth must now be pouring into Earthly coffers.  The 1940's through 1960's of the alternate time line will be, as in our time line, an age of tremendous wealth and luxury by all previous standards -- the more so because this Earth hasn't been devastated by the Second World War.  The young adults of that time will be a Silent Generation:  those who were too young and thus stayed home during the great epic of interplanetary warfare, benefitted from the victory, but are forever forced to feel obscurely second-rate and denied leadership.

There might even be a Cold War.  With the end of the Interplanetary Wars, and all Great Powers now possessing atomic weapons, surely world leaders will eye each other suspiciously.  The Interplanetary Council will play the role in OTL played by the United Nations in trying to damp down these tensions:  as an aggressive, imperialistic and above all pragmatic organization, it may do better than the UN did in OTL.  Which, given the multi-lateral nature of the ATL's nuclear standoff, may be all to the good.

But then will surely come the Baby Boom -- perhaps a bit later than in OTL, since the major warfare only ends in 1950.  All those children will grow up in the 1960's, and the 1970's may well see the development of a Counterculture.  There may be brushfire wars -- on or off Earth -- to help drive college students to antiwar activism.  As for civil rights, not only will many of the same issues which motivated the college students in the 1960's still exist in the ATL, there will also be the issue of the treatment of the Martians and Jovians (many of the Martians survived the Wars, and while a lower percent of Jovians did, they started from a larger base population).

This alternate time line has a whole interesting future:  one, alas, unlikely to be written, as Hamilton is long-dead, and no one is really interested in the pre-1960's concept of the Solar System any more.  Unless someone is, and he writes fan-fiction?


This is a great and powerful story, and deserves more attention. I suspect that the main reason it isn't more famous is that it is so dark -- it thoroughly subverts the kind of tale for which fans usually read the Interwar era pulps.

Awesome, simply awesome.

(1) -  A distinction less meaningful in the early 1930's than it is today: remember that the concept of "teenagers" as a subculture was not yet popular.

(2) - Halkett, Burnham and Crane are around 21 years old at the time of the Gillen flight and 22 years old at the time of the Drake expedition, based on later textual evidence.

(3) -  I.e., what we would now call a "geek" or a "nerd."

(4) -  The particle-accelerator model of atomic energy, quite popular in interwar science fiction because particle accelerators were in fact what were used to first discover the structure of the atom. Hamilton was writing 15 years after Ernest Rutherford was the first to deliberately induce fission in nitrogen, and the same year that Cockcroft and Walton, under Rutherford's leadership, first split the atom with a particle accelerator. Interestingly, if one substitutes "laser" for "particle accelerator," this is not dissimilar to how we are currently working on nuclear fusion reactors: the key in both cases to a practical power system is to get out more energy than one puts into the reaction.

(5) -  It is amusing that in one paragraph Hamilton accidentally puns the names of two individuals who would go on to become famous science fiction writers, and even funnier because at the time he probably knew neither man. I'm talking, of course, about Harry Clement Stubbs (aka "Hal Clement") and Robert Anson Heinlein.

(6) -  We would today term this device a "plasma rocket." Aside from his assumption of a particle accelerator as nuclear catalyst, Hamilton here has both his physics and engineering dead accurate: the obvious way to directly apply atomic energy to propulsion is by generating a plasma, and a physicist would probably need some serious engineering help to control the plasma thus generated. I go on at length on this topic because pulp science-fiction is frequently accused of technobabble -- here, the terminology Hamilton uses is outdated but the concept is correct.

(7) -  Ah, if only it were that easy! Then again, we know very little of the materials technology of this alternate history -- it may well be in advance of our own.

(8) -  This is not an unreasonable early-1930's guess about the two inner planets. Dead wrong, but then they did not yet have radio astronomy, much less space probes.

(9) -  A fairly standard, and plausible, interwar view of Mars. That the natives are technologically primitive is important to the subsequent plot.

(10) -  As was generally believed at the time.  The modern understanding of the structure of a gas giant had not yet been attained.

(11) -  Hamilton gets it right: space explorers would radio their findings back home rather than report them only upon their return.

(12) -  By dying at this point, Gillen keeps his innocence in his own perception -- he is mercifully spared the knowledge of the terrible things that will ensue as a consequence of his discoveries.

(13) -  Note that name. A man named "Anson Drake" is not going to be full of warm soft loving kindness to all life, now will he?

(14) -  I cannot adequately emphasize how much this story, so far, is following the lines of A Dream Come True for science fiction fans in 1932. The reality was the Great Depression and the collapse of liberal democracy: the dream is the discovery of atomic energy which leads to space travel and an end to war between human nations. This is important, for the Dream is to go so Horribly Wrong ...

(15) -  Making this even more A Dream Come True, if you identify with the trio, as the readers probably did.

(16) -  It was not yet appreciated just how rare meteors big enough to seriously damage spaceships actually are.

(17) -  A workable idea, though not one easy to do rapidly. Then again, Drake is a brilliant engineer.

(18) -  There are obvious parallels here with the first Columbus expedition, in that initially-friendly natives are angered to violence, resulting in the loss of an outpost left behind, and the reason why the outpost was left behind was that the explorer had less ships than he started out with. What is different is that Drake dies too.

