The Star of Life by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Star of Life by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Star of Life by Edmond Hamilton

Anyone who has delved into the writings of Radium Age/Golden Age sci-fi author Edmond Hamilton will be able to tell you that there is a huge difference in both tone and quality between his earliest work and his efforts of some 20 years later. Those early stories and novels were, generally speaking, crudely written fare that yet won the reader over by dint of their great sweep, gusto, imagination, color, and epic scale. But a funny thing happened to the quality of Hamilton’s writing starting in the mid-1940s, and it was not only due to his unremitting work ethic and two decades’ worth of practice, practice, practice. By 1940, Hamilton had already had over 100 short stories, several serials and several novels published, and during the war years, was responsible for writing 17 Captain Future novels for Captain Future magazine, as well as dozens of issues of the Superman and Batman comic books. But then, starting in 1947, a sea change of sorts occurred in his work, and that change, one cannot help but feel, was a direct result of his marriage to Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” on New Year’s Eve 1946, when Hamilton was 42 and his bride was 31.

In his introduction to the wonderful 1977 collection The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton admits “Although I had been writing professionally a dozen years earlier than Leigh, I learned a great deal from her. My own work was usually done at high speed, and often contained hasty pages. But I soon found that having a built-in critic right in the house pulled me up short when I did something too hurried and careless…” For her part, writing of her husband’s later career in her intro to The Best of Edmond Hamilton (also from 1977), Brackett writes “His style had matured and his grasp of character had deepened. Mood and introspection had replaced some of the driving action, and his people had acquired a full set of human insides…” So yes, although the two authors rarely collaborated in their writing, unlike their married friends Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, they did naturally read and critique each other’s work, to their mutual benefit. (Brackett would later admit to learning much about plotting a story, rather than just winging it, from her husband.) And one of the earliest fruits of this marriage of talents, and one of the first and clearest demonstrations of Hamilton’s more-literate phase, is the novel that I have just been dazzled by, The Star of Life.

The Star of Life originally appeared in the January 1947 issue of Startling Stories magazine, featuring some striking front-cover artwork for the novel by Earle Bergey. Hamilton would later revise and expand the tale for its first book publication in 1959; a $2.95 hardcover from Torquil. In October of that same year, Crest Books would issue the novel as a 35-cent paperback, with another striking cover by Richard M. Powers (isn’t it amazing how many covers Powers was responsible for in the 1950s and ‘60s?); the edition that I was fortunate enough to purchase online. I’m sorry to report that this Crest paperback from 1959 marked the last time that the book has seen an English-language edition, as of this date – a very sorry state of affairs, given the book’s many fine qualities – although several ebooks are currently available, such as the 2012 offering from Gateway/Orion. Still, I would urge you to make use of the numerous book-search tools out there; this old Crest collectible is not as hard to procure as you might think.

The blurb on the Crest edition tells us the book is about “The strange and terrifying adventure of the first man in orbit around the moon,” but that is hardly an accurate statement. Hamilton’s book introduces us to America’s first astronaut to attempt that feat, it is true, but sadly enough, Ohio-born Kirk Hammond (Kirk … a good name for a spaceman, and Hammond … not too far off from the Ohio-born EdMOND HAMilton) never quite makes it. Rather, upon attempting that orbit, Kirk’s capsule misfires and he is sent on an uncorrectable trajectory into deep space. Knowing full well that he is a doomed man, Kirk cracks open the craft’s hatch, hoping to instantly freeze to death. He blacks out, only to awaken to the realization that his capsule has somehow reentered Earth’s atmosphere and is superheating. Hammond thus ejects from the craft, parachutes down into what he believes to be the western Atlantic, and fetches up on the shore of the U.S. seaboard. But something is very wrong. A quick glance at the constellations reveals them to be in new positions; positions that would have taken many millennia to achieve!

Before Hammond’s initial shock has even begun to wear off, he is captured by a huge, blue-skinned man who calls himself Rab Quobba, and who brings the befuddled astronaut into a concealed cliff dwelling where dozens of Earthmen and residents of other stars are engaged in a singular pursuit: the construction of a starship. Kirk learns that the year is currently 12,094 and that he had been in a cryogenic state for over 10,000 years, wandering through space, until the heated friction of reentry had revived him. Earth – and indeed most of the galaxy – is now dominated by a group called the Vramen: men and women from this planet who had attained seeming immortality via something that is only to be found on the world of Althar, in the Trifid nebula. (The Trifid nebula actually does exist; Althar, I’m not quite sure.) The Vramen have forbidden anyone the right to visit Althar, going so far as to insist that an explosive device be implanted in all star vessels, thus enabling the immortals to blow up any ship that foolishly ventures too close to the proscribed world. Jon Wilson, the leader of the group in which Hammond finds himself, welcomes the astronaut to join them in their attempt to build a ship free of the explosive device; a ship that will hopefully allow them to reach Althar and bring the secret of immortality back for all the galaxy’s citizens. But that path is inevitably fraught with problems. A Vramen search vessel, combing the area for the man who had parachuted down from the sky, is destroyed by Wilson’s band, and one of the top Vramen – the 200+-year-old, gorgeous blonde Thayn Marden – is captured. Kirk is instantly attracted by the female enemy, and before Thayn is subjected to the possibly brain-damaging effects of an encephaloprobe, gives in to her pleas to adjust the machine in a way that will not harm her. But Kirk has been duped. The encephaloprobe’s readjustment sends out a signal that alerts the Vramen to their location, and the entire group of plotters – and Kirk, too, whom they now understandably view as a traitor and Vramen spy – is shipped off to the penal planet of Kuum, in the Spica system. And so, can Hammond possibly escape from this world, and prove his worth to the others by stealing a starship and hightailing it with them to Althar? And what could possibly await them there, even if they did somehow survive the journey?

