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.
Science fiction was born in the days of the pulp magazines, a time when those magazines were all competing for the attention of readers (and their nickels and dimes). The stories were designed to grab and hold the attention of a reader, and they did this with fast-paced adventures, lurid descriptions, and simplistic plots. One of the classic tales of this era was Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, where the first trip to another star leads to a first contact situation. The aliens immediately decide to remake the Earth to their own specifications, even if that requires the eradication of the entire human race. Only a single ship and a handful of Legionnaires stands between humanity and genocide!
This review looks at another early tale of science fiction that I missed during my youth, but which looked like it would be fun to read. The Legion of Space is one of those works often mentioned alongside E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a classic of the pulp era, and Jack Williamson later went on to become one of the most respected authors in the science fiction field.
I gave the title of “Pesky Pirates and Purple Prose” to my recent review of Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings, a story which appeared in Astounding in 1931, but I kind of wish I’d saved the phrase “purple prose” for this week, because it’s even more appropriate for The Legion of Space, which appeared in Astounding a few years later in 1934. Not only is the prose even more lurid and extravagant in The Legion of Space, but the book is awash with descriptions of color. Green aliens with purple eyes, misty red skies, towering black citadels, yellow water, the deep black of space; everything is described in colors, and mostly striking, vivid colors. But despite the lurid style and clichéd characters, you can see the skills of a talented writer beginning to take shape in this early work.
The copy I reviewed is a reprint issued by Timescape, a short-lived science fiction line from Pocket Books that was published from 1981 to 1985 under the direction of David Hartwell. The cover, signed by Rowena (who I assume is the late Rowena Morrill), is accurate to the contents of the book, but the monstrous Medusa does not benefit from her sharply focused style, and ends up looking a bit silly to my eye.
About the Author
Jack Williamson (1908-2006), whose first story appeared in 1928, was a pioneer in the science fiction field. But unlike many of his fellow writers from the pulp magazines, he continued to hone his craft and adapt to the increasingly rigorous demands of the genre, and his career ended up spanning over seven decades. He devoted himself to the craft of writing and became a college professor, teaching literature and writing. He also paid attention to advances in science and technology, which were reflected in his fiction. His contributions to the field earned him recognition, including the SFWA Grand Master Award, the World Fantasy Award, and induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I have featured Jack Williamson’s work in this column before, when I reviewed The Starchild Trilogy that he wrote with Fredrick Pohl. And a number of early works by Williamson can be found on Project Gutenberg.
The genre we now call science fiction was born in the first half of the 20th century, in the inexpensive magazines now generally referred to as the pulps. With new machinery decreasing the cost of printing and low paper prices, it became possible to print inexpensive magazines in large quantities. Distribution was aided by the ubiquity of retail outlets, including magazine stands, drug stores, groceries, and general stores. Books at this time were more expensive hardbacks, out of the reach of many consumers. And the continuing spread of public education created a large audience of readers. The pulp magazines had a chance to establish themselves as a primary form of entertainment in the years before radio and movies became widely available, and were far more portable than those other media. And unsurprisingly, their popularity was boosted by the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s, which created a demand for exciting, escapist fiction.
The earliest pulps were general interest publications, containing a wide range of fictional genres and topics, with Argosy becoming one of the first to establish itself. Soon, looking to increase their readership, the magazines began to specialize in specific genres, including (but certainly not limited to) adventure stories, detective fiction, true crime stories, westerns, and romance. After World War II, facing increasing costs and competition from paperback books, comic books and television, the cheaper pulp magazines began to fade from the marketplace.
One key aspect of pulp magazines was the continual need for cheap content, and if writers were willing to accept the low pay, many were able to become professionals. A lot of these contributors, especially during tough economic times, were in it for the money, writing as much and as fast as they could. These were also the days of manual typewriters, of course, which gave an edge to authors who could produce a good, clean first draft that needed little reworking. Pulp writers often employed formulaic plots, and recycled storylines and characters from a diverse array of sources. While the quality of the stories was often low, in the impressive quantity of the fiction produced during those years there were nuggets of gold among the dross, and many talented writers emerged from that era.
While they were not yet labelled as science fiction, stories involving inventors, technology, and adventures on other planets began to appear in a variety of magazines, primarily those dedicated to adventure fiction. Hugo Gernsback is credited with launching the first magazine dedicated to what would eventually be called science fiction, Amazing Stories, which first appeared in 1926. One of his main competitors was Astounding Science Fiction, established in 1930, which was as lurid as the rest of the pulp magazines until John Campbell became editor in 1937. Weird Tales, which featured horror and fantasy stories, has emerged in 1923, and eventually included science fiction in the mix. Planet Stories, which emphasized adventure, was a later addition to the genre, first appearing in 1939.
The Legion of Space
The book opens with a framing sequence in which a doctor encounters John Delmar, a remarkably tough and long-lived man who has been a cowboy, a Texas Ranger, and a Rough Rider, and fought in a number of conflicts, from the Boer War to the Spanish Civil War. He has been having visions of future events, including his own death; when he dies, he leaves the doctor a manuscript containing the history of the future. The narrative that follows is supposedly drawn from that manuscript. This framing device doesn’t really do much to set up the story, and before long I sadly realized that John Delmar, while abandoned after only a few pages, was the most interesting character in the book.
