Crashing Suns by Edmond Hamilton
In his serialized novel of 1930 entitled The Universe Wreckers, which originally appeared in the pages of Amazing Stories magazine, Ohio-born author Edmond Hamilton gave his readers a tale concerning the pancake-shaped residents of Neptune who were trying to increase the spin rate of our sun for their own nefarious purposes. But this was hardly the first time that Hamilton had presented his audience with a gaggle of bizarrely shaped aliens who were weaponizing the celestial bodies; far from it, as a matter of fact! From 1928 until 1934, over the course of seven stories and one novel, all dealing with the exploits of the Interstellar Patrol in the pages of the legendary Weird Tales pulp, Hamilton detailed the sinister plots of any number of remarkable life-forms that threatened not just our own puny solar system, but the entire galaxy, as well! Not for nothing did Hamilton earn for himself the moniker “The World Wrecker”!
For readers today who are desirous of checking out some of the genuinely exciting adventures of the Interstellar Patrol, a good place to start is the 1965 collection Crashing Suns from Ace books, which brings together five of those seven stories, and features some surprisingly faithful cover art by the great Ed Valigursky (and I only say “surprisingly faithful” because the alien depicted on that cover is so very outrageous looking!). Hamilton, it will be remembered, had his first story, “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” published in Weird Tales in August 1926, when he was only 21 years old, and over the course of the next decade would go on to become one of the magazine’s most esteemed and prolific contributors. The stories dealing with the Interstellar Patrol proved popular at the time, and it’s easy today to see why. A warm-up of sorts for the epic Universe Wreckers novel, these earlier tales are incredibly thrilling and fast moving, providing the Radium Age readers back then with the “sense of cosmic wonder” that was so highly valued in the sci-fi of the era. In these tales, Hamilton was not just a world wrecker, but rather a would-be solar system and galaxy wrecker! These are prototypical space-opera stories on a grand scale, whose Federation of Stars and Interstellar Patrol are the distant forebears of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets and Star Fleet Command. The tales here, with their wildly improbable alien menaces and mind-boggling story lines, were indeed perfect fodder for Weird Tales magazine; certainly nobody’s idea of great literature, but undeniably a hoot, and surely perfect fare for YA readers today, or even those a bit younger. Not to oversell the tales here, I am also compelled to admit that the story lines are highly repetitive in nature (as will be seen), and that Hamilton’s formula for each soon becomes apparent and even predictable. Some of the hallmark errors of the novice writer – such as grammatical gaffes, run-on sentences, and a disregard of repeated words – are in evidence throughout, although perhaps this is more the fault of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, who should have amended them. (Also, is “largening” really a word? It appears in every single story here!) Readers who crack open Crashing Suns should also not expect much in the way of scrupulous scientific accuracy, either. Our heroes are wont to leave their spaceships helmetless as long as the celestial body they’ve landed on has some kind of an atmosphere, and many of the astronomical factoids given have been superseded by our greater knowledge since 1930. (Although, since Pluto’s recent downgrading, Hamilton was oddly correct in his assertion that Neptune is the outermost planet!) Not a single character in any one of these tales pops up in another, and there is only one female character to be encountered in this quintet of stories. Anyway, now you know what you’ve got in store for yourself here … not some elegantly written, cutting-edge science fiction, by a long shot, but rather some highly imaginative, swashbuckling fare that helped pave the way for the genre we know today.
As for the five selections here themselves, the collection kicks off with its title piece, “Crashing Suns,” a novella-length story from Weird Tales’ August and September 1928 issues. This story, which takes place some 100,000 years from the present (!), introduces us to Jan Tor, the captain of an interplanetary patrol cruiser, who is recalled to Earth for an urgent meeting at the Supreme Council of the Eight Worlds. There, he learns the terrible truth: A rogue red star, named Alto, has suddenly shifted its path through the cosmos and is now on a direct collision course with our own Sol! Jan Tor is given command of the solar system’s very first faster-than-light ship (personally, I would have hoped that mankind will have achieved FTL travel way sooner than 100,000 years from now!), and flies off to investigate with that ship’s small crew; his own hulking engineer, Hal Kur; and the ship’s designer, Sarto Sen. And what should our heroes find on one of the planets orbiting this dying red sun but a race of pink, globular, insect-legged creatures (yes, there they are on this Ace edition’s front cover) who have manipulated their sun into the path of Sol for reasons of their own! This opening story features a titanic space battle between the combined fleets of our solar system and that of the globe-men, and a nice conjuring of cosmic awe when Jan Tor tells us “We were racing through a void whose very immensity and vacancy staggered the mind, an emptiness of space in which the stars themselves floated like dust-particles in air, a gulf traversed only by hurtling meteors or flaring comets, and now by our own frail little craft…”
“The Star Stealers,” from the February 1929 Weird Tales, seems to transpire a good 100,000 years further on. The FTL drive has allowed for a galaxywide Federation of Stars to come into existence, composed of the myriad worlds of the Milky Way. In this novelette, cruiser captain Ran Rarak and his second in command, the female Dal Nara, are summoned to the Bureau of Astronomical Knowledge on terraformed Neptune, where the chief scientist, Hurus Hol, gives them the dire news: An enormous dark star from outside our galaxy has recently entered our own and, startlingly, has altered its course. (See what I mean about those plot similarities?) And on its current path, it would most likely, due to its immense gravitic pull, yank our own sun along with it when it returns to the intergalactic void! And so, our heroes zoom off to investigate this mysterious black sun, only to discover on it a city, occupied by ebon, cone-shaped, octopus-armed monstrosities, who are – you guessed it – altering their sun’s path for their own sinister motives. Highlights of this remarkably exciting outing include an escape that our heroes make from their 50-story-high, truncated-pyramid prison, and still another raging space battle between our galaxy’s massed fleet and the alien invaders. Some points off, however, for the author telling us that Neptune has but a single moon (it has 14), for Ran Rarak lying unconscious in his prison cell for 10 weeks (is that believable, even after a knock on the head?), and for the author telling us that Dal Nara has just entered the bridegroom on the cruiser when she had been shown standing there all along. Oy.
