Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsDoomstar by Edmond HamiltonDoomstar by Edmond Hamilton

As I have mentioned elsewhere, sci-fi pulpmaster Edmond Hamilton, during the early decades of his career, destroyed so many planets in his stories that he managed to acquire for himself the nickname “World Wrecker.” But in his final novel, Doomstar, the destruction of a mere planet seemed to be small potatoes for the Ohio-born author, and nothing less than the death — or, in this case, the poisoning — of a solar body would suffice! Doomstar was initially released as a 50-cent Belmont paperback in January 1966, almost 40 years after Hamilton’s first story had appeared in Weird Tales magazine. (I was fortunate enough to acquire the 1969 Belmont paperback, also with a cover price of 50 cents.) Hamilton was 62 when he released his final novel, and I am happy to report that the beloved writer went out in style. He had long credited the input of his “kindest critic,” his wife and fellow sci-fi legend Leigh Brackett, with the improvement in his authorial style after their marriage in 1946, and Doomstar just might be the most accomplished piece of writing that Hamilton ever did. Fortunately, this uptick in professionalism is in the service here of a most imaginative story, as well.

In Doomstar, in a futuristic year never revealed, the reader encounters Johnny Kettrick, a former trader — and sometimes smuggler of contraband merchandise — in the Hyades star cluster. Several years before, Kettrick had been booted out of the system, and had had his trading license revoked, due to his illegal activities. But now, the Hyades is in major-league trouble, and Kettrick is called before a delegation of security men on Earth for a little discussion. Also at this meeting is Sekma, from the Dept. of Trade Regulations on Tananaru, in the Hyades; the very man responsible for Kettrick’s earlier banishment. As it turns out, it is Sekma who has recommended Kettrick for a proposed mission, fully aware of the trader’s superior knowledge of the star cluster, and his innumerable contacts.

Kettrick learns that an obscure sun in the Hyades has suddenly turned lethal, giving off killing amounts of gamma radiation, and the suspicion is that this phenomenon is not a natural one! Could someone have discovered a means of “poisoning” a star? Kettrick is sent back to the Hyades to find out, although he has an ulterior motive at the back of his mind: to go to the distant White Star and conclude the million-credit deal that had been interrupted several years earlier. He contacts his old partner Seri Otku … who promptly tries to assassinate him! More than a little suspicious now, Kettrick follows the fleeing Seri across the cluster, accompanied by the huge and catlike Chai (think of a feline Chewbacca and you’ve got the picture), who is fanatically devoted to him; by a pair of blue-skinned Hlakran pirates; and by a monkey-faced starship engineer from Pittan. The quintet’s pursuit of Seri and the operators of the Doomstar weapon lands them on four very different planets in the Hyades, before a final confrontation with the evildoers who want to hold an entire sector of space under ransom…

OK, I know I’ve rambled on a bit with this capsule plot description, but trust me, this is a pretty complicated story line that we have going on here, and I have barely scratched the surface in telling you about it. Doomstar doesn’t even extend to 160 pages but it is remarkable how much action, incident, and detail Hamilton manages to compress into it. Similar to another of the author’s books that I recently read, 1950’s City at World’s End, the book asks us to swallow one central conceit that is pretty hard to wrap your mind around, but once you get past that, it’s pretty easy sailing. In the earlier book, the author had asked us to believe that it is possible for a “super atomic” bomb to blast a hole in the time-space continuum and send a small city millions of years into the future. In the book in question, we are asked to give credence to the notion that men with the requisite cobalt missiles can shoot these things into a sun to start a cascading reaction, resulting in the doomstar of the book’s title.

But honestly, could this ever be done? At the novel’s end, the bad guys are trying to do such a thing to that White Star, a sun very much like our own. But how could a missile ever penetrate to a sun’s comparatively cool, 6,000-degree C photosphere surface, when its outlying corona would be something on the order of 1,000,000 degrees Celsius? (That is not a typo; as Paris Hilton might say, “That’s hot!”) Hamilton gives us some scientific gobbledygook to explain the cobalt reaction, but vouchsafes nothing regarding how such a missile could possibly enter a solar body. As I say, though, once we get past this stumbling block, there is an awful lot to enjoy here.

