Return to the Stars: In H’Harn’s way

Return to the Stars by Edmond Hamilton SF book reviewsReturn to the Stars by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsReturn to the Stars by Edmond Hamilton

For those readers who thrilled to the exploits of 20th century Earthman John Gordon in the futuristic galaxy of 202,115, in Edmond Hamilton’s first novel, The Star Kings (1949), the wait to find out just what might happen next would prove to be a long one. Ultimately, though, their patience was rewarded with Hamilton’s much-belated sequel, Return to the Stars (1969). Unlike the original novel, which was released all at once and comprised the entire 9/47 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, the sequel was what is known as a fix-up novel, having as its provenance four separate stories that Hamilton skillfully cobbled together into one cohesive whole; indeed, one would never suspect that the book had as its origin four stories written over a five-year period. (For those who are interested, those stories were “Kingdoms of the Stars,” from the 9/64 issue of Amazing Stories; “The Shores of Infinity,” from the 4/65 issue; “The Broken Stars,” from the 12/68 Fantastic; and “The Horror From the Magellanic,” again from Amazing Stories, 5/69.) The sequel, happily, was a complete success; a wonderful continuation of Gordon’s adventures, written with gusto and panache by a seasoned pro of sci-fi’s Golden Age, whose work only improved with age.

As many readers will fondly recall, The Star Kings told of how Gordon had been asked by the prince/scientist Zarth Arn, via mental communication, if he’d care to engage in a very daring experiment. Gordon, bored with his Earthly life, had readily agreed, and thus, had his soul/spirit/essence/chakra instantly placed into Zarth Arn’s body, 200,000 years in the future, while the scientist similarly entered Gordon’s, to more easily learn about life on 20th century Earth. Gordon had gotten embroiled in a galactic civil war fomented by the hissable but strangely likable Shorr Kan, ultimately leading to Gordon’s use of the dreaded weapon The Disruptor, to bring about a resolution. Gordon had had to bid farewell to his lady love, the Fomalhaut princess Lianna, before his return, while Zarth Arn promised him that he would endeavor to find a way to bring Gordon forward in his own body one day.

Flash ahead two years. As Return to the Stars commences, Gordon is seeking psychiatric help, not at all sure that he didn’t merely imagine his adventures in the far distant future! But Zarth Arn, faithful to his promise, does indeed manage to bring Gordon forward, and in his own body for the first time. The 20th century man has an awkward first meeting with Lianna, who has never seen his actual face before, but other, more important problems immediately crop up. Lianna’s cousin, Narath Teyn, is conspiring to steal her royal crown, and he is recruiting an army of nonhumans from a score of worlds, as well as the traitorous counts of the Outer Marches, on the fringes of the galaxy. Even worse, from the island galaxy known to us as the Lesser Magellanic Cloud have come the H’Harn, whose mental powers make them practically invincible.

Thus, Gordon enters the fray again, ultimately traveling to Narath’s planet, Teyn; back to Hathyr, the capital world of Fomalhaut; on to the Mid-Galactic Empire capital at Throon, near Canopus; off to the mysterious world of Aar, where the rebel forces are marshaling; through the treacherous region of space known as the Broken Stars; and back to Hathyr, to aid in the final battle. He is accompanied by starship pilot/ace Hull Burrell, his friend from the previous book, and by the unlikeliest of allies: Shorr Kan himself, who apparently was not killed after all at the conclusion of The Star Kings! But can these three, and Lianna’s small star kingdom, possibly avail against the combined might of Narath’s inhuman hordes, those ruthless counts, and the extragalactic menace?

To be perfectly honest, Hamilton, in Return to the Stars, didn’t seem to have any thought in mind other than thrilling and entertaining his readers, but at that he succeeded admirably. The book is relentlessly paced, especially in its final quarter; its lead characters a hugely ingratiating bunch (even Shorr Kan, a “blackhearted rascal” and “the biggest villain in the galaxy,” as Burrell calls him, wins our grudging admiration in this installment, always thinking two steps ahead and always with a humorous quip at the ready … hence, his statement “The closer I get to this business of dying heroically, the more dismal a prospect it seems…”); its lesser bad guys variegated and interesting; and its main villains, the H’Harn, not a little frightening.

