THE MAN WHO
SAW THE FUTURE
Book Review of:
‘CITY AT WORLD’S END’
by EDMOND HAMILTON
(Crest Books ISBN 0-00-649907-4, 1951,
free download from: http://www.manybooks.net/
‘CASTAWAYS AT THE END OF TIME…’
‘In one split second they were hurled across
time into a world a million years away…’
There’s an argument that Edmond Hamilton’s writing sophisticated as a result of his marrying Leigh Brackett. He’d been a leading SF writer for decades, associated with world-wrecking high-octane Space Opera. Although to say that is deceiving. Space Opera is a lazy term now applied to very formulaic very stereotyped interstellar romps. Back then, along with Doc EE Smith and Jack Williamson, he was virtually inventing all those conventions, spinning galaxy-spanning fantasias where literally none had boldly gone before. Born in Youngstown, Ohio on Friday, 21 October 1904, he was just twenty-one when his first short story – the Lovecraftian “The Monster God Of Mamurth”, appeared in ‘Weird Tales’ (August 1926) telling how an archaeologist quests through the north African Igidi desert to find a lost Carthaginian city, only to be terrorised by its demonic invisible dweller. From this promising, if traditionally structured, start he realised early that SF didn’t have to shadow the European path of philosophical contemplation, political allegory or strict technological speculation, that all of time and space could instead be the most wonderful playground for outrageous plot-invention, a formula with which he went on to dominate those early pulps with extravagantly clamorous high-adventures.
Across four decades his creative energies were freakishly prolific, stories gushed out of him, endlessly inventive. Luring and enticing from American newsstand displays, he exploded across the luridly gaudy covers of ‘Astounding Stories’ (with “The Sargasso Of Space”, September 1931), and ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’ (with “Doom Over Venus”, February 1940), with tales in every sense the equal of the magazine titles – amazing, astounding, and wonderfully thrilling. Then there was ‘Wonder Stories’ (“The Island Of Unreason”, May 1933), with Allan Mann – as in ‘a man’, exiled from the totalitarian global civilisation of City 72 for his heretical crime against ruthlessly-enforced ‘reason’, only to discover he prefers the lawless wilderness reservation. Although the triumph of natural instinct over chill super-science is hardly a unique theme, the story flows with vigour and irresistible pace. In his ‘Before The Golden Age’ (1974) anthology Isaac Asimov recalls, as a teenager, ‘reading and slavering joyously’ over Hamilton’s “Cities In The Air”, the cover-story in Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Air Wonder Stories’, November/December 1929), with Frank R Paul’s spinning golden flying city suspended in a lurid pink sky, its beacon radiating messages to the world below. Or, at his most outrageous, the stunningly implausible “Thundering Worlds”, one of his seventy-nine sales to ‘Weird Tales’ (March 1934) in which – at the far-future time of the Sun’s slow death, the nine inhabited planets (newly-discovered Pluto was then considered a proper planet) are engineered to leave the solar system and navigate their way across space to find a new star. After various set-backs, Mercury is used as a projectile to destroy rival alien worlds in a final battle to occupy a new system. Character is sacrificed to rousing action, science is an enabling double-talk, a plot-convenience. But why not? wide-screen escapist fantasy has its place in attracting devotees to the genre, who then stay for the long-term. He built a loyal fan-base, who noted that even his brand of outlandish universe-wrecking imagination showed signs of evolving, perfecting into a slick style perhaps best epitomised by the exploits of his Interstellar Patrol, the law-enforcers of the Federation Of Suns, a seven-part story-series that, in the absence of anything resembling a televised ‘Star Trek’ – or indeed, a TV set at all, was the ongoing serial sci-fi of its day, with all the attendant cult appeal that implies (it ran from “Crashing Suns” in ‘Weird Tales’ August 1928 through to “The Cosmic Cloud” in ‘Weird Tales’ November 1930).
