Tag Archives: edmond hamilton

[March 3, 1962] Getting Somewhere (the April 1962 Amazing)

[The precocious Mr. Boston continues to take time from his busy high school schedule to provide coverage of Cele Goldsmith’s marquee digest: Amazing, the longest lived of the sff mags.  I am deeply grateful to John for his eloquent reviews.  I understand that he lives in particularly dull and uninspired part of the country, so I shouldn’t wonder that he has time to escape to lands of fantasy…]

by John Boston

The April Amazing opens with a bang: the cover is a startling departure from the usual humdrum machinery.  There’s a spacesuit in the foreground, but badly used, missing a glove and a boot, stuffed with straw, and held upright on a pole like a scarecrow, against a surreal background of reddish and yellow desert, a vast cloud of violet smoke, and a washed-out greenish sky.  Strikingly imaginative symbolic work by artist Lloyd Birmingham?  No, mostly illustrative: this tableau is from the first paragraph of Mark Clifton’s lead short story Hang Head, Vandal! But it is unusual and eye-catching, and Birmingham does get credit (if that’s the word) for the garish color scheme.

Clifton’s story is as relentlessly misanthropic as the recently-serialized Pawn of the Black Fleet, but a sixth as long, with no words wasted.  We need to test a new atomic reaction that we’re not sure we can stop; why not do it on Mars, which is empty?  Turns out it’s not as empty as we thought, and sure enough, we can’t stop the reaction and the attendant genocide.  It’s taste of ashes time—but they’re really high-quality ashes.  Clifton has long been preoccupied with the unsatisfactory nature of humankind, and what might be done to redeem it; see They’d Rather Be Right, featuring a machine that will make us immortal if we will let go of our prejudices.  At this point, though, Clifton seems to have given up on redemption.  Four stars for compressed eloquence.

J.G. Ballard is back with his best yet in the US magazines.  Thirteen to Centaurus opens in the Station, an isolated habitat containing four families, and 16-year-old Abel is figuring out too much.  Dr. Francis, who functions as teacher and a sort of psychological supervisor, brings him in for a talk, and reveals the truth: the Station is a spaceship en route to the nearest star, though Abel won’t live to see it; they are 50 years into the multi-generation journey.  Then Dr. Francis climbs out the secret exit and we see the real truth: the spaceship is a mock-up sitting on Earth, its residents experimental subjects.  And the people in charge, who have gotten a little uncomfortable that those who consented to this treatment are long dead, have decided to shut it down, albeit gradually. 

When Dr. Francis hears this, he flees back into the station, telling his superiors that the people inside are now going to need him even more—but exactly who’s needy isn’t so clear.  There is also a power shift going on during Dr. Francis’s mentorship of Abel; it’s no longer so clear who’s in charge.  And there is a final revelation which I won’t mention.  The bottom line is that Ballard is less impressed than most of his SF colleagues with Man the Rational Problem-Solver; here, he proposes that humans may sometimes be driven to—and be happier—adhering to and living lives based on world-views that they know to be false.

The story is far from perfect; it depends on the vague notion of “conditioning,” which allows Ballard to control what and how much his characters are able to perceive—otherwise the deception could never have lasted. But once you get past this handwaving implausibility, it’s a sharply original angle on some familiar ideas, smoothly and precisely written, with a kind of psychological insight that is rare in the SF mags.  I am near-sighted, and every couple of years I need a new pair of glasses.  (I’m told this will get better as I get older.) Reading Ballard after reading his competitors reminds me of getting new glasses: suddenly everything is just a little sharper and clearer.  Four stars—especially lustrous ones.

Edmond Hamilton, long nicknamed “World-Wrecker,” and perpetrator of the determinedly juvenile Captain Future, has his first appearance in the SF magazines since 1958, when the pulpy digests he frequented—Imagination, Imaginative Tales, and its successor Space Travel—died.  In Requiem, Hamilton’s characters are not wrecking any worlds; the Earth, long evacuated, is being wrecked by natural causes.  Captain Kellon, under orders, has brought a spaceship full of superficial and bickering media personalities to Earth to document its destruction, though he doesn’t see the point of it. 

But he starts taking long walks and finds an old ruined house (“Ross and Jennie—Their House” is written in the half-buried cement of the terrace).  He hangs out there, reflecting on the lives of Ross and Jennie and all their fellows and ancestors and civilization, whose traces are shortly to be destroyed.  And when it’s time to leave, he makes one last gesture of respect.  This fundamentally sentimental story could easily have become intolerable but is told with a quiet restraint that is surprising from the author of Crashing Suns, Battle for the Stars, etc.  Three stars, with a hat-tip for adroit precipice-walking.

Edward Wellen has had a scattering of stories in the SF magazines since 1952, and more recently, several in crime fiction magazines; if he’s much known at all, it’s probably for his ”non-fact articles” in Galaxy like Origins of Galactic Slang.  His novelette Flashback is an SF crime story: child shoots child in a schoolyard; a “forensic biophysics” inspector shows up to investigate; it’s his son who is dead; investigation shows that the gun materialized out of nowhere and belonged to someone 150 years dead.  From there it’s the old Ourobourosian time paradox plot, utterly implausible but perfectly readable, if sometimes annoying because of ostentatious displays of cleverness and little fragments of futuristic decoration mixed in like raisins in a pudding.  Some of these are amusing, though: “He had helped [dead child] Jimmy with semantics problems: ‘True or false.  Eye is to gag as egg is to moo.’ ” Vector sum: three stars, delivered with a grimace.

In Robert Hoskins’s Second Chance, the protagonist has invented psychic time travel and hopes to get a rich guy to pay to go back and straighten out his life.  Trouble is, when he gets back, he no longer remembers the things that, now, never happened.  Hoskins, whose resume consists of three mediocre stories in the UK magazines, adds no value to this familiar gimmick.  Two pretty dull stars.

The Classic Reprint is Spawn of the Ray by Maurice Duclos, from Amazing in 1938; he had several other stories in Amazing’s companion Fantastic Adventures.  The feckless protagonist irradiates microscopic flagellata (sic) with a cathode ray tube, they get big and get away, et cetera ad tedium.  One star.

Sam Moskowitz has another “SF Profile,” Isaac Asimov: Genius in the Candy Store, a reasonably capable and informative account of Asimov’s SF career to date.  As with Moskowitz’s previous articles, one could wish for greater detail and more attention to some of Asimov’s lesser known work, but, realistically, not within the space limits of a 146-page fiction magazine.  Four stars, even if partly by default — no one else is doing anything like this.

Benedict Breadfruit is present, and commendably brief.

Amazing has shown a sharp improvement in its last two issues.  The obvious question is whether they can keep it up.

[April 7, 1960] Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair (The Haunted Stars)

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.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.