“I, Zan Zanat, resolved to do what none ever had done, to explore the cosmic cloud’s interior.”
—Zan Zanat, “The Cosmic Cloud”
Lately I’ve been doing a deep-dive into the history of the space opera genre. The term “space opera” was coined in 1941 (as a pejorative) but an earlier, more significant date in the genre’s history was August 1928, a month that saw the publication three significant works: Edmond Hamilton’s “Crashing Suns” (in Weird Tales), the first instalment of E. E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (in Amazing Stories) and Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D”, starring an early incarnation of Buck Rogers (also Amazing).
I’ll start by looking at “Crashing Suns”. This was the first of Hamilton’s eight Interstellar Patrol stories, which were published in Weird Tales between 1928 and 1934; aside form the novel-length Outside the Universe, all were short stories. Five of the stories were collected in a 1965 paperback, also called Crashing Suns. I’m basing the post on this book, and off the top of my head I can’t confirm if there are any differences between the stories as republished in 1965 and the original Weird Tales editions.
“Crashing Suns”, the first story, takes place over 100,000 years into the future. All eight planets of the Solar System have been colonised by Earthlings, and are governed by the League of Planets. Few traces of any specific twenty-first century society can be found in this future society: Hamilton gives his characters made-up, culturally neutral names such as Hal Kur and Nar Lon, while the only reference to religion is the characters’ habit of swearing “by the Power”. In terms of worldbuilding, then, AD 100,000 is effectively a blank slate.
The hero of the story is Jan Tor, Captain of Interplanetary Patrol Cruiser 79388. Under orders from the Supreme Council of the League of Planets, he heads back to Earth. There, Supreme Council chairman Mur Dak informs him that Earth’s sun is set to collide with the red star Alto, the latter having unexpectedly changed its course.
But there is a possibility that humanity can be saved. The scientist Sarto Sen has invented a new propulsion method, based on “etheric vibrations”, that reduces the duration of interstellar flight from centuries to mere weeks. And so, Jan Tor is chosen to boldly go where no man has gone before, and heads off on a mission to Alto to find out why it changed its course – and whether this process could be reverted.
Reaching Alto, Jan Tor investigates one of its orbiting planets, which turns out be inhabited: black buildings dot the red-hued landscape, in contrast to the gleaming white buildings of Hamilton’s futuristic Earth. The ship is caught up in an attractive ray – the term “tractor beam” not being in parlance at the time – and the crew is soon face to face with the planet’s inhabitants. The aliens are described as “globes of pink, unhealthy-looking flesh” with eight insect-like limbs, six serving as legs and two as arms. One of them shoots a fireball from a disc-shaped weapon, killing a few anonymous members of the ship’s crew.
While held captive, the scientist Sarto Sen communicates with the aliens, and learns their intention: they are trying to re-ignite the dying sun of their planet by crashing it into Earth’s star, an act that would wipe out humanity but save their own species. Their method of propelling the star? A machine that generates ether vibrations, like that of Jan Tor’s ship, built into a vast tower.
The heroes escape from their cell through the always-reliable “distract the jailer by pretending to be sick” routine and make it back to Earth. They return to the alien planet with a whole fleet of ships, each armed with a ray that reduces matter to its component atoms. At one point it looks as though the aliens have the upper hand in the resulting battle, using a purple ray that neutralises the human ships’ propulsion mechanisms, but the heroes finally succeed in destroying the tower.
They do so too late to alter Alto’s course, however. The day is saved only when Sarto Sen, who had apparently deserted his comrades earlier on, arrives with a new ray that slices Alto in half, wiping out the alien planet at the same time. In the process, Sarto sacrifices his own life. The story ends on an emotionally mixed note: humanity celebrates its salvation, and looks forward to the future offered by interstellar travel, but Jan Tor is left mourning his departed friend.
We can see, in “Crashing Suns”, elements of later, better-remembered space operas. Large chunks of the plot turn up in Flash Gordon: an artificially-propelled celestial body threatens Earth, heroes fly out to investigate said body and are taken captive by the locals, but eventually succeed in saving their home planet. Other aspects prefigure Star Wars: the made-up names (Han Solo would fit right in alongside Mar Duk and Sarto Sen); the colour-coded weapons (good guy ships shoot blue rays, bad guy ships shoot pink fireballs); and the vague “Power” that these people apparently worship could, perhaps, be seen as a small germ of the Force. The story also has glimmers of Star Trek, with a benevolent interplanetary government and a scene where a group of crewmembers leave their ship purely to get killed by aliens, beginning he noble tradition of the redshirt. And, in the very first scene, Jan Tor’s ship has a nasty run-in with a meteor – a stock space opera hazard in later years.
