Pesky Pirates and Purple Prose: Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today we’re going to look at a book by Ray Cummings, an author who was ubiquitous in the pulps during the period between the World Wars of the 20th century, but who is not well remembered today. It’s a story of action and adventure, set on a space passenger liner caught up in a titanic struggle between worlds—a story where our heroes must contend with the titular Brigands of the Moon!

When I first started this column, I focused on re-reading fiction I had encountered in my younger days. But from time to time I also decided to look at works I’d overlooked for one reason or another, often because they were older stories I had initially dismissed as corny or old-fashioned. And as I came across books and stories by authors like Edmund Hamilton, Jack Williamson, and E. E. “Doc” Smith, I often found that while the prose could be lurid, the science preposterous, the archaic gender roles grating, and the characters cardboard-thin, the old tales often have a joyful energy that makes for fun and enjoyable reading.

As I researched the most popular writers of the pulp era looking for possible forgotten gems, the name Ray Cummings frequently emerged. He was not only prolific, but frequently mentioned as an influence by other writers. And of his novel-length works, the space pirate adventure Brigands of the Moon looked the most promising. The book was originally serialized in Astounding, and published as a novel in 1931, and I was able to track down an Ace Science Fiction Classic paperback edition (which is undated, but based on its smaller dimensions and cover price of 35 cents, was probably published sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s). The cover artist is uncredited, but actually did a pretty fair job illustrating the space battle that brings the book to a rousing finish.

Brigands of the Moon turned out to be a rollicking adventure that at times reminded me of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s early adventure story Triplanetary (or at least, the original magazine version, without the additional Lensman series backstory added to the book version). There are murders, mutinies, battles in zero-G, narrow escapes, reversals of fortune, battles across the surface of the moon, and a fair amount of romance. What the story lacks in realism, it makes up for with sheer momentum as the characters barrel from one dilemma to the next.

 

About the Author

Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was an American writer of science fiction and detective stories who rose to prominence in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. The back cover of the Ace edition of Brigands of the Moon gives this account of his career:

A pioneer of imaginative writing, Ray Cummings is one of the founding fathers of modern American science-fiction. For in his novels and short stories, this talented writer – once an associate of Thomas Edison himself – first originated many of the soaring conceptions which became part and parcel of all science-fiction since then. Cummings spanned the gap between the early gropings of H. G. Wells and the full vision of our atomic future. His vivid tales were the first to fully explore the cosmos from the interiors of atoms to the farthest bounds of the galactic universe.

Cummings’ first notable work, published in 1919 by All-Story Weekly, was a short story (later expanded into a novel), “The Girl in the Golden Atom.” The story imagines that atoms are like miniature solar systems, and a chemist falls in love with a woman he sees through a microscope and shrinks himself down to visit her. Cummings wrote throughout the period between the world wars for pulps like Argosy, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, and Planet Stories. His works included stories of time travel, alien invaders, and adventures in space and on other planets. In the 1940s, according to Wikipedia, Cummings did anonymous writing for Timely Comics (which later became Marvel), penning stories about Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner.

Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a number of Cummings’ stories and novels on Project Gutenberg, including Brigands of the Moon.

 

Science Rooted in the Era of Invention

It is no wonder the genre of science fiction emerged when it did, because the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century was an age where science was indeed transforming society. And it is no surprise that Ace Books emphasized Ray Cummings’ association with Thomas Edison in their biographical blurb for Brigands of the Moon. During that era, Edison’s name was a byword for scientific progress, since he was responsible for developing a practical electric light, the phonograph, moving pictures, and the microphone that made it possible to transmit speech over telephone lines, just to name a few of his innovations. Edison applied knowledge of electricity, chemistry, and mechanics, not just in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but to develop practical devices that impacted people’s daily lives. And he was as much a businessman and promoter as he was a scientist. Edison’s fame in during the era of invention was ubiquitous. He inspired countless depictions of inventors in science fiction stories (see this article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction), including characters like Frank Reade, the inventor hero in a series of dime novels, and the eponymous hero of the popular Tom Swift novels.

People of this era, having witnessed so many transformative innovations, obviously believe that further advancements were right around the corner, especially in applications of electricity. In Brigands of the Moon, we see the ship’s main propulsion comes from an array of hydraulically aligned magnetized plates, which not only help the ship move by countering gravity, but create artificial gravity within the craft. These gravity plates are what allows the gliders on the cover to work despite the lack of atmosphere on the moon. There are maneuvering engines that work with jets of electrons. We also see suits and buildings that use “Erentz” fields to protect from the vacuum, a “Benson curve light” that tricks the eye, hand-held heat rays and paralyzing ray guns, and all sorts of electronic projectors and detectors. The fictional element of radiactum in the story shows that radioactive elements were seen as a potentially valuable power source, even before scientists had refined the process of turning the heat generated by radioactive decay into electrical energy.