Or the later series that begins when dissatisfied World War II veteran John Gordon is psychically projected across 200-centuries into the body of Prince Zarth Arn of ‘The Star Kings’ (1949), an invincible swashbuckling hero in a galaxy-spanning future where fabulous crystalline cities shimmer beneath gleaming white suns, foul jungle planets conceal cruel and disgusting aliens, and vast Empire World starships confront the tyrannous League Of Dark Worlds in a titanic interstellar war. Inevitably, there’s beautiful princess Lianna, and a cute telepathic alien resembling an overgrown mynah bird, while Shorr Kan makes a fascinating super-villain and the ‘Disruptor’ is an ultimate-weapon worthy of ‘Death Star’ status. In fact, any resemblance to ‘Star Wars’ is purely probable. There’s even an argument that Hamilton invented ‘light-sabres’ (in his 1933 story “Kaldar: World Of Antares”).
To a later generation of academic writers anxious to legitimise SF as serious literature, brandishing their ‘1984’, their ‘Brave New World’, their HG Wells and John Wyndham, Edmond Hamilton’s disreputable pulp excesses prove something of an embarrassment. In his excellent ‘Billion Year Spree’ (1974) Brian Aldiss dismisses Hamilton’s entire career in less than a paragraph with the single derisive put-down ‘super-hack’. But he was more than that, he was perceptive enough to make the transition from zap-pow super-science romps, and adapted to the changing moods of the times. And just maybe, working with Leigh Brackett had a transformative effect on his work. Although she’d begun later, with “Martian Quest” in ‘Astounding SF’ (February 1940), if anything, her career was even more high-profile than his, screenwriting Howard Hawks movies for Humphrey Bogart (‘The Big Sleep’, 1946) and John Wayne (‘Rio Bravo’, 1959) before we even get to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1981), as well as writing some of the most romantically evocative fantasies in the SF canon. Her Martian tales may owe a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’, but she invests poetic dimensions never equalled within the genre before or since. The pair married 31 December 1946.
So, for Edmond Hamilton, ‘City At World’s End’ (1951) is a mature novel. It’s also a Cold War novel. But that doesn’t imply a stark political message, a dour warning aimed at the folly of superpower confrontation. The threat of the ‘long-awaited atomic war beginning with a sneak-punch’ was always there – ‘it was like death’. But he uses the first-strike thermonuclear-attack scenario merely as a plot device to ignite the action, to set the tale in motion, to trigger the what-if situation. One June morning there’s a multiple warhead hit by superatomic bombs – the next generation in armament escalation, an obvious evolution on the ‘A’-bomb to the ‘H’-bomb, only ‘a thousand times more powerful’. They target mid-western America, the mill-town of Middletown, population 50,000. The shock of detonation is so devastating it disrupts the integrity of space-time itself. The city is wrenched from its continuum and deposited billions of years into the future. For the disorientated townsfolk, the dull red Sun they see above them is obviously not their normal Sun, and they imagine ‘we’re only ghosts, and not living on Earth any more.’ Another asks out ‘if a war’s started, who’s the enemy?’, ignoring the obvious reply. ‘I was in London last war’ grumbles electrician Johnson, ‘I know what blast can do. This isn’t destruction.’ But no, ‘instead of shattering buildings’ the atomic cataclysm has ‘shattered space and time’. Einstein is dragged into the equation, ‘a great enough force could hurl matter from one part of the (space-time) curve to another’. An audacious idea. It’s as though Hamilton is posing himself an impossible situation. As though the idea came first. Then he had to work out where to take it from there. His character ‘walked back down Mill Street, towards the garage where he had left his car, a billion years ago…’ Into grimmer, stranger and madder terrain.