In the novelette “Within the Nebula,” from the May 1929 Weird Tales, cruiser captain Ker Kal, of Sun-828, is called to an emergency meeting at the Council of Suns at Canopus, the galactic capital. There, he learns that the enormous Orion Nebula, which lies at the heart of our galaxy, has of late begun to revolve faster and faster, and that if it were to continue at that rate, would soon break apart and send its incandescent gases flying across the void, destroying thousands of worlds! Three men are thus chosen to take a new, heat-resistant cruiser into the heart of the flaming nebula to see what might be done, those men being Ker Kal (natch); the Arcturian Sar Than, whose bulbous body is supported by four tentacular legs; and the Capellan Jor Dahat, a plant-man with fibrous flesh. And after this trio brings their ship into the blazing nebula, almost suffering immolation in the process, they learn that that nebula is actually hollow, with a planet inside of it, in the heart of which planet they find a race of formless creatures capable of extruding psuedopodlike limbs; a race whose titanic mechanisms are maneuvering their world’s enveloping nebula for desperate reasons of their own! A wondrous tour of the aliens’ underground environs, our heroes’ escape from a pitlike dungeon, their ascent of a peg ladder to reach the planet’s surface, and the gory fight they have with the pseudopod aliens are the highlights of this thrilling tale. Some points off, unfortunately, for Hamilton not seeming to care that his heroes have landed on an alien world that glows with heavy radiation, and especially for his calling Sar Than the plant-man at one point, instead of Jor Dahat. A major oopsie!
Hamilton’s imagination seemed to be working overtime when he set about writing this collection’s next entry, “The Comet Drivers,” a novelette from the February 1930 Weird Tales. In this one, a gigantic you-know-what is rushing toward our galaxy from the intergalactic depths; a comet that will, if allowed to go unchecked, tear through the Milky Way’s stars and planets. Thus, cruiser captain Khel Ken, along with his three subchiefs – Gor Han, a huge, fur-covered resident of Betelgeuse; Jurt Turl, an amphibious, flipper-limbed Aldebaranian; and Najus Nar, an insectlike humanoid from Procyon – heads a fleet of 1,000 ships and zooms off to intercept the celestial invader. And once arrived at its destination, the fleet is summarily attacked by cube ships from the comet’s interior! After a fierce battle, the fleet pursues the aliens’ cube ships into the maelstromlike tail of the comet, where many ships are lost, and then, via a narrow entryway, proceeds on into the coma, or head, of that comet itself! And it is there that our heroes discover a dozen disc-shaped worlds in the coma’s heart, peopled by black liquid creatures with “white pupilless eyes”! As might be expected, these bizarre visitors have their own reason for manipulating their comet-home into our galaxy. Another tremendous fleet battle, this time above the aliens’ main city, as well as a noble sacrifice on the part of one of our quartet of heroes, is thrown in at the end of this wildly improbable yet undeniably exciting adventure. And bonus points for the sight of the liquid aliens sleeping together at night, a mass of huge black viscous puddles in trenches around the city.
This collection is brought to a close with “The Cosmic Cloud,” a novelette from the November 1930 Weird Tales. Here, an enormous black cloud near the galaxy’s center has started to suck in thousands of commercial and passenger vessels, and one Patrol ship is tasked with finding out why. Thus, Dur Nal of Earth; Jhul Din, a crustacean-man from Spica; and Korus Kan, an Antarean with a living brain encased in a metallic body, set out with a small crew and are likewise pulled into the black cloud. Inside it, their craft is boarded by flap-limbed beings and brought down to the planet that floats in the heart of the cloud; a dark world in a realm of zero light. But our narrator, Dur Nal, somehow effects an escape, only to wander, blind and helpless, through this stygian domain. Eventually, he meets a batlike Denebian scientist, Zat Zanat, who’d been pulled into this world of darkness years earlier, and from him learns the sightless aliens’ terrible plans regarding their stolen starships. As usual, the brotherhood shown between the differing races of the galaxy, and their easy camaraderie with one another, are major selling points in this story, and the suspense quotient is of a very high order. Still, only the dimmest of readers will be unable to foresee how this story winds up playing out; as mentioned, Hamilton sticks to his formula quite strictly in these tales, and all their resolutions are well telegraphed along the way. Still, it is fun to watch the author put his protagonists through their paces, and this story is no exception, while it brings this particular collection to a close.
So there you have it … five wonder-filled if overly similar tales of the Interstellar Patrol from one of sci-fi’s earliest greats. It is to be hoped that one day some publisher will collect these five stories along with those two missing tales (“The Sun People,” from the May 1930 Weird Tales, and “Corsairs of the Cosmos,” from the April 1934 Weird Tales), and the Interstellar Patrol novel (Outside the Universe, from the July, August, September and October 1929 issues of Weird Tales) to make one massive and irresistible collector’s volume. It would surely make the perfect gift for readers of any age … or planet…