Since Edmond Hamilton has come up, I thought I’d dig out this retro review from July 7, 2013.
Review: What’s It Like Out There? And Other Stories, Edmond Hamilton, 1974.
I don’t know how representative of his work these twelve stories by space opera pioneer “world-wrecker” Hamilton are. They were written from 1941 to 1969 with over half from Weird Tales.
Like the justly famous title story, where a spaceman returning to Earth after surviving a disastrous mission to Mars is unwilling to give the unvarnished truth when asked “What’s it like out there?”, many of these stories bring a more somber, realistic tone to the myth of space travel and colonization so prevalent in science fiction of the time. That story was from 1952. “Sunfire!”, from ten years later, has another astronaut returning to Earth after a disaster, and he refuses to tell his superiors why what he experienced on Mercury has led him to retire from a distinguished career. An earlier, inverted approach to the idea of man being unsuited for life in the bounds of space, shows up in 1948’s “Transuranic”. That story, partaking of the time period’s interest in atomic physics, looks at the creation of transuranic elements at a lunar base and the strange events that follow.
Many of the Weird Tales stories have heroes brushing up against worlds hinted at in dreams or folklore or legend and always feature a doomed romance with beautiful women. “The King of Shadows”, a not terribly interesting story, has a lost city of the First Race (the spacefarers which humans are descended from) in Central Asia. More interesting are “Serpent Princess” and “Twilight of the Gods”, both from 1948 and both takeoffs on mythology, Assyrian and Norse respectively. They are rousing tales of world threatening menace and heroic battle. As with “The King of Shadows”, “Serpent Princess” features alternate human evolution and superscience. “Twilight of the Gods” partakes of the period’s fascination with all things atomic. “Dreamer’s World” has a man alternating between two worlds when he “sleeps”. In one, he’s a prince on an alien world trying to stave off invasion by barbarians and courting a beautiful woman. In our world, he’s a worker drone for an insurance company. It’s fairly predictable but satisfying.
Like all the above except “Dreamer’s World”, “The Watcher of the Ages” is science fiction, the fantastic rationalized with science. It leads me to suspect, along with the collection’s title story, that Hamilton drew inspiration from historical journeys of exploration since Colonel Fawcett and the Lost City of Z is specifically mentioned in this story of another trip into the Matto Grosso region of Brazil. Like many of the stories here, it ends on a moody note, and there’s also an unexpected plot twist that makes it one of the collection’s highlights. “The Inn Outside the World” is a piece quite specific to its 1948 appearance with its protagonist, a politician of an unspecified European country faced with solving the post-World War Two problems of his people, seeking advice in a tavern populated by famous figures from man’s past and future. When a mysterious, always silent, figure at the bar speaks, we are again given another Hamilton take on the existential problem of existing in a universe hostile to our needs and desires.
“Isle of the Sleeper” is a predictable, somewhat hoary, story of a castaway who finds an island improbably populated by various animals and a beautiful woman – all the dream creation, the latter tells him, of the Sleeper at the center of the island.
“The Stars, My Brother” is something of a thematic oddity here. From 1962, it seems a commentary on race relations and, perhaps, the dangers of conservation efforts anthropomorphizing animals. In this future, many planets turn out to be already inhabited by humans. The exception is a planet where humans of a very primitive sort evolved along with the alien Sakae who rule over them. Its hero is frozen in a 1981 accident in space and illegally revived 100 years later to become a propaganda prop in the struggle waged by a small group of humans against the Sakae
All of these tales are of interest to students of pulp science fiction, and I would say that, apart from “Isle of the Sleeper”, all are worth reading.