The end of time has always intrigued the dream-weavers of speculative fiction. As soon as HG Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’ took his most distant jaunt to the frigid tideless shore at world’s end, it posed an impossibly powerful concept that many have attempted to explore further. Although few have come close to touching Wells’ tantalisingly melancholy conjecture, Edmond Hamilton’s future-Earth, lies in direct line of descent. He conjures the bones of the long-dead mingling with the dust that blows eternally over the dead face of the lifeless planet that once was our familiar world. Trackless red deserts, beneath a huge red sun swollen to monstrous size. Then the horror of the dying planet’s gathering night, in sad wastes of empty stillness beneath a moon many times magnified. Is all the world like this, dried-up ocean-beds, vanished cities? It seems so.
There’s a give-away character called Hubble. Another called Crisci, and Beitz. But the central protagonist is John ‘Ken’ Kenniston. He’s a scientist, in fact his ‘Industrial Research Lab’ actually houses one of the key nerve-centres of the US Atomic Defence network, located in Middletown as part of a dispersal policy. A clever strategy, but ‘not clever enough’, because the ‘unknown enemy had learned the secret’. The guilt that it was this covert function that made the town a target haunts him, and creates a gulf between him and fiancé Carol. As a man of the 1950’s he expresses antiquated opinions that now slam uncomfortably up against current attitudes, prompting odd reactions. Carol ‘didn’t know about science, and such things as time warps and shattered continuums had never entered her head.’ There’s a patronising ‘pretty little head’ slant to this, she’s the ‘little woman’ who likes ‘Tennyson and children and small dogs, and her ways were the ways of pleasant houses and fragrant kitchens, of quiet talk and laughter.’ Kenniston felt ‘a terrible pity for her, which almost smothered his irritation at the inability of the female mind to grapple with the essentials of a situation’. Prat! While Hamilton writes of ‘the faith which the people of the twentieth-century had come to have in the interpreters of the complex sciences they themselves were unable to comprehend.’ They ‘accepted the powers of scientists with the same unquestioning faith with which men had once accepted the powers of wizards’, a trusting brand of simple faith doubly assailed in the twenty-first by resurgent creationist anti-stemcell fundamentalism, and by venal corporate manipulation mounting assaults on climate-change science and the rest. But in time-lost Middletown, the full weight of mature responsibility, of adult male scientific understanding, rests uneasily on Kenniston’s broad shoulders.
The self-contained civic structure of small-town America works to the exile’s advantage. The local telephone exchange still works. Power, gas and water still function. Churches, and bars, do good business. It is only contact with the outer world that’s been lost, because there is no outer world any more. There’s no national radio. A woman complains she’s missing her ‘radio stories’ – her Soaps! There’s no mention of that new-fangled TV. Even the enemy, Kenniston thought bitterly, is a country that perished and was dust, how many millions of years ago? After their first frozen night, the garden roses are dead. The last roses in the world. No more roses. As he inhales from his carefully stored last cigarettes, he muses that there’s no more tobacco either. Pudgy Mayor Garris and Police Chief Kimer overcome their incomprehension, and rise to the occasion, Police and National Guardsmen establish some kind of order. Then Hubble and Kenniston take a jeep trip ‘for inspection of the contaminated region’. Out beyond the sharp demarcation where the world ends, to where there’s only ochre-yellow scrub, dust and wind. Out into the silence and the arid dusk of world’s end. There are devolved rodent diggers. And further, over the low ridge, a solemn domed city of tall towers in alien grace and symmetry. It, too, is empty, nothing but darkness and crowding silences.
By Chapter Six – ‘Caravan Into Tomorrow’, the Middletowners are forced to migrate to the protective sanctuary of the domed city. Requisitioning coaches, police patrol wagons, army trucks, and a trail of laden Buicks, Chevrolet, Hupmobiles, Plymouths and jalopies. No Hondas or Toyotas. This is 1950’s Americana. And they settle uneasily into their new environment. There’s something of the bleak resonance of Arthur C Clarke’s Diaspar – the ancient Earth’s last city, about ‘New Middletown’. As they explore, they discover geothermal heating vents, and a televisor system (‘they’d apparently gone beyond the vacuum tube’), which they adapt to send out messages in the hope of reaching some other surviving community.
