Tag Archives: edmond hamilton

[August 12, 1962] FEH (the September 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

This September Amazing continues the magazine’s slide into mediocrity after the promise of the year’s earlier issues. 

Keith Laumer’s serial A Trace of Memory concludes, and it’s quite disappointing, in part because it compares so poorly to last year’s Worlds of the Imperium, in part because it seemed to start so well.  The protagonist, who is down and out after a sequence of ridiculously bad luck, is pulled out of the gutter (well, out of a police station) by a strange rich guy called Foster who seems to have lived for centuries, has an indestructible old journal to prove it, but doesn’t remember who he is or how he got here.  Also, it turns out, he is being stalked by even stranger, and dangerous, globular creatures, who catch up to him as the protagonist joins him, leading to a chase across country, and ultimately across the ocean, to escape them and track his origins. 

That first half was quite fast-paced and well-written if a bit over the top.  However, the second half takes the protagonist to Vallon, Foster’s home planet (not a spoiler; it’s telegraphed from the beginning), which has degenerated to a sort of cartoony gangster feudalism, against which backdrop the protagonist performs ever more preposterous feats of physical and mental prowess, dissipating the momentum of the earlier parts and quickly becoming tedious.  Also: upon seeing the July cover illustration of Stonehenge, I joked at the time that I feared winding up in Atlantis.  That doesn’t happen, but Laumer reveals another legendary motif which is just about as silly. 

Speaking of legends, early on, the protagonist introduces himself: “ ‘My name’s Legion,’ I said.” OK, stop right there.  As everybody in this Bible Belt town knows, even me, when Jesus was confronted by a man possessed by an “unclean spirit” and asked his name, the guy said, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” (Mark 5:1-5:9) So Laumer’s protagonist is in effect claiming to be a horde of demons.  I’m thinking of Chekhov’s dictum that if there’s a gun on the wall in Act One, it should be fired in the next act.  Those demons never do get fired.  Two stars (and if it had gone on longer it would have worked its way down to one).

The cover story is Edmond Hamilton’s short story Sunfire!, which continues Hamilton’s transition from Space Opera to Mope Opera.  Space explorer Kellard has slunk home to Earth and moved back, alone, into his ancestral house, refusing all contacts with his colleagues at Survey, because something happened on Mercury and two of his fellows died, and it’s so terrible he can never talk about it.  So Survey comes after him, having not accepted his resignation, and packs him off back to Mercury even though—or maybe because—he still won’t say a word about what happened there. 

It’s actually not much of a secret to anyone who has looked at the cover and seen the fiery aliens, looking like crude but imaginative Hallowe’en costumes.  They’re telepathic, too, and Kellard got a full dose of how free and playful they are, traversing the universe and frolicking among and in the stars.  “No, the ecstacy was one that men would never know except at secondhand through this brief contact!  The glorious rush together of the star-children through the vast abysses, drinking up the energy of the radiation about them.” Etc. It makes being human and tramping around on cold and too, too solid planets seem pointless, and Kellard is never going to burden anyone else with this awful knowledge. 

Sorry, I don’t buy it, and neither does the head of Survey, who gets Kellard’s point once he too meets the aliens, but doesn’t think just having the planets of the universe is such a bad deal.  Like any sensible person he’s ready to tell the world about this rather interesting discovery.  Despite the artificiality of its problem, the story is well turned and, with this and Requiem from the April issue, Hamilton is clearly working hard at making the transition to a less obsolete kind of SF than the space opera he is better known for.  Splitting the difference between good intentions and lack of plausibility, three stars.  If you can believe in Kellard’s reaction, you’ll like it better than I did.

Edward Wellen’s Apocryphal Fragment is a mildly clever vignette (so labelled on the contents page) in which Doubting Thomas encounters a jinni in the Negev.  Something this slight should be rated in asteroids rather than stars, but if I must . . . two stars.

The other short story is Whistler, by David Rome (reputedly a pseudonym for one David Boutland); it’s the first US appearance of an author who has published nine stories in little more than a year in New Worlds and its companions in the UK.  Unfortunately it is an insipid though well-meaning message story about the evils of bigotry in the space lanes, almost as short as Wellen’s.  One star.