The story then joins newly commissioned member of the Legion of Space, John Ulnar, a naïve, brave, and principled young man. Directed from Green Hall, the Legion has been keeping the peace since the evil Purple dynasty was overthrown. A relative of John’s, Commander Adam Ulnar, is in charge of the Legion, and has assigned John to work with his nephew, Eric Ulnar. John is starstruck—Eric is a noted explorer who has just returned from an expedition to Barnard’s Star, the only one of his party who returned without being driven to madness by the experience. The two young men are being assigned to guard the caretaker of AKKA, a device of immense power. That caretaker turns out to be a beautiful young woman, Aladoree, who keeps the unwritten secret of AKKA in her head. John is surprised to find that she dislikes him because she doesn’t trust the Ulnars, who are descended from the Purple emperors of old. John apparently did not previously realize this connection…and it turns out Commander Ulnar has aspirations to restore the Purple dynasty and put Eric on the throne. These are supposedly secret aspirations, but besides his ancestry, Adam lives in a palace he has named Purple Hall, and has named the flagship of the Legion fleet the Purple Dream (in order to enjoy this book, the reader might be best served by avoiding deep thinking or logic, and focusing instead on the adventure as it unfolds).
That night, John dreams of being visited at his window by a gigantic, evil eye, and wakes to find that the commander of the guard unit has been murdered. Eric Ulnar takes command and orders John to imprison the other three Legionnaires who make up the guard unit; the older and wiser Jay Kalam, the strong Hal Samdu, and the fat and chronically complaining Giles Habibula. Williamson was reportedly inspired by The Three Musketeers, but other than featuring a young protagonist teaming up with three older warriors, there is not much else here to suggest further similarities. Giles Habibula was also reportedly inspired by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and as the only character who seems to have a personality made of anything other than cardboard, provides some refreshing comic relief along the way. But what the story lacks in character development, it makes up for with headlong adventure, and from this point on, the story takes young John from one challenge to the next in a rush of events.
It turns out Eric is in league with the evil inhabitants of the habitable planet that circles Barnard’s Star, floating creatures called the Medusae. That evil eye glimpsed in the night was not a dream, and John’s second encounter with one of the creatures would have been right at home in the pages of Weird Tales:
Yet in the shadows of the queer black car, he could see little enough. A bulging, glistening surface, translucently greenish, wet, slimy, palpitating with sluggish life—the body surface of something gross and vast and utterly strange.
Staring malignly from behind the shielding plates, he met—an eye! Long, ovoid, shining. A well of cold purple flame, veiled with ancient wisdom, baleful with pure evil.
And that was all. That bulging, torpidly heaving green surface. And that monstrous eye. He could see no more. But that was enough to set off in him every reaction of primal fear.
Eric is described as being effeminate and having a weak chin right from the start, which by the conventions (and prejudices) of the day, would have tipped most readers off to the fact that he is not on the up and up. Eric kidnaps Aladoree, climbs aboard the twisted black ship of the Medusae, and heads off to Barnard’s Star. Hearing their distress call, Commander Adam Ulnar arrives on Purple Dream, and Eric and the three Legionnaires commandeer the vessel, take Adam prisoner, and set off to rescue.
There is some attention paid to real (or at least speculative) science in the story. E. E. Barnard discovered the unique properties of the star that bore his name in 1916, including its rapid motion, the fact that the star was fading, and the fact that, as dim as it was, it was one of the closest stars to our solar system. This dying star gives the Medusae a plausible motivation for the conquest of Earth. The story mentions that faster-than-light travel is required for the journey to the star, and because Einstein had postulated that faster-than-light travel was impossible in 1905, there is mention of a work-around. The Legion’s ships are propelled by “geodynes,” which are described as generating fields of force that react against the curvature of space, warping it so the ship does not travel through space as much as around it, making rapid acceleration possible without discomfort to the crew.
Before our heroes can begin that interstellar journey, they must stop at the Legion base on Pluto for supplies. When bluffing fails, they turn to plunder, driven by the need to rescue Aladoree and the secret of AKKA. They find the alien planet ringed by defenses called the “Belt of Peril,” and crash in a landing they are barely able to walk away from. Then they discover that an alien armada is departing to destroy humanity. But no challenge can turn the Legionnaires away from their mission, and the rest of the book is a headlong rush of action set pieces that test their endurance, their cleverness, their courage, and their resolve.
For all its flaws, I found The Legion of Space to be a fun read. You can discern, among the clichés of adventure fiction, some of the foundations of a better type of story, which includes attention to elements like characterization (albeit primitive) and science (or at least pseudo-science). And the story barrels right along, keeping the reader’s interest with a series of ever more difficult challenges the protagonists must overcome. The story does not take long to read, and offers a window into the early days of the science fiction field, which in itself makes it worth a few hours of time.
I look forward to the comments, especially from those of you who have read The Legion of Space. And if you have any other early space adventures to recommend, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.