‘The Star Stealers’ by Edmond Hamilton
Sensibly (and in contrast to The Ascent Of Wonder and its inexplicably ordering), Cramer and Hartwell have arranged the anthology chronologically, beginning at the beginning with a quartet of stories from the pulp period. The ‘shit’ period, in other words. The editors do not think ‘The Star Stealers’ would have been considered space opera back then but, in these shinola days, they think it fits the bill: “It was all there in 1929, fast-paced, large-scale, a bit clunky and absurd, and filled with images of wonder.” As I mentioned, the individual story introductions are long – two and a half pages in this instance – and I’m not entirely sure whether this is welcome as the additional length seems to trap them between the casual and the academic with ratehr scrappy results. For example, it opens with a quote from Jack Williamson that is unattributed then follows it up with an attributed one from Hamilton himself in an interview with Patrick Nielsen Hayden but clumsily refer follows each subsequent quote with “- PNH interview” before belatedly (and presumably?) attributing Williamson after another quote from him. They also seek to rebut Gary Westphal’s arguments about Hamilton put forward in the Cambirdge Companion To Science Fiction but they don’t really have space to engage fully. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of the introductions are like but for now, the story:
The captain of a spaceship has been recalled to Earth from the navy of the galactic Federation of Stars. “”Turn thirty degrees outward,” I told him, “and throttle down to eighty lightspeeds until we’ve passed the star.”” There is actually something rather appealing about the image of the pilot cautiously slowing down to a leisurely 23,983,397 kilometres a second to go round Alpha Centauri. “Towards our right there stretched along the inky skies the far-flung powdered fires of the galaxy’s thronging suns, gemmed with the crimson splendors of Betelgeuse and the clear brilliance of Canopus and the hot white light of Rigel.” That is the grand scale of space opera right there. (As an aside, the story refers to the solar system as being made up of “eight little planets”. Pluto wasn’t discovered until the year after it was published and by the time I read the story it had been downgraded to dwarf planet. Poor little Pluto.)
The problem facing the protagonist is appropriately vast too: “a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun” is careening across the galaxy on a collision course with Earth. Sent to intercept, he discovers that is actually an enormous planet inhabited by alien “tentacle-creatures” with sophisticated technology who want to, well, the title gives it away a bit. Can our hero save the day? What do you think.
‘The Star Stealers’ is a fairly crude story. The protagonist succeeds by luck and coincidence rather than judgement, complete with a deus ex machina swooping in at the eleventh hour. It is predominantly composed of huge chunks of exposition including a two page speech and an instance of someone actually beginning a sentence with “as you know…” Despite this, it has a lot of charm. This charm lasts until the final page when Hamilton unfortunately spoils it by telling us that, as a reward for saving the world, the protagonist’s highly capable second-in-command “after the manner of her sex through all the ages, sought a beauty parlor.” Right.
So yeah, er, operacity. I’m not quite sure what that is yet and I may try and come up with a better term.
Also, in his recent Vector review of The Weird, edited by Anne and Jeff VanderMeer, Adam Roberts wrote:
So compendious is this volume (eleventy tales overall and some of those are quite lengthy) that it would be quite impossible, in a review like this, to mention every story. Quite apart from anything, doing that ‘short-story-collection-review’ thing of going through each piece in turn, annotating with a tick or a frowny-face emoticon, has never struck me as a very good way of tackling the task. For one thing, tabulation and point-awarding provides only a spurious sense of judgment. For another (particularly where a collection of weird tales is concerned) it gives the reader’s subjective response the whip hand.
I don’t necessarily disagree. These individual blog posts probably will err on the side of my immediate subjective response. Cummulatively, however, I hope that they will be something more, something beyond tabulation.