The Solar Invasion by Manly Wade Wellman
Popular Library, 1968
Originally published in Startling Stories, 1946
Price I paid: none
It comes from beyond the fifth dimension―an alien intelligence both invulnerable and totally evil.
Its aim: bring the universe to its knees. Its primary objective: destroy the Solar System.
As doomsday rushes ever closer, one lone man dares oppose the creature from beyond. Only he can save the universe from a brutal, blazing cataclysm.
The last thing I did before starting this review was to Google “Is there any reason to not like Frank Frazetta?” The closest thing to an answer I got was “Some people prefer Boris Vallejo,” and that’s fair enough.
I love this cover. Mostly I like the robot. I think he’s supposed to be Grag.
I also love that I’m reviewing this book only one week after reviewing Norman Spinrad’s totally justified attack on pulp science fiction. Part of that’s a coincidence: I asked for this book from Interlibrary Loan a while ago and it only just arrived on Friday. Still, it’s a good coincidence.
I asked for this Captain Future book because it’s by Manly Wade Wellman instead of the usual Edmond Hamilton. I’m not too familiar with Wellman, and that’s (possibly) a shame. Looking through his work makes me think I’d probably enjoy it. I’ve got an affection for the Weird and his take place near my Appalachian home. I’ve long wanted to find an author who uses my part of the world the way Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft have their respective “countries.” Wellman might well fulfill that wish, but I haven’t gotten into him yet.
I was introduced to him via a Twilight Zone episode, if you’re wondering. His story “The Valley Was Still” was adapted into the season three episode “Still Valley,” and it was okay.
How does Wellman hold up when he takes the reins of that most futuristic of captains? He does okay! There’s an odd duality here: he writes enough like Edmond Hamilton that it’s not a huge shock, but he also throws a few of his own things in that I appreciate.
When it comes to the first thing, it mostly hinges on the dialogue. The dialogue in Captain Future books is never a strong point. In fact, it’s bad. It comes off sounding dumb a lot of the time, and the characters don’t feel like they’re actually talking to one another. Wellman didn’t change that when he took over the series (for, I think, this one book), and it’s weird that I would congratulate him on keeping this awful, awful element of the stories so consistent. But there you are.
As for the other thing, Wellman added a few references to actual science in this book, something I don’t remember from the other two Captains Future that I’ve read. I’m not saying this became hard science fiction. Not by a long shot from a proton raygun, no sir. But Wellman did throw in a few lowball science concepts that I don’t remember from the Hamilton books, and I appreciate that. It may well be that those kinds of things do show up in the other Hamilton books that I haven’t read, so this may not be a big compliment I’m throwing around here.
The book kicks off with Captain Future and his pals on a picnic. The picnic is on an asteroid. Said asteroid has a “freak gravitational power” that means it has an atmosphere and trees and stuff despite being the size of a mountain. I bring this up because I like picnics.
We get some catch-up exposition at the beginning and it was done in a way that I can appreciate because I’ve never seen this particular method used before. The author apparently felt that the characters needed to be reintroduced to the reader, which makes sense because this was originally in a magazine and maybe there were some new readers. I respect that, although it can get tedious for people who are up to speed already. It’s a fine balance, and Wellman pulled it off okay this time, because he introduced us to all the characters by means of a shapeshifting dog.
I think it’s a dog. It’s actually a “meteor-mimic” and I don’t recall ever reading what its natural shape looks like. It belongs to Otho the Android, who is also a shapeshifter of a sort, so that makes sense.
Anyway, the way this book actually kicks off is with Oog, the meteor-mimic, transforming into each of the characters in turn. To paraphrase a few paragraphs:
Oog turned into a burly guy with red hair.
“Now he’s Captain Future!” everybody yelled.
Oog turned into a beautiful woman, whose only features worth noting were beauty and woman.
“He looks like Joan!”
It was corny as hell but because it was a good use of something in-universe to provide the exposition in a way that wasn’t straight conversation, I give it credit.
