Battle for the Stars by Edmond Hamilton
Paperback Library, 1967
Originally published by Dodd, Mead / Torquil, 1961
Price I paid: 90¢
CLUSTER WORLD N-356-44
“It was no place for a man to be.
Men were tissue, blood, bone, nerve. This place was not made for them. It was made for force and radiation. Go home, men.
But I can’t, thought Jay Birrel. Not yet…I have to go on into this place where a human being looks as pathetic as an insect in a furnace.”
And so begins Edmond Hamilton’s most fascinating inter-planetary adventure—BATTLE FOR THE STARS.
I spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking that this book was the one upon which the film Battle Beyond the Stars was based. I should have known better from the start. That movie was based on either The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, depending on how far back the writers chose to go.
It’s been a hot minute since I watched that movie. I was probably thirteen or fourteen when I was first introduced to it and Sybil Danning’s…costume.
But anyway, it turns out that none of that is relevant, so let’s continue, shall we?
This 1961 novel is by Edmond Hamilton, who might be my most-reviewed author at this point? I’m not sure. I’ll have to go check. There’s Lionel Derrick, but that’s two authors writing under one name, and I think I’m half and half on those fellas. It’s a strong possibility! This is the fifth book of his I’ve written about.
I just wanted to read something that had a solid chance of being good. And you know what? I was right! This book was fine and dandy. A little draggy in places, sure, but well written. Also, completely unexpected.
This is yet another case where the book jacket led me to believe that the novel would be something else entirely. The cover art, the words on the front, the words on the back, the blasted title, none of this led me to even briefly consider what this book would turn out to be.
I have no idea what’s happening in the cover art. I don’t know if dude is in a cockpit, or some kind of escape pod, or just looking out a window, or flying through a pneumatic tube, or what. The artist is uncredited so I guess we can’t ask them about it either.
The back matter is a direct lift from the opening lines of the book. The last paragraph of it is kind enough to tell us this, but the book is not at all well-described by the opening lines of the book! They’re good lines, for sure. I particularly like “Go home, men.” That line has a modern feel to it that I appreciate.
But this book opens in a situation very different from where the rest of it goes. It’s a great beginning and had me pretty well hooked, but it’s not at all indicative of what’s to come. That’s part of what I liked so well about it.
I guess I should get into it, then.
Our main guy is Jay Birrel. We don’t get much physical description of him, other than at one point the narration tells us that he is of average height. Despite this single feature, I mentally cast him as my buddy who is also named Jay, a great bear a of a man. Who’s gonna stop me?
Also unlike Real Jay, Birrel is a typical 50s-60s scifi protagonist who must not have emotions, lest The Men see. He is a Commander in the Lyran space navy, in charge of the elite 5th Squadron, pride of the fleet. Real Jay is probably the greatest example of non-toxic masculinity I’ve ever had the honor of knowing.
I hinted up top that the opening of this book is almost a fakeout, but that’s not quite the right way to describe it. I keep wanting to call it a cold open, but that’s not it either. It’s close, though.
We first meet our fella and his fleet as they slowly work their way through a cluster of stars called N-356-44. It’s an area of space densely-packed with stars, and a dangerous one. They visit a single habitable planet that has no night because there are so many stars in this area. Birrel is looking for something to do with some dastardly Orionids, and he runs into one of them named Tauncer, and there’s a bit of a standoff before Birrel manages to escape.
I’m being a little vague here because so was the book. I didn’t have much in the way of a setup for this universe yet, so I didn’t know what was going on or why the Orionids were particularly bad or anything yet, but I was still pulled in by Hamilton’s tone and voice. It wasn’t the best I’d ever read of his, that probably belongs to The Star Kings, but it was good enough.
I expected the whole book to revolve around this planet and this cluster of stars. After all, the book is called Battle for the Stars and the back of the book has CLUSTER WORLD N-356-44 in great big red letters on it. So imagine my surprise when they left and never mentioned it again.
Birrel gets orders from his leader, a guy named Ferdias, to go to Earth. And here we finally get some exposition that sets up the universe for us. Like the rest of this book, it’s pretty good, but not shockingly great.
FTL spaceflight was discovered two hundred years before this story takes place. Exactly two hundred years, in fact. Birrel’s orders are to go back to Earth with the Fifth Squadron to participate in the festivities.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy at an incredible rate. Faster than anyone could have predicted. This is largely because of the fact that wherever Earthlings went, they found more humans. Humans remarkably like the ones from Earth. Sure, their skin might be a shade of gold or something, but otherwise they’re just alike enough to interbreed. And interbreed they did. So it turns out that it’s less about humanity spreading out and breeding fast, it’s more like humanity spread out and found more humanity and incorporated it. Still, this means that things got spread out so quickly that it was soon apparent that Earth and its space government, the United Worlds, was in no shape to govern so much space effectively.
As a result, there are now five sectors of space that nominally owe allegiance to Earth and the UW but are in practice autonomous. They jockey with each other for resources and power, but there has never been any kind of all-out war between then. Birrel is from the Lyran sector. The Orion sector is the villain of this peace. The other sectors are mentioned here and there but I don’t remember anything about them and they don’t really play a role in the story.
