Space Opera Archeology: John W. Campbell and The Mightiest Machine

“You interfering half-witted physicist, I’ve got to find that catalyst poison.”

— Carlisle, The Mightiest Machine

Mightiest_machineOkay, I’ve looked at Edmond Hamilton, E. E. SmithPhilip Francis NowlanRay Cummings and a selection of short stories. Now, here’s the next big name in the world(s) of pre-50s space opera: John W. Campbell. Spefically, I’m going to be looking at The Mightiest Machine,  which was Campbell’s first novel to be published in book form; it was collected in 1947 after being serialised in Astounding Stories in 1934 and 1935.

The main characters are Aarn Munro, Russ Spencer and Don Carlisle. Aarn Munro is a brilliant physicist who grew up on Jupiter, and as a result of that planet’s strong gravity, developed a five-foot waistline and oddly-shaped limbs. Russ Spencer is the heir of Spencer Rocket Co, a family-run business; his grandfather built the first rocket to reach the moon in 1983, and his father built the first Mars-bound rocket in 2036 . Don Carlisle, a chemist, rounds off the group.

At the start of the novel their current spacecraft is the Procyon, a ship whose main innovation – devised by Aarn – is a magnetic atmosphere that burns up approaching meteors. But Aarn is not content to rest on his laurels, and has an idea for an altogether larger innovation…

Aarn goes on to develop a new ship, the Sunbeam, that draws energy from the largest power source in the solar system: the Sun. To Aarn, the Sun is the “mightiest machine”, the single biggest furnace that could be hoped for, and yet hitherto untapped by humanity.

This idea is similar in spirit to the Interstellar Patrol stories, where stars would become battlefields of resource wars. But Campbell goes into far more detail about the physics of his concepts. The Mightiest Machine is very much at the harder end of the space opera spectrum. Take this argument between the chemist and the physicist:

“Well—that’s as good as your physics atoms will do. You predict, similarly, that carbon will combine only with electro-negative elements. And X-rays in the ‘pale pink’ are no worse than denying the very useful hydrocarbons. And we chemists have produced rocket fuels for terrestrial rockets, while you physicists haven’t yet produced atomic energy for interplanetary rockets. Oh, you have a sort of bad compromise in the accumulator—“

“The accumulator is a very useful and compact device,” Aarn interrupted, “which holds no less than thirty thousand kilowatt hours per pound—just a wee bit better than you chemists have ever hoped to do. I well remember that we Jovians waited twenty-two long years for release. Chemists made fuels eventually, that would lift a ship from Earth to Phobos—Mars to Jupiter, but couldn’t even begin to lift it back…”

Armed with power never before achieved by human spacecraft, the Sunbeam is sent through “where neither force not mass not energy had meaning” – a “five-dimensional nothingness”. They end up in another universe. Here, space is silver rather than black, and around the craft are “supergiant, type-O stars… hot enough to melt the rivets out of a solar investigator at half a light-year.”

The lost spacemen are attacked by a group of ships of unknown origin. These vessels bombard them with various weapons, including controlled ball lightning, although the Sunbeam’s magnetic atmosphere protects it. Aarn strikes back by reversing the ship’s powering system: “It’s supposed to take the power from a sun for our coils. I’m making miniature suns out of those ships.” The ship uses up much of its remaining power during the fight, but is saved when a second fleet of ships – enemies of the first – join forces with the people of the Solar System and successfully see off the attackers.

The Magyans, the new allies of the Sunbeam, turn out to be an essentially human species. The two races initially struggle to bridge the language gap (“The labour of learning a language,” comments Campbell’s narrative voice, “is so great that the author of fiction invariably is tempted to resort to telepathy as a short cut”) but eventually the protagonists succeed in communicating.

The Magyans divulge some of their history. The heroes deduce that these beings are not true extra-terrestrials, but descendants of an advanced human civilisation that once existed on Earth and remembered in legend. According to the Magyan captain, his people warred with the Teff-Hallani: a race of half-primate, half-goat beings with red skin, who resided in vast subterranean caves (Campbell is obviously drawing on horned devil imagery here; his aliens are rather more conventional than the weird beings described by Hamilton).

