That Worlds May Live by Nelson S. Bond
In my recent review of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga, I mentioned that this was a Golden Age sci-fi novel in the space-opera mold that featured an excessively recomplicated plot and a wealth of colorful detail. Reed’s novel had come out in the November 1943 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, but the Golden Age being what it was, this was hardly the first such space-opera affair to be released in the magazine that year. Just seven months earlier, actually, another novel was published, complete in one issue, in that selfsame legendary pulp, and in a similar vein as Reed’s book, only minus the complexity of story line and the convincing detail. That novel was the one in question here, and entitled That Worlds May Live. And if this title is a new one to you, that can be very well understood. The novel first saw the light of day in the April ’43 issue of Amazing (cover price: 25 cents), featuring somewhat unfaithful cover art by Robert Fuqua (and please don’t ask me how this great artist pronounced his surname!) and seven other stories spread over its 244-page length. Readers sure got a lot for their two bits back when! The novel would then go OOPs (out of prints) for almost 60 years, until the fine folks at Wildside Press chose to resurrect it for a new generation in 2002. In 2016, an Armchair Fiction paperback sporting the same Fuqua artwork as on the April ’43 magazine was released, and that is the edition that this reader was fortunate enough to pick up. So again, if the title is a new one for you, you can be well forgiven.
That Worlds May Live was the fourth of four novels written by an author named Bond; Nelson S. Bond, to be precise. Bond had been born in Scranton, PA in November 1908, and was thus 34 at the time of this work’s release. During the period 1937 (when he sold his first sci-fi story, “Down the Dimensions,” to Astounding Stories) to 1958, Bond came out with over 100 sci-fi short stories, at least six sci-fi series (the one featuring Lancelot Biggs comprised over a dozen tales alone), and those four sci-fi novels: Exiles of Time (1940), Gods of the Jungle (1942), When Freemen Shall Stand (also 1942), and the book in question. Later in life, Bond became something of a well-known philatelist, even writing articles on the subject. And I am happy to report that he ultimately attained to a ripe old age, having passed away in 2006, at the age of 97. Though very popular with readers of the pulp magazines and the slick Blue Book magazine back when, today, Bond seems to be largely forgotten, perhaps because most of those series have never been collected in book form, and because most of his other work remains out of print. And yet, according to the venerable Science Fiction Encyclopedia, “his work is attractive and often memorable.” And so, we have That Worlds May Live. Is this one indeed attractive and memorable? Let’s take a look…
Bond’s novel is apparently set in the year 2247, a fact that the reader could not know without the assistance of (Amazing Stories editor) Raymond Palmer’s extensive footnotes at the back of the book. We are introduced to two men who have just returned to Earth after taking photographs of outer space while in orbit around the Moon, those men being Gary Lane and his wisecracking buddy, Flick Muldoon. Lane reports to his superior, Dr. Wade Bryant, the startling news that his recent photographs conclusively prove that our small solar system is not expanding, as had always been presumed to be the case, but rather contracting … and that at the current rate of contraction, would destroy itself in just a matter of months! It is determined also that this contraction is not a natural phenomenon, but is rather being induced by the cosmic radiation that has been impinging on our system for ages, its source being an area in the neighborhood of Sirius. Hoping to convince the authorities of the World Council in Geneva of the newfound peril, the three men — in addition to Lane’s assistant, beautiful Nora Powell (was Bond a fan of the Thin Man movies?), and Bryant’s associate, the Eurasian physicist Boris Anjers — fly to that city, but their appeals are met with disbelief. Fortunately, they there encounter starship captain Hugh Warren, who has just taken command of the Liberty. An old schoolmate of Gary’s, the captain is more easily convinced, to the point that he is more than willing to risk subsequent arrest to take Lane & Co. wherever they wish to go.
