THE COMET KINGS (Captain Future) Reviewed
You may have been informed that comets are just minor planetary bodies of rock and ice, and that solar radiation blows away dust and vapor to give them that distinctive tail. That's what they WANT you to think. The truth is, that "coma' around the object is actually a potent electrical charge that would destroy any matter touching it. Not only that, but (on Halley's Comet at least) the rocky body within the coma has breathable atmosphere and is inhabited by once-normal humans who have been modified into glowing beings which draw their lifeforce directly from the comet's electric charge. And even more, behind this strange transformation are shadowy fourth-dimensional creatures from beyond our cosmos who are up to No Good.
But it's not use writing to the International Astronomer's Union to inform them about this amazing news. They are too busy wrestling about on the floor and haggling over the definitions of "planet" and what to make of poor Pluto. No, for the real facts, you must go to the Summer 1942 issue of the pulp CAPTAIN FUTURE and study the revelatory novel THE COMET KINGS by Edmond Hamilton.
Sometimes I wistfully look back at that gorgeous carnival of a Solar System that the pulps gave us. Every planet was inhabited by variations of Earthfolk; Venus was a steamy jungle, Neptune a waterworld and Mars dotted with ruined cities of ancient civilizations. Of course, it's fascinating to see the photos taken by various probes and modern telescopes and I enjoy learning what we've discovered these days through much hard work and reasoning. But in a small corner of my heart, the colorful planets where John Carter and Northwest Smith and Space Ranger had their adventures, romances and tragedies will always remain untouched.
Anyway, THE COMET KINGS is classic Space Opera, rushing right along from one bad crisis to a worse one. The characters are vivid but sketchy; it would only be years later in the final seven short stories that Hamilton would try to explore them a bit more deeply. That's fine for a fast-moving romp like this, where a chapter spent in moody introspectionwould just slow the rollercoaster car.
We start as spaceships are mysteriously disappearing. More than twenty of them have vanished just beyond Jupiter, leaving no wreckage. Bulky meteor-sweeping ships sent out to clear the space-lanes never come back, either, and the Planet Patrol investigators sail out to get someanswers, never to be heard from again. Among the agents missing are crusty old Ezra Gurney and Joan Randall. ("It may look queer, sending a girl," the Patrol commander admits, but she's darn good at her job.) Although he was naturally going to look into this anyway, the disappearance of his little heartthrob sends Curt Newton and his traveling menagerie rushing from their lonely headquarters on the Moon.
By the way, in a reality where even distant Pluto has been colonized,doesn't it seem odd that the Moon has no one living on it but Cap and his crew? I mean, it's right there next door to the Earth and you'd think it would be well developed by the time people are strolling around Jupiter or Neptune. Maybe there's an untold story there. For all I know, Captain Future has booby-trapped the Moon so no one else can land there.
Cap gathers his team of hulking metal robot, rubbery android and brain-in-a-tank into his spaceship and they roar off to see what's going on. Halley's Comet is by Jupiter at this point and the Futuremen find their craft yanked down to its surface by a powerful magnetic attraction. Landing rough by safely, our heroes are taken prisoner by the Cometae. These characters used to be normal flesh and blood people minding their own business until they were modified by some outsiders called the Allus. Now the Cometae live on electricity drawn directly from the shining atmosphere around them. They're quite attractive, looking rather angelic with their glowing auras; they're also immortal in that they don't need food or air and won't age. But most of them miss the prospects of having children, growing old together and eventually resting in peace rather than just dragging on forever. You can get tired of anything.
Whoops, Joan has joined the Cometae! There's a surprise. She has never looked lovelier, either ("Her soft dark hair and lovely face, her lithe, utterly feminine figure so completely revealed by the scanty silvercloth garment were brilliantly enhanced by the glow of inherent electric force, scintillating from every inch of her body and investing her with its shining halo.") Not half bad, but Cap can't even touch her without suffering a dangerous jolt. Even disarmed and taken prisoner, our heroes immediately start planning escape and counter-attack. These are guys who have travelled back to the break-up of the Tenth Planet, fought invaders from Dimension X and even witnessed the Big Bang. They're hard to discourage. It develops that there may be a resistance movement among the Cometae to overthrow the reign of the Allus and perhaps the Futuremen can get in on it...
Edmond Hamilton seemed to me to be coasting a wee bit for the first half of the story. Lightning-rod people living on Halley's Comet, okay it's a wild concept but not up to the usual apocalyptic level of Captain Future stories. But as Cap investigates and starts to learn more about the situation, the stakes go up dramatically. I particularly enjoyed a scene where Curt Newton starts to buy the comforting explanations his captors are feeding him, thinking that maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. Then the splash of ice water in the face as he learns the truth. ("Your cosmos of curved three-dimensional space is merely a bubble floating in the abyss of extra-dimensional infinity. In your cosmos, you are like insects crawling around the inside of a spherical shell." Never trust anyone who compares people to insects or who addresses you as "mortal" or "puny"; that's my policy)
Fans of Lovecraft-style creepiness may want to note that here we meet a race of shadowy creatures who don't seem to have any physical presence, But their long serpentine bodies sport "a blunt, hideously ophidian head from whose face grew a mass of writhing tentacles." I'm sure I've seen that image before somewhere.
And I'm glad to see Curt showing some feelings. He was raised frominfancy on the Moon by a brain floating in a tank full of fluid, a dimwit robot and a bad-tempered android. So I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out a complete psycho or an emotionless geek. But no, he's alright (maybe a bit naive and idealistic). He has finally started to return Joan's outright romantic offers. They both have some regrets that duty prevents them from just staying on the comet and being happy together, but at least Cap has the compassion to gently kiss her and say, "Joan, don't feel like that. Someday when our work is done, we'll find our own paradise."
This sort of Golden Age pulp is not for everyone, and I imagine many dismiss it as hopelessly corny and outdated. Heck, a lot of readers don't care for serious ambitious science-fiction from the 1930s and 1940s, let alone mere pulp adventure meant just to provide a few hours of harmless pleasure. That's okay. Life gives us a big menu and you can order what you like from it.
[link] [2 comments]