The Best Of Edmond Hamilton (book review).

I suspect Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) is known more these days for his work for DC Comics in the 1950s-60s, working on the likes of Batman, Superman and the Legion Of Super-Heroes. His wife, SF writer Leigh Brackett (1915-1978), in the introduction and complying this anthology from the 300 stories he written doesn’t pull any punches over being critical of her husband’s SF output.

He was a child prodigy who preferred to write SF, selling 40 stories straight-off with no corrections. It was only with the fall of the pulps hit in the 1950s that he found his place in the comicbooks before resuming his SF book career later. I’m more familiar with Brackett than with Hamilton so thought it was about time that I pulled this anthology. These 20 stories go back to 1926 and up to 1968.

That 1926 story is also the first, ‘The Monster-God Of Mamurth’ was published originally in ‘Weird Tales’. As such, it has a more horror-fantasy bent than SF with a dying archaeologist relates to two desert travellers of his temple discovery. Several of the stories here were originally published in ‘Weird Tales’, including the second, ‘The Man Who Evolved’ (1931), using the Lovecraftian way of one of the supporting characters relating the events he contributed to but denies responsibility when a man evolves in 50 million year amounts seeing how far he can go. As it turns out, not the most intelligent thing to do.

The third story, ‘A Conquest Of Two Worlds’ (1932), originally for ‘Wonder Stories’ is pure SF. Rather than focus on the personal lives, it’s the depiction of events as mankind invades Mars and then Jupiter and nearly commits genocide on both worlds against the native sentients. Bear in mind, until the 1950s that there was still be belief that there was life on other planets was still there and it made it easy for SF authors not to leave the solar system. Hamilton showing it was wrong is still a powerful message.

It’s always a good sign when the material continually improves. With the fourth story, ‘The Island Of Unreason’ (1933), is the place where people are sent for misdeeds but only those who are lifers are told their sentences. Somehow, Hamilton mixes in a romance and a unique SF solution, oddly focusing on the underdog.

In comparison, ‘Thundering Worlds’ (1934) is more space fantasy when our sun is dying and all the inhabited worlds decide to move their planets to another star system and then find it from the natives there that their sun is going to go nova. The ending does not put mankind in its best light.

In many respects, how some of the earlier writers dealt with their subject matter reflects their own personalities. In ‘The Man Who Returned’ (1935), John Woodford wakens in his coffin and, after finally succeeding in breaking out into his tomb, goes to see his family, aware that they are going to be startled to see him alive after a week and looks on cautiously. He ends up eavesdropping on his wife, to find she didn’t really love him and had already remarried, his son seeing what he can do with the insurance money and didn’t want to stop his ambition. Even ringing his ‘best mate’ for some money to leave the city isn’t believed and told Woodford was thought to be a sponger and him an imitator. I have to give the pertinent details here because Woodford’s personality seems contradictory to what he is discovering about himself. Any other writer would have had some angry emotion here but there’s none of that and yet it’s a story that works.

‘Child Of The Winds’ (1936) has an odd feeling as we follow Brent up onto a plateau where he meets Lora, who is in communion with the winds there. He shares this for a while but determined to bring her down to the valleys. There’s an odd eerie feel to this and about the only thing neglected here is how do they eat and drink although I don’t think we are supposed to look at the bigger picture other than the dilemma.

‘Fessenden’s Worlds’ (1937) is a bit of a misnomer as he’s actually created a miniature universe in his lab and shows it off to a colleague and, although not described him as ‘god-like’, clearly has control of the inhabited worlds there.

A general observation here is just because the early stories don’t necessarily has an associated trope to them as we accept today, they were still there nearly a century ago and part of the build-up of them. It clearly illustrates nothing new under the sun but also how the early SF authors thought in a similar way to how we do today.

‘Easy Money’(1938) has a scientist seeking a human guinea pig for a teleportation experiment, looking for someone not too bright who could undermind him for his invention later. He opts for a boxer but doesn’t say he’s being sent across the universe. When he arrives, he thinks he’s in Egypt and finds the people there are mostly serene by a controller. This becomes a somewhat humorous tale that is fun to read.

‘He That Hath Wings’ (1938) tells of David Rand, a super-lightweight mutant who grows wings and depicted on the cover of this anthology. His doctor keeps him from the media after their first intrusions but, eventually, after the doctor’s death, he flies away. Without going too spoiler, this is really a tragic tale. You do have to wonder if a young Stanley Leiber read this story.

‘Alien Earth’ (1949) is truly extraordinary. Its actually set on Earth where, after taking a natural drug, certain people then called hunati become apparent statues but are actually moving in very slow motion. Hamilton plays it so straight that you think its real. I did a google check and nothing of it associated to his meaning

‘What’s It Like Out There?’ (1952) has Sergeant Frank Haddon returning to Earth after a failed third mission to Mars and a promise to see the parents of three of his colleagues who died. Rather than tell than what really happened, a mutiny, and not really sure how much the government had really told them, we share his partial lie/truth instead. Now this is a story that could really work even today and especially touching.

Requiem’ (1962) has a spacecraft returning to Earth for one last look before it dies in a nova explosion and the captain having misgivings for staying too long. There’s a strength of feeling that also makes it exceptional.

I’m only hitting on the highlights. There are some stories that don’t reach the marks above. The last three stories are more metaphysical and I didn’t think were particularly good in comparison. Saying that, do seek this book out as I think you’ll be surprised at how good Hamilton’s material was and what a variety he covered.

GF Willmetts

February 2023

(pub: Del Rey Science Fiction, 1977. 381 page paperback. Price: I pulled a copy for £ 3.50 (UK). ISBN: 345-25900-9-195)

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