Walking the Night Land: The Starcombers

Our next stop in the Night Land.

Essay: The Starcombers, Edmond Hamilton and The Year When Stardust Fell, by Raymond F. Jones, 2012.

Covers by James Heugh and Ed Emshwiller

I would never have known that Edmond Hamilton wrote something possibly influenced by William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land if Andy W. Robertson hadn’t mentioned this novel at his Night Lands website. (Robertson even quotes Hamilton on Hodgson.) I would have guessed, if any pulp writer paid homage to Hodgson’s creation, it would have been, judging by the title alone, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Earth’s Last Citadel – except I’ve read that novel and the only thing Hodgsonian is the title.

Hamilton is in his gritty mode in this 1956 story. His characters are tough and treacherous, his spaceships lived in.

Like his “What’s It Like Out There?”, it initially questions the value of humans being in space.

The titular starcombers are scavengers with four spaceships. They have their families with them. Harry Axe (which is a good name for a raider and scavenger) is on his second wife, Lucy. She comes on to men, including protagonist Sam Fletcher, out of what seems to be vain need to have her physical attractions validated. She manages to seem almost naked even in a spaceman’s coverall.

The starcombers live by scavenging the remnants of ancient alien civilization. Fletcher is an admitted drunk who seems to long for death, who wonders why man even bothers venturing into space. We learn in the final chapter, when he is rehabilitated and gives up drinking, that his disenchantment with space stems from being an officer on a space liner that crashed with few survivors.

The starcombers land on a world with a dead sun, but there seems to be the foundations of metal buildings which may provide a small amount of scavenge value. There is a giant rift in the surface and the air is thin.

They come across a suited figure which they first think is a dead alien, but he wakes up and attacks them. After subduing him, Axe thinks the alien’s spacesuit technology is valuable.

But, where Axe sees trade potential, Fletcher sees something else, a human-like alien possessing a

black intelligence . . . a human anguish, a cold and purely animal intention to survive no matter what.

Fletcher wonders

what kind of world a man would have to born into to develop that particular expression. The mood was enough. He hoped he would never know the details.

Despite the language barrier, Axe proposes a trade: food from the spaceship for alien artifacts. Axe reveals his dishonesty and sharp practices when he tells the crew to take food about to spoil.

Fletcher, one of the pilots, flies a ship down into the huge crevasse.

Below is a dark plain, lit by volcanoes where the air is thicker. Massive metal buildings exist in a size similar to the foundations on the surface.

Axe and Zakarian, another crew member, go with two other men and the never named alien into one of the buildings to strike a trade. Residents of the building come out with goods and to pick up the food.

Then a doublecross happens. A couple members of the crew are killed including Lucy’s brother. Fletcher manages to survive the attack. He considers just flying the ship out of the crevasse, but he won’t leave Zakarian’s wife a widow, and he wants to disapprove Lucy’s early accusation that he’s a sexual rival of Axe.

Fletcher goes into the alien building and rescues the two men.

After they leave the planet with some jewels, Zakarian accuses Axe of being the one responsible for the double cross, that he arranged a deal for the aliens to have all the food and without sharing the alien loot with the crew. Axe maintains he was just lying to the aliens.

Because of what he’s seen on the alien world, Fletcher decides there is value to space exploration rather than dying on a dying world like the residents of the planet.

That Hamilton was influenced by Hodgson – and, if so, this would be the earliest literary homage to Hodgson’s The Night Land that I know of – rests on a fair amount of evidence.

There is this passage which summarizes the essence of Hodgson’s novel as well as Hamilton’s story:

It was obscene and terrifying, the dark distorted negative of a normal world. . . . Last stand of life on a planet. Fletcher thought it would have been better to perish cleanly on the surface when at last the sun went out, instead of clinging on in this freak pocket down in the bared vitals of the world. He thought how long it takes a sun to die, long and long after its planets. He thought how long that building must have stood, and how many generations had lived there, born to this night that would never know a morning.

As in Hodgson’s story, Hamilton gives us giant monsters in the air and a large “thing like a mountain” reminiscent of Hodgson’s huge monsters like the Thing That Nods and the Sphinx.

But Hamilton’s last stand of a humanity (and they might as well be humans given their appearance and what we see of their culture and familial life) stands in contrast to Hodgson’s vision of humanity’s last stand. Fletcher finds squalor and decay inside the giant metal building. Its outside surface has crumbled in places though it still has defenses against the monsters on its roof.

And it is not the last building. Others exist and, in contrast to X’s rescue mission from the Last Redoubt to the Lesser Redoubt in Hodgson’s novel, these settlements war with each other over resources and such a fight takes place in the story. Fletcher’s almost habitually acts to ensure his survival and rescue the men. This is contrasted with what he sees in that alien building:

It was an oppressive silence. It made him aware of the hopeless existence these people had led and still did lead, what was left of them, foredoomed, with their world dying under them. It made him wonder why they fought to live at all. It made him wonder why anybody did.

In contrast to the ending of Hodgson’s novel, Fletcher contemplates the difference between spacefaring humans and the aliens he’s seen:

You could be sensible. You could cling close to home, to comfort, to your own safe little world. The people of the cleft had done that, long ago, and he had seen their ending. No. In the madness of Earthmen was a greater wisdom.

Ultimately, the story rejects hunkering down for survival just as Fletcher gives up drink and regains a purpose. He will no longer be one of the starcombers that, like the aliens on that dying world, are scavengers leading marginal existences.

