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, as part of my ongoing efforts to examine notable works from the earlier days of science fiction, I’m taking a look at The Star Kings, a space opera adventure written by Edmond Hamilton. And it’s a good one—full of action, romance, and adventure. It’s a bit dated by modern standards, but has a compelling protagonist, a few interesting twists, and a story that kept me turning pages right up to the end
The Star Kings was written in 1947. World War II had profoundly impacted the publishing industry, and like many authors, Hamilton was trying to find his way in a new literary landscape. He’d spent the 1920s and 1930s pumping out large quantities of pulp adventure in a variety of genres, particularly science fiction. His specialty was star-spanning space opera tales that earned him nicknames like “The World Wrecker.” When the pulps were waning, he spent the early 1940s writing novels based around the character Captain Future, an effort to bring the formula of detective adventures to science fiction. And by his own account, his 1946 marriage to fellow author Leigh Brackett had caused him to reevaluate his career and put more attention on the quality of his work. He stuck to his space opera format, but the resulting fiction was more carefully crafted than his previous output.
I can’t help but compare The Star Kings to Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, which I reviewed recently. Both books were inspired by classic adventure books; Williamson was inspired by The Three Musketeers, while Hamilton was inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda. Both have framing stories that involve an interesting characters from the present day. Both involve romance between the protagonist and a beautiful young woman. And both feature, as a MacGuffin, a superweapon of incredible power. But Hamilton’s book is vastly superior to Williamson’s. Where Williamson’s present-day character is abandoned too quickly, Hamilton’s serves as an effective window into a far-future world. Hamilton’s prose is not as lurid, and the science (while still fanciful) is more plausible and consistent; plus the characters, while still a bit thin, are much better drawn.
I’m not saying The Star Kings is high literature, but it is an excellent example of space opera in its heyday. While we’re comparing the two, however, there are some other factors to consider. Williamson had been writing for only six years when The Legion of Space was written in 1934. Hamilton’s The Star Kings was written in 1947, when he had been working as a professional writer for over two decades, so his book is the work of a much more seasoned author. And of course, the space opera sub-genre, still new in the 1930s, had had time to mature—thus stories of that type had become much more polished in general.
About the Author
Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was a science fiction author before the term “science fiction” had become common parlance. As mentioned above, his specialty was space opera: big, sprawling adventures with wars spilling across the galaxy. He was a very prolific pulp writer, helped popularize the character Captain Future (imagine pulp hero Doc Savage, but in space), and also wrote comic books for DC.
I’ve touched on Hamilton’s work twice in this column. The first was when I compared one of his Captain Future books with a reboot of the character by Allen Steele (find it here). And the second was when I reviewed a collection of his wife Leigh Brackett’s work that he edited. You can find more biographical information in those reviews.
Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th Century, you can find a number of Hamilton’s stories and novels on Project Gutenberg.
Impostors and Doubles
Tales involving clever disguises, doppelgängers, and mistaken identities have a long, long history in fiction. I can rattle out a number of works that use the trope right off the top of my head: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the movie Dave, Robert Heinlein’s Double Star, and so on. Sometimes the imposter becomes a better person over the course of the ruse, while at other times the machinations of the ruse puts the right person into the job or situation at exactly the right time. There is often romance involved, and sometimes the mistaken identities become the fodder for comedy. The website TV Tropes lists dozens of variations on what are called Disguise tropes.
In the 20th century, one of the most popular and influential of these stories was the novel The Prisoner of Zenda, written by Anthony Hope in 1894, and adapted many times since on screen. In the book, the king of the fictional middle-European realm of Ruritania is scheduled for coronation, but is drugged by opponents. In order that the ceremony can continue and order preserved, a stranger who looks like the king is enlisted to impersonate him. Adventures ensue, and the book proved to be quite popular, to the point where adventures set in fictional kingdoms came to be called “Ruritanian.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction states that the plot of The Star Kings reflects that of The Prisoner of Zenda, and once the similarities have been pointed out, the connection becomes hard to deny.
The Star Kings
The opening of the novel introduces us to John Gordon, who is hearing a voice in his dream. He wonders if his service as an aviator in the Pacific Theater of WWII has left him with mental trauma. Since the war, he has tried to return to normal civilian life, but he is disenchanted with his work as an insurance office account clerk in New York. The voice introduces itself as Prince Zarth Arn, second son of the king that rules the Mid-Galactic Empire, who is communicating from 2,000 millennia in the future. Zarth Arn is a dreamy scientist who, with the assistance of his associate Vel Quen, has been switching bodies with people from the distant past so he can research Earth’s history. Gordon agrees to the switch, and soon finds himself awakening in another body and another time.
