The Universe Wreckers by Edmond Hamilton
I have long been amused by the nicknames that some of our finest purveyors of sci-fi, fantasy and horror have managed to acquire for themselves. For example, both Jules Verne and H. G. Wells have understandably been dubbed The Father of Science Fiction. The great H. P. Lovecraft, due to the place that he called home, is known as The Sage of Providence. E. E. Smith, due to the fact that he was also a food engineer, was known as Doc, and Isaac Asimov, thanks to his Ph.D. in chemistry, was lovingly referred to as Doc Ike. Robert E. Howard, whose stories proved so seminal to the genre, was later dubbed The Father of Sword & Sorcery, for the same reason that Francis Stevens became The Queen of Dark Fantasy and Leigh Brackett was crowned The Queen of Space Opera. Jack Williamson has often been referred to as The Dean of Science Fiction, and Robert A. Heinlein The Dean of Science Fiction Writers. All of which brings me to my favorite nickname of the bunch, which was given to Ohio-born pulp author Edmond Hamilton. Hamilton, who along with Smith and Williamson helped to create the genre known as “space opera,” and because of his tendency to destroy entire planets during the course of his fictions, was early on in his career dubbed The World Wrecker. I have already written here of a pair of sterling examples of Hamilton’s space opera fare, The Star Kings (1949) and its belated sequel, Return to the Stars (1968), and recently, feeling the need for some good old-fashioned pulp thrills, Hamilton style, decided to pick up the author’s early effort The Universe Wreckers. And wow, am I ever glad I did!
The Universe Wreckers initially appeared as a three-part serial in the May, June and July 1930 issues of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine, the first publication to dedicate itself solely to science fiction. This legendary magazine started publishing in 1926, the same year that Hamilton’s very first story, “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” appeared in Weird Tales, when its author was 22. The Universe Wreckers would then, sadly, go OOPs (out of prints) for over 80 years, until Haffner Press resurrected it for inclusion in one of its mammoth Hamilton anthologies. My copy is the one from Armchair Fiction, released in 2015, which replicates the Leo Morey cover from that May 1930 issue as its own front cover. And the novel, as it turns out, is a hugely exciting, at times thrilling concoction; a must-read for all fans of the Star Wars movies who might be interested in checking out one of the key sources of this now-familiar genre. As The Science Fiction Encyclopedia puts it, this novel “went a long way towards establishing the shape of his [Hamilton’s] contribution to the genre, and prefigured much of his own work for the next decade.” So yes, anyone with an interest in space opera as a distinct fiction category, or in Hamilton’s career in particular, would be well advised to investigate this work. All others will simply enjoy it for the roller-coaster ride that it surely is.
The book is narrated to us by Walter Hunt, who works for the Intelligence Bureau of the World Government in the futuristic year of, uh, 1994. As he reports to us, it was astronomer Herbert Marlin who had first notified the world that our sun had mysteriously just started to increase its rate of rotation. A little later, Dr. Robert Whitely, a physicist, had discovered why: A beam of force emanating from the vicinity of Neptune was impinging on the sun, causing it to increase its spinning faster and faster. As calculated, if the rate of spin were to continue increasing, in less than 150 days, the sun must inevitably split in two, obliterating most of the planets in our solar system, the outermost one, Neptune, being excepted. (Pluto, I should add here, was not discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh until the winter of 1930, probably soon after Hamilton completed working on this novel.) In an act of desperation, the nations of Earth had hastily constructed a spaceship, its motive power being the same type of force ray that was striking our sun, and that had been quickly analyzed by our scientists. A team of four – Marlin, Whitely, our narrator Hunt, and Marlin’s young assistant, Allen Randall – were given the tremendous responsibility of taking this craft out into space and, utilizing its top speed of some 8 million miles an hour (!), investigating what the heck was going on near Neptune, before that ray proved disastrous to most of our solar system.
