The Star Kings by Edmond Hamilton
Paperback Library, 1967 (Originally published 1949)
Price I paid: none
Flung across space and time by the sorcery of super-science, John Gordon exchanges bodies with Zarth Arn, Prince of the Mid-Galactic Empire 2000 centuries in the future!
Suddenly John is thrust into a last-ditch battle between the democratic Empire World and the tyranny of the Black Cloud regime. Only one weapon—the terrifying Disruptor—can win the struggle for the Empire Forces. But it is so powerful that unless John uses it correctly it could destroy not only the enemy but the cosmos.
Could his 20th century mind cope with the technology of 200,000 years from now?
I seriously thought this book was going to be awful. It had so much going against it. For one, this is the third Edmond Hamilton book I’ve read. Once of them, Danger Planet, was great because CAPTAIN FUTURE, but a much later work, Doomstar, was just awful. So at best I had a fifty-fifty shot.
The thing that really got me thinking this would not be an enjoyable book was when I opened it randomly to see that nearly the entirety of pages 24 and 25 were footnotes. Well, I say that like it’s a plural. No, it was one very very long footnote. Not something I want to see first thing.
I also worried about the premise. I mean, come on, 2000 centuries from now? That’s such an incredibly long time that it makes my brain hurt just to think about it. I did a little research just to see how far we’ve already come in 200,000 years. What I discovered is that, basically, humanity is that old. Modern humanity, at least. Homo sapiens. 200,000 years ago was smack in the middle of the Stone Age. We were still living alongside (and breeding with) our Neanderthal cousins at that point.
What I’m saying is that 200,000 years is about the amount of time it took for our species to go from knowing a little bit about this crazy “fire” thing to being able to use Google to look up how old humanity is via a wireless bluetooth headset connected to a phone in my pocket connected to the global computer network via a satellite in Earth orbit.
And what Edmond Hamilton has proposed to do is tell us what’s going on when humanity is twice its current age. I’m sorry, that’s just…I can’t grasp it. There’s no reason for this book to take place that far in the future. A lot of the tech in this book (apart from the stuff we’ve already eclipsed and the stuff that’s impossible) will be available in some form or another, I’m sure, within the next couple hundred years. I’m serious, assuming our species survives 200,000 years, the things we’d be able to do would be so utterly magical that humanity would likely be completely unrecognizable.
What I’m saying is that the line on the back of the book about a 20th century mind coping with the 2000th century is ridiculous. My 20th century mind has trouble coping with the 21st century.
So, with all that being said and out of the way, this book was really fantastic.
Our protagonist, John Gordon, lives in the late forties. He sells insurance or something extremely boring like that, but he’s having a hard time fitting in at the moment. He’s just returning to this job after the government sent him overseas to fight the Axis powers in some fashion or another. After World War II, an office job just seems a bit…boring, I guess.
The book kicks into high gear pretty quickly. One night while John is drifting off to sleep a voice pops into his head. The voice claims to be Zarth Arn, a scientist from the far future. He has a proposal to make that John might well find interesting.
See, Zarth Arn has invented a machine that allows him to communicate with the past. This machine does not allow the transmission of matter, only of information and/or energy, so at the moment all he can use it for is to a) communicate with people from history, and b) do mind swaps. So what Zarth Arn wants to do is swap places with John for a week or so and scout out the 20th century, take some notes, and swap back. Meanwhile John can hang around in a lab in the year 202115 and marvel around at the future, I guess. Despite not getting a lot out of the deal, John agrees, and the mind swap happens.
John wakes up in the future and starts chatting with a dude named Vel Quen. Vel Quen helped Zarth Arn create the time machine and is more or less the reception committee for the people that get brain swapped into the future.
The whole brain swap through time thing reminds me a bit of Quantum Leap, with a few differences. I wonder if Donald P. Bellisario read this book.
John Gordon is in the future being expositioned for about, oh, twenty minutes when disaster strikes. Some mysterious dudes land a ship near the lab (which is on Earth in the Himalayas), kill Vel Quen, and try to make off with John, whom they think is still Zarth Arn. As John swore to Zarth Arn that he would never ever tell anybody that there has been any kind of time travel mind swap, he can’t exactly inform these captors and ask them to wait around a bit.
The bad guys are members of a group called The League of the Dark Worlds. That’s how you know they’re bad guys. Nobody ever has the word “dark” in their organization name without being the bad guys. The name is actually a bit more than a quick way of saying they’re evil. It also establishes that their planetary base is inside of a nebula or something, which is why they’re pretty much always dark. See, it has a double meaning. It’s smart that way.
John manages to stave them off just long enough for some good guys to show up and rescue him. The good guys in this book are, oddly enough, the Mid-Galactic Empire. I guess since this book predates Star Wars we’re still allowed to think that Empires can be good in some way. Even galactic empires.
