I have a feeling that most people, when they begin a book in the genre of the Golden Age space opera, go in expecting a slam-bang action affair replete with starship battles, interplanetary conflict, weapons of superscience, hissable villains and cheerable heroes. Well, I am here now to tell you of a Golden Age space-opera novel in which all those aspects are indeed most certainly present, but in very much a secondary role. The book is one that you may very well be unfamiliar with, and for good reason, although its author’s name just might ring a bell among some of you.
The book in question is entitled Empire of Jegga, by the NYC-born writer David V. Reed, whose real name was David Levine. Reed’s first novel of four, Empire of Jegga initially appeared complete in the November 1943 issue of Amazing Stories (cover price: 25 cents), featuring beautiful (albeit unfaithful to the novel) artwork by Robert Gibson Jones and sporting the blurb “90,000 Word Super Novel!” Reed’s space opera would then go OOPs (out of prints) for all of 69 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it in 2012 for a new generation. So again, if you have not run across this book, or even heard of it, that can be well understood. As for Reed himself, he’d been born in 1914 and was thus 29 at the time of this work’s release. He would later come out with around 20 short stories and three more novels: a mystery entitled The Thing That Made Love (also in 1943), the well-regarded Murder In Space (1944), and something called Myshkin (1953). At the time of Jegga’s release, he’d also come out with two intriguing-sounding novellas, “The Whispering Gorilla” (1940) and “Return of the Whispering Gorilla” (in February ’43), both of which Armchair has collected into one volume and which must be automatically placed on my own TBR pile now. Reed would also enjoy a healthy career at DC Comics in the 1950s and ‘70s, writing stories for both Batman and Superman; thus, as I say, his name is perhaps more well known to some than that of his first long piece of fiction. Reed would ultimately pass away in 1994, at the age of 79. But getting back to Empire of Jegga itself: In his introduction to this Armchair edition, the company’s editor in chief, Greg Luce, calls the book “a fine science fiction novel,” possibly “a lost classic,” and “probably David V. Reed’s best work.” Is that all true? Was that 1943 blurb correct in calling it a “super novel”? Well, let’s take a look.
In Reed’s book, we are introduced to the thoroughly unlikable Nick Brewster, a 27-year-old millionaire playboy who had recently backed the first manned rocket flight to the Moon. That mission had ended in seeming disaster, its crew never having been heard from again. But now, in the futuristic year of, um, 1959, Nick is sinking a fortune into another try, and this time is determined to go along for the ride. Thus, along with his college classmate, engineer Joe Abbott, and a crew of a dozen others, Brewster and his ship, the Trailblazer II, blast off from Long Island, only to encounter trouble right out of the gate. A navigational miscalculation makes it a practical certainty that the ship will soon crash-land on the lunar surface, and so, Brewster and his men do the only sensible thing: break out the booze and commence to get potted. But to the crew’s astonishment, their inevitable smashup is halted by the denizens of our moon, which these inhabitants call Boron. For reasons of their own, these men of Boron destroy the Trailblazer II before the last six men aboard can leave her, and so Brewster, Abbott and the remaining six others are led off by their highly efficient yet simpleminded saviors and captors. They are soon introduced to the Boronites’ allies, the highly intelligent beings from Estannar (which we call Venus), and are informed that their ship had been destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of nearby soldiers from Jegga (i.e., Mars), whose militaristic civilization had conquered the solar system … all except Earth. (I’m not sure if Reed intended his black-garbed Jeggites to be stand-ins for the Nazis or not.) Jegga, apparently, for all its great advances, has never mastered the art of metallurgy, its spaceships being made of a plasticlike material that dissolves upon entry into Earth’s atmosphere. But unfortunately for Nick & Co., the Jeggites soon capture all of them and transport them to Mars.
And here is where Reed’s story really begins to take off … and grow more and more complex along the way. Nick and his crew are well treated by the Jeggites, and are even put up in the palace of the Ho-Ghan, the emperor, in his force field-protected city of Ho-Tonda. Nick actually starts to befriend the Jeggite captain, Akar, who had brought him in, and begins to fall for the charms of two very different women: the blonde Estannarian socialite named Suba Marannes, and the dusky and mysteriously motivated Jeggite named Vrita. Brewster’s men soon abandon him, in favor of working with the underground rebels of Estannar, and Nick becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine web of Jeggite politics and machinations. As might be expected, the five jevs (or warlords) of Jegga soon begin to pressure him to reveal the secrets of Earth’s metalworking craft, and when Nick does indeed teach his new seeming friends all he knows on the subject, the reader cannot help but think that the millionaire playboy is the biggest traitor in Earth’s history. But is Nick actually some kind of interplanetary Benedict Arnold, or is he playing a long game of his own?
