Outside the Universe by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsOutside the Universe by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsOutside the Universe by Edmond Hamilton

In my recent review of the 1965 collection Crashing Suns, I mentioned that this Ace paperback gathered together five of the tales from Edmond Hamilton’s INTERSTELLAR PATROL series – a series comprised of seven short stories and one full-length novel – and later expressed a desire to read those three other installments one day. Well, I am here to tell you now MISSION ACCOMPLISHED – at least as far as the novel is concerned.

That novel is entitled Outside the Universe and, like its companion pieces, originally appeared in the pages of Weird Tales magazine; in this case, as a four-part serial in the July – October 1929 issues, when its Ohio-born author was only 25. Remarkably, not one of those four issues gave Hamilton’s novel the front-cover treatment. Hamilton’s space opera would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 35 years, until Ace decided to resurrect it in 1964; the paperback that I was happy to find at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand. Another 44 years would elapse before another English-language edition was released, this time by Baen Books in 2008, and the following year, Haffner Press came out with the complete series in one beautiful, 753-page hardcover entitled The Star-Stealers: The Complete Tales of the Interstellar Patrol. In Donald A. Wollheim’s introduction to the Ace edition, he tells us that the fantasy master Abraham Merritt was so impressed with Outside the Universe that he wrote a letter to Weird Tales, saying that Hamilton’s novel “is really an extraordinary story, handled in a first-class manner,” and that Merritt later wrote the author directly to say he hoped the serial could be published in book form one day. Well, Merritt unfortunately passed away in 1943, a good 21 years before Ace made good on his wish, but readers today can easily take advantage of the Interwebs to purchase the novel in any of those three editions. Fans of space opera, of Radium Age sci-fi, and of Star Wars-type films will be well rewarded by the purchase.

The five stories in Crashing Suns had featured different characters in each tale, but in Outside the Universe I was happy to be reacquainted with the three leads of the Interstellar Patrol story “The Cosmic Cloud,” which actually came out a bit later; in the November 1930 Weird Tales. Here, then, we meet for the first time Dur Nal of Earth, the captain of the Patrol Squadron 598-77, as well as his two lieutenants, Korus Kan from Antares, whose body is encased in metal, and Jhul Din, a crustacean-man from the Spica system. While engaged in routine patrolling along our galaxy’s rim, Dur Nal and his crew are stunned when no fewer than 5,000 ships enter our Milky Way from the intergalactic void; ships that immediately attempt to destroy Dur Nal’s craft using pale-blue beams that (we later learn) are capable of killing all life aboard a star vessel. Dur Nal is ordered to lure the invaders away from the Cancer Cluster near the galaxy’s edge and deeper into our galaxy proper, where an ambush by member ships of the Federated Suns might fall upon them. This battle proves a dismal failure for our galaxy, unfortunately; a rout in which the crimson destruction beams of our combined fleet prove no match against the invaders. Dur Nal’s ship is sorely wrecked in the fray, leaving our heroes no choice but to force an entry into an enemy ship in midspace! And when they do, the nature of the alien menace is for the first time learned: The Milky Way has been invaded by the serpentlike inhabitants of a dying galaxy; 10-foot-long snakes commanding faster-than-light ships as well as incredible weapons of superscience, with which they hope to conquer our own galaxy!

After the debacle of that first engagement, and while the serpent aliens firmly establish their foothold in the Cancer Cluster, Dur Nal and crew bring their captured ship back to the Federated Suns’ home world in the Canopus system, where the vessel’s records are examined. It is thus learned that the serpent folk had previously tried to conquer the nearby Andromeda galaxy, with little success, and that they are now in the process of working on some type of irresistible superweapon. Dur Nal is ordered to take his newly acquired serpent ship and traverse the trackless depths of the intergalactic void, with the goal of making contact with those Andromedans and asking for their help. And so, zipping along at 10 million light speeds, Dur Nal and his crew set off on their mission, with the fates of three galaxies in the balance. Ultimately, our heroes are captured by the serpent men and brought to one of their dying worlds; escape and make contact with the humanoid but gaseous inhabitants of Andromeda; and make it back to our Milky Way for a titanic, three-way battle … a battle in which 100,000 serpent ships, 100,000 Andromedan ships, and the full force of our own galaxy’s combined fleets duke it out in a space melee for the history books…

Okay, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Hamilton’s novel, similar to the five stories to be found in Crashing Suns, is nobody’s idea of great literature. As a matter of fact, there are several instances of flat-out terrible writing (“the serpent creatures rushing upon us could only loose their death-beams at chance upon us”; “On that chart I saw a close-massed cluster of dark suns full before us, saw the Antarian swing the ship lightninglike sidewise to avoid it, then sharply drive the controls back again as before us a crimson-flaming star about which turned countless worlds of the serpent-people loomed before us”), some made-up words (largen? fiercy?), and no effort at characterization whatsoever. Dur Nal, Korus Kan and Jhul Din are essentially the same character, despite being born on different worlds, and not one female character is to be found here. Too, no attempt is made to stay within the bounds of science as were known in 1929. Thus, our heroes can pass through a zone of intense radiation, to the point that their ship is beginning to crumble and their own bodies are commencing to glow, and not worry in the least about the possible health effects. Hence, readers who require lovingly crafted prose in their science fiction tales, as well as a scrupulous conformity with scientific fact, are well advised to look elsewhere! Anyway, that’s about it for the bad news. The good news is that Hamilton’s book is often impressively written, and turns out to be one of the most exciting space operas that I have ever encountered.

