Escape Across the Cosmos

Escape Across the Cosmos by Gardner FoxEscape Across the Cosmos
Paperback Library, 1964
Price I paid: 90¢

Falsely accused of depriving the Empire of its dream of a Promised Land by murdering its Leader, Kael Carrick was exiled to the dread planet Dakkan, a galactic graveyard from which no man returned.

But Kael had to return. He alone could dare attempt it. For before his death, the Leader had rebuilt Kael’s war-ravaged body into a cybernetically perfect specimen—a silicon superman potentially capable of destroying the devouring terror of the Slarrn world that now hungered for the Empire.

Kael’s powers were extraordinary—so much so that he hesitated to test them. But test them he must. For on his courage and strength alone depended the fate of the Empire, and its last chance to learn whether Paradise or Evil awaited them somewhere in the cosmic vastness.

Oh my god, guys, Gardner Fox.

I picked up this book because it had a goofy cover, a ridiculous title, and a decent-sounding premise. I love that dude on the front. His head is all wacky! Heads don’t look like that! The book even makes it clear that the protagonist has a normal head, so who is this guy? What planet is he on? That planet wasn’t in the book. I think there may have been flying saucers, though. That part may well be accurate.

But Gardner Fox. Holy crap.

I looked him up because I try to do that in case it gives me something to mention. Oh, boy, did it this time.

Note: Somebody out there, probably lots of somebodies, are probably thinking “Oh god, Thomas, how did you not know all that?” My answer is only that sometimes important facts escape me. Even men as great as Gardner Fox.

Okay, here’s the deal. Fox wrote comic books. Lots of them. Estimates are that he wrote at least 4000 comic stories, 1500 of which were for DC.

In doing so, he created (along with the associated artists!)

  • The Flash (the original one, Jay Garrick)
  • Hawkman
  • Doctor Fate
  • Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one)
  • Zatanna
  • Batgirl
  • Batman’s utility belt
  • Batarangs
  • The Justice Society of America, which he later turned into
  • The Justice League

There are more. So many more. Gardner Fox might rank among the most important writers in comics history. And until I picked up this cheesy-looking science fiction novel, I’d never heard of him. I am so sorry, everybody.

It’s not even like he’s kept on the downlow. He won so many awards, has gotten so much appreciation for his comics work. One of the Green Lanterns, Guy Gardner, was named for him. My ignorance is nobody’s fault but my own.

He also wrote books. This is the first science fiction one. So how was it?

It was pretty good.

Kael Carrick is our hero. Injured horribly in a war, he became the protégé of a dude named Hannes Stryker, probably the most brilliant scientist and inventor in the Galactic Empire. Stryker rebuilt Carrick, giving him super powers and shaping him to save humanity from a galactic horror.

He’s basically a comic book hero.

The problem is that Stryker has been murdered. Carrick gets the blame for it, which is particularly insulting because he loved Stryker like a brother, or maybe even a father-figure. So when the story kicks off, Carrick has two things in mind: survival and finding the real killer.

His punishment for the crime is exile on Planet Dakkan. Dakkan’s a hellhole. It’s one great big desert, a dead world with maybe a few ruins to make the landscape a bit more interesting. The back of the book makes it seem like the novel will be about Carrick’s attempt to survive and escape, but that’s way off. He gets away around page thirty.

He does so because it turns out that Dakkan isn’t totally unpopulated. It’s got a smugglers’ den, or maybe a pirates’ den, led by this guy named Than Lear, whose name annoyed me because sometimes I thought the book was saying “Then Lear,” as in “Then Lear took off in a run.” It could get confusing.

One of Lear’s people is Mai Valoris. She’s gorgeous, obviously, but she’s also pretty tough and smart. She helps Carrick out quite a bit in the book and holds her own. She’s never a damsel in distress, although the fact that Carrick falls in love with her almost instantly serves as a source of motivation when it comes to the final climactic battle with the horrifying galactic menace that I’ll get to in a minute.

While hanging out on Dakkan, Carrick and Mai discover some ruins and start digging. They find an artifact that sets something off in Carrick’s head, something he thinks is a hypnotic suggestion implanted by Stryker. It concerns Ylth’yl, a being of immense and terrible power. The thought of it gives Carrick vague feelings of revulsion, something he puts down to a racial memory of some great enemy. He doesn’t know what to do about it, but he thinks it might be important.

So when some smugglers arrive to trade with Than Lear, Carrick steals their ship and heads off into space, Mai in tow. Carrick’s prime motivation (and it’s so nice to see a character with clear motivation) is to clear his own name and avenge Stryker. He goes to one of Stryker’s closest allies and financial partners, Alton Raymond. They don’t go straight off, though. There are some stopovers on some planets wherein it’s shown that Carrick might be a superman, but he’s not very good at fitting in with society, so that’s where Mai’s strengths start to shine. She helps him adjust and makes him inconspicuous. He gets some research done, mainly regarding his own trial and the people he thinks set him up, and then goes to visit Raymond, the richest man in the known universe.

Raymond’s not there when Carrick and Mai arrive, so they make themselves comfortable. When he does arrive, he’s badly shaken. It turns out that he’s been looking into Stryker’s latest discovery, a means of travelling to another universe, and discovered that things there are not as heavenly as was once thought. He’s also pretty surprised to see Carrick still alive.

