“Ross, it’s horrible. They’re from beyond our universe. Vegetablelike things…”
– Justin Nichols, “Invaders from the Outer Suns”
If you want to see an overview of how space operas evolved over the decades, then the Space Opera Megapack is a cheap and tasty option. It’s where I came across Tarrano the Conqueror for the last post in this series, and right now I’d like to take a look at some of the shorter stories from the 30s and 40s that the anthology has to offer…
I noticed a few familiar names in the book, including Edmond Hamilton. I’d already covered his Interstellar Patrol series, but his story “The Sargasso of Space” (Astounding Stories, 1931) moves away from the weird aliens and colliding suns faced by the Patrol tales in favour of something a bit more down-and-dirty.
Captain Crain of the Pallas is in a pickle: his ship is low on fuel and being drawn into a dead zone of space, where no orbit will be able to draw it out again. Passing a cluster of wrecks, the crew hit on the idea of salvaging fuel from the ruined craft.
To their surprise, they find that one of the wrecks, the Martian Queen, is inhabited by survivors, amongst them a girl named Marta Mallen. As Crain’s crew set about fixing the Martian Queen, Marta reveals all: the ship’s officers were murdered by the villains Krell and Jandron, who are presently holding her captive and passing off the deaths as accidents.
Jandron makes an attempt to escape while leaving Crain’s men stranded, but the heroes – teaming up with Krell, who turns out to be an enemy of their enemy – are victorious, and manage to rescue Marta as well as theirselves.
More than anything else, “The Sargasso of Space” underlines how much space opera owes to nautical fiction. It’s easy to imagine the story rewritten as a tale of sailors and pirates on the high sea. But nautical yarns weren’t the only stream flowing into early space opera. For one thing, it’s hard to miss the horror influence on some of these stories: just look at Jack Williamson.
I’ll be returning to Williamson later in this series, but for now, suffice to say that his main contribution to space opera was adding a hefty dose of the macabre. His story “Salvage in Space” (Astounding Stories, 1933) starts with protagonist Thad Allen searching for valuable ore amongst the meteorites and happening upon a derelict ship. He realises that he stands to make quite a bit from salvaging the vessel and begins exploring it. On board, he finds evidence that the crew died violent deaths; a logbook is filled with portentous entries but offers no solid information on what happened to the people on board.
Searching further, Thad comes across a hold filled with taxidermied aliens, along with a crystal coffer containing the immaculate body of a young woman. Finally, he encounters the creature responsible for the crew’s death: an alien invisible to human eyes. After throwing a tub of powder over the creature, Thad is able to defeat it. He has one last surprise when he finds out that the girl in the coffer is still alive, having been placed in a state of suspended animation by drugs – but he is an old man before she eventually awakes. A clear ancestor to the likes of Alien and Predator, “Salvage in Space” mixes its futuristic setting with imagery straight out of a gothic story.
Another horror-tinged story in the anthology is “Invaders from the Outer Suns” by Frank Belknap Long (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1937). This one kicks off when James Ross, officer of the Interplanetary Police, descends into a hive of criminals in search of a miscreant named Justin Nichols. After a somewhat Mos Eisley-like punch-up, Nichols escapes and Ross heads off in pursuit. Ross’ buddy Bob is killed in the ensuing Sillo-beam battle, and our hero vows vengeance.
But when Ross final catches up with Nichols, it turns out that the criminal has fallen victim to something even more dangerous: a race of vegetable-like aliens with a tendency to remove human brains. At that point, Ross’ only goal left is to ensure that Nichols’ innocent sister Marta doesn’t fall to the same fate.
Both Ross and Marta fall under the influence of the aliens’ hypnosis and absorb something of their mindset. Ross becomes immediately convinced (“if we do not allow our petty human emotions to sway and hamper us the star-people will know that there is still hope for our little race”) while Marta resists (“They are great, but they are not as great as we”). Marta’s romantic attraction to Ross is enough to break the hold of the aliens, and the pair escape together.
This is a story that runs the gamut of pulp violence from Western-like brawls, to militaristic gun battles, to body horror (characters are reduced to “haggard, gibbering skeletons, with shrivelled flesh gangrening from uncauterized leechweed abrasions” or flat-skulled corpses that bare “expressions of frozen horror”), and then touches upon a vague transhumanism before wrapping things up in a conventional conclusion.
Another Frank Belknap Long story in the anthology is “The Sky Trap” (Comet, 1941). This story is unusual amongst the early space opera I’ve looked at in that it explores what people of the space age will do in their spare time between far-flung adventures. To wit: they take part in combat sports – protagonist Dave Lawton regularly spars against a fighter named Slashaway – and watch some kind of hi-tech porn. “[O]ur romantic emotions can be taken care of by tactile television”, says Lawton’s commander, although our hero’s heart belongs to one woman in particular: “I wouldn’t exchange her for all the Turkish images in the tactile broadcasts from Stamboul.”
The plot sees Lawton, Slashaway and Commander Forrester running into trouble when their ship gets trapped inside an atmospheric bubble. The bubble contains a mixture of chemicals that actually produces an internal ecosystem, with new species of plants evolving before the eyes of the crew. The vegetation gives off mind-altering fumes (“There’s something worse than marijuana weed down there”) and some of the crew members are driven to suicide, but Lawton saves the day by clamping expulsor disks onto cosmic ray absorbers and directing a stream of accidental neutrons at the bubble. “It’s a long gamble, but worth taking”, he notes. The bubble turns out to be the result of “atom-smashing experiments” performed in the Appalachians.
Then we have an early foray into humorous space opera: “Where are You, Mr. Biggs?” by Nelson S. Bond (Weird Tales, 1941). The protagonist Sparks is a crewmember on board a creaky old cargo ship which has been sent on an errand to Uranus. The ship’s captain, Hanson, sends Sparks to find Lancelot Biggs, whose skills will be necessary for the ship to reach its destination. It turns out that Biggs has cooked up a device that can, in theory, transport the ship to Uranus in a matter of days by altering special dimensions… but the results turn out to be disastrous.
A short, jokey tale, with most of the humour deriving from the chemistry between the increasingly agitated Captain Hanson and the swoony, lovestruck Lancelot Biggs, who is preoccupied with thoughts of his fiancé back home – Hanson’s daughter. The humorous tale reaches a poignant conclusion as Biggs sacrifices himself to save the ship after his dimension-shifting machine malfunctions, his fate left ambiguous: “He may be in this universe, infinitely small, traveling at infinite speed; he may be in some other universe undreamed by man.” This was just one of several stories about the adventures of Lancelot Biggs, which were fixed up into the 1950 novel Lancelot Biggs: Spaceman. Perhaps I’ll take a look at that somewhere down the line…