All this is interrupted when Joan Randall, Captain Future’s girlfriend, whose courage is once described as “not vastly inferior to his own,” shows up. Man, you know how it is when ladies ruin everything, dropping onto your dude asteroid while you’re chilling with an Android and a Living Brain and a meteor-mimic just to tell you that the Moon disappeared.
Oh yeah, it turns out that the Moon disappeared.
My favorite lines in this book, by far, are on page 9:
All three loved the Moon.
And now the Moon was no more!
Some of you might be rightly confused right now, because I’ve only mentioned some of the Futuremen. Aren’t there four, counting Captain Future himself? You’re right! It turns out, though, that Grag the Robot isn’t hanging out with Cap and crew at the moment. It turns out that he’s still at Captain Future’s headquarters on the Moon!
Grag is in trouble!
So Cap and the Futuremen head back to Earth where they see for themselves that, yes, the Moon is gone. I gotta give Wellman a little more credit: When the Futuremen arrived and just looked and decided that the Moon was gone, I asked myself if maybe the Moon was on the other side of the Earth at that point. Somebody else decides that might be a possibility, which made me happy, but what made me happier was the way that Captain Future demonstrated that this isn’t the case. He pushes a button and the Earth goes transparent on the viewscreen, showing that there is no Moon on the other side.
It doesn’t take long for Captain Future to figure out what’s going on, because he’s exactly the kind of pulp hero superman that you’d expect. It turns out that the Moon hasn’t been destroyed, it’s only been moved to another dimension. Captain Future knows all about dimensions. He explains to us what they are. Bonus points: he knows that the fourth dimension is time. That’s the kind of Wellman-science I’m talking about here.
So the Moon is probably in the fifth dimension or higher. Captain Future refuses to accept the dawning of the age of aquarius, nor does he let the sunshine in. In fact, he dismisses the fifth dimension altogether. He’s been there. He knows what’s up. Nobody in the fifth dimension is smart or savvy enough to teleport the moon. It has to be somebody else.
OH NO SHREDDER AND KRANG THEY STOLED THE MOOOOOON
Okay, you got me. It wasn’t Shredder. It was this guy:
Our villain in this piece is named Ul Quorn. He has squared off against the Futuremen twice in the past. This book sets him up to be Captain Future’s greatest enemy, a brilliant scientist nearly the Captain’s equal in brilliant science.
Here’s the thing about how Ul Quorn was set up in this book. It wasn’t good. Multiple times somebody would say something like “Well, at least we’re not dealing with Ul Quorn” or “If only Ul Quorn were here and he weren’t evil and hadn’t plunged into the Sun the last time we dealt with him” or some other kind of name drop that made me go, at the first instance, Yup, Ul Quorn is the bad guy in this book.
A bit that made me flinch from page 33:
If anyone had been watching, they would have seen the real weakness of Ul Quorn―he was a mongrel.
I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so bad about the idea that Ul Quorn’s parentage is a mix of Earthman, Venusian, and Martian, but apparently space-miscegenation is bad in this universe.
It turns out that Ul Quorn stole the Moon and is using it as his own headquarters now. He’s got some kind of devious plan, but it turns out that the plan isn’t all his. He’s lackeyed himself out to some guy called the Overlord, who is the ruler of Dimension X.
The Overlord is the tyrannical ruler of Dimension X, and that fact means that the Captain is able to gain allies there that also hate the Overlord and thus provide us with some exposition. Dimension X is a dying universe. The stars are going out and soon all will be darkness. The Overlord wants to invade our own universe because the stars still work here. He’s doing it for himself and his followers, though, not for everybody, and so that’s a problem. Also a problem is that he’s a warmonger and he wants to take it all over by force.
I’m not sure it’s ever explained what Ul Quorn gets out of all this.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth capturing and escaping and stuff that eventually culminates in a space battle. The Overlord sends a fleet of twenty ships into our universe to take it over. Captain Future leads a contigent of twelve or so ships that end up winning the battle, because of course they do. The Overlord responds by sending out the Death Star.