And so, as Hunt tells us, the four had soon departed after a month’s frantic labor. They had almost met with disaster flying through the asteroid belt, and had nearly met their doom whilst engaging in a space walk and ship repairs near the rings of Saturn. But eventually, they had indeed reached Neptune, only to find the entire planet encased in a metallic, protective shield! But an entrance to the planet’s actual surface had indeed been found, and Hunt and Marlin had left the ship and gone exploring. They’d discovered an enormous complex of long-abandoned machinery, and had soon been startled by the arrival of actual Neptunians, who’d just descended from the planetary moon known as Triton. These Neptunians, apparently, were really something to behold: living pancakes, five feet in diameter, supported by seven legs, with two eyes in their sides and a puckered mouth on top! Our two heroes had been quickly captured by the aliens, and Whitely and Randall were apparently killed when their ship had been destroyed. Hunt and Marlin had been brought back to Triton, from which the sun-wrecking ray was emanating; had been taught the Neptunians’ language; and had learned why these unknown aliens were engaged in such a destructive campaign. But escaping from the Neptunians’ prison, stopping that heavily guarded ray, and returning to Earth all seemed well-nigh impossible…
Now, one of the most highly esteemed attributes of a story for early sci-fi readers was its ability to convey a sense of awe and wonder, and at that, Hamilton’s novel must be deemed a complete success. The tour of the outer solar system that he gives us is truly breathtaking, and the author takes pains to relate how awestruck our four heroes are, as they witness the giant outer worlds for the first time. Of course, 1930s readers also valued a fast-moving tale with thrilling set pieces, and again, in this area, The Universe Wreckers excels. Thus, we are given such exciting segments as that near-disaster as the men get drawn closer and closer to Saturn’s rings; the initial exploration of the deserted Neptune, a marvelous exemplar of sustained suspense; the section in which the Neptunian High Council relates to Marlin and Hunt the history of their world, and their reason for wishing to destroy the sun (an admitted info dump of some 25 pages in length); the breakneck and absolutely thrilling escape that the two men effect from their Tritonian prison; and finally, the colossal battle between Earth’s forces (fully 5,000 hastily constructed ships) and the Neptunians’, fought at a huge loss of life above Saturn, Neptune and Triton, with the fate of the solar system in the balance. The Star Wars producers wish they could convey a more detailed, consequential and protracted battle as the one to be had here! I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my sofa as I tore through the pages during these sequences; they are just that good. So yes, for cosmic wonder and thrilling action, The Universe Wreckers surely deserves a top grade.
Of course, it probably needn’t even be said that the book isn’t anybody’s idea of great literature, and to be honest, Hamilton’s writing here, just four years into a career that would ultimately last until the early ‘70s, is often very crude. He was the first to admit that his skills as a wordsmith would improve only after his marriage to Leigh Brackett in 1946, and at this early point in his career, he was still just beginning to hone his talents. Thus, run-on sentences abound, as well as any number of instances of faulty grammar (“There were the mighty curving line of gleaming Neptunian cylinders….”; “…if Earth was to be saved….”). Hamilton recaps events that we had already been privy to (possibly for the benefit of those magazine readers who’d missed an earlier issue?) and is fond of repeating statements in an almost incantatory manner; for example, he must mention at least a dozen times that the sun was spinning faster and faster, spelling doom for Earth and its solar system. Shockingly, he even uses the word “inertia” instead of “momentum” at one point. And not at all shockingly, he gets many of the details wrong about the outer worlds; things that had hardly been discovered at the time of his book’s writing. Besides being unaware of Pluto’s existence, he could not know when he penned The Universe Wreckers that Saturn has 10 moons, not nine; that Uranus has five moons, not four; and that Neptune has two moons, not one. (Nereid would not be discovered until 1949.) He tells us that the surface temperature of Neptune is around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (when we now know that it is actually something like -330 degrees Fahrenheit!), with an atmosphere “much the same as Earth’s” (it is actually a toxic mélange of hydrogen, helium, methane and ammonia). And one other thing, while I’m quibbling: Am I the only person who wonders what two men do for, uh, bathroom facilities, in a bare cell for weeks on end? Or am I not supposed to be thinking about such mundane matters?
But as I say, these are mere quibbles, and despite the occasional crudeness of style, bad grammar and incorrect astronomical prognostications, The Universe Wreckers remains a classic of sorts; a hugely likeable, highly imaginative thriller, with tremendous sweep and drive, that helped to define a genre. Personally, I enjoyed the book immensely, and the evenings that I spent reading it were very pleasurable ones. This novel proved to be perfect escapist fare for me during a very difficult and challenging week, and I can think of no higher praise for a Radium Age sci-fi outing than that…
I think you’re right about the recaps. I see them frequently in serialized works that have been compiled into one volume later.
I don’t really mind them; it’s sometimes nice to think back on all that has come before, especially if they’re well integrated into the story….
I always read them to see how the writer did it without being boring.
One thing that nobody can accuse THIS particular book of being is “boring”!