Whereas many novels rest content with a single feat of world building, here, Hamilton gives us nicely fleshed-out details (geography, cultures, history) regarding each of the five worlds that we visit. Thus, we take in the spectacle of Ree Darva, Kettrick’s old home base on Tananaru; visit the forested world of Gurra, with its innocent-seeming, diminutive, childlike people; proceed on to the largely frozen world of Thwayne, with its gruff, fur-clad Firgal warriors; explore Achern, the chief city of Kirnanoc, with its subtly malevolent, sibilant residents; and finally, get a look at the third world of the White Star, where the troglodytic Krinn assist Kettrick & Co. in their final battle. Hamilton manages to ratchet up the tension nicely (seemingly, nobody can be trusted on any of the planets that our heroes visit), all the way to that ticking-clock finale. His style is noticeably more detailed and mature — as compared to, say, his 1940s pulp writing — and Kettrick makes for an interesting lead character, both highly competent and yet constantly wondering if he’s in a bit over his head. (At one point, he thinks of himself as a “Cluster-wide disaster”; a more modern-day writer might choose some other expression starting with “Cluster,” I have a feeling!)

His partners are an interesting bunch, as well, especially that superloyal but decidedly deadly Chai, and even Sekma (with whom Kettrick ultimately teams up) displays some hidden depths, such as when the Hyades alien quotes a line from Hamlet. And Hamilton even gets to throw in a love interest for Kettrick: his old flame Larith, as mysteriously motivated a femme fatale as ever bewitched a film noir leading man. The author, as was often the case, is not afraid to use made-up words (such as “scuddering” and “thumpeting”) to suit his convenience, and throws any number of pleasing grace notes into his story (such as the constantly falling white blossoms on Gurra, that resemble “a fall of snowflakes,” and the interesting architecture of one of the Ree Darvan houses, “something between a Babylonian ziggurat and a dove cote…”). The book is fast moving and compulsively readable; truly, a most impressive display.

Not that everybody thinks so. For example, I recently read a blogger on another website who termed Hamilton’s Doomstar “garbage.” It’s like we didn’t even experience the same book. No matter, though. For this reader, half the joy of reading Doomstar was in finding Hamilton at the peak of his authorial powers, after a solid 40 years of unremitting work and many hundreds of short stories, novellas, serials and novels. It’s true what they say about practice, I suppose, and I guess that it also doesn’t hurt to be married to the woman who had deservedly earned for herself the title “Queen of Space Opera.” It occurs to me that I had a similar experience when reading G. G. Fickling’s 11 Honey West novels many years ago. After the first eight poorly written books comes the ninth, Bombshell, written in an almost Ian Fleming-like manner of excellence. How did that happen? Unfortunately, Fickling returned to mediocrity for the last two books in the series, whereas Hamilton, in this, his final long piece of fiction, released 11 years before his passing, went out a true pro. Very much like the sun of the apelike Krinn, his star still shines very brightly in the sci-fi firmament…

Published in 1966. The sun shone brightly on this fateful morning, bringing to its planets warmth and life-giving rays. The brightness increased sharply as the morning grew older. The glare was blinding; the radiation not life-giving, but deadly. By mid-afternoon the brilliant, intense sun shone on barren space. It had blasted each of its four planets out of existence. Someone had found a way to poison a star! And someone had to be found who could prevent the takeover—or destruction—of the entire universe. Who? Johnny Kettrick, as improbable a hero there never was. Johnny Kettrick who was banned from the Cluster World for his not-too-honest dealings was sent back there with his three equally unholy partners to search out the Doomstar…to find the Doomstar before it burned out another world.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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