Doomstar by Edmond Hamilton
Belmont Tower Books, 1966
Price I paid: 75¢
By mid-afternoon the brilliant intense sun shone on barren space. It had blasted each of its four planets out of existence.
SOMEONE HAD FOUND A WAY TO POISON A STAR!
Someone had to be found who could prevent the takeover or destruction of the entire universe by the madman who’d engineered the disaster.
The choice fell on Johnny Kettrick, banned from the Cluster World for space piracy. Now he was to be sent back there to search out the Doomstar—to find it before it burned out another world!
First off I need to address the issue of the title of this book. As you can no doubt see, the cover depicts the title as two separate words. The back cover does the same. The title page of the book depicts it as one word, all caps, as does the top of each page of the text. The titular Doomstar, however, is one word, no capslock. Amazon and Wikipedia also format it thusly, so that’s what I ran with.
Secondly, I have to admit that while I didn’t know offhand who Edmond Hamilton was, it turned out that I had not only read him before, I’d reviewed him on this blog. Wikipedia was kind enough to point out that he wrote under a house name for a while in the forties and fifties, and as such wrote several books featuring a certain hero we know and love: Captain Future. One of those books was, of course, Danger Planet.
Furthermore, Hamilton was married to Leigh Brackett, author of The Starmen of Llyrdis.
Those are my first and second books reviewed here. How crazy is that?
This is about Doomstar, though, so let’s get started.
Johnny Kettrick is exiled on Earth for a crime that I’m pretty sure isn’t the one stated on the back of the book. Nothing in the text even suggests that Kettrick was a space pirate. He was more of a smuggler than anything, and even then, we never really learn what he did that was so heinous to get him sent to Earth. A whole lot of the book is like that, really. It never goes into detail where it matters, leaving me wondering if the whole thing is just riddled with plot holes for some kind of reason.
Kettrick, anyway, gets a call from Sekma, the guy that got him sent to Earth in the first place. Sekma is some kind of higher-up in the I-C, which is some kind of police force in the Hyades Cluster. Try as I might, I absolutely could not find what I-C stands for. I’m sure it was mentioned, but it fell out of my head at some point and I pored through the book looking for a mention but as far as I could tell, it’s just the I-C.
The Hyades Cluster is Kettrick’s old stomping ground, and Sekma needs his help. Sekma’s figuring is that if Kettrick was so hard to catch and prosecute, he’s obviously really good at everything else, so why not get him to find and stop the Doomstar. I found that rather shaky logic, to be honest.
Incidentally, scientists on Earth were able to deduce the existence of a Doomstar by noticing some changes in an uninhabited star in the Hyades Cluster, which they determined to be a test of the weapon’s power. For one, that’s rather a leap of logic unto itself, but for two, we’re getting into the problem of the speed of light again. Wikipedia informs me that the center of the Hyades Cluster is around 150 light years from Earth, so that test happened somewhere between one and two hundred years ago. Way to be on the ball, guys.
What the Doomstar does, where it came from, and why anybody would want to use it are either glossed over or completely ignored.
Kettrick goes along with the scientists’ and Sekma’s logical free-for-all and figures he’ll head back to the Cluster and sort these things out. Well, not really. He figures that the Doomstar is all myth and they’re getting their panties in a wad over nothing, but this is an opportunity to get back in the game. Apparently getting caught cost Kettrick a million credit deal at White Star, and he wants to finish that up.
It’s not until very late in the book that we’re told what this deal was. He just keeps going on about the million credits. Also, I know a million is a big number, but we’re really not given any sense of scale or economy here. A million credits might be enough to buy a small moon, or it might be a down payment on a space car. Seriously, author, at the height of post-World War I German inflation, it took several trillion Deutchmarks to buy a postage stamp. Big numbers don’t necessarily mean good.
Context, though, tells us that this is kind of a big deal, even if we don’t know how big.
Kettrick’s first stop when he gets back into the Cluster is to hit up his old pal Seri, presumably so he can ask him what the weather will be like and where can he get a good burger nearby. Seri was Kettrick’s partner in crime(?) for quite a while, and now he’s living with Larith, Kettrick’s old flame. Neither Seri or Larith seem especially happy to see Kettrick again, and that gets Kettrick’s hackles up.
Speaking of hackles, Seri has two…somethings…that he keeps as bodyguards or guard dogs or whatever. They’re named Khitu and Chai and they’re barely described. They’re fairly bestial, that much is certain, and they’re vaguely described as catlike, but they can also talk, although in a sort of “Me am Khitu” kind of way.
Anyway, Seri gets cooperative at some point, and says that Kettrick can take his boat to the spaceport and borrow his ship and take it to White Star to do his trading thing and get his million credits. On the way, though, the boat explodes. Khitu and Chai are on the boat with Kettrick, and Khitu dies. Chai rescues Kettrick, and the chase begins.
