fantasy and science fiction book reviewsOne Against the Legion by Jack WilliamsonOne Against the Legion by Jack Williamson

The third installment of Jack Williamson’s LEGION OF SPACE tetralogy, One Against the Legion, initially appeared in the April, May and June 1939 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. A short, colorful and fast-moving novel, it reacquaints us with the Legionnaires Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu and Giles Habibula; John Star and his extended family only make cameo appearances in this one.

Whereas in book 1, The Legion of Space, the Legionnaires had defended our solar system from the jellyfishlike Medusae invaders, and in book 2, The Cometeers, from the threat of a 12,000,000-mile-long comet, here, the threat to mankind is of a more human nature: the Basilisk, a criminal whose theft of a secret weapon enables him to accomplish seemingly miraculous feats of teleportation (across billions of miles!) and eavesdropping.

The story takes the form of a classic mystery, as no one knows just who the mysterious Basilisk really is, and there are many prime suspects. Much of the action takes place on the New Moon (readers may recall that our old satellite had been destroyed by Aladoree Anthar during the war with the Medusae), an artificial orbiting world that is part casino, part pleasure resort. And taking up the brunt of the action mantle this go-round is Capt. Chan Derron, a Legionnaire who had been arrested and jailed in the mistaken belief that he is the archcriminal, and who now, an escaped convict, must try to clear his name by tracking down the real madman. The novel provides us with much of Habibula’s criminal background history, only teasingly referred to in previous installments, as well as a meatier role for Samdu, who had been reduced to pretty much a lumbering cipher in The Cometeers. In one early scene, Samdu tells the perpetually whining Giles to “shut up”; a long overdue statement, most readers will feel, despite Giles’ innate lovability.

One Against the Legion has been written by Williamson in the best of pulp styles, although some instances of fuzzy writing do crop up (when the author writes of “Andromeda,” for instance, we don’t know if he’s referring to the constellation or the galaxy), as well as inconsistencies (a mysterious object that enters our solar system is said to weigh 10 million tons; 70 pages later, it is said to weigh 20 million tons). Williamson also coins a new word in his tale, with most unfortunate results. His made-up word for a futuristic building material is “cellulite”; how could he know that 40 years later, this word would actually be coined to refer to our bodies’ lumpy thigh fat? Quibbles aside, however, One Against the Legion is a prime example of a Golden Age sci-fi/mystery, which ends on a most satisfying note indeed.

I mentioned before that the LEGION OF SPACE series is a tetralogy (the final installment, Queen of the Legion, would be released 44 years later!), but this is not strictly true. In the 1967 Pyramid paperback edition of One Against the Legion there appeared, for the first time, a novella-length tale featuring Giles Habibula alone, and entitled “Nowhere Near.” (And by the way, I believe that just a few years back, a posthumous Legion tale, “The Luck of the Legion,” was released!) In many ways, “Nowhere Near” can lay claim to being the most realistic Legion story thus far. Set on a space station constructed on an ice asteroid 65 light-years from Earth, at the edge of a cosmic anomaly that has been warping time, space, gravity and magnetic fields, the tale dishes out a fascinating theory of cosmogony that incorporates Karl Schwarzschild’s gravitational radius statement of 1916.

In the story, Giles arrives at the ice asteroid (the eponymous Nowhere Near) in the company of a mysterious woman, while the station’s commander, Lars Ulnar (yes, a distant relative of John Star himself) views their visit as most untimely. The baffling anomaly had recently begun to swell alarmingly, and before long, some monstrous machines begin to emerge from it. The reader makes the acquaintance of another son of John Star in this tale, Ken, now a captain of the survey ship that had been monitoring the anomaly, and his is one cool presence indeed.

In this compact little tale, that elusive “sense of wonder” is in great evidence, and the origin of the machine invaders an imaginative one that few readers will foresee. My only problem with this story is Williamson’s descriptions of the Nowhere Near station itself. They are almost impossible to visualize (the station is some kind of doughnut-shaped affair either on or under the asteroid — maybe both — with spokes and counter-spinning hubs and inner slices of cylinders that are pierced to be used as space valves… AARRGH!), and this is a real shame, as the asteroid and its space base are major players in the tale. The reader’s imagination will surely be put to the test here, and I myself just did as well as I could. It was all worth it, though, as the story really is a mind-blowing one. Taken together with One Against the Legion, it turns this old paperback into one helluva double feature!

The Legion of Space — (1934-1982) Publisher: They were the greatest trio of swashbuckling adventurers ever to ship out to the stars! There was giant Hal Samdu, rocklike Jay Kalam and the incomparably shrewd and knavish Giles Habibula. Here is their first thrilling adventure – the peril – packed attempt to rescue the most important person in the galaxy, keeper of the vital secret essential to humanity’s survival in the deadly struggle against the incredibly evil Medusae… The Legion of Space is the first self-contained novel in Jack Williamson’s epic Legion of Space series, an all-time classic of adventurous science fiction to rank with ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman saga and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

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  • 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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