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Brigands of the Moon

Brigands of the Moon by Ray CummingsBrigands of the Moon front
Ace Science Fiction, 1931
Price I paid: none

A pioneer of imaginative writing, Ray Cummings is one of the founding fathers of modern American science-fiction. For in his novels and short stories, this talented writer—once an associate of Thomas Edison himself—first originated many of the soaring conceptions that became part and parcel of all science-fiction since then.

Cummings spanned the gap between the early gropings of H.G. Wells and the full vision of our atomic future. His vivid tales were the first to fully explore the cosmos from the interiors of atoms to the farthest bounds of the galactic universe.

BRIGANDS OF THE MOON is one of Cummings’ classic novels—a thrilling novel of the clash of two planets in the fight for super-power ore, an adventure in interplanetary piracy, and a prediction of the mining and colonization of the moon that is still as timely as the day it was written.

Okay, I hate to say this about an author that has been lauded as one of the earliest and most influential writers of the pulp science fiction genre, but guys, this book was boring as hell.

Could it be the fact that this book was written in 1931? I mean, this novel is more than eighty years old by this point. Lots of the tropes and schemes and plot elements that would possibly have made this a thrilling joyride back during the Great Depression have been used quite a few times since then and perhaps have begun to wear a bit thin. But I don’t know, really. I can read H.G. Wells and while I recognize it as scientifically ludicrous, I can at least appreciate the story and the moralizing. This book didn’t have much of anything to enjoy.

At least the back cover is fairly accurate, at least where it talks about the story itself for, oh, half a paragraph. Not entirely accurate, but more than a lot of books.

So the whole deal with this book is that it’s at some point in the future. We aren’t told exactly how far ahead this takes place, which I’m finding is fairly common, but we do know that what we’d call modernity is referred to as “ancient Earth,” so take your first drink.

Actually, whenever I happened upon something in this book that I would think of as somewhat trite, I honestly had to wonder if maybe this book didn’t invent the cliché. Sometimes it seemed possible, other times I figured that some things are just older than the green hills of Earth. Still, I wonder if there’s any way to find out without resorting to TVTropes.

In this particular future, though, travel between the planets is pretty commonplace. Actually, and this is somewhat interesting, the only travel mentioned is between the inner planets. The narrative talks a lot about people from Venus and Mars (and of course Earth) but never are there Jovians or Saturnians or whatever. Or Mercurians, for that matter.

In fact, for crazy proto-pulp action, this book has a lot of decent science going for it. Nothing really groundbreaking, this is 1931, but still:

  1. There doesn’t seem to be any action on any planets aside from Venus, Earth, and Mars.
  2. The moon is a barren wasteland.
  3. Spaceships actually take a fair amount of time to get around the Solar System.
  4. Women are useful only for having babies.

Wait, no, how did that last one get in there? Stupid book!

Okay so the first-person narrator of this book is a dude named Gregg Haljan. The extra in his name is how you know it’s the future, I guess. Gregg is a navigator and third officer on the ship Planetara, a cargo and passenger ship. Incidentally, Planetara’s home port is Greater New York, a vast city in The United States of the World. Is that not great? That is verbatim what it’s called. I can’t tell you why, but I absolutely love saying that phrase. It is single-handedly the best thing about that book.

So Gregg is called into the captain’s office early on in the book. It seems that something is up and the captain seems to think that Gregg and his friend Snap had something to do with it. Snap, incidentally, is in most of this book, and the phrase “Oh, Snap!” came up at least a half a dozen times. I laughed every single time.

Someone has leaked information regarding a massive deposit of “radiactum” on the moon. An intrepid group led by a guy named Grantline is attempting to mine it, but if word gets out to the Martians then they’ll try to horn in on the goodies. Martians, by and large, seem to be terrible people throughout this book. Radiactum is pretty much the greatest energy source in the Solar System, and the discovery of it on Earth’s moon will mean quite a lot of money pouring into Earth from Mars and Venus. It’s a big get.

The captain is afraid the leak came from Gregg and Snap, but a few pages of unnecessary exposition revealed to us that they didn’t do it. A lot of the exposition in this book was unnecessary, to be honest. It was 224 pages long and should have been, oh, about a hundred.

Some characters start to board the ship in Greater New York. Ostensibly they’re passengers but most of them turn out to be pirates. Did I jump the gun on that one? Nah, most of the stuff between boarding and piracy is completely pointless so I can just jump straight to it.

The passenger/hijackers include two Martians named Miko and Moa. They’re brother and sister. Also onboard are George and Anita Prince, yet another brother/sister pair. The only other noteworthy character is Venza, a “Venus Girl.” Apparently “Venus Girl” is just what you call a girl from Venus. I’d’ve said Venusian or Venerean, especially since there are so many Martians in this book, but nope. Venus Girl it is, even it if does sound like some kind of outer space prostitute.

All three of the women I have mentioned fall in love with Gregg at some point in the book. It’s like they can’t help it. And since Gregg is sort of a useless character (DRINK), it’s really infuriating.

Gregg is told at first to keep an eye on George Prince, since he is known to associate with Martians.

Wait…what?

This book is so racist against Martians.

But here’s the thing, they say to keep an eye on George because he hangs around with Martians. Meanwhile there are two Martians on the ship. Martians who, might I add, turn out to be the badguys.

But first all eyes are on George, but very shortly thereafter Gregg has his eyes on Anita. They fall in love immediately. She walks onto the ship, trips, Gregg catches her, and they fall in love. If I had known it was that easy, I’d be putting banana peels all over the street just waiting for that one special girl.

Anita is a terrible female character. This book might be racist against Martians, but man is it so much worse to women. I get it, yeah, it’s the thirties, but I still cringe at the way this woman is portrayed. All her lines are essentially “Oh Gregg, I’m so scared!” or “It’s a pity I’m a woman, otherwise I’d be able to accomplish something in this world!”

