Space Opera Archeology: Tarrano the Conqueror by Ray Cummings

“Tarrano’s dream of universal conquest was plain. In the Venus Cold Country he had started his wide-flung plans. Years of planning, with plans maturing slowly, secretly, and bursting now like a spreading ray-bomb upon the three worlds at once.”

—Jac Hallen, Tarrano the Conqueror


Having covered the trinity of space operas that debuted in August 1928 (Interstellar Patrol, Skylark of Space and Buck Rogers) I’m now going to look at a long-forgotten near-contemporary…

Ray Cummings’ story Tarrano the Conquerer was serialised in Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention magazine, beginning in 1925, before being published as a novel in 1930. The latter edition can be read online here; I can’t say if the original magazine version had any differences.

The story begins with the main character, reporter Jac Hallen, witnessing the murder of the President of the Anglo-Saxon Republic – the first political assassination to occur in two centuries. Later that day the ruler of Allied Mongolia is similarly struck down, followed by the African leader, leaving Earth without its heads of state. Earth is not the only planet in trouble: the head of the Venus Central State is also murdered, and a message from the planet blames this on someone named Tarrano. After this, the king of Mars falls victim to regicide.

Jac’s friend Dr. Brende (“It was he who discovered the light vibrations which had banished forever the dread germs of several of the major diseases”) calls him over to discuss matters. Brende talks about political tension between two nations of Venus – the Central State and the Cold Country – and concludes that an official named Tarrano is leading the latter nation in a rebellion. He also reveals that he has discovered a way to halt the effects of old age, and believes that Tarrano has somehow come across his secret. Dr. Brende ends up dead in an attack, and Jac goes on the run with the late doctor’s twins Georg and Elza.

For the most part Tarrano the Conqueror is a solid but unremarkable story; it is mainly notable as a very early space opera that clearly owes a debt to spy fiction. Tarrano himself is a generic moustache-twirling villain who gloats during his victories and casually executes his own underlings during his losses. Surrounding him are the sort of morally ambiguous characters that no good spy story would be without: these include Tara, a woman devoted to Tarrano, who is dismayed when he takes a liking to Elza; and Wolfgar, a Martian who is initially allied to Tarrano, but who turns out to be a spy working for the noble Princess Maida.

All of this takes place against a colourful space opera backdrop. Characters ride flying cars and zap each other with the “violet beam of death”, while Tarrano attracts acolytes with promises of immortality.

Most of the alien races in the story are heavily humanised, but the novel introduces a few more monstrous species, such as the “hairless dwellers of the underground Mars”. A later scene has Jack encountering a creature with “a bulging head, wavering upon a neck incapable of supporting it; a thick round body; twisted-misshapen limbs” and a face with the “hideous suggestion of an idiot child”; Jac then realises that this is just the juvenile of the species, with the adult also nearby. Our hero punches the alien in the face, which gives way “like the shell of an egg”, and yet it still lives; he has to keep on pounding it until it’s reduced to a sticky, smelly mess.

Vivid stuff. Edmond Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories used otherworldly creatures, but Ray Cummings takes his space opera further into the macabre.

AttackMarsThe events of the novel culminate in an all-out interplanetary war, although most of the action takes place on the ground as the good guys battle Tarrano’s forces. After a memorable scene where the heroes view an enemy base through “Zed-rays”, so that the building appears to be populated by “skeletons with skulls of empty eye-sockets and set jaw-bones to make the travesty of human faces grim with menace”, Jac and his cohorts confront Tarrano in his City of Ice. The heroes win out, and Tarrano is forced to spend the rest of his days exiled to an asteroid inhabited by a “primitive race of spindly beings”.

But Tarrano wasn’t quite done for. In 1951, publisher Avon ran a comic adaptation of the novel entitled Attack on Planet Mars, drawn by the penciller/inker team of Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert. Check it out.

Next up, I’ll be looking at some shorter works of vintage space opera…

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