The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson
Pocket Books, 1977 (Originally published 1947)
Price I paid: 75¢
They were the Legion, the small body of fighting men that had been chosen to defend the new democracy after the overthrow of the despotic interplanetary Empire.
Now, in the 30th century, an alien solar system is about to invade the human planets and the golden age ends abruptly in an outbreak of terror, suffering, and—worst of all—deadly treason that has allied itself with the dreaded monsters of Barnard’s Planet.
Sworn to protect mankind, John Star and his band of legionnaires must find AKKA, the mysterious weapon that guards the solar system, and rescue the beautiful young woman who keeps the weapon’s secret inscribed on her flesh. To succeed, they will have to brave the dangers of the sinister Medusa World, the black spider-ship, and the Belt of Peril where death and madness lurk.
Okay, science fiction community, I feel really let down right now. How in Great Asimov’s name did this author get past me for so long? I’m serious. The fact that I’ve managed to exist on this Earth, reading science fiction since I was a kid, and somehow managed to not read anything by Jack Williamson is frankly amazing to me, because if this book is any indication of his other work, he is awesome.
And some research seems to corroborate the idea that he’s that awesome, too. He’s the second author to ever be proclaimed a Grand Master (after Heinlein), and similarly, he succeeded Heinlein as The Dean of Science Fiction. Heinlein’s a big name to follow, at least to me. In addition to all that, he gave us the word terraform. A science fiction staple word, and he used it first.
So why haven’t I heard of him? And why was this book only seventy-five cents?
The Legion of Space kicks off, in best pulp tradition, with a narrator telling us that this story is absolutely true because it happened to a guy he knows. Well, sort of, anyway. This doctor tells us about a patient of his, John Delmar, who comes in one day for a checkup. This checkup is somewhat different from usual, because Delmar knows the exact date of his own death, and it’s coming up, so he wants to know what he’s dying of. The doctor is of course skeptical, but Delmar confides in him that he has the remarkable ability to remember the future. He talked to a scientist about it and the scientist told him that since time and space are all the same thing it’s really a wonder that more people can’t do it. That didn’t really make a lot of sense but I’m willing to run with it.
Anyway, Delmar says that he used his power to find out what will happen to his descendants as far away as a thousand years in the future, and that he’s been writing it all down. He gives the doctor the papers, goes home, and dies, right on time.
I’ve often wondered about this literary technique. We’ve seen it before in A Princess of Mars and our own Warlord of Ghandor, and on the fantasy side it’s something that Tolkien himself did (I almost capitalized himself), claiming that he translated The Red Book of Westmarch and all that. It’s odd to me that it’s so prevalent. I suppose that it’s supposed to add a degree of legitimacy to the story, but that’s not something we exactly need for science fiction or fantasy. We’re already suspending disbelief as it is.
So the Delmars go down through the ages. Their name eventually morphs into Ulnar, and the Ulnars do all sorts of amazing things, eventually founding a great empire that goes all corrupt and is replaced by a democracy, which brings us to the time of the story.
John Star, also known as John Ulnar, is a fresh graduate of the Legion Academy. His two surviving relatives are both higher-ups in the Legion. In particular, his uncle Adam is in charge of the whole thing, while his cousin Eric is a commander. John is given his first assignment out of the Academy, and he assumes that such a great assignment is due to his prestigious relatives. You see, John’s first job out of college is to guard a gorgeous space-babe who also happens to control the most powerful weapon in mankind’s possession. Also he gets to go to Mars.
It doesn’t take an awful lot of time before things start to go downhill for John. The girl he’s supposed to guard, Aladoree, doesn’t trust him, because she thinks that Eric Ulnar is scheming to take a trip to Treason-town. She’s right, but John doesn’t believe that at first, because he’s loyal to his commander and stuff like that. After all, what does she know? She’s just a girl that guards a weapon so unimaginably powerful that we won’t even learn what it does until the end of the book.
Eric does in fact take the last train to Treasonville, abducting Aladoree, carting her off to Barnard’s Star, where the Medusæ live. Yeah, Williamson uses the æ ligature all throughout the book. The Medusæ, as it were, are horrible, ancient creatures who will no doubt keep their promise to help Eric and not ever betray him and try to destroy humanity and take over the Solar System. Of course.