And, while I’m at, let’s check out the other story in the book. It has absolutely nothing to do with Hodgson.

Raymond Jones’ The Year When Stardust Fell is an excellent 1958 juvenile sf novel. It reminds me of one of the first sf novels I read, Christopher Anvil’s The Day the Machines Stopped. It’s even possible that Jones inspired Anvil’s novel which is from 1964.

Both imagine a disaster that brings electromechanical civilization to an end. As I recall in Anvil’s novel, it was some Soviet experiment that causes all electrical production in the world to stop. In this novel, it’s a transuranic element, colloidally suspended in air, coming to Earth from passing through a comet’s tail. It has a preference for metal and reduces its surface tension. That has the effect of making metal surfaces, such as ball bearings and pistons, meld into surrounding metal. This is pretty much all figured out in the first 50 pages through the efforts of our protagonist, 16-year old Ken Maddox and his friends in the science club.

The rest of the novel is what happens to the small college town of Mayfield in some unnamed Rocky Mountain state in America when the machinery stops.

Jones novel does what every good disaster novel should do: perform an autopsy on the dead world to see what made it work. Here’s that’s not just an examination of the physical infrastructure , all the transportation and power generation networks whose breakdowns will kill millions in the civilized world. It’s a dissection of what political orders survive, who obeys whom and why.

Unusually, Jones is pretty straightforward about his didactic and moral purposes because there’s a foreword to the novel, and he tells us what things his story illustrates: that the battle for supremacy over nature has not been won, that resentment and disdain of scientists is growing, that desperate times and catastrophe cause the elimination of the human race’s most recent accomplishments and art and science, and that sometimes important and heroic people are obscure.

Jones peculiarly mentions, in regard to disdain for scientists, “the decline of science before a blight of crash-priority engineering technology”. I don’t know if he felt that pure research was being short funded for engineering programs. You can also see this novel as one of those 1950s sf works commenting on anti-intellectualism as did the first story, published in 1956, of James Gunn’s fix-up novel The Burning. Both even have certain characters regarded as witches.

But Jones’ novel has some qualities that make it a particularly good disaster novel, especially one originally published for juvenile readers.

Ken our hero is a believable character. While he’s smart, he’s not a genius. Other people don’t always follow his suggestions even when they are good ones. He’s not smart-mouthed or disdainful of adults. He’s not a warrior. He’s a bright sixteen-year old who learns some hard lessons about life. I can see a bit of my 16 year old self in him though I certainly had no such scientific talent

And Jones makes clear in that foreword that Ken is just one of the book’s obscure heroes. Others are his father, a mediocre chemistry professor at a small college, the “somewhat pompous little Mayor” Hilliard, Johnson the “sheriff who doesn’t care what happens to him personally, and Aylesworth the “minister of the gospel, who would be lost with a big-city congregation”.

And, as usual, there will be characters, good and bad, whose hour has come round at last as civilization starts to collapse.

Jones is pretty clever in the way he presents his story. Commercial and ham radio broadcasts tell us how civilization is collapsing in the rest of the world, particularly in the other scientific centers trying to reverse the effects of the stardust, Berkley and Chicago. Ken also conveniently, in terms of story length and perhaps to meet editorial restrictions on what a juvenile novel could present, isn’t present or conscious at certain events in the story.

The usual specters of the sf disaster novel are here: marauders, refugees, disease, and starvation. The central question of lifeboat ethics, who gets the scarce supplies necessary for survival, causes a rift in Mayfield between the hardnosed mayor and his friend the minister on how to handle refugees coming to the town. Ken’s humanity, and this is a humane novel, sides with the minister, but his father points out the arithmetical logic of the mayor. Jones eventually presents a morally logical answer to the dilemma, but Ken will be haunted by one dying marauder who tells Ken that he would have acted the same if their places were swapped, that the marauder was once “a good guy” too.

If you accept the central premise of the stardust, Jones works out the technical details of everything else realistically.

Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)

I suspect this novel could not be published today for a couple of reasons: the positive portrayal of Aylesworth the minister and the lack of racial diversity in the setting of Mayfield. But could we really believe that, however tenuously Mayfield holds together under the strain of starvation, it would be just as stable if it was ethnically mixed, that racial recrimination and resentments wouldn’t be present? To ask the question is to answer it. Diversity is definitely not your strength under such circumstances.

The tension between Aylesworth and Hilliard on how to handle refugees is conveniently resolved when a large group of armed marauders show up after killing some nearby ranchers and demand to be let into town and fed with a food stockpile Hilliard and Johnson wisely had set up. Because of their violence, Aylesworth sides with Hilliard. But that doesn’t really address the conflict of Christian charity vs. the caloric budget available to the town.

The nomad’s raid on the town is repelled but not before a lot of that food stockpile is destroyed. Conveniently, a flu epidemic shows up and kills enough Mayfieldans to balance things out again. You could see this Jones as sidestepping his moral dilemma – and it is for a time, but it’s also rationalized by Hilliard, who will die from the flu himself, as an example of Nature’s natural checks.

Ultimately, Jones does resolve this dilemma with a utilitarian argument. The only way that Mayfield can justify hording its food is not because it is intrinsically better, in a physical or moral sense, than the millions who have starved or the thousands of nomads it killed intentionally or otherwise. Mayfield’s actions are justified solely because the Maddoxes and others scientific works have led to a way of reversing the stardust’s effect and rebuilding civilization.

Next up we circle back to William Meikle, the author that started my recent binge of Hodgson reading.




More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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