He recovers and Carrick peruses Stryker’s diary, where some things are made clear. He invented a dimensional gateway out of some stuff called subsidiundum (#231 on the periodic table) to the world of Slarrn, a paradise planet. Stryker spent some time there, fell in love, and generally had a good time. The people, called the Llynn, were beautiful and kindly, and the environment was perfect for human life. It also had riches beyond counting. Stryker recounts that he uses a diamond the size of his fist as a paperweight, and crude oil seeps up through the ground in vast quantities.

I love it that in this far-flung future, thousands of years from now, we still need oil.

The diary also recounts how this wonderland all fell to pieces. It turns out that there’s a vast city there whose only inhabitant is, of course, Ylth’yl, whose name I hate typing. Ylth’yl eats people. Specifically, he eats their souls, and even more specifically he feeds off of their “life energy.” Stryker’s presence on Slarrn alerts Ylth’yl to his own universe, which Ylth’yl had once inhabited but given up for dead after he’d eaten all the humans he knew about millions of years ago. It turns out that he’d missed some and now they had spread all across the universe. This is bad news for us. I’m pretty fond of my life energy.

The diary then tells Carrick (and us) how Stryker had created Carrick to fight off this great evil. It boils down to the fact that Ylth’yl can only eat the souls of carbon-based life, so Stryker built a new body for Carrick based on silicon and gave it amazing powers.

Carrick and Mai take their leave of Raymond and Carrick tries to figure out what to do with himself. He feels a bit betrayed, like his life has been taken away, and his main mission is still to clear his own name. He has begun to distrust Raymond, as well, thinking that maybe the rich man killed Stryker to have the riches of Slarrn all to himself.

They run around, doing some investigating and being pursued by a very angry Than Lear. Meanwhile, Carrick learns that the guy who fingered him for the murderer is himself dead now. Carrick suspects that that’s the guy who did it.

So then Carrick decides that the only place that he and Mai can be safe is on Slarrn. He figures that since he was created to defeat Ylth’yl, he might as well go do that and redeem himself in the eyes of the Empire. And so that’s where they go.

Once on Slarrn, Carrick’s powers begin to grow. Stryker built him to derive power from that planet, it seems, and from the first moment he’s there he finds new and amazing abilities within himself. He turns out to be telekinetic, he can create forcefields, he can throw antimatter around (without the spectacularly explosive results one might expect), and he can shoot beams out of his hands. So he goes to fight Ylth’yl.

It’s a pretty good fight sequence. The fight swings back and forth several times and for a while it seems like a stalemate. Then Ylth’yl gets the upper hand and tries to eat Carrick’s soul. That’s where it all turns around.

Ylth’yl enters Carrick’s mind and starts to eat his energy, but it turns out that Carrick’s new powers extend even further than his body. He mentally roots out Ylth’yl and starts to psychically squeeze. Ylth’yl panics and tries to flee. Carrick squeezes him harder. Finally, exhausted of all his energy, Ylth’yl dies. Humanity is saved.

Carrick rests a bit and goes back to his own universe. He arrives just in time to see that Raymond and Than Lear were in cahoots the whole time. They’re standing next to the portal with guns in their hands. Carrick briefly wonders if his powers will work in his own universe. It turns out they do. He handily kills Than Lear by telekinetically flinging him against a wall. Raymond turns out to be a coward and surrenders, promising to reveal his own complicity in the plot to kill Stryker. Carrick is absolved of the crime and figures he and Mai might as well go back to Slarrn to live their lives in the new paradise.

I had a lot of fun with this book. I liked how the main character was basically still human right up until the end when he got his powers, which would have been too powerful to make the book entertaining if he’d had them all the way through it. If he’d been able to use telekinesis or melt guns from people’s hands the entire time, it would have been a boring book with little conflict. Instead, it was the story of a dude who finds out he’s got some amazing powers right at the end, just in time to beat the Lovecraftian bad guy who also has pretty amazing powers.

The book had a lot of future terms that went completely unexplained in standard pulp fashion. We get blip-guns, telestations, cryogenic waves, thalamatrodes, drugs named syrupol and panthalos, and a host of other terms that exist only to tell us that this is a science fiction novel. Most of the things are just mentioned so we don’t even know what they do. Sometimes it felt like it went a bit overboard, but it’s something I tend to find more amusing than annoying. Something about it made the book feel older than it was, and maybe that was intentional. Gardner was apparently a big fan of the pulps, especially Edgar Rice Burroughs, and its clear there was some influence.

More than anything, though, this book felt like a novelized comic book from the sixties. I mean that in a good way. I was glad that a lot of the ideas Gardner would have used in a comic translated pretty well to text. We’ve got a superhero on the run, a hot blonde dame, a bit of space opera, some space pirates, and whatever blip-guns are. I imagined the whole book in panel format, just swimming with Kirby Dots.

The book didn’t deal with any grand themes or moral lessons, it was just pure adventure and entertainment. It gets some credit for that because it never felt like it was trying to be anything else. Sure, most of the time I want a science fiction novel to teach me something or explore something else, but I also like to be entertained, and Gardner Fox is really good at being entertaining.

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