Leading the fight was a hero named Tsoo-Ahs, who had developed atomic energy and could throw deadly balls of electricity (“Great glory!” exclaims Spencer. “Tsoo-Ahs. Zeus!”) The battle resulted in the destruction of an entire continent (Aarn concludes that this was the lost continent of Mu, remnants of which include Easter Island) and both sides spreading into space, leaving the inhabitants of Earth to decline into a pre-technological state.

To this day, the Magyans continue their battle against the descendants of the Teff-Hallani, the Tefflans. But now, they have new allies in these visitors from Earth’s solar system, who bring technology previously unknown to the Magyans. The two civilisations pool their resources in the struggle against the Tefflans.

It is with these battles in space that The Mightiest Machine shows its kinship with Edmond Hamilton, as the various spaceships, rays and bombs recalling the Interstellar Patrol’s adventures.  And once again, we have an interplanetary conflict where one side must necessarily commit genocide against the other.

The Magyans declare their intention to destroy Teff-el, the planet of the Tefflans, and Aarn’s crew eagerly go along with this idea. Campbell preferred to present genocide a last resort to be used only in a clear-cut, us-or-them situation, but the protagonists of The Mightiest Machine decide to go ahead with planetary destruction shortly after entering the conflict.

They do, however, spend more time waxing philosophical about the implications of genocide than Hamilton’s protagonists. Anto Rayl, the heroes’ Magyan ally, contemplates the essentially irrational nature of the physical repulsion that his kind feels at the sight of the Tefflans: “I know them, have seen them—and hate them more with every sight. Yet I know that they are reasonable, intelligent creatures; that they are no more cruel or evil than we; but our hatred for them is as complete as the hatred of anseth and carlee” (these creatures being the Magyan equivalent of cats and dogs).

The one aspect of Tafflan society that he can “point [to] with reasonable loathing” is their tradition of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism. Elsewhere, the heroes discuss the magnificent nature of the Tefflans’ architecture, and Aarn declares that if a Teff-el museum were to survive the planet’s destruction, “posterity would blame [the Magyans] for destroying the race that could create it.” Campbell also includes scenes written from the perspective of the Tefflans, who are portrayed as being driven by a ruthless hatred of the Magyans, but still essentially human.

There is one fly in the ointment. Teff-el is home to ancient plates containing data that would allow Aarn and company to get back to Earth. And so, before the planet is destroyed, they decide to launch a retrieval mission – again recalling the Interstellar Patrol stories, which were never complete until the heroes had an adventure on the aliens’ homeworld.

But while Hamilton used such adventure story standards as characters escaping from prison, Campbell’s mind is occupied by the potential of Aarn’s hypothetical gadgets. In particular, he deploys a football-sized spying device to listen in on some Tefflan scientists, who are then killed when the machine self-destructs. Acting on their new information, the heroes head to the holy city of Kakkakill to retrieve the tablets from a museum.

Meanwhile, the Tefflans strike back at the Magyans by using a catalyst to ignite the nitrogen-heavy atmosphere of their planet. In a rather quaint touch, the villains achieve this through bombs that are painted black so as not to be noticed when deployed on the planet’s dark side. It falls upon the chemist Carlisle – up until now, a somewhat superfluous character – to solve the crisis brought on by this latest scientific weapon.

Finally, it is time for the Magyans to use their doomsday weapon. They artificially mobilise one of Teff-el’s moons (another concept familiar from Hamilton, whose villains were fond of steering various celestial bodies towards Earth and its neighbours) and send it crashing into the planet, wiping out the Tefflan race and ensuring peace for the Magyans. We are told that the hostile planet “burst like a rotten tomato” and sent out “spurts of liquid stuff”; this somewhat homely conclusion reinforces the impression that Campbell was interested more in the physical than the weird.

Campbell followed the book with a sequel, The Incredible Planet, which was a fix-up from three pieces of short fiction.

Next: I haven’t decided whether I’ll look at some more Campbell, or move on to Jack Williamson. Lemme think for a bit.

2 thoughts on “Space Opera Archeology: John W. Campbell and The Mightiest Machine

  1. I read “Incredible Planet” when it was free on Kindle; it was better than this sounds IIRC. Same arguing between the physicist and chemist and I think more genocide.

    Nevertheless, I think you should move on to Jack Williamson, because his stuff was less problematic, and he kept on publishing into the 21st century. Cracking good adventures, less declaming, and “Darker Than You Think” (short version) is still damn scary.


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