In his introduction, Wollheim opines that “Outside the Universe was an entertainment in starry voyaging, a thrill-a-page yarn to tickle the reader’s sense of wonder,” and ain’t it the truth, ain’t it the truth? As a matter of fact, despite the occasional crudeness of style, Hamilton’s book is absolutely thrilling, unputdownable … the kind of novel that you really can’t devour quickly enough. The story never slackens its pace, and is truly a nonstop, action-packed thrill ride, with every one of its chapters ending in cliff-hanger fashion. The author evinces a marvelous imagination here as regards alien species, their planets, weaponry, implements of fantastic science, and complex battle scenarios. And in this book, Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton fully lives up to his nickname, trashing not only puny planets, but suns and even entire solar systems with gleeful abandon!

Those Radium Age readers who esteemed that elusive “sense of wonder” in their sci-fi tales, as well as mind-boggling evidences of superscience, surely had a lot to digest here. Besides that captured serpent ship being able to travel at the unimaginable rate of 10 million light speeds (fast enough to make Star Trek’s Enterprise seem like a broken-down buggy), there is the force barrier that the serpent folk have erected not just around their home world, but around their entire galaxy; a shield with only one entrance, bracketed in space by two mile-high forts! The snake people can also boast a planetwide city built not of matter, but of pale-blue “etheric vibrations,” as well as that 20-mile-long, cone-shaped weapon of unknown potential. Other jaw-dropping wonders displayed before the reader here include the Andromedans’ use of “sun-swinging ships,” with which they arrange their solar bodies in rings (how aesthetically pleasing!); the Andromedans’ miniglobes, with which they convert their thoughts into images, enabling interspecies communication; and the anti-grav shafts on their worlds. And speaking of Star Trek, I might add that in Hamilton’s book, as in that show, there are also dangerous barriers to be braved in intergalactic space; namely, zones of killing heat and, as mentioned, lethal radioactivity. This truly is a novel of ceaseless wonders.

From a book that is essentially nonstop excitement from start to finish it is difficult to pick out the choicest action set pieces, but some of this reader’s favorites include that initial flight from the serpent ships, resulting in the disastrous first engagement; the forced entry and boarding of one of the serpent craft in midspace; the passages through the heat and radiation zones; our crew being given a paralysis drug and forced to spend 10 days in a catatonic state, exhibits in the serpent folks’ museum of alien curiosities; our heroes’ breakneck escape and flight to Andromeda, pursued by the serpent men every parsec of the way; the titanic battle to force an entry between those two space forts; the skirmish inside one of those deadly heat zones, with the serpent folk employing their “attractor ships” to pull our heroes dangerously closer in; and, of course, that epic final battle in our own galaxy … one of the longest, most exciting space battles that any reader could ever hope to experience. Thus, here, the fleets of three galaxies clash in space wielding not just those crimson rays and death beams, but also an invisible ray of Andromedan design that can instantly crumple metal, and an ether-current weapon of the serpent folks, not to mention the attractor ships, and even the sun-swinging ships! Oh … and let’s not forget that resistless superweapon! It is a battle that extends over two longish chapters and flashes from green star to black hole to the flaming heart of a nebula; a no-holds-barred, no-quarter-given fracas in which hundreds of thousands of ships are destroyed. The creators of Star Wars wish that they could have come up with something on the order of what is presented here! In truth, though, if Outside the Universe were to be faithfully brought to the big screen today, it would most likely be the most expensive motion picture ever made. As far as that concluding space battle alone is concerned, only the one depicted in the second-season Orville episode entitled “Identity, Part 2” ever came close to the manic furor and intensity of the one waged here. It is truly a bravura set piece, and a complete success for the young Hamilton.

For the rest of it, allow me to add that the serpent folk make for wonderful, truly, uh, hissable villains here, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The reader does not sympathize with their race’s sorry plight; indeed, the extinction of their moribund galaxy would surely be a very good thing for our universe. I might also say that Hamilton’s book allows each of its three leading men to shine in various heroic displays, and that it even includes one touching moment indeed: when Dur Nal, having convinced the Andromedans to assist our galaxy, takes the hand of one of their gaseous leaders and is given a surprisingly firm shake in return. So all told, this is a highly satisfying entry in the INTERSTELLAR PATROL series. It is a superior entertainment to the five shorter pieces that I’d read, if only because its greater length allows for a more impressive piling on of overwhelming thrills.

Now, having said that, if only I could get my hands on those final two stories…

Originally published in 1929. “Spaceships in thousands, and they’re attacking us! They’ve come from somewhere toward our galaxy—have come out of intergalactic space itself to attack our universe!” The interstellar Patrol, that fabulous fleet manned by all the assorted races of our galaxy, faced its greatest struggle when that alarm came through. For this was an attack from Outside the Universe, a vast migration from another galaxy, and it had to be stopped if a thousand worlds were to survive! This terrific classic space novel on the grandest scale involves three giant galaxies in an all-out conflict.


  • 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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