The second phase of the novel begins when their distress call is answered, and a silent submarine-shaped spaceship alights just beyond the city. In Hamilton’s scientifically absurd “The Man Who Evolved” (in ‘Wonder Stories’, April 1931), Pollard is a typically Wellsian backroom inventor who schemes to harness cosmic rays to accelerate the process of evolution. ‘It seems somehow a thing forbidden’ protests his friend. Even ‘evolution’ itself is ‘a fighting word in some states… when you say it, you’ve got to smile’ cautions another. Yet, within his chamber, exposed by successive jolts of energy, Pollard evolves. First, by fifty-million years into a physically-perfect superman. One-hundred million years into a massive head with a shriveled body. Another fifty-million-year leap mutates him into a power-mad walking, seeing monster brain. And finally into a blob of protoplasm. (An ‘Outer Limits’ episode “The Sixth Finger” (Season 1:5, October 1963) replicates Pollard’s unwise venture – ‘an experiment too soon, too swift’, using a young pre-‘Man From Uncle’ David McCallum as his slow-witted test-subject.) But although Middletown has been dislocated billions of years into the future, no such bizarre evolutionary changes are apparent as the crew of the ‘Thanis’ disembark. Led by Piers Eglin, a historian who studied pre-atomic Earth civilisation, and the beautiful but haughty Varn Allan – her ‘hair the colour of pale gold smooth-curled about her head’, these are humans from the Vega system, their ‘faces darkened by the rays of alien suns’. As the Earth had grown increasingly inhospitable humans have migrated to ‘the worlds of warmer suns’, meeting and mingling with alien Spicans, Mirans and Capellans.
Although initially beneficial – repairing the city’s heat and lighting systems, it soon becomes apparent that these are temporary measures, and the newcomer’s eventual aim is an evacuation plan to resettle the temporal-refugees away from the unsupportable Earth, to the planet of some new star system. Already bewildered by their shift through time, and agitated by Mayor Garris’ frightened rhetoric, the castaways refuse to be moved, and prepare for armed resistance. Kenniston, attempting to arbitrate, is caught up between the two intentions. To resolve the impasse he must journey ‘through the worldless emptiness’ of space, making worldfall on Vega Four, the galactic capital of a thousand-thousand worlds, to make his appeal direct to the Board of Governors of the Federation Of Stars. When they reject his appeal he’s caught up in alien political intrigue. Gorr Holl, a bear-like Capellan – another ‘primitive’, suggests using Earth as a test-case for Jon Arnol’s theoretical terraforming process, hazardously making Earth habitable again. Chapter Twenty, ‘Appointment With Destiny’ finds them speeding back to Earth with the energy-bomb, taking Varn Allan with them as hostage, and pursued by Vegan starships intent on quarantining their prehistoric violence-virus. En route she lets slip her mask to reveal the feminine vulnerability beneath, conceding ‘that in spite of all we have gained since your day, we have lost something too. A courage, a blind, brave something – I’m glad I stayed.’ Needless to say, the bomb works, reigniting the world’s cold heart. And ‘it was as though a dead heart had suddenly started to beat again. To beat strongly, exultantly, a planet reborn…’ A winter that had lasted for a million years, is over. The people gratefully return to Middletown, symbolically to live out their lives in a Heritage-site past. Kenniston turns his back on their insularity, choosing the ‘vast star-shot spaces’ of the future. Carol lets him go. He returns to the starships, to where Varn Allan is waiting for him.