(19) -  In modern terminology, "radars" -- though the device outlined, using the interruptions of magnetic field lines rather than radio beams, would be considerably less efficient and sensitive than radar as it was actually developed, and would require some fairly techno-babblish engineering to work at all.

(20) -  It's not so much the UV as the harder frequencies that turn out to be a problem in reality, but of course when Hamilton was writing nobody knew this.

(21) -  He hasn't been mentioned before, and this is a flaw in the narrative. Ideally, he should have been introduced during Drake's expedition, perhaps given some role to play in the fighting. Hamilton is to repeat this mistake with another character. What this shows is that he wrote the story fast, and how difficult revision must have been before the invention of the word processor -- much like spaceflight before the invention of the magnetic meteor detector! :)

(22) -  A greater honor than one might imagine -- I got the impression that there are many military officers who were majors, colonels, or even generals in the service of Earthly Powers who would gladly have accepted commissions as junior officers in the Army of the Interplanetary Council!

(23) -  Thus, it is the combined influence of The Dream and of the idyllic friendship described at the story's start that sends Halkett to meet his destiny.

(24) -  Neither is as easy as it sounds: I suspect that the Martians either once had a higher civilization, or did have a higher-than-apparent civilization, which manifested in less-than-obvious cultural and technological pursuits which the first two expeditions missed noticing.

(25) -  What is remarkable is the extent to which these are good strategies and tactics. Hamilton was evidently knowledgable in military history -- note that he correctly identifies the key importance of logistics in warfare. Most science fiction writers of the era would instead have focused on the power of the atom-blasts!

(26) -  Hamilton doesn't emphasize this, but this is a good idea owing to the nature of orbital mechanics. Weathering is making sure that he can launch or land ships at any time for any destination, anywhere on the planet. The only thing that a modern leader would do differently is to set up recon satellites -- and we do not know that Weathering does NOT do that!

(27) -  Another character introduced just at this point. In Lanson's case, he is wearing a definite Red Shirt :)

(28) -  Importantly, this shows that Halkett is neither shirker nor coward.  His later actions would have a very different moral meaning to both the reader and to his own two childhood friends were he to advocate peace primarily for either reason.

(29) -  This story of course predates the Holocaust. Hamilton's main models were of course the Spanish and American conquests of the Americas, and possibly (if he had heard of them) the Boer War and the German campaign against the Herreros in South West Africa. It is notable that the Martian campaign is popular back home, based on the internal evidence: the Interplanetary Council makes a half-hearted attempt to offer the Martians peace, but the offer is never transmitted by Weathering and Crane, and the Council doesn't seem to care.

(30) -  One of the first uses of powered armor in science fiction, according to It precedes "Doc" Smith's in Galactic Patrol by at least five years.

(31) -  I wish that we would be willing to accept 8% losses in space ventures. But Hamilton is working from historical models that include the early East Indian trade, on which losses of 67 percent were deemed normal!

(32) -  The early science fictional idea of the Belt as extremely hazardous to spaceship passage, owing to a misconception of its particulate density, is operating here. In fact the Belt would be slightly more dangerous than other interplanetary space in the ecliptic, for that reason, but not all that much more so.

(33) -  Pre-dating and perhaps inspiring Weinbaum's "doughpots" from his Venus in "Parasite Planet."

(34) -  At an average of 8' high and 6' wide under over two gravities, the Jovians must be physically very powerful!

(35) -  One could look at this as a tragic accident, or as an inevitable consequence of a learned human contempt for extraterrestrials. It is clearly against Crane's policy, as the reinforcements have not yet arrived.  This is one of several examples in the story of corrupt, institutional and popular pressures defeating heroic good intentions.

(36) -  Playing to "planetary type," as the Martians were somewhat warlike, and the Jovians are, well ... jovial.

(37) -  Few human armies, then or now, would be so merciful.

(38) - Mentioned only here, and never to reappear in the story.

(39) -  Which arouses absolutely no sympathy, and much outrage, from a very pro-imperialistic population.  This makes perfect sense, as most Earthmen have no reason to feel any sympathy for the Jovians, and this is happening in 1942 -- which in our time line, was the height of World War II.

(40) -  One suspects in this the hand of Crane, who must be a very influential person with the Interplanetary Council by now, given his highly visible role in the campaigns on both Mars and Jupiter.

(41) - With both plasma guns and atomic bombs. This is an early science-fictional example of deliberate defoliation as a tactic.  In reality, it has been normal since ancient times to defoliate around fortresses to be defended:  here, atomic energy makes it possible to rapidly defoliate large portions of a superterrestrial planet.

(42) -  One wonders, however, just where Halkett got the necessary equipment to enable the Jovians to produce atomic weapons of their own. Even granted the large Jovian workforce, and pulp-era assumptions about the ability of Lone Geniuses to figure out how to make the tools to make the tools, etc., going from stone-tipped spears to plasma guns and tactical nuclear weapons is quite a leap. Perhaps Halkett was not as entirely bereft of Earthly sympathizers as it might seem? Perhaps he was backed by some factions on Earth being cut out of the profits from the interplanetary colonies, and wanting to take the Interplanetary Council down a peg?