That huge footnote I mentioned, by the way, gives us quite a bit of backstory for this book, as well it should. Astonishingly it’s the only such tremendous footnote in the book, although there are a few other footers that define things like “parsec” for us. Basically the next 200,000 years hinge on the discovery of three very important scientific advances, all of which are utterly wonderful technobabble.
- A new electromagnetic spectrum that travels far faster than light.
- A way of converting mass to energy efficiently so that the added mass due to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity can be bled off as a ship passes light speed.
- A method of harnessing gravity and magnetism to provide some kind of inertial dampening effect.
The second one of those is my favorite because it makes the least amount of sense. Still, this kind of thing is what I live for in these books.
The rest of the footnote tells us a bit of history following the development of these technologies that led to interstellar travel. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that The League of Dark Worlds was founded by criminals seeking a refuge from the law. Just so you know they’re the bad guys.
Once all that was out of the way, the story moved along really well. It was originally a serial, with all the pros and cons that offers, so I guess it needed to move at a brisk pace to be in any way successful. Really the worst thing is that every so often the narrative had to remind the reader of certain things that may have been in last week’s/month’s/whatever’s installment. It’s a similar effect to binge watching an old series on Netflix and having to see “Last time on Mummy Hunters” a dozen times in an evening. It’s a holdover from when the medium was different, so I can’t hold it against the author.
So John Gordon is having to adapt to life as Zarth Arn in a sort of Prisoner of Zenda/Prince and the Pauper kind of way. He finds out that he’s the second son of the Emperor. He also finds out that he’s set to get married to a lady named Lianna, but that “he” is not in love with her and it’s a political marriage. Zarth Arn is in love with a girl named Murn. What makes it complicated is that while Zarth Arn doesn’t love his wife-to-be, John Gordon falls in love with her immediately. She falls in love with him, too, although all she knows is that he’s changed somehow, not that he’s a different person from the one she was about to lovelessly marry.
And that is how you write a good science fiction romantic subplot.
The leader of the Dark Worlds, Shorr Kan, is plotting to overthrow the Empire and take over the galaxy. It’s a pretty standard plot. How he goes about it is pretty great, though. His first goal is to destabilize the Empire by coaxing them into a lot of infighting. Eventually some of the worlds on the borders will defect. In the meantime, Shorr Kan has been using the darkness of his nebula to build a massive space fleet that will destroy the Empire’s forces.
One of the things he does to bring about the infighting is to start convincing people that Zarth Arn is a traitor. He sends along a messenger to deliver a “thought spool,” the future equivalent of a letter, I guess, saying more or less “I’m glad you decided to betray your family and Empire and come over to my side! It’ll be funtimes!”
The messenger is easily caught and his letter found by the authorities, who take it seriously.
Man, this bad guy is pretty clever! But there’s more!
The Emperor, Zarth Arn’s dad, gets assassinated. Incidentally, he’s the Emperor of a democracy. The book takes great pains to establish that all the forward-thinking “Kingdoms” and “Baronies” in the galaxy are in fact democratic states with a sort of regal holdover, sort of like 20th century England. I say it took great pains, but really it just mentioned it once and it never seemed to come up again.
So the Emperor is assassinated. John is kidnapped by Dark World forces, leading people to think that he in fact did the assassination himself and has escaped to evade capture. And that was intentional, because this villain is pretty smart.
We meet the guy a bit later. It turns out that he’s the leader of the fanatics of the Dark World league, a descendent of criminals, an evil Machiavellian genius, and an utterly ambitious…pretty nice guy?
I swear, where you think you’re gonna find a prototype for old Emperor Palpatine or something, you find a guy who just happens to be really pragmatic and a bit cynical. John even admits that Shorr Kan is entirely likable. He just also wants to take over the galaxy, mainly because he believes he’s the only person smart enough to run it effectively. But what of his fanatical followers who will do anything, including dying, for him? Well, he says, it’s just really easy to rule people after you whip them up into a fanatical frenzy by claiming that some enemy is the reason their families are starving and there’s no money or jobs.
Hmm, this book was written in 1949. And all that sounds kind of familiar, except the nice guy part.
Shorr Kan wants Zarth Arn because he, as a possible heir to the throne, knows all about a thing called The Disruptor. The Disruptor was used about two thousand years ago to fend off invaders from the Magellanic Clouds, an event that seems like it ought to be more than just backstory for this book. I think Hamilton wrote a book about that later. The weapon is immensely powerful and is really the only thing standing in the way of Shorr Kan’s ambition.