Thus, the Liberty is stolen/borrowed/purloined, and our heroes depart on their four-part mission. First, they must travel to Venus, to get the unfriendly denizens there to share their “super-efficient fuel” known as neurotrope. The equally distrustful residents of Mars must be visited next, and be coerced to give up their secret of the force field that will enable the Liberty to prosecute her journey in safety. And finally, the blue-skinned men of Jupiter must be contacted and cajoled into providing Warren’s ship with the secret of their faster-than-light travel; a means of zipping through quadri-dimensional space and thus cutting the transit time to Sirius from many decades to mere moments. Along the way, Gary and his shipmates take on three more allies: an aged Martian scientist, Dr. Kang Tsao, and his pretty daughter Pen-N’hi, and a swashbuckling space corsair named Lark O’Day, who forgets all about his piratical activities when he learns of the dire threat facing Earth and its neighbors. Despite the apparent efforts of an unknown saboteur aboard the Liberty, the crew is ultimately successful in adding the neurotrope, force shields, and warp speed to its own hypatomic engine thrusters, and so is ready to set off for the unknown foes near Sirius; a seemingly suicidal mission, all so “that worlds may live”…
Bond’s book ultimately reveals itself to be a likeable although decidedly minor space opera. To his credit, the author does treat the reader to three interesting trips to our solar neighbors, and the novel also features several well-done sequences; namely, the destruction of the planet Mercury, which our heroes get to observe via telescope from Jupiter (Bond here borrowing a page, perhaps, from fellow writer Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton), and Gary and three others’ infiltration of the Sirian world’s (that is to say, Magog’s) capital city, Khundru, in an attempt to turn off that city’s defensive screens. Bond offers up to us a rational explanation for the destruction of the planet, named Gog, whose remnants later formed our Asteroid Belt, and gives his readers some pleasing devices of futuristic superscience: the neurotrope, force fields, and quadri-dimensional drive, of course, but also the cosmic ray cannon and pistols that the Magogeans employ. Our heroes are an agreeable bunch, and that Muldoon is often used to pleasing comical effect. (“Safe as a pork pie at a Mohammedans’ picnic” is a typical line from this average Joe.) Oddly enough, Muldoon even references Samuel Butler’s 1872 fantasy Erewhon at one point; nice to know that this work has survived into the 23rd century! Modern-day readers might also appreciate Bond calling the dividing line between Magog’s day and night sides the Twilight Zone, and the fact that a United Nations Victory Tower is alluded to, eight years before the U.N. headquarters in NYC was completed in 1951. Bond’s book is fast moving and fun, but sadly sports too many problematic elements to get more than a barely passing grade from this reader.
As to those problems, where to begin? For one thing, as I mentioned up top, the novel lacks the necessary convincing details necessary to put the author’s conceit over — indeed, there is very little description of the four worlds visited here at all — and the characters are all stock types. Although it’s nice that Bond gives us two female characters to join in the adventure, Nora has very little to do here except serve as part of a love triangle, and Pen-N’hi barely gets a single line of dialogue whatsoever. The saboteur on board the Liberty is way too easy to spot (and I usually stink at these kinds of guessing games), and I’m still not clear as to what his/her ultimate fate was. Bond as a wordsmith often tries too hard, and several sections are jarringly overwritten (“With such a shield must the Liberty be equipped if she is to dare a long and arduous trip through space to a hostile bourne…”). Too, the author manages to use several words incorrectly (such as “querulous” rather than “questioning,” “argosy” instead of “odyssey,” “bespoken” instead of merely “spoken,” “arraigning” instead of “ranging”), and, for some confusing reason, continually uses the words “universe” and “galaxy” when referring to our own solar system! His choice of words is often wincingly clumsy (“Metal clanged noisily as the great door clanged behind the four invaders”), and at times he seems to lose control of his narrative thread (such as when he tells us that Gary & Co. had visited four planetary capitals, although the Martian capital had never been visited at all … only one of its moons). Some of the statements that he casually throws out are bona fide head-scratchers (“…cool drinks were but a sop to bodies which oozed perspiration from every pore like desert-parched sponges…”), and, as might be expected, some of his astronomical pronouncements are hardly in keeping with the facts as we now know them. Thus, Venus is said to have “a fairly pleasant and constant temperature all the year round” (rather than being the 900-degree Fahrenheit furnace we now know it to be), Jupiter is revealed to have jungles, rivers and “a very pleasant and equitable [sic … shouldn’t that be “equable”?] climate” (rather than its actual -230 F. temperature), and that same Jupiter is said to have nine moons, whereas we now know that that number should be more like 79!
And then there is the matter of this book’s casual racism, a regrettable factor that can’t help but jar on modern-day sensibilities. The Caucasian race, we are told, is not only “the acknowledged cultural leader” of planet Earth, but, as it turns out, “the only true race of Earth”! The brown-skinned races, we learn, are distant descendants of the highly emotional brown-skinned Venusians, while the Asiatics are similarly descended from the coolly logical, amber-tinted Martians. “…How unreasonable to think that one small planet would breed more than a single species,” Dr. Kang tells the others. And how pleased the white supremacists of today will be to learn that only the Caucasians are the indigenous race of Earth! Now, I’m not sure whether Bond half believed this nonsense, or whether he just thought that it might make for an imaginative tidbit to spice up his story, but for this reader, anyway, the addition was not a welcome one. To hark back to that quote from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, yes, some parts of this particular book were memorable but not all of them were attractive.
And so, yes, a decidedly mixed bag here, for sure. At one point in Bond’s book, Gary Lane promises the others “the greatest adventure ever undertaken by human beings,” a statement that turns out to be sheer hyperbole, unfortunately. I see now that the 1950 Doubleday hardcover Lancelot Biggs: Spaceman, which collects all 14 of the Lancelot Biggs tales, is available on some websites, and I am trying to decide whether or not to spend the requisite $30 on it. But based on my experience with That Worlds May Live, I’m not rushing — much less warping — into it…