Okay, this book was written a good many years before Star Wars, and there are some differences, but it surprised me. The thing is even said to be about the size of a small moon, although it’s also more egg shaped than the Death Star. The thing is a huge bomb, for reasons I don’t remember but become important at the end of the story.
I mean, George Lucas was quite conciously paying homage to the pulps when he made Star Wars, so these kinds of things shouldn’t surprise me as much as they do, but they do, so there you are.
Captain Future and the Futuremen sneak on board the thing by blowing up a part of it and then flying in. Cap faces off against the Overlord and faces what I guess is supposed to be his greatest challenge yet, because things don’t go all that well at first. It’s interesting that Captain Future isn’t the one to kill the Overlord. That achievement goes to a woman named N’Rala.
I haven’t talked about N’Rala yet because she didn’t do an awful lot up to this point. She’s got one up on Joan Randall, Cap’s girlfriend, in that she’s got three traits of interest: pretty, woman, and Martian. And evil, I guess. Four points of interest.
She’s allied herself with the Overlord, and in doing so has cast her former ally, Ul Quorn, by the wayside.
In the climax of the battle, she draws a proton gun to shoot Captain Future. She fires just as Cap flings the Overlord around in her direction, so she ends up killing him instead. She collapses to the floor in grief and gets captured.
Normally the book would end around there but there’re two more interesting things that follow. First, there’s the daring escape from the not-Death Star where we get this quite Penetrator-esque bit. There’s a stooge-guard-type guy and we get some backstory about him. It’s not quite to a Lionel Derrick standard where we learn that he’s got a sick niece or something, but we get inside his head just long enough to learn about his ambitions for taking over the Overlord’s empire. Right around this point, Otho, the shapeshifting Android, shows up in the guise of one of his superiors and orders him around. The guy refuses to follow orders and Otho shoots him dead.
The Futuremen all escape, but there’s one last thing to do.
It turns out that Captain Future has been doing some thinking, and he knows a way to help out his new pals in Dimension X. Since the not-Death Star is some kind of huge atomic bomb for no real reason, he figures he’ll crash it into their sun and it’ll kickstart it again, thus saving them all from a freezing dark fate. In an unnecessarily tense postclimax action bit, he pilots the thing into the star, which does exactly what he expected it to do, and everybody’s happy the end.
Considering that last week I totally agreed with Norman Spinrad’s assessment of the pulp genre and its many flaws, it does concern me a bit that I still enjoy reading these things so much. I wonder what’s up with that. I don’t like Nazis. I’m not all that keen on supermen heroes that can’t take damage and never make a mistake. And lordy lord the dialogue in this book sucked. But I still enjoy it, and I swear on my bookshelf that it’s not some kind of too-cool-for-school ironic enjoyment. I genuinely enjoy reading this garbage.
This may not have been the best of the three Captain Future books I’ve read up to this point, but it was quite enjoyable. I think Manly Wade Wellman did a good job at keeping the book consistent with the others. It seems clear that he did some research before settling in to write, or perhaps he was just a fan in the first place and that’s why he was tapped to write this one. It makes me want to read some of the other things he’s written.
A lot of the same problems are in this book as you’d expect. Women are virtually nonexistent, and when they’re mentioned it’s usually in terms of how hot they are. This book was better than plenty, I guess, but that’s a low bar. This book does that weird thing where it talks about how brave and clever and tough a woman in and then completely fails to demonstrate any of that, instead relegating a woman like Joan to hero-girlfriend and N’Rala to villain-girlfriend. N’Rala came off better than Joan did, to be honest, who served mainly as exposition and “Oh, Captain Future, thank the space-gods you’re here!”
N’Rala, at least, had some motivation, even if that motivation was “Hook yourself up with the villain and use him to further your own schemes, whatever those are.”
One thing that always surprises me is how little Captain Future would accomplish if it weren’t for Grag, Otho, and Simon Wright, the Futuremen. He’s a real team player, and I like that. Maybe that softens the superman stuff a little bit, knowing that he actually has allies that accomplish things that he can’t. Even little Oog, the meteor-mimic, saves the day a time or two.
Maybe the takeaway is that the real Captain Future…is friendship.