Is it a good novel? As literature, as great writing… obviously, not. But that was never his intention anyway. When people talk in breathless admiration of Literary Outlaws or Cultural Outsiders they’re usually referring to ‘Beat’ counter-culture writers such as Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs or Charles Bukowski. But Edmond Hamilton is even more the outsider. He was a working writer, never a literary figure. He was never quite ‘respectable’, barely even within his own SF community. He was never embraced or celebrated by academia. To this day he remains beyond the pale of who is, and who is not, acceptable. He’s far too raw. And I, for one, find that makes him worth further investigation. As an example of his work, this book is highly readable. Great fun. Upbeat, with a vividly-imagined sense of limitless possibilities. All the ingredients required of genre fiction of its time. That’s more than enough. First chance the SF-readership got to see the novel was when ‘City At World’s End’ appeared as a ‘complete novel’ in the July 1950 issue of ‘Startling Stories’ (Vol.21 no.3), under the editorship of Sam Merwin Jrn. The cover-illustration by Earle K Bergey shows a human spacer in yellow, brandishing a blaster-pistol while being attacked from behind by a bear-like Wookie-cum-Ewok alien – obviously intended as Gorr Holl, as a horrified girl in figure-contouring yellow looks on. Their spaceship can be glimpsed behind them. It shares the cover-blurb with “Robot Nemesis” by Dr Edward E Smith. Soon after, the story reappeared in hardback as part of ‘Fell’s Science Fiction Library’ in February 1951, then the ‘Museum Press: Science Fiction Press’ (1952), and back into softback digest form as ‘Galaxy SF Novel no.18’ (1953) with a lavish Ed Emshwiller cover showing the domed city on the arid plain beneath the dying red sun. It was well-received, first reviewed in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ (August 1951), then by L Sprague de Camp in ‘Astounding SF’ (August 1951), and by Groff Conklin in ‘Galaxy’ (March 1952).
Although there’s an argument that Edmond Hamilton’s writing sophisticated as a result of marrying Leigh Brackett, he accomplished a smooth transfer into scripting picture-strips too, after all, from a suggestion by editor Mort Weisinger he’d already devised the pulp super-hero ‘Captain Future’. The Earle K Bergey cover of ‘Startling Stories’ (Winter 1946) shows “Outlaw World: A Captain Future Novel” with a space-girl in a beguiling gold bikini in free-fall, as red-headed hero Curtis Newton jetpacks to her rescue. By then the ‘Wizard of Science’ had already faced ‘The Space Emperor’ (in his own ‘Captain Future’ magazine, Winter 1940), set on Jupiter, where Jungletown is ‘several hundred million miles north’ of Jovopolis...’, and it opens with ‘the chill, uncanny breath of a dark menace millions of miles away’. Then, with his ‘Futuremen’ companions – Grag, a seven-foot-tall robot, Otho, a green shape-shifting android, and Simon Wright, a brain in a box, he takes a “Quest Beyond The Stars” (Winter, 1942). Although some of the twenty-seven ‘Captain Future’ titles were by others, under the house-name ‘Brett Sterling’, or by Manly Wade Wellman, Hamilton wrote the majority of the tales through the 1940’s and revived Captain Future for a second run in ‘Startling Stories’ in the 1950’s. But juvenile comic-books paid even better than pulp-fiction. So Edmond Hamilton happily adapted to writing ‘The Legion Of Super-Heroes’ for ‘Adventure Comics’ too. And when he went on to script for ‘Superman’ he introduced elements from ‘City At World’s End’ into his picture-strip “Superman Under The Red Sun” (‘Action Comics’ no.300, 1963). After all, a great plot-idea is not something to waste…
THE MAN WHO EVOLVED:
FIVE OTHER EDMOND