That leaves the Classic Reprint, The Ice Man by William Withers Douglas, from the February 1930 Amazing.  The narrator is an ancient Roman citizen brought to the New York of 1928 through a classical version of suspended animation.  He expects this account to be transmitted to his countrymen back home, in hopes that someone will rescue him from the insane asylum where he has ended up.  It recounts his initial captivity by a rather annoying if not quite mad scientist, and his observations of modern times—fire engines, women’s fashion, etc. etc.—once he has made his escape.  It’s reasonably well written, and any two or three pages of it are quite amusing.  Unfortunately there are 34.  Two stars.

Ben Bova has another installment of his series on extraterrestrial life, The Inevitability of Life, which reviews what’s known (or believed to be known) about the origins of life in chemical evolution and physical processes.  There’s a good case that the chemical and physical components of life arise inevitably through natural processes, though Bova is a little hazy on how the deal is closed and organic chemicals become living matter.  Nonetheless, three stars for lucid exposition of interesting material, particularly welcome in an issue where there’s not much else of interest.

Benedict Breadfruit abideth.

[April 15, 1962] REGRESSION TO THE MEAN (the May 1962 Amazing)


by John Boston

Last month, I asked: can they keep it up?  Amazing’s marked increase in quality, that is.  Well, no, not this month anyway.

The May 1962 Amazing labors under a large handicap: half of it is given over to The Airlords of Han by Philip Francis Nowlan, the second Buck Rogers novella, reprinted from the March 1929 issue.  It starts with a synopsis by Anthony (the Buck has not yet passed) of his emergence from 500 years of suspended animation to discover an America dominated by “the Airlords of Han, fierce Mongolians, who . . . had in their blood a taint not of this earth.”  But now, the Americans hiding in the woods have mostly retaken the continent while the Han remain huddled in their cities; “the positions of the Yellow and the White Races in America had been reversed.” So it’s Yellow Peril time again!

The good news: Nowlan is quite a facile writer for his time, his style livelier and less stilted than in many of these alleged Classic Reprints.  But the substance often gets tedious fast, consisting in good part of catalogues of military tactics, weapons, and the uniforms of the various Gangs (led by Bosses) of rusticated Americans.  Here Anthony describes a weapon he designed:

It was a long-gun which I had adapted for bayonet tactics such as American troops used in the First World War, in the Twentieth Century.  It was about the length of the ancient rifle, and was fitted with a short knife bayonet.  The stock, however, was replaced by a narrow ax-blade and a spike.  It had two hand-guards also.  It was fired from the waist position.

“In hand-to-hand work one lunged with the bayonet in a vicious, swinging up-thrust, following through with an up-thrust of the ax-blade as one rushed in on one’s opponent, and then a down-thrust of the butt-spike, developing into a down-slice of the bayonet, and a final upward jerk of the bayonet at the throat and chin with a shortened grip on the barrel, which had been allowed to slide through the hands at the completion of the down-slice.”

One wonders if Nowlan might better have been employed writing technical manuals.  There are similarly detailed, and much longer, discussions of the opposing forces’ technology—chapter IV is titled “Han Electrono-Science” and V is “American Ultronic Science,” three to four pages each.  Even when something actually begins to happen (as Anthony puts it beginning chapter VI, “But to return to my narrative. . .”), Nowlan quickly reverts to verbose digression.  When Anthony is captured by the Han, Nowlan spends nearly a page on their physical appearance and their uniforms and gear.  He also sociologizes for many pages describing the decadent Han society, which is ultimately dominated by the repairmen, who control the machines on which everyone depends—and no one wants to tangle with their “Yun-Yun.” Later, there is considerably more action, but it too becomes tedious—pages of slaughter and destruction abetted by escalating super-science.