John joins up with three other Legionnaires, most notable of whom is Giles Habibula. Williamson wrote some other books about Habibula but I’m not so sure I want to read them. Giles Habibula is a truly annoying character. He’s supposed to be basically Falstaff, which means he’s fat and brags a lot and is constantly moaning and groaning if he goes more than a half hour without eating. He constantly refers to himself in the third person, as in “Poor old Giles Habibula is being left here to starve with nary a morsel of food or a drop of wine to sate his hunger.” He goes on and on like that. It got old. I would have thrown him out an airlock.
John and the crew go to Phobos to tell Adam Ulnar what’s going down. Because a guy who makes his home on Phobos is bound to be trustworthy. It turns out that he’s in on the whole scheme. You see, the Ulnars used to rule the Solar System and he wants to bring back that Empire. The Medusæ are his ticket to doing that, because they obviously aren’t going to betray him. He’s perfectly willing to name John his successor to the throne if he joins him in this scheme. John turns out to be a die-hard supporter of democracy and declines the offer, knocking Adam out and stealing his starship.
They set off for Barnard’s Star to save Aladoree and stop Eric, but not before making a pit stop at Pluto, specifically Pluto’s moon, Cerberus.
Well, it turns out that this book was written long before Pluto’s actual primary satellite, Charon, was discovered. Williamson, however, felt the need to give Pluto a moon, so he did. Charon was discovered in 1978, so its discovery post-dates even the reprint of the book that I actually read. I just thought that was really interesting.
Oh, there’s another development on the way to Barnard’s Star, by way of a nebula. They’re being chased by the bad guys when they come across it, so instead of going around, John decides to plunge the ship right into it. The science here is kind of goofy, but in a fun way. Nebulae in this book are domains of anti-entropy, where time starts running backward and all sorts of bad things can happen, which is also why stars are able to form in them. I’m not sure what’s up with that, but John Star is able to avoid the worst pockets of reverse entropy and lose their pursuers.
The Medusa Planet is surrounded by an energy field that is able to cancel out matter. Once again there’s no way to go around it, so John just plunges through at maximum speed. It’s a tactic that seems to work well for him. Before the ship and its crew can completely disintegrate, they make it through, but the engines fail so they crash land into the ocean. John and his buddies escape the ship, but Adam Ulnar decides to stay behind on board. He can survive for quite a while down there, he guesses, until he figures out what to do with himself.
A lot of trekking through weird alien jungles and stuff ensue, with a lot of complaining from Giles Habibula, when the guys find themselves at a Medusa city. They come across Eric Ulnar, who is going insane with guilt because the Medusæ have betrayed him (BIG SHOCKER THERE GUYS) and are torturing Aladoree in an attempt to gain the secret of the weapon she guards, which is named AKKA. She holds out just long enough for the guys to rescue her.
Giles Habibula is actually really skilled at picking locks, so he gets the credit for everybody managing to escape. They find their way back to the ship, which has been rescued from the water by the Medusæ. Adam Ulnar has come to realize that they’ve betrayed him and Eric and turns over the ship to John so they can go back to the Solar System. The Medusæ have launched a whole bunch of their spider-ships toward our Solar System, and humanity is doomed.
If it seems like I’m going pretty fast with the plot, it’s because unlike a lot of the other books I’ve read for this blog, the plot really goes that quickly. It’s a bare-bones plot without a lot of pointless description and exposition. It’s punchy. I’ve learned that it was originally published in Astounding as a serial, so I think that has a lot to do with the quick pacing. It was really refreshing.
Upon returning to the Solar System, it turns out that humanity really is pretty much doomed. The Medusa homeworld, you see, has a gas in the atmosphere that is poisonous to humans. It takes rather a while to take effect, which is why our heroes were able to survive as long as they did, but after a while it drives people insane. The Medusæ have been flinging this stuff on all the inhabited worlds in the Solar System, figuring that people will eventually kill each other off and all the while the planets will be more suitable for the Medusæ themselves. Convenient.
