“The young businessman’s finger was tense on the trigger of the atom-pistol. Resistance would be senseless.”
—Edmond Hamilton, “The World with a Thousand Moons”
I’ve written about Edmond Hamilton quite a bit in this series on pre-1950s space opera. I covered his Interstellar Patrol stories in the first post, and came back to him later on. Now it’s time for another look at Hamilton’s work, this time a comparatively long story that was published in the December 1942 issue of Amazing Stories: “The World with a Thousand Moons”.
Earthman Lance Kenniston and his cohort, a “hulking green Jovian” named Holk Or, are desperate to find a ship they can take out of Mars. They finally do so by teaming up with radium heiress Gloria Loring and her young, thrill-seeking friends. Kenniston convinces her that they are looking for treasure in the wrecked ship of deceased space pirate John Dark – located on Vesta, a large asteroid dubbed the World with a Thousand Moons due to the vast amount of meteors that encircle it – and will share the loot with her should they find it.
In reality, John Dark is alive and well, and Kenniston and Holk are working for him. Their true aim is not to plunder Dark’s ship for treasure, but to repair it so that he can leave Vesta. During the flight, Hugh Murdock – the smartest of Gloria’s friends – smells a rat and attacks the shady pair. The resultant scuffle leads to the ship crashing in the jungles of Vesta.
The asteroid turns out to be home to various species including six-legged asteroid cats, eight-legged meteor-rats and phosphorescent flame-birds; existing amongst them are small scuttling parasites, called simply Vestans, which can take over the bodies of larger lifeforms… including humans. Bray, one of the crew members, falls victim to a Vestan which makes off with his body, never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, Kenniston pleads that he is working for Dark only because the pirates have his younger brother Ricky hostage. The others remain unconvinced, and after Kenniston and Holk make a failed attempt at a getaway, the ship’s captain declares that they should be executed. Gloria pleads for their lives, to no avail; but the pair are saved anyway when John Dark himself turns up to take the crew captive.
Kenniston once again ends up as a prisoner of Dark, and is reunited with Ricky in the process. The crew forgive Kenniston when they learn that Ricky alone knows the formula for a cure to “gravitation-paralysis, the most awful scourge of all the outer System” (“No one could blame you for sacrificing a lot of worthless idlers like us, for a thing like this” admits Gloria).
Later, Holk Orr reveals that Dark intends to kill Gloria and her friends, rather than hold them for ransom. Kenniston is forced to come up with a plan to save everyone, and realises that Ricky’s formula will make the crew immune to the Vestans’ control. Thus protected, they can lower the electric barrier around the ship and let the Vestans in, remaining safe while the pirates fall to the alien parasites. The plan works, allowing Kenniston, Gloria and the rest to escape in Dark’s newly-repaired ship and leave the pirates to their horrible fate on the asteroid.
“The World with a Thousand Moons” is another example an early space opera that is, by and large, a swashbuckling adventure with SF trappings loosely scattered about. Again, if you replace the atom-guns with pistols and the spacecraft with sailing ships, it would work as a pirate story. For much of its length it derives conflict from Kenniston’s morally compromised position, rather than any of its SF concepts. It only begins to explore the potential of its interplanetary setting once the Vestans turn up – and even then, they don’t take centre stage until the very end.
This is in contrast to Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories. As rudimentary as those were in terms of narrative and characterisation, they at least had enough weird imagery to create a genuinely otherworldly feel. With longer-form stories like “The World with a Thousand Moons”, though, Hamilton seems to have struggled to maintain this atmosphere, and instead defaulted to the conventions of more generic adventure fiction.
For the final post in this series, I’ll return to the author who did more than perhaps any other of his era to chart the space opera universe: E. E. “Doc” Smith.