(43) - Yet again Hamilton shows his military acumen: few pulp authors of this era realized the importance of communications in warfare. In fact the next good science-fictional example of this is "Doc" Smith, in the Lensman novels.

(44) -  Strangely, there is no mention here of armored fighting vehicles, or indeed in the story of any vehicles at all save for the rocket ships. Nor are any aircraft referred to in the text. This gives the battles a curiously archaic feel, like the late 19th century colonial wars, but with atomic and beam weapons fire support. This may have been Hamilton's intent, or he simply may not have put much faith in the 1918-19 Allied war plans.

Logically, one must assume that there are at least some utility and recon trucks and planes, but that they are not present in sufficient numbers to enable much in the way of air and mobile warfare. This was the reality of World War One, and of many of the small wars in the Interwar Era. The logistical requirements of maintaining a supply line for them stretching all the way back to Earth may be the reason for this state of affairs.

(45) - And yet Hamilton tosses this away in one quick line -- airmobility, a rather advanced concept for 1932, when even paratroops were very much a military speculation, and the first practical helicopter still lay almost a decade in the future. One is led to imagine a Vietnam War like situation (the real war, not the TV version) with Crane using his rocketships on Jupiter the way that US Armed Forces used their airmobile cavalry in Vietnam.

(46) - Not an irrational strategy, as the Interplanetary Council might weary of the war. But, alas for Halkett and his Jovians, we may assume that the home front morale held firm.

(47) -  Gillen would have been horrified, I suspect, which is clearly what Halkett (and Hamilton) was implying by this question.

(48) -  E. E. "Doc" Smith would use a similar narrative compression in parts of his Lensman series, a decade later.  It is necessary to tell a sweeping tale.

(49) -  I still believe that, as we work the poison of our fear of nuclear technology out of our system, we will ride atomic rockets to the other planets. But that's a whole other issue from what I'm discussing here.

(50) -  Even though they are completely harmless to Man on Earth. Neither the Martians nor the Jovians has attained anything beyond an Iron Age technology, and most of their technology is Stone Age. It would be a long, long time before the Earth would need to worry about an invasion from either of those planets. All the fighting occurs because Earthlings insist on going over to their planets and taking over.

(51) - We know for sure that some Jovians survive in reservation-camps.  We do not know how much of their culture survives.

(52) -  Mercury clearly isn't; Venus is water-covered but not necessarily either uninhabitable or uninhabited; we have only Gillen's hypothesis that Saturn and the worlds beyond are too cold for life, since neither he nor -- as far as we know from the story, anyone, has ever been there.

(53) -  Hamilton's models were clearly the conquistadores and the American frontier-fighters. To me, it also evoked images of the Germans defeating much larger Soviet armies, or the Japanese larger Chinese ones, on the WWII battlefields that when Hamilton wrote the story were still innocent of human blood.

(54) - For obvious reasons, Russia later spent a lot of effort trying to make everyone forget about this, but in the run-up to World War II, the Soviets were frequently aligned with the Nazis against the democracies (most notably after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939), until Hitler decided to scream-and-leap on Russia in 1941.  They were also, most notably in the Spanish Civil War, on the side of the democracies against the Nazis, which shows how confusing diplomacy can be when the alliance structure hasn't yet hardened.  For that matter, Fascist Italy was on the side of the democracies against both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union until 1935, and Germany was (at least theoretically) on the side of the Republic of China against the Red Chinese until Japan attacked America in 1941.


  1. One notes that in many respects the Nazis at least viewed (non-Jewish) Communists as potential Nazis. The Poisonous Mushroom includes a story where a man is explaining Communism to a troop of Hitler Youth, and he used to be one. Or this account of a meeting, where a Communist switches sides after an inter-party brawl.

    Then, the Communists, perhaps, were less welcoming.

  2. That's a good point, Mary. There might be a lot of intrigue on the Interplanetary Council and in its agencies, with Nazis and Communists trying to subvert each other's members. There also might be a lot of cross-defections, which it would be difficult to prevent while keeping the Council active and united.

    I wonder if fighting ever resumes on Earth, perhaps made more virulent by the long Earthly peace since the Great War tapered out after 1918? (remember that for Russia in particular peace didn't come until around 1920-22 as the Russian Civil War died down) A Second World War would immediately be highly-destructive, with sub-orbital manned rockets dropping atom bombs from the outset: it's possible or even likely that the Earthly Powers would uprate the tactical bombs they used in the Interplanetary War to strategic city-killers, or worse, for this purpose.

    An alternate then to my 1970's Boomer anti-imperialistic sentiments leading to a tendency to restore rights to the surviving Martians and Jovians would be a highly-destructive Second World War sometime in the 1950's or later (my guess would be 1970's or 1980's owing to the need for a split to harden and both sides to get ready). There might be no victor, or a victor far too weakened by the costs of victory to hold onto the interplanetary conquests. This might lead to the birth of new human independent nations on Mars, Jupiter or elsewhere (possibly more than one such nation), or even a native resurgence. Possibly both.