She actually said that last thing. Gregg soothes her by saying that she can accomplish something. She can have babies! And one day her son will accomplish great things, so it’s kind of like she did!

UUUUUGHHHGHGHGGH

But before all that stuff happens, Anita dies. One of the Martians breaks into her quarters and tries to rape her and then shoots her. It’s all pretty terrible. Perhaps interestingly, though, her body is shot out of an airlock in what I’m pretty sure was some kind of coffin slash torpedo tube. Yeah, this scene was the end of Star Trek II except there was nobody playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

It’s not very long, though, that we discover that Anita’s death was all part of a plot by the good guys. They faked it in the hopes that it would draw out the real people behind the scheme to steal all this radiogaga or whatever it’s called. What actually happened is that Miko broke into Anita’s room for the purposes of raping her. George caught him doing that and tried to intervene and in the meantime was killed. Very quickly the ship’s doctor managed to do a little plastic surgery to make her look like her brother. Of course, there was nothing he could do about her SHAPELY CURVES that seem to COME UP every TWO PAGES but whatever. She wears a really loose robe.

Ultimately, though, this didn’t do a damn bit of good. The Martians take over the ship. They threaten Gregg into turning it around and heading back to the moon because he’s the only one that can navigate it. In the meantime they pass an asteroid that has, for reasons that can only make sense in 1931 before they knew better, water and an atmosphere, so they dump out the passengers that weren’t buccaneers and head to the treasure.

Once they arrive at the moon, Gregg manages to spin the ship out of control just enough that it crashes. I don’t think he was actually trying to do it that way but at least it worked out in the end. He and Anita and Snap survive. At first they figure Miko and Moa died in the crash, but it turned out they didn’t. For a while everybody relaxes, figuring that the Martians won’t be able to survive in the lunar wilderness for very long, but then they remember that there’s actually a ship inbound from Mars to pick them up. Things really start to pick up here.

NOT REALLY

See, it’ll take eight days for the Martian ship to arrive, so everybody sits around and worries and talks for like forty pages. Anita says lots of really enlightened things like “I’m so glad you’re here to protect me, Gregg” and so forth.

The Martians finally arrive and begin an assault on the Grantline compound, which incidentally Gregg and Anita found. The Martian assault is really quite anticlimactic. They start besieging the compound with some kind of electron beam that, for reasons I never quite understood, didn’t do much of anything. There were a lot of terms thrown around in this book, stuff about Erentz shields and engines and suits that would come up and never get mentioned again. Remember radiactum? The whole point of this book? Well, that term actually came up exactly once in the text. On page, like, eleven. Every other time it came up it was just called “treasure.” This is a decision that confuses me.

During the ineffectual siege, Gregg and Anita head to the ship and claim to be members of Miko’s group. They say that Miko is dead and that therefore Gregg is in charge of this whole siege or something. The Martians believe them. They also say that anybody saying that they’re Miko is some kind of imposter spy and should be shot on sight.

See, that part I really like. Pretty clever, Gregg.

By using Anita as a rape magnet Gregg is able to get into parts of the ship that he wouldn’t normally be able to enter. See, normally you’d expect this kind of plan to go

  1. Lady distracts guard
  2. Guy sneaks past
  3. Lady incapacitates guard
  4. Lady says something snarky and inaccurate about men and sex

That’s how these kinds of situations go, right? Well, in this book all Lady is able to be is the bait. She wiggles a bit, a Martian tries to rape her, and Gregg kills the Martian. At least twice this happens.

The whole point of breaking into the ship was to make use of its broadcasting capabilities to send a message to Earth so that Earth can send the cops. The signal is sent and everybody just kind of hopes that it works. Meanwhile, Miko shows up out of nowhere and starts trying to kill Gregg. Gregg fights him off just long enough for Moa to show up. Moa slits Miko’s throat, completely out of nowhere. Then, because Martian honor demands it I guess, she goes off and stabs herself in the heart. She lives just long enough to tell Gregg that she always loved him and wouldn’t be able to live knowing that he wouldn’t leave Anita.

The book ends pretty much there.

So obviously the worst thing about this book is how it portrays women and the emotions they feel. They just all fall for this guy, this protagonist I guess, for reasons that are never explained in even a vague way.

Gregg is actually a pretty interesting protagonist. It’s not that he’s completely passive and useless like so many characters in my books. He actually takes initiative quite a lot in this book. It’s just that he always fails. Constantly. He draws his gun to shoot the badguy and misses. He throws a bomb and misses. He tries to land the ship and misses. It happens over and over and over again.

But the weird thing is that this book doesn’t treat it like a joke or anything. It’s not like he’s a bumbling character. It’s not slapstick or something. He’s not Clouseau or anything like that. He just fails constantly and that allows the plot to progress. He missed the shot with the heat ray? That allows the badguys to do something and we get a little more exposition. It wore thin.

Okay, I think a lot of the problems I have with this book, and I just looked this up, have to do with it being a collection of a story that was originally serialized in Science Fiction Quarterly. I don’t think that I have ever read a book that was originally a serial that worked in any way. I’m not knocking serials as a form, I think they’re great, but I think they work a lot better when they’re read as they’re released instead of all at once. So what I should have done was review this book in four pieces over the course of a year. I think that might have made it a lot better, at least in terms of things like plot and pacing and some elements of dialogue.

Nothing will make up for how the women are portrayed, though. I’ve seen worse but come on, the thirties, what the hell?


1 Comment

  1. John Shanks says:

    Your description of the protagonist’s (in)abilities reminds me of ol’ Jack Burton in “Big Trouble in Little China.”

    Liked by 1 person

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