Edmond Hamilton clearly knew that he had hit upon a resilient formula, as he re-used the basic plot of “Crashing Suns” for the story’s sequels.
In “The Star Stealers”, the galaxy is endangered by a dead star that has suddenly changed course; a galaxy-wide federation sends the intrepid Ran Rarak to investigate; the protagonist and his comrades find that a race of cone-shaped, tentacled aliens is responsible for the disturbance; despite being captured, our heroes eventually see the aliens routed and the galaxy saved.
In “Within the Nebula”, the galaxy is endangered by a nebula that has started spinning; the Council of Suns sends the intrepid Ker Kal to investigate; the protagonist and his comrades find that a race of one-eyed blobs is responsible for the disturbance; despite being captured, our heroes eventually see the aliens routed and the galaxy saved.
In “The Comet Drivers”, the galaxy is endangered by a comet that has suddenly changed course; the Chief of the Interstellar Patrol sends the intrepid Khel Ker to investigate; the protagonist and his comrades find that a race of liquid creatures is responsible for the disturbance; despite being captured, our heroes eventually see the aliens routed and the galaxy saved.
In “The Cosmic Cloud”, the galaxy is endangered by “a vast cloud of utter darkness” that has suddenly began sucking ships into its inescapable mass; the Federation of Suns sends the intrepid Dur Nal to investigate; the protagonist and his comrades find that a race of “flute-voiced creatures of darkness” is responsible for the disturbance; despite being captured, our heroes eventually see the aliens routed and the galaxy saved. (This one does offer a potentially interesting twist by having much of the action take place in the dark. But given the repetitive nature of these adventures, one suspects that a typical Interstellar Patrolman could probably carry out a mission with his eyes closed anyway.)
But while Hamilton wasn’t exactly thinking outside the box in terms of narrative when he wrote these stories, he did show a degree of playfulness with the SF concepts that his setting offered. “The Comet Drivers” involves the usage of a “vibration-projector” to make spacecraft invisible, while “The Cosmic Cloud” introduces “ultra-violet sight-glasses” – that is, night vision goggles.
In “Crashing Suns” the spacefaring heroes endure their entire ship goes dark for a period, which Sarto Sen blames on “an area without light… a hole, an empty space, in the ether itself” – a space-age variation on a train going through a tunnel. In “The Star Stealers” the ship goes up against “a whirlpool of ether currents”, another indication that Hamilton still had part of his mind on nautical adventures. The two ideas combine to form the main threat of “The Cosmic Cloud”, where hapless ships are sucked into a mass of darkness.
Also notable is how, as the series progresses, Hamilton shows an increasing open-mindedness towards the possibilities offered by alien characters.
In “Crashing Suns” the aliens are no more than monsters to be slain: the story deliberately sets up an us-versus-them scenario so that humanity can commit planetary genocide without shedding a tear. “The Star Stealers” establishes that humans are now allied with various aliens “from the strange brain-men of Algol to the birdlike people of Sirius”, but these races are merely background details, and do not accompany the humans on their mission – there is no equivalent to Spock or Chewbacca here. However, in “Within the Nebula”, the human protagonist heads a multi-species team, his two cohorts being a plant-man and a tentacle being not unlike the alien antagonists of “Crashing Suns”. With “The Cosmic Cloud”, species allied to humanity include such weird beings as organic brains inhabiting mechanical bodies.
Crucially, though, the antagonistic aliens always remain that little bit stranger than those serving alongside the heroes, a trend that reaches a head in “The Cosmic Cloud” where the sightless hero encounters the creatures primarily through sound and touch. More often than not, the enemy species are wiped out in a climactic genocide.
For all their reliance on formula, these stories show understanding that a convincing space opera has to offer at least the implication of a wide scope, with hints of the stories that are occurring away from the main action. In this vision of the future, spaceships are widely used for cargo, police duties and even sporting races, offering an idea of mundane life when aliens aren’t attacking. We also catch glimpses of exploits our heroes have had off the page: “Crashing Suns” establishes that the main character made his name “in the great space-fight with the interplanetary pirates off Japetus”, while the protagonist of “The Cosmic Cloud” makes an offhand comment about how he “fought the dread serpent creatures in the hall of the living dead” and had “a part in the tremendous combat of three universes”.
The stories are undeniably basic, but they did a good job of staking out a whole genre.
Next up: The Skylark of Space!