Gordon makes an excellent viewpoint character—he is someone readers can easily identify with, and they learn all about this future world through his questions and observations. As many of the book’s readers would have been men who served in the war and came home to find themselves dissatisfied or restless or otherwise have trouble settling in to their new lives, his adventures would certainly serve as a form of wish fulfillment. His lack of immediate knowledge about the unusual set of circumstances in which he finds himself also gives the narrative a sense of mystery as the story unfolds.
One of the interesting aspects of the book is that exposition about topics such as propulsion systems, weapons, communications, politics, and other such matters, is put into footnotes appended to the end of the story, instead of appearing in lumps that interrupt the flow of the narrative. Those interested in such things can flip back and forth, but those who are content to follow the story are not bogged down. This struck me as something more authors should have done over the years. Then it occurred to me that there are some authors’ footnotes that would be quite extensive, and even a few who might find the footnotes filling as many pages at the story itself (I will leave figuring out the identity of those authors as an exercise for the reader).
Before John Gordon can even get his bearings, a ship full of soldiers from the League of Dark Worlds arrives and kill Vel Quen, which may bar Gordon from ever returning to his own time. The League, led by Shorr Kan, is the chief opponent of the Empire, and they want to kidnap Zarth Arn to pry secrets from him. Fortunately, cruisers from the Empire arrive in the nick of time, and soon Gordon is on his way the capitol world Throon to meet his dad, King Arn Abbas, ruler of the Empire (or Zarth Arn’s dad, I should say). The captain whose force rescued Gordon is Hull Burrel, whose aid will be vital during the adventures to come. The King is quite upset with Zarth Arn because conflicts with the League are coming to a head, and the scientist picked a bad moment to wander off to conduct experiments. After all, only the King, his eldest son Prince Jhal Arn, and Zarth Arn know the secret of the Disruptor, a super-weapon so fearsome that the mere threat of its deployment has maintained the peace for decades, without ever being used. Even Commander Corbulo, grizzled leader of the Empire’s navy, does not possess this secret.
Gordon is surprised to find he will soon marry Princess Lianna in order to cement a political alliance with the Fomalhaut Kingdom. Gordon meets her at a festival dinner and is quite smitten, deciding to kiss her on the balcony after dinner. She is confused by this, and he soon realizes that while she likes him, this is a marriage of convenience, and there is no romance involved. And then he discovers why the princess did not expect romance. It turns out he (or rather Zarth Arn) is already married to the beautiful Murn. They are in a morganatic marriage, which I had to look up, and turns out to be an archaic form of marriage which bonds a royal person to a commoner, who has to give up any claim to royal power or wealth for both them and their heirs.
Suddenly, out of the blue, another challenge rears its ugly head: Zarth Arn has been framed with false evidence and accused of being a traitor. Lianna offers him sanctuary in her kingdom, and Commander Corbulo offers to transport them on one of his ships. As they are leaving, the King is assassinated, and the fleeing Zarth Arn becomes the chief suspect. The captain ordered to transport them to Lianna’s kingdom turns out to be an enemy agent, tasked with turning them over to Shorr Kan, who wants to pry the secret of the Disruptor from Zarth Arn—a secret that Gordon does not know. And it’s revealed that Commander Corbulo, the head of the Empire’s forces, is not an ally, but is a traitor himself!
Now that I’ve set the stage, I don’t want to say too much and spoil things for the readers. I will say that Shorr Kan makes an excellent antagonist, and is far more compelling than the moustache-twirling villains you encounter in many works from this era. There are some weaknesses, as the writer does not imagine much change in human nature or society after the passage of thousands of millennia, and there are only two female characters, both of them serving as love interests. But the book does feature thrilling reversals of fortune, crashes on mysterious planets, and betrayals, and by the end there are massive battles with fleets filling space with ray beams as they struggle for domination of the galaxy. Furthermore, the Disruptor is not the only secret weapon that will come into play, while through it all, Gordon and Lianna find themselves falling ever more deeply in love. And even if they can survive this all-out warfare, Hamilton keeps us wondering: can or will Gordon return to his ordinary life in our time, leaving this life of excitement—and two women who love him—behind in the future?
I had a lot of fun reading The Star Kings. It has its flaws, such as an absence of female characters, some shallow characters, and a few improbable situations that sometimes feel forced. But it also has a huge amount of energy, and Gordon is a sympathetic everyman who makes an excellent protagonist. And certainly, there is nothing like a galaxy-spanning war between fleets of spaceships to keep the reader’s attention. It isn’t the deepest book I’ve found recently, but reading it was a joy from beginning to end.
I’m looking forward to hearing from you, especially if you’ve read The Star Kings. And if you haven’t, I’d like to hear what other space opera adventures you’ve read and enjoyed, and why they’ve appealed to you.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.