Short Story Review: “The Star-Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

(Cover by Hugh Rankin. Weird Tales, February 1929.)

Who Goes There?

For a certain generation of SF readers (many of whom are now dead), Edmond Hamilton was one of the quintessential pulp writers—for both good and ill. Hamilton debuted in 1926, in Weird Tales, and he remained a loyal contributor to that magazine for the next two decades, churning out what were then called “weird-scientific” tales; that’s right, a cross between weird fiction and SF. Aside from maybe E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson, nobody embodied the virtues and constraints of ’30s pulp SF writing like Hamilton did. Too unrefined to appear in Astounding Science Fiction once John W. Campbell took over, Hamilton remained a regular presence in the second-rate magazines. Hamilton in the late ’40s and through the ’50s proved a different and relatively more refined beast, though, compared to his pre-World War II output, and it’s possible that his marriage to fellow author Leigh Brackett inspired him to better his craft, even if he did not put out as much work as a result.

Now listen…

Anyone who writes a story of such high caliber as “What’s It Like Out There?” is at least worth keeping track of; you write a story that good and you get a golden ticket basically for life. While Hamilton no doubt wrote a lot of forgettable stuff for money’s sake (the Captain Future series being the most infamous example), he was also quite capable of artistry. With all that said, “The Star-Stealers,” today’s story, is very much Hamilton in pulp adventure mode, being an entry in his Interstellar Patrol series—worthy of remembrance for, if nothing else, being some of the very first space opera ever written, almost parallel to E. E. Smith’s Skylark series. You could even say that space opera has two dads, such that modern/famous space opera like Star Wars have at least a little Hamilton in their DNA.

Placing Coordinates

“The Star-Stealers” (it’s reprinted sometimes with the hyphen, sometimes not) was first published in the February 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive, and with a pretty eye-catching Hugh Rankin cover! It was collected in the Interstellar Patrol volume (containing most but for some reason not all the entries) Crashing Suns. The two big anthologies to find this story in nowadays are the out-of-print but easy to find The Space Opera Renaissance (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), which contains “The Star-Stealers” and a few other pulp examples and juxtaposes them with works from the ’90s onward. But the big anthology, indeed the biggest, is The Big Book of Science Fiction (ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), which I cited in another review not long ago and whose contents I’ll no doubt mine again. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the VanderMeers, being devotees of weird fiction, picked this one.

Enhancing Image

Our Heroes™ are traversing the stars when they’re called back to home base rather abruptly, and so start at eighty times the speed of light back to our soler system, which naturally is the birthplace of the Federation of this series. Because there’s always a human federation with these things. Also try not to think too hard about how spaceships in this series are able to just casually break physics in half or else we’ll be here all day; Edmond Hamilton was a science-fictionist and he really put emphasis on the latter word. Anyway, the captain/protagonist/narrator of the battle cruiser at the story’s center is called home because there’s a pretty serious issue that only he and maybe a few other qualified captains can handle, and the issue has to be one of the first Big Dumb Objects in SF.

The BDO in question is a dark star that has apparently been dislodged from its solar system—a renogade planet that’s heading for our solar system at an impossible (for us, not for the characters) speed. Now, SF has a long proud (sometimes not so proud) tradition of BDOs, perhaps the most famous of them all being Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, but “The Star-Stealers” is innovative for combining space opera with the BDO narrative. “Innovative” is the keyword here. I’m about to sound rather harsh and dismissive about Hamilton’s story, but we needs be reminded that pioneers must always contend with later, more refined variations on what they took the pains to introduce.

With that said, this is all rather a bit silly, and only about to get sillier.

In order to get into the correct headspace for “The Star-Stealers” you have to put aside the Wile E. Coyote physics and take everything at face value—that the internal logic of the story is perfectly reasonable and understood by its characters and just roll with it. Unfortunately I found I was… not quite able to do this. It could be that I’ve read another later Hamilton to have set up unfair expectations for his very early work, but I do prefer the pulpy but more serious Hamilton of “What’s It Like Out There?” and City at World’s End. Or even the slightly more sophisticated stories of his ’30s output. “The Star-Stealers” is an important milestone, but it’s also primitive, and I suspect its lack of presence (or indeed the lack of the Interstellar Patrol series generally) in The Best of Edmond Hamilton implies that Brackett did not think too highly of her husband’s early space opera.

Anyway, the idea is for the captain to take a fleet of ships and do something about the runaway dark star before it enters our solar system and seriously messes with the planets’ stability. Something not to worry about with Hamilton is modesty: there will always be more of a given thing than what is needed. For instance, we probably don’t need fifty damn ships for this expedition, but given how many ships the Federation has… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The fleet must meet up with and divert the dark star before it gets in range of our solar system and quite possibly dislodges our sun. Up to this point in this story we’re led to believe that the dark star being rogue was the result of some freak accident that would only make sense on old-timey super-science logic, but assuming you didn’t forget (like I did, how embarrassing) about “The Star-Stealers” being the cover story for this issue and what that cover illustrates, you know there’s more going on here. This would not be as much of adventure if we were just dealing with a BDO.