In that Armchair introduction that I alluded to earlier, Luce goes on to say that “Reed undertook to create an epic tale of space opera, complete with an evil empire, an underground revolutionary movement, spaceships, ray guns, beautiful women, Martian scoundrels, political intrigue, etc. – all the kinds of things we came to worship decades later in movies like Star Wars. And it works…” But again, while all those elements are indeed decidedly present, any resemblance to George Lucas’ blockbuster film of 34 years later lies only on the surface. That film relied heavily on color, action, movement and spectacle, whereas the novel here is more concerned with its elaborately plotted, excessively recomplicated storyline. To be succinct, this is one of the most complex sci-fi stories that I’ve read in years. Have you ever seen the famously difficult-to-fathom Humphrey Bogart film noir The Big Sleep (1946), during which the viewer is only just barely able to keep up with the convoluted plot by the skin of his/her teeth? Reed’s book is often like that, with every single character concealing something or engaging in a secret agenda of some kind. My advice would be to read this book as you would a mystery novel, but without trying to figure out what is going on; trust me, you won’t be able to. Just go along for the ride and know that all will be made clear by the end, which, remarkably enough, Reed is able to do. This is the kind of work that would surely be easier to navigate during a second read, with a foreknowledge of all the myriad dynamics and machinations percolating beneath the surface. Star Wars movies were never as complexly plotted as Reed’s book is here. And the author seemed to be cognizant of his unfolding work’s labyrinthine nature, too. Early on, an Estannar tells Brewster, “You have been plunged into a situation of enormous complexity”; at another point, the green-skinned Poro, Brewster’s ally from Phylades (Jupiter), begins speaking “…after his deliberational pause as though despairing of understanding”; later on, Suba admits to Brewster, “The story is long…”; and three pages from the book’s end, Brewster declares, “…that’s a long story, and I don’t understand all the angles myself, yet.” Glad I wasn’t the only one having a tough time keeping up! Empire of Jegga is a challenging read, I would say, and half its appeal lies in figuring out the various characters’ loyalties and motivations. Is Brewster a traitor or not? He sure seems to be, but in this book, one just cannot be sure until the final wrap-up. So good luck trying to fathom where Brewster fits into this scheme of things, in a game where the jevs, the regios (governors), the Argyres (Imperial guards), and the Ho-Ghan himself all seem to be conspiring against one another.
Now, I don’t wish to give you the idea that Reed’s book is one that is completely devoid of the action, as well as the marvels of superscience, that ‘40s sci-fi buffs esteemed. The action is there, although much of it is downplayed, or performed off screen, as it were. Heck, even one of the book’s big action sequences, a rebel attack on the Jeggian city of Ramusio, only comprises a few pages, as does the big final confrontation at the novel’s tail end. And in the shocking scene in which Brewster cold-bloodedly kills one of the story’s female characters, the action is only suggested to the reader, and not shown. I would say that this is a space opera with not a single memorable action scene; a seemingly oxymoronic statement, but true. The interplanetary game being engaged in by all the book’s players trumps even those seemingly indispensable space-opera givens here. But as for the superscience gadgetry, Reed does happily supply us with that, but, in the manner of Robert A. Heinlein, they are only alluded to, and not stressed. Thus, we are given the Flaming Stone that one of the jevs commands, an almost-living fire that relentlessly burns everything it touches, and the Anzus, a multieyed bloblike creature from Phylades that can hypnotically compel its victims and is controlled by another of the jevs. And the Jeggites are also shown to be the possessors of something called a Wandho screen, a high-frequency light-wave device capable of exploding concealed weapons, as well as the Sinju, which is a long-distance audiovisual communications device. Reed also does a fairly nice job at worldbuilding, too, giving us a good amount of detail as regards Jeggian politics, society, technology, history, and social dynamics. You’ll know a lot more regarding Jegga by this book’s end than you ever learned about any planet in the Star Wars galaxy, believe me! And the author even manages to slip in some moments of pleasing humor, such as when Brewster declares of the term “Captain Akar,” “It sounds like a laxative.” In all, then, this is a fairly impressive debut novel, headache inducing as it can be at times. Reed is guilty of an occasional grammatical gaffe – such as when he writes “And here come another party,” and “as if it was self-evident” – and his book is more complicated than is perhaps good for it, but still, it surely manages to please. A super novel? A lost classic? I would say not, but I’m still happy to have discovered it.
As for this Armchair edition itself, it is mostly free of the typos that have been the bane of so many of the publisher’s other releases. Empire of Jegga includes five pages of explanatory notes from Amazing Stories editor Raymond A. Palmer, and I cannot recall any other Armchair volume that has featured an intro, such as the one Greg Luce gives to us here. So hats off to this enterprising firm once again! Can its release of David V. Reed’s two-part “Whispering Gorilla” series be as interesting as this volume was? I hope to be finding out soon…