There are also anachronisms, such as the visor worn by radio operator Dan Dean, an article of clothing once common in telegraph offices (when such offices were themselves common), which has since disappeared from pretty much everywhere but golf courses. Furthermore, the dimensions, proportions, operations, crew size and layout of Planetara more closely resemble a small ocean-going passenger ship than a practical spacecraft.

 

Brigands of the Moon

The book follows the adventures of Greg Haljan, navigator on the space liner Planetara. It is 2070, and the vessel regularly travels between the port of Greater New York on Earth, the port of Grebhar in the Venus Free State, and the port of Ferrok-Shahn, the Martian Union capitol. Haljan and his friend, Dan “Snap” Dean, electron-radio operator on Planetara, have been summoned to Divisional Detective Headquarters, along with their commander, Captain Carter. The airless and resource-poor moon has long been ignored, but that is about to change. The secret Grantline Moon Expedition has apparently discovered deposits of radiactum, a valuable element capable of fueling a powerful new type of engine. This possibility has attracted the attention of criminal elements from Mars, who will stop at nothing to secure this treasure.

The government has developed a plan for the expedition to communicate secretly with Planetara while she is passing the Moon on her way to Mars, and if the expedition has indeed found the radiactum, the vessel will stop at the Moon on their way back from Mars to pick up the material and return it to Earth. (I must say, dated as the science is, the governmental, private, and commercial relationships in this book, and the convoluted nature of this plan to involve a passenger liner in the endeavor, make little sense.)

There are concerns about the passengers on the voyage. One Earth man in particular, an engineer named George Prince, is under suspicion, as he has been consorting with Martians of dubious backgrounds. And the passengers also contain a collection of people from the three planets who cannot be screened and might be threats to the mission. George Prince is described as having feminine features, which I first thought was another example of the distasteful old trope that feminine characteristics are a sign of moral turpitude. Instead, however, that description later becomes the basis for a plot twist. There are some sweeping generalizations about the people of the other planets, with Venusians portrayed as sensual and Martians portrayed as bellicose. The book follows the pattern of crime fiction, with characters introduced without revealing who the villains are, thus giving the readers the chance to guess. We meet the Venusian mystic Sero Ob Hahn, the stage magician Rance Rankin, aristocratic Englishman Sir Arthur Coniston, and a hulking mail-clad Martian named Miko.

Among the characters are three women. All have more agency than is often the case in pulp stories, but, in keeping with another pulp tradition of only spending time with female characters who are love interests, all are attracted to our protagonist, Greg Haljan. We meet Miko’s sister Moa (who, the author explains, is more attractive than her burly brother). We meet the Venusian singer Venza, who while pitching woo at Greg also shows that she is very perceptive at reading people. And finally, we see George Prince’s sister (and almost twin in appearance), Anita. Upon boarding, she stumbles, and Greg catches her. During the brief moment she is in his arms, they fall deeply and hopelessly in love (another old pulp tradition).

Once the objective, setting, and characters are established, the narrative moves at a breakneck pace. Our protagonists receive a secret transmission that the Grantline expedition has indeed found radiactum, and it appears that someone in a mysterious invisibility cloak overheard this report. They have a close encounter with a habitable asteroid, with surface water, a breathable atmosphere, and abundant plant life (a doubtful event, even by the scientific standards of the time). Someone is murdered, but before anyone can do much investigating, there is an uprising of pirates among the passengers, aided by mutinous crewmembers.

The brigands, who are greedy but not entirely heartless, return to the asteroid and maroon most of the passengers and crew. Greg and Dan are kept aboard because their skills are needed by the brigands. There are a lot of scenes and elements that haven’t held up well over time, but others that show a perceptive understanding of the implications of emerging science and future technologies. To avoid spoiling too much, I won’t go into any more details. I will say that as the plot unfolded, I became more and more engaged in the narrative, and ended up being disappointed that the story was over when I reached the end.

 

Final Thoughts

Pulp science fiction has its obvious flaws, but it also has its charms. If you give the stories a chance and allow yourself to adjust to the prose and conventions of the era, you can find a lot to enjoy, especially if you are a fan of stories that put adventure at the center. I found Brigands of the Moon an entertaining tale, and those who are looking for a quick read will enjoy the shorter, more compact format of pulp fiction.

And now I’m eager to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Brigands of the Moon or any other tales by Ray Cumming from the days of the pulps. And as I delve into other works from the days of the pulps, do you have any other tales you recommend?

 

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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