John, Aladoree, and the guys land on Earth, where people are already starting to succumb to the effects of the gas. Earth is particularly hard-hit, because the Medusæ have based their operations on the Moon. Things look really bad, but Aladoree is able to bring out AKKA.
AKKA, it seems, is actually really easy to make. It’s made of basic materials in a simple way, but Aladoree is able to combine them into a weapon of incredible power. She gets everything together, but one of the things she needs is a small bit of iron. A nail will do. This leads John on a search where he gets jumped by insane people, but he still manages to find a nail and get it back just in time for Aladoree to finish the weapon and use it to disappear the Moon.
This was the best thing. She just points it at the Moon, and without even a pfft it’s just gone. Earth’s oldest companion, vanished in the blink of an eye.
That is AWESOME.
I don’t know why I love that so much. It’s just hilarious, I guess. I mean, the Medusa base was on the Moon, sure, but wouldn’t there be some more of them left flying around the Solar System? The book doesn’t say.
Also, the gravitational effects of a suddenly-vanished Moon seem like they wouldn’t bode well for the Earth. Sure, the Moon doesn’t have a lot of gravitational effect on the Earth, but there definitely is some. I mean, that’s how we get the tides and all that fun stuff. So yeah, no more tides, for one thing. We wouldn’t have to worry about werewolves anymore, so I guess that’s a good thing. A lot of Earth life depends on the Moon, though, for navigation and bio-rhythms and all that. But maybe all that life was killed off when the Medusæ filled our atmosphere with insanity poison.
Man, this book is a lot more dark than I thought it was at first. I guess that’s what we get for thinking about this stuff too much.
I like the idea that that’s all that AKKA does. In case of emergency, destroy Moon.
Aaaanyway, the book ends a year later, when John is made leader of the Legion and given Adam’s old estate, making him the richest guy in the Solar System. Also, he and Aladoree are in love, so that’s nice.
Okay, so this book is easily the best I’ve read for Schlock Value thus far, but I still have my complaints.
The bulk of my complaints have to do with the characters. I know characters in pulp aren’t usually particularly deep, but everybody here was so shallowly constructed that I have to wonder if any thought at all went into creating them.
For one, there’s John Star. He goes from starry-eyed ever-so-loyal Legion member to fling-himself-straight-into-danger badass in a heartbeat with nothing in-between. He’s really the most clichéd good guy that he could be, and he really hasn’t got much of a personality.
The other protagonists, from Aladoree to the other Legion dudes, are barely described at all. Aladoree is pretty, yeah, we get that, and the Legion guys are brave and true and capable, but there’s nothing else. There is, of course, Giles Habibula, who is just annoying, so that doesn’t really count as character development.
And then there’s the bad guys. The Medusæ are just generically evil, with tentacles and terrible black starships. I mean, They sort of reminded me of D&D’s beholders in the way they were described. So yeah, if humanity ever discovers aliens like that in the universe, I’d be in full support of wiping them out on sight.
The human antagonists are little better. They’re what I call Stupid Evil. I stole this concept from someone I don’t remember who in turn stole it from D&D (two Dungeons and Dragons references in one review!). If you’re not familiar with the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, I’ll sum it up by saying that you’ve got a three-by-three grid, represented on one side by Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, and on the other by Good, Neutral, and Evil. So every character is either some combination of these things, such as Lawful Evil, like a malevolent dictator or a crooked cop, or Chaotic Good, like Robin Hood, and so forth. Geeks like me use it to argue about Batman a lot.
What my version does is throw stupid into the mix on both sides, and a Stupid Evil character is that sort of character who just makes plots to take over the world or whatever with a completely ridiculous plan that would never, ever, in a million years work, and they’re just too dumb to realize it so they go through with it and that’s their downfall. That kind of character is rarely interesting, even if they come to realize their mistake.
Nonetheless, I liked this book a lot, in case you couldn’t tell. Again, I’m upset that I managed to go this long without reading anything by this particular Grand Master, but I have a lot to look forward to and that’s just fantastic to think about.
One thought on “The Legion of Space”
Jack Williamson is well known but probably not a top tier author…. I’ve enjoyed a few of his pulp works. When the 60s came around he tried to meld pulp with social science fiction with some effect… The Bright Universe for example. But, not exactly highly recommended….