Of course, Zarth Arn is making his way through the mid-twentieth century at this point and John Gordon doesn’t know a damn thing about The Disruptor or anything else that’s going on. Shorr Kan comes to realize this after some kind of mind-scan and John convinces him that it can be used to his advantage. Basically Shorr Kan argues that the only logical thing to do in the name of self-interest would be to take over the Empire and let Shorr Kan rule from behind the scenes. John basically says yeah, that’s a great idea, all I need to do is go grab some stuff. Shorr Kan lets him off-world, John sabotages the ship and gets picked up by Empire forces (the book never says “Imperial,” oddly enough) where he goes back to the Capital World (around Canopus) and convinces everybody that he’s innocent and there’s a huge plot in the upper ranks of the government.
It takes some doing, but everybody finally believes him, up to and including Zarth Arn’s brother and the new emperor, Jhal Arn. With war on the verge of breaking out, a bunch of earls and barons and stuff are convincing Jhal Arn to bring out The Disruptor and use it against the Dark Worlds. His decision is halted by an assassination attempt that leaves him in the hospital and John Gordon on the throne.
The rest of the book is mainly space battle scenes that don’t get summarized well, but suffice to say the war ends when John brings out the Disruptor and fires it into the enemy fleet. What part he doesn’t wipe out retreats back to the Dark Worlds. John follows them and demands that Shorr Kan surrender. When he doesn’t, one of his subordinates assassinates him and surrenders on his behalf, making this one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read for the purposes of this blog.
John manages to get back to Zarth Arn’s lab, contact Zarth Arn to tell him what’s going on, and swap minds back to where they’re supposed to be. The problem is that now John is convinced that he’ll never see Lianna again. Furthermore, if he thought that returning to his insurance job after fighting the Japanazis was hard, let’s see what happens after he’s been Emperor of the Galaxy for a bit. It’s a bit of a downward step. He’s really, really depressed, as you might think.
The book truly ends with Lianna contacting him from across time, just as Zarth Arn did at the beginning of the book. She says that Zarth Arn explained everything to her and that he thinks he’s found a way to transmit matter across time. It might take a little while, but John Gordon can finally go back to the time where he truly belongs, at least in spirit.
MAN THAT WAS GREAT
With a few niggling exceptions, this book was almost perfect, at least if you like Space Opera, which I most certainly do when it’s done well. It did have some problems: the dialogue was pretty bad, for one, and there’s that little matter of 200,000 years being essentially the same technology as 1949 with the addition of FTL drive and gravity control (the computers in this book used vacuum tubes, I swear to you). Still, the action was good, and moreover the characters weren’t stupid.
John Gordon is more than a static viewpoint character, and this is a book where you would most expect a static viewpoint character to describe this insane future to us. But no, after a bit of floundering early in the book while he gets his bearings, John manages to take the initiative quite well several times.
And then there’s the villain, the guy who’s really not even all that evil. He doesn’t even cackle. He’s not especially good, of course. He’s just ambitious and self-interested, and appeals to other people’s ambition and self-interest to get them to do what he wants. I’m tempted to say that he’s some kind of response to Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead was successful about six years before this book was published), but I really hesitate to go that far.
The world this book set up was wonderful, too. For one, Canopus has glass mountains. Not all its mountains are glass, though, just some of them that happen to be pretty near the palace where John is staying at the beginning of the book. When the sun rises the glass heats up and makes musical tones, unique to every morning. I don’t think that’s scientifically plausible, but it’s sure as hell beautiful.
The whole deal with The Disruptor is interesting to me. It’s a big deal in the novel that if it isn’t controlled perfectly it can cause a chain reaction and destroy the galaxy. In fact, the only other time it was used in history, against the invaders from the Magellanic Clouds, it went haywire and, from what I’m led to believe, destroyed those galaxies. So it’s a really, really powerful, dangerous, last-ditch weapon. And this book was written four years after World War II ended via…what now? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the A-bomb was on Edmond Hamilton’s mind, and it might even be trite to mention it, but that’s not the interesting part.
The really interesting part is that while we have an allegory for the A-bomb being a major part of the plot, actual A-bombs are going off all over the place. It’s seriously the main weapon in the galaxy of this time period. Spaceships pull up broadsides to each other and fling atom bombs. Handguns shoot tiny atomic bombs. Handguns! That is the best thing.
So the other non-Captain Future book I read by Edmond Hamilton was terrible. I think I found out why. See, The Star Kings was written when space opera was still a pretty respectable thing to be writing. Jack Williamson, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton were totally defining the genre. When the sub-genre fell out of favor, though, it fell hard. Doomstar was written after that fall, and it really suffers for it. Edmond Hamilton had his niche and was damned good at writing space opera, but when things shifted away he just wasn’t able to shift with them.
Maybe I’m wrong in that analysis. I guess I’ll just have to read more and find out, won’t I?