From the stars comes a warning… and a challenge.
Time permitting, I like to read a new science fiction book at least once a month. The digests are reliable sources of good stuff, but there is only so far a writer can develop an idea in the space of a novella or short story. Sure, there are occasionally serials in the magazines, but then one has to wait three months to see how they turn out.
There were three science fiction books released last month, so far as I can tell. One was a collection of Murray Leinster stories called The Aliens. I understand its best story is the eponymous lead novella, which I reviewed earlier. Louis Charbonneau released a science fiction horror called Corpus Earthling that I haven’t had a chance to pick up.
And then there was The Haunted Stars, by Edmond Hamilton. Hamilton is a bit of an elder statesman when it comes to science fiction. He wrote for the pulps as far back as the 20s, and his writing is stylistically rather archaic.
An example from Stars:
“Fairlie looked up at the sky as he followed Hill. Orion strode mightily toward the zenith, followed by the upward-leaping stars of Canis Major, and all the heavens were sown with constellations that wavered wind-bright. He remembered what Christensen had said, that both long-ago enemies had conquered interstellar space, not just interplanetary.”
Not that this is a bad thing. I grew up on Burroughs and Howard and Lovecraft, and I can go for some purple prose every so often.
His latest novel stars urbanite linguist, Robert Fairlie. When alien artifacts are found in 30,000 year old ruins on the Moon (in 1965—Hamilton is an optimist), Fairlie is tapped as part of a deciphering team. The alien language is translated with remarkable speed after Fairlie, on a whim, uses Sumerian as a guide. It turns out that the aliens are completely human, and it is likely that terrestrial humanity are the race’s descendants.
Along with this discovery comes a chilling revelation: the aliens did not abandon the stars willingly. Rather, some other faction wiped out their star empire to a planet, and then admonished them never to attempt star travel again.
Well, who can resist a challenge like that? Thus, our government works feverishly to develop a starship using alien technology for a mission to the alien’s home star of Altair.
Stars is actually quite reminiscent of Raymond Jones’ book, The Aliens. My favorite part of both tales is the linguistic challenge in the beginning. One of my very favorite stories, H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual, is only about the translation of an alien tongue. A similar nonfiction example is presented in C.W. Ceram’s recent book, The Secret of the Hittites.
I suppose most readers will not be sated by long discussions of phonology and vowel shift, however. Hamilton does deliver the literary goods in a punchy, articulate fashion. While the plot is paint-by-numbers and the characters largely forgettable, there are some masterful touches that make the book worthy reading.
Hamilton takes the time to convey everyday feelings: cold, boredom, fatigue. These mundane bits are often foregone. There is a particularly good, almost stream-of-consciousness, passage through most of Chapter 11 as a trepidatious Fairlie packs for his star trek to Altair. The descriptions of an alien world, superficially similar to Earth but subtly wrong are well done.
There is interesting technology, too. At one point the scientists all marvel at these little alien recording spheres. They don’t utilize analog magnetic patterns (as one sees in wire and tape recorders) but rather some kind of etched information, perhaps digital, read with some kind of narrow beam. I’ve never seen this concept before; it’s very exciting yet plausible.
All in all, I rate the book a solid 3 stars out of 5. It’s not literature for the ages, but it is competent and fun stuff. Pick it up while it’s in the bookstores, and send me a letter telling me what you think. I’ll post it in this column, of course.
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