The orders that Birrel receives from Ferdias are to go to Earth to represent the Lyrans in the grand celebration of the anniversary of space flight. He is to take his entire squadron, partly because there are other motives. Ferdias has reason to believe that the Orionids will be sending two squadrons of their own, and will use them to conquer Earth and annex it.
The truth is, this is largely a political and propaganda move. Earth is useless at this point in the story as anything but a half-remembered home of humanity. Its fleet is laughable. It’s like the musty old attic of the galaxy. Birrel himself is more annoyed with this mission than anything else.
If this story has a major flaw, it’s the pacing. It positively plods. But you might also say it’s kind of meditative. This isn’t a particularly deep book, but there is a sort of “going home” subtext that floats around. It’s nothing concrete and I’m not sure that Hamilton was trying to say anything specific with it, but there it is.
Earth isn’t Birrel’s home. His great-grandparents came from there but he feels no connection to it, emotional or otherwise. Nonetheless, part of his cover story is that he’s looking up the small town that his ancestors came from for a visit. Also in tow is his wife, Lyllin, who is from Vega. Lyllin is an interesting character in her own right.
There’s a lot of what you’d expect from a female character in an early 60s science fiction novel. At one point Birrel chastises her by saying something like “Stop thinking like a woman,” so I think you know what I’m talking about. But there’s an element of her personality that I found somewhat touching, if only because I’d never seen anything like it before. She’s a woman that tends to worry for her husband, sure, but it’s for something new to me. She’s worried less about her husband falling in battle or something and more for him going to Earth and falling in love with it and wanting to stay. She’s not worried that he’ll leave her, she’s worried that she’ll come along with him, and that she won’t fit in. She’s scared of being alone on Earth because she’s a full-blooded Vegan. She’s afraid that they’ll hate her.
I don’t know why, but I found this kind of touching? I don’t know if Hamilton was trying to evoke something specific, like people who fought in foreign wars and met someone there and brought them home and then met friction from their neighbors, or what. But it’s such a natural thing for someone to be scared of, and one that I wasn’t expecting to see.
It means that Lyllin spends a great deal of the novel doing the standard fretting woman thing, so that could be better.
What ends up happening is that while Birrel gets called away for the last quarter of the novel to deal with the meagre plot developments, Lyllin stays in a house in a small village in New York, is immediately accepted by the community, and has a wonderful time.
I haven’t talked much about the real plot of this book, and that’s because it only plays out in the final quarter of the novel. Earth forces get suspicious of Birrel and think that he’s the vanguard for a Lyran invasion. He has to convince them that he’s not and that he’s in fact here to help. They go round and round a bit but he finally convinces them just in time for the Orionid fleet to show up. There’s a space battle with some tactical stuff that never ever makes sense to me and everything works out in the end, except for one little twist that made me smile.
After the climactic two-page space battle, Birrel returns to Lyllin and is told to wait for further orders. Finally, his boss, Ferdias, shows up and reveals that since the Orionids have been taken care of and won’t get in the way, it’s time for the Lyrans to make their move to take over Earth themselves. It’s more of a political maneuver than a military one, but still, it’s a bullshit move and it makes Birrel very angry to learn it.
Birrel is all like “nuts to that,” and quits his job. Ferdias is shocked, but not too shocked to try to proceed with his devious plan. Birrel adds that all the crews of the Fifth Squadron will refuse to participate, and the reason he knows that is that one of his captains is right here on the other side of this door listening to the whole conversation.
Ferdias finally gives in and says fine, he won’t try to invade Earth himself. Birrel refuses to take his old job back, and decides to stay on Earth after all. Lyllin agrees and it’s very sweet.
So, uh, that’s that. This certainly wasn’t the best Hamilton I’ve ever read, but it’s also not the worst. Firm in-the-middle Edmond Hamilton, with some nice touches. Probably more nice than not, although a few things made me wince. It pulled that “women just think differently” thing that is no surprise whatsoever from the time, and there was a single line of dialog that made me wince because it made light of domestic abuse (CW if you want to read this, it’s near the end). Other than that, though, this whole adventure was entirely serviceable and I’m glad I read it.
It’s 2021 now and I’m so glad to have spent so much time with all of you and with these books. I have no intention of stopping any time soon, but I’m gonna be honest, I’m kinda running out of interesting new things to say about the books I read! I’m getting a little self-conscious about that, to be honest. I’ve tried to break it up with more shorts and off-the-wall reading, and that’s been good fun. I don’t know what I’m trying to say here other than thanks for hanging out with me, and if I start to get boring, I’m sorry. I’m not fishing for ideas to shake things up, but if you happen to just have some sitting around…
That said, I’ve started branching out in the ways that I try to interact with the Internet, so I’ve started streaming on Twitch a few times a week. I’m playing video games and building D&D maps and planning some other things, so if you’re into any of that kind of stuff, give me a follow. I fully intend to talk a lot about the books I’m reading, have read, and want to read, and invite you to come by and do the same! You can find my channel here.
Thanks again for eight great years of bloggery, and I love you all.