Upon investigating the dark star closely, the crew find that a) it has an atmosphere, which we shouldn’t think too hard about, and b) the assumed “dead” star is actually not that dead; in fact it’s teeming with alien life. We find a whole civilization here, with buildings shaped like pyramids containing similarly shaped alien beings. Now, to Hamilton’s credit, the aliens here are pretty freaky-looking: they’re a few things but they’re certainly not humanoid. Actually this has to be one of the first instances in SF (at least pulp SF) where we see so-called starfish aliens. And of course, because this is an interplanetary adventure yarn, the aliens have no interest in befriending or even conversing with the crew—indeed destroying basically the entire fleet before Our Heroes™ have even hit the ground.

Here we get a good description of the aliens:

Imagine an upright cone of black flesh, several feet in diameter and three or more in height, supported by a dozen or more smooth long tentacles which branched from its lower end—supple, boneless octopus-arms which held the cone-body upright and which served both as arms and legs. And near the top of that cone trunk were the only features, the twin tiny orifices which were the ears and a single round and red-rimmed white eye, set between them. Thus were these beings in appearance, black tentacle-creatures, moving in unending swirling throngs through streets and squares and buildings of their glowing city.

Our Heroes™, the one ship out of a fleet of fifty that didn’t get blown up, are taken prisoner and at least one (a bit of a redshirt) gets vivisected like he was some animal. So we have a bit of a weird situation on our hands, with starfish aliens that perform horrible tests on beings they evidently deem lesser. The question then becomes of how the surviving crew is gonna break out of prison, get back to the ship (since the aliens have not taken it apart, at least not yet), and call for reinforcements before the dark star enters our solar system. Even with the presence of aliens sentient enough to have built their own civilization, the dark star heading towards our sun could still be an accident, but we find out that’s not the case…

There Be Spoilers Here

The starfish aliens intend to steal (get it?) our sun via a gravitational device, strengthening the dark star’s already immense pull and basically swiping our sun out of the solar system as it passes through, the results of which would obviously be disastrous. If this barely makes sense to you, don’t worry, even Bugs Bunny would call the aliens’ plan a bit zany. Again I struggle to take what’s happening seriously because of the goddamn Looney Tunes logic of it, although Hamilton’s melodramatic style employed here both helps and hurts it. On the one hand it’s easy to see how a reader in 1929 would find the action exhilarating, especially because space opera was such a young subgenre and SF had rarely if ever ventured beyond our solar system up to this point; on the other, it is so silly. The image of Our Heroes™ breaking out of prison, one of the pyramid buildings, and fighting off one of the aliens (the inspiration for the cover) is fun but also frivolous—both the story’s salvation and its damnation.

I may be slightly too old and “cultured” to be reading this.

Going on a mini-rant here, but my criticisms of “The Star-Stealers” are not so unique to it as more a general (you could say unfair) criticism of space opera as a concept. Oh sure, space opera in SF literature has come a long way since the days of Hamilton and Williamson, what with a far more “sophisticated” writer like Peter F. superseding Edmond for modern readers, but space opera remains very much a gosh-wow subspecies of SF, this especially still being the case for film and TV. There’s a valid criticism to be made, for instance, of the so-called Kelvin Star Trek series of movies (I like Beyond a lot myself, for the record), that those movies put a much higher priority on space action than the TV show they’re based on, but that’s only true insofar as comparing one Star Trek product with another Star Trek product.

In actuality, the pew pew action of the Kelvin movies has a precedent much older than the original Star Trek series, rather calling back to what made space opera during the super-science era of SF so appealing—but also so laughably primitive now. I’m not even getting into Star Wars again; I think my point’s been made. What made Star Trek, the original series, so unique was that while it was technically a space opera (it ticks enough boxes), it subverts tropes in the subgenre (while admittedly making new ones) that are still worth subverting. Smashing spaceships together like they’re toys was and still is a thing in space opera, but in Star Trek the best solution to a problem was often a non-violent one; conversely the epic space battles of the new movies are not the product of newfangled Hollywood meddling but rather descended from a very old storytelling philosophy.

Speaking of which, the solution to the problem in “The Star-Stealers” is to smash spaceships together like they’re toys. Somehow one ship out of the fleet that had gotten its shit kicked in earlier managed to evade the aliens and bring word back to the Federation, so that once Our Heroes™ have gotten back to their own ship they’re met with another fleet—only this time it’s hundreds rather than dozens of ships. The gravitational device the aliens use is disabled and the dark star is finally sent on its merry way, only now far away from our solar system. The day is saved! To Hamilton’s credit, the climactic space battle is pretty epic, being almost a novel’s worth of action condensed into the back end of a novelette, even if we knew from the beginning that everything would turn out fine.

A Step Farther Out

We all have our thresholds. A lot of people now find the Foundation trilogy a hard pill to swallow, due to Isaac Asimov’s minimalist and dialogue-heavy style, while others fault his lack of eagerness to write female characters. Time comes for us all, and what was considered the shit half a century ago will probably not pass muster now. Go back and read some “classic” New Wave stories and see how many of them make you cringe. This is a nice way of saying that while it no doubt has its place, I found it impossible to take “The Star-Stealers” seriously—which strikes me as a shame, because it obviously has its appeal. What Hamilton lacks in finesse he compensates with scope; it’s a shame, then, that his “science” fiction now almost reads as fantasy, and not the kind of fantasy with elves and ogres. I didn’t dislike it, but I feel I may have hit my threshold with SF of such a vintage as “The Star-Stealers.” I take comfort, however, in knowing Hamilton was capable of better, and that indeed he would improve tremendously.

See you next time.


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