In his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle says of The Star of Life “A grand old space opera with all the romantic ingredients: space travel, suspended animation, immortality, mutants and menacing aliens. Recommended to readers of nostalgic bent.” Well, I suppose that I am one of those readers, because this book really did hit me in the ol’ sweet spot, let me tell you. To be succinct, I loved it! In addition to those attributes that Pringle mentions, the book also boasts tentacled robots, implements of superscience, some romance, two well-depicted alien worlds, and any number of highly tense action sequences. Plus, Hamilton’s book is unfailingly well written, intelligent, interesting and exciting. It is the kind of novel that I could not read quickly enough, and had to force myself to slow down with because I did not want it to end. Hammond makes for a very likable as well as relatable lead character, and his reactions to his imminent demise in that space capsule, his miraculous reawakening, his first views of the galaxy in an FTL starship, and his having to club a man to render him unconscious are all highly credible. Hamilton’s book also offers up a raft of well-drawn secondary characters, including Wilson’s sweet young daughter Iva, who never stops believing in Hammond; Thol Orr, a gray-skinned Algolian who befriends the ostracized Hammond on the penal world; and Holl Gormon, a massively built resident of Althar, and about whose people the less said, the better, I suppose. Of course, Thayn Marden is perhaps the most interesting character here; a Vramen concerning whom the reader has constantly shifting feelings, as does Hammond himself.

The Star of Life also gives the reader some interesting examples of alien flora and fauna, such as the crawler vines and mud-phoenixes on Kuum, and any number of those breathless action sequences. Among them: Kirk’s reawakening in his doomed space capsule; the capture and trial of Wilson’s band by the Vramen; the perilous escape from that penal colony and its force screen-protected airfield; the first sighting of Althar and its multicolored sun; the escape from Holl Gormon’s city of Vonn; and the shocking, bittersweet conclusion that brings the book to a close. Golden Age readers who highly esteemed implements of futuristic superscience in their sci-fi fare were surely not shortchanged here, either. Thus, Hamilton regales us with the Vramen hypno-amplifier, that encephaloprobe, the use of therapeutic radiation, a vortice [sic] gun, and a scimitar-shaped beam of light capable of leveling mountains. In retrospect, The Star of Life can almost be seen as a mash-up of Hamilton’s short story “The Cosmic Cloud” (1930, and which featured another planet hidden deep inside a nebula) and novella “Forgotten World” (1946, and which concerned another band of Terrans constructing a ship to further an illegal enterprise, in this case sun mining); it is possible that the novel’s central concern of the search for a life-transforming celestial whatsit also influenced Brackett when she penned her masterpiece of a story “The Moon That Vanished” (1948). And the galactic government mentioned in the book, the Federated Suns, surely does bring to mind the Federation of Stars in those Interstellar Patrol stories.

But perhaps the single finest aspect of Hamilton’s novel is its wonderfully well-crafted prose, indicative of that more mature style. This description of outer space, for example, would never have been found in his works of 20 years earlier:

…the hosts of stars marching forever across the black meadows of heaven, burning companies of hot gold and smoky red and ice-blue and green, trailing bannerets of nebulosity, a maze of light so vast that it was hard to think of each gleaming point as a mighty sun boiling with atomic fire as it plunged falling with its planets through infinity…

I don’t wish to belabor a point, but again, as The Science Fiction Encyclopedia so rightly puts it, “After his marriage to Leigh Brackett in 1946 his output diminished, but its quality increased.”

I have very few quibbles to raise about Hamilton’s very fine work here. But I couldn’t help but notice that at one point he refers to Kirk’s 10,000 years of suspended animation as being a period of “a thousand centuries.” Now, I’m no math whiz, but aren’t a thousand centuries more like 100,000 years, rather than 10,000? I also found it a bit hard to believe that Hammond, having just barely mastered the rudiments of the language of the time that he has awoken into, could understand when Wilson mentions the words “ventricular fibrillation” to him. But perhaps the book’s biggest problem is its use of a colossal coincidence in its central setup. I mean, what are the odds of Hammond parachuting to Earth and washing ashore at the precise location where Jon Wilson & Co. have established their beachfront hideout? Pretty, um, astronomical, I’d say. But these minor faults surely pale into insignificance when stacked alongside Hamilton’s otherwise very impressive work here. This is the finest novel by the author of all the many that I’ve read so far, and that really is saying something! But wait … according to some reports, Hamilton’s 1960 novel entitled The Haunted Stars is his single greatest piece of work. Is this indeed true? Well, that just happens to be the very next book on my list, so I’ll hopefully be letting you know soon…


  • 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....