Admittedly, Nowlan is more progressive concerning the role of women than most writers of his era.  While his precis of Han society contains a rather misogynistic description of women’s place, among the Americans, “men and girls” (as the author puts it) seem more or less equal, both participating in combat.  The girls appear to relish their roles, as witness Wilma, Anthony’s wife:

“Like a shriek of the Valkyrie, Wilma’s battle cry rang in my ear as she, too, shot herself like a rocket at a red-coated figure. . . . [Digression while Anthony kills a Han]
“And from the corner of my eye I saw Wilma bury her bayonet in her opponents, screaming in ecstatic joy.”

Despite the racist theme, with passing references to “evil yellow faces” and the “morally degraded race,” plus a disquisition on how the Han lack souls, Nowlan ultimately tries to have it both ways.  After the genocide of the Hans, Anthony travels the world and finds everybody pretty nice—“the noble brown-skinned Caucasians of India, the sturdy Balkanites of Southern Europe, [and] the simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa, today one of the leading races of the world, although in the Twentieth Century we regarded them as inferior.” It was just those damn Hans, who weren’t really human but sprang up when extraterrestrials raped the Tibetans.

Sorry, it doesn’t wash.  It’s as if D.W. Griffith had ended Birth of a Nation, his famous movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, with a placard saying “Just kidding, folks.”

In this time of the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins—but also the time when I hear vile racial slurs virtually daily in this near-Southern small town—who needs this crap?  I know, it’s historically important.  But so is, say, James Buchanan, and I don’t hear anyone clamoring to bring him back.

One star, and a big “Bah, humbug.”

The lead story is Edmond Hamilton’s longish novelet The Stars, My Brothers, which could have been titled Across the Galaxy in a Bad Mood.  Scientist Reed Kieran is killed in a space accident, but finds himself a century later waking up in a starship en route to Altair .  He is surprisingly un-delighted at receiving a new life in a new age, and it doesn’t help that his resurrectors are not very nice and don’t want to tell him much.  Eventually he learns that they are from the Humanity Party, which believes that “humans should not be ruled by non-humans,” and they have illicitly revived him to be a symbol in a campaign against the planet Sako, where a more intelligent and civilized reptilian species dominates a human population that is “very low in the scale of civilization.” Shaking with rage, Kieran declares, “I have no more use for the idea of the innate sacred superiority of one species over another than I had for that of one kind of man over another.” Now that’s a nice thought, especially after The Airlords of Han

They land on Sako and are promptly attacked by the primitive humans.  Treks and chases ensue and eventually we meet the reptilians, who it turns out are managing the local humans reasonably humanely, like we (sometimes) manage animal populations.  The whole thing is as unconvincing as it is didactic, and Kieran’s noble sentiments can’t redeem it.  There’s a romantic subtheme that is as sour and implausible as the rest of it.  There’s also a conspicuous failure of craft at the beginning: though the actual story doesn’t start until Kieran’s resurrection, there are four and a half pages of mostly irrelevant backstory—a tenth of the total length—about Kieran’s previous life and how he came to be left dead in his spacesuit, including such data as his street address in Midland Springs, Ohio.  One may wonder whether this story was cut down—but not enough or not carefully—from a novel-length piece Hamilton started for one of his now-defunct ‘50s markets.  Anyway, two stars mitigated by the author’s good intentions.

John Jakes’s The Protector is a purposefully heavy-handed short story about a guy who after the nuclear war serves as the “protector” for a small town of survivors, or so it seems, and to say anything more would give the whole thing away.  It’s effectively oppressive but there’s not much story left when the style and attitude dissipate.  Two stars. 

Frank Tinsley is back with a science article, Cosmic Caravel, concerning spaceships which may be constructed in orbit and propelled by gigantic sails to catch the “Solar Wind” or “Photon Breeze.” Interesting idea, but the usual dull rendering from Tinsley.  Two stars.

Benedict Breadfruit.  That is all.

[Yikes!  Months like this make me feel like a harsh taskmaster.  Let’s hear a round of applause for poor young Boston, who suffered so.  I am grateful, in particular, for his taking on the Buck Rogers tale.  Better luck next time, Master John! (Ed.)]

[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.