The Legion of Space, the opening salvo of a tetralogy that Jack Williamson wrote over a nearly 50-year period, was initially released as a six-part serial in the April-September 1934 issues of Astounding Stories. (This was some years before the publication changed its name to Astounding Science-Fiction, in March 1938, and, with the guidance of newly ensconced editor John W. Campbell, Jr, became the most influential magazine in sci-fi history.) It was ultimately given the hardcover novel treatment in 1947.
One of the enduring classics of swashbuckling “space opera,” The Legion of Space is a true page-turner, written in the best pulp style. Though Williamson had only sold his first story, “The Metal Man,” some six years before, by 1934 he showed that he was capable of coming out with a blazing saga of space action to rival those of E.E. “Doc” Smith himself. That elusive “sense of wonder” is much in evidence in The Legion of Space, and the book’s relentless pace, nonstop action, incessant cliffhangers, and remarkable panache make it truly unputdownable. Simply put, the book is a blast.
In it, we meet young John Ulnar, a recent graduate, after five years of training, of the Legion Academy. His initial posting as a Legionnaire is the planet Mars, where his supremely important duty is to guard beautiful Aladoree Anthar, keeper of the secret of AKKA, the system’s ultimate superweapon. Three fellow Legionnaires (read: 30th century musketeers) are detailed to the same assignment, and so we get to meet, for the first time, the perpetually cool Jay Kalan; a redheaded giant of enormous strength, Hal Samdu (yes, an anagram of “Dumas”); and the perpetually complaining Giles Habibula, a master lock picker and a character universally described, in the 75 years since his initial appearance, as “Falstaffian.” When Aladoree is kidnapped by the Medusae — enormous, levitating, jellyfishlike aliens from the dying world around Barnard’s Star — with the help of some traitorous Legionnaires, the quartet embarks on an interstellar quest, against tremendous odds, to rescue her and save the human worlds from invasion. Before all is said and done, Williamson has dished out several space battles, a nebula storm, a raid on Pluto’s moon, and a transcontinental slog across the Medusan homeworld, fighting various alien flora and fauna (including a giant amoeba!), not to mention the elements themselves, the entire way, all culminating in a suicidal incursion into the Medusans’ miles-high city. This is truly red-blooded, rousing stuff, guaranteed to pump the adrenaline of all readers who are young at heart. “The single most popular science fiction novel serialized during the ’30s,” sci-fi great Alexei Panshin has written of it, and is it any wonder?
The Legion of Space is not for everyone, however, and does admittedly come with its share of problems. The book is inelegantly written, to put it mildly, and those readers who prefer their sci-fi to seem more like prose poetry should stick with the likes of Ursula K. LeGuin or J.G. Ballard. Several passages contain instances of fuzzy writing (such as the descriptions of the space cruiser The Purple Dream), and there are also some instances of faulty grammar, such as misplaced modifiers.
Some of the action in the book will most likely strike readers as being highly improbable. (Is it really possible to climb down a 5,000-foot-high drainpipe in the pouring rain? Or construct a glider from the wings of a giant alien dragonfly and some lumber?) And time, it must be said, has rendered many of Williamson’s scientific/historic pronouncements…well, dated. Man did not colonize the Moon before the 1990s, and the distance from the Earth to Mars is not the 100 million miles stated in the novel, but, at the most, 63 million. The Martian moon Phobos is not 20 miles in diameter, as Williamson has it, but a mere seven. And Williamson gives the planet Pluto a moon in his story, called Cerberus, although no moon had been discovered as of 1934. It would not be until 1978 that Charon was discovered, and then Nix and Hydra in 2005.
Still, the grammatical goofs, improbabilities and scientific/historic blunders all somehow fade into nothingness while the reader is engaged in flipping those pages. The book is utterly engrossing and utterly fun, and has been thrilling generation after generation of readers since it first appeared. The secret of AKKA, and that unusual acronym, is NOT revealed in this book, I should add. Readers are advised to proceed on to book two in the series, The Cometeers, for further explication….
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.