The book offers up any number of wonderful sequences, including the one in which Gordon and Burrell are made prisoners inside a ship’s airlock; that journey through the near-impossible-to-navigate Broken Stars area of space, during which Burrell pilots their small ship while Gordon and Shorr Kan drink and chat; and of course, that final battle, which transpires not only on and above Hathyr, but in the galactic fringes, as well. Truly, this is a book that should prove especially appealing to fans of those 1930s sci-fi film serials featuring Flash Gordon (no relation to John, I take it) and Buck Rogers, although it is much more intelligent than any of those Saturday afternoon adventures. Fans of that more modern-day series of films called, uh, Star Wars, I believe, should just adore these John Gordon books, as well.

As in the eight Star Wars films thus far, this book provides us with a galactic civil war, a spunky and beautiful princess, a hotshot ace pilot, a lovable nonhuman compadre (Lianna’s friend and Minister of Nonhuman Affairs, the feathered, avian, Spock-like Korkhann, makes for a more interesting Chewbacca type), swashbuckling derring-do (indeed, The Star Kings has often been described as a space opera updating of The Prisoner of Zenda), numerous minor villains, nonhuman aliens of many different stripes, and a cowled menace with fantastic powers of mental control and coercion. And Hamilton, who was already 65 when this sequel was released, and who had been a continuously working author since his first story (“The Monster-God of Mamurth”) was published in Weird Tales magazine in 1926, makes it all look so easy.

As I mentioned, Hamilton, pulp master though he was, only improved as a writer with the years, especially so after his marriage to the “Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett, in 1946. Brackett had always been the superior wordsmith, and her talent and input only improved her husband’s work. In his introduction to 1977’s The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton wrote that “having a built-in critic right in the house pulled me up short when I did something too hurried and careless … she was, and is, the kindest of critics…” And indeed, Return to the Stars is noticeably better written than its predecessor, and if it is by necessity not as original a conception as the first book, it is surely grander in scope. In the sequel, Hamilton shows us that he is not afraid to make up words to suit the occasion (such as “thrumbling”). His descriptions of other planets are neatly and efficiently drawn (I particularly like when he tells us that the “light was strange” on Narath’s world, and that the Gerrn, its centaurlike life-form, have a “dry fauve smell”). Hamilton makes his book irresistibly, compulsively readable, sweeping us from exciting set piece to exciting set piece (again, a la Star Wars). It is, indeed, a truly winning sequel.

But wait … for those wanting still more of this same galactic backdrop, there is the one and only collaboration between Hamilton and Brackett, the cleverly titled story “Stark and the Star Kings,” which somehow brings Leigh’s greatest hero, Eric John Stark, into this empire of the far future. I would love to read it one day, even if it means shelling out $45 for Haffner Press’ 2005 Star Kings omnibus volume. Also out there somewhere are two more Hamilton stories set in this same realm: 1957’s “The Tattooed Man” and 1958’s “The Star Hunter,” together known as “The Last of the Star Kings.” (As for that Haffner Press volume, I’m sure that it would be more nicely put together than the typo-riddled, 1969 Magnum paperback that I just read. The folks at Haffner put out beautiful hardcovers, pricey as they are.) The bottom line: When it comes to Edmond Hamilton, the reader just might want to echo the words of the disdainful New York City psychiatrist after hearing Gordon’s story: “Few men are gifted with that much imagination.”

Published in 1969. John Gordon, 20th century Earthman, is torn from his own time to a far distant future – a time when the entire galaxy is inhabited. But men do not rule the future; our race is only one among thousands, and many of those thousands are sworn enemies of humanity! Gordon, man of the past, is forced to form alliances with the men of the future in a desperate battle to save the human race from final annihilation.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    When I read this series, I wondered if Shorr Kan’s name was a take-off on Kipling’s evil tiger, Shere Khan, from the Jungle Books. Hamilton’s villain seemed to be working his way through 9 lives!

    The character of the villain from an earlier episode who turns (semi-)heroic in a later one came up in a couple of SFnal series from this period, as well as in some super-hero comic books from slightly later. What the cultural factors were influencing this, I’m not sure–there did seem to be more of a feeling that criminals had the potential to be reformed back then, versus the “one strike and you’re out” attitude that was popularized in the 1980s. Maybe Prohibition created too many criminals to make that harsher approach feasible.

    • sandy ferber /

      Very interesting, Paul; you could probably write some kind of thesis on this subject. Charming rogues have always held some sort of fascination for us, be they on the page or on the screen, and Shorr Kan (who was given some positive attributes, even in the first book) is surely one of them. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read those Kipling books, but I’m sure you’re on to something there….

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