“Kaldar: World Of Antares” (‘The Magic Carpet’ magazine, April 1933) Penniless Stuart Merrick answers an ad placed by nine eminent astronomers/astrophysicists – he is expendable, they are not, to be teleported via a ‘vibratory beam’ to a planet of the Antares system. Finding himself in a city of black metal terraced pyramids, and mistakenly believed to be the Chan – or ruler of Corla, he’s ‘brain-changed’ to understand their language. Humans only inhabit what lies within a circle of metal mountains, outside of which are ‘unhuman races as ancient and intelligent and powerful as our own’ in a giant world of ‘great unhuman races and unending war and strange monsters, with all its mystery and horror and unearthly beauty’. His treacherous rival Jhalan connives with a race of hostile Cosp spider-men to kidnap the beautiful Narna, daughter of the previous Chan, and hence Merrick’s partner by right of succession. By airboat over fungus-forest beneath five bright moons he penetrates the labyrinthine Cosp tunnel-city to rescue her. Snatched back to Earth he resolves to return for further adventures (“The Snake-Men Of Kaldar” in ‘Magic Carpet’ October 1933, & “The Great Brain Of Kaldar” in ‘Weird Tales’ December 1935). Gloriously trashy ER Burroughsian fantasy at its best, this tale arguably anticipates ‘Star Trek’ beam-me-up technology and ‘Star Wars’ in its use of ‘Light-swords’. It was collected into the anthology ‘Swordsmen In The Sky’ edited by Donald A Wollheim (Ace Books, 1964)
“The Man Who Returned” (‘Weird Tales’, February 1934) Catalepsy-prone John Woodford wakes into an Edgar Allen Poe-influenced ‘Premature Burial’. Freeing himself from the tomb he returns home, only to discover his wife, Helen has already married his friend – and her long-time secret love, Curtis Dawes (he quotes the Tennyson poem ‘Enoch Arden’ who returns from sea also to discover his wife, believing him dead, has remarried. Unwilling to spoil her new happiness he never reveals his return). Woodford then visits his son, who’s new business is benefiting from the insurance pay-out from his father’s death. Rebuffed by his former employer, and rejected by another friend, he has nowhere to go but back to his tomb. This story of melancholy black humour, was reprinted as facsimile in ‘Weird Tales’ edited by Peter Haining (Neville Spearman/Xanadu 1976)
“The Accursed Galaxy” (‘Astounding Stories’, July 1935) Dr Ferdinand Peters, bickering astronomer is summoned by Garry Adams, a journalist from the ‘filthy rag’ popular press, to investigate a suspected fallen meteorite which turns out to be a polyhedron of crystalised energy from the primal super-galaxy from which all galaxies formed, something that existed only in Hamilton’s mind from theories before the ‘Big Bang’ was formulated. Within is imprisoned one of the ‘volitient beings of force’ which created the ‘strange disease of life’ and led to them creating the expanding universe to prevent it infecting all matter. This is one of three Edmond Hamilton tales selected by Isaac Asimov for his ‘Before The Golden Age’ anthology series (Doubleday & Co, 1974, Futura paperback, 1975), Vol.3.
“Devolution” (‘Amazing Stories’, December 1936) In the wilds north of Quebec, Ross, Gray & Woodin search for the blobby protoplasmic beings Ross had spotted from an aircraft. When the Arctarians appear it is to explain how the human concept of evolution is reversed. Life on Earth has instead regressed from its original Arctarian colonists into lower and lower forms, until the lowest of them all, the brawling warring humans, ‘the last hideous freaks’ who ‘would soon wind up the terrible story entirely by annihilating each other in their madness’. As the aliens leave the ‘soul-sickening world’, Ross shoots himself rather than live with the terrible truth. This story of unusual bleakness was republished in Asimov’s ‘Before The Golden Age Vol.4’
“He That Hath Wings” (‘Weird Tales, July 1938) David Rand is a hunchback orphan, his parents exposure to an ‘electrical explosion’ causing his mutation which, as he’s taken in by Dr Harriman, develops into fully-functioning wings. As an adult he migrates with the birds as the seasons change, ‘a roaming half-wild creature of the air’, until love for Ruth Hall brings him down to Earth. At her insistence he has the wings amputated and tries to adjust to dull normality, until – with the birth of their child, his ‘freak genes’ regrow new wings. The ‘blind buried longing’, the urge to migrate, lures him back into the sky before falling like Icarus ‘after a brief lifetime of wild, sweet flight, dropping contentedly to rest’. Maybe a metaphor for freedom, or how domesticity crushes creativity, this is Hamilton at his very best. Collected into ‘Weird Legacies’ edited by Mike Ashley (Star Books, 1977)