Kettrick hits up some other old buddies, and they climb onto an old rustbucket of a starship and head off for some adventure.
Really, the next portion of the book is pretty pointless. Kettrick and his crew go from planet to planet, each time hearing that Seri was there a few days before. The number of days get progressively shorter, and Kettrick begins to get his hopes up that he’ll catch the guy that tried to kill him for some thus-far unexplained reason.
He eventually jumps to the conclusion that the whole reason Seri is on the run and tried to kill him is because he’s got the Doomstar.
Part of his reasoning is the fact that on every planet he goes to, he meets up with some of his and Seri’s old contacts. They all start off really surprised at the fact that Kettrick is back in the Cluster, and then they mention that Seri was there a few days ago, and then they turn on Kettrick and try to kill him. It seriously happens like three times. Each time he manages to escape, mostly thanks to his not-a-Wookiee.
Eventually Kettrick’s logical jumps lead him to think that Seri is bound for White Star, just like Kettrick was planning on doing all along. White Star has a native population that won’t be missed particularly badly by the rest of the Cluster, some folks that turn out to be basically chimpanzees that achieved a tribal civilization, so Seri using the Doomstar to kill them all will make a nice demonstration of his power. It’s never really stated what he intends to use this power for, exactly. I guess he just wants to take over the Cluster for himself.
How exactly he made the change from a guy Kettrick was BFFs with back in the day to megalomaniacal murdering star-killing psychopath is also never explained.
Kettrick goes to White Star. Somewhere along the way it’s revealed that the Doomstar isn’t a ship or a ship-board weapon or anything, but rather what is essentially a planet-bound missile launcher, so Kettrick lands on a planet inhabited by the Krinn, who are essentially monkey people. The Krinn, it seems, also make something called heartstones, which are crazy beautiful and worth a lot of money in other parts of the Cluster. Because the Krinn are barely civilized, the I-C has placed a ban on all trade with them, so heartstones are also hard to get to. Apparently getting ahold of some heartstones is what Kettrick was doing when he got caught the first time and sent to Earth.
Kettrick manages to use the natives to help him find the missile launcher. What is more surprising is that Seri is there with some other people, mere moments away from killing the sun.
I guess I should mention what exactly the Doomstar actually does. There’s a little technobabble about it, involving cobalt isotopes starting a chain reaction in the heart of the star, but really what it does is causes the star to emit tons and tons of gamma radiation, killing every living being in the system. Why, then, does Seri feel the need to be anywhere near the star system when the missile hits? In addition, what was he planning to do with the Doomstar after the missile goes off? It’s described as pretty big and hard to move around. Was he just gonna wait a few hundred or thousand or howeverlong years until the radiation dissipates and then come and pick up the weapon again? Does he have multiple Doomstars? Why does this continue to make absolutely no sense?
Seri is, of course, stopped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s Chai of the Cat People who gets the final blow in before dying moments later. Kettrick reaches over and turns off the Doomstar, saving the day.
Okay, so, yeah, this book wasn’t especially good. It also wasn’t especially bad, though. It just wasn’t very much of anything. There was a lot of not-much all throughout the book, and every action anybody does is precipitated by bad logic and conclusion-jumping. I feel like a lot was left out of this book that might have made it a lot better.
Johnny Kettrick isn’t much of a hero, either. He’s also not much of an anti-hero, though. It’s the standard story of a guy acting in his own best interests who decides that the fate of the world is at stake and has to stop the bad guy, but in Kettrick’s case it’s usually because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why did Sekma feel the need to send him in the first place? I mean seriously, a dude with the ability to kill entire star systems does not warrant a single smuggler to try and stop him. What he warrants is a whole damn space fleet, brimming with weapons and soldiers and anything else that might be useful. At the very least a plucky and talented farmboy-turned-pilot that can forgo the targeting computer and trust his instincts.
Kettrick’s “talents,” as they are, include making friends easily and earning the trust of people quickly. Sekma tells us this at the beginning of the book. How, exactly, is this talent supposed to save countless people from gamma radiation incineration?
Basically the plot of this book is “Oh no, we suspect vaguely that someone can kill billions upon billions of people with a weapon that we’re not sure how to stop. Let’s send this totally self-centered guy, who will most certainly ignore what we send him to do and go back to his old habits, because he makes friends easily.”
I don’t know what’s worse, the idea that somebody might have come up with an idea that stupid, or that the idea actually worked.
After reading Danger Planet, I have to say this book really disappointed me. Sure, I had lots of issues with Captain Future, plenty of them similar to issues I had with Doomstar, but this one was orders of magnitude worse. So much of the time I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the plot, which just meandered along until hitting a total anticlimax.
I’m gonna go wash the taste of this book out of my brain with the new Scalzi book. See you next week.