Do classic science fiction stories still matter?

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Lately there have been some fresh sentiments from younger readers and writers questioning the utility and pleasures to be found in the reading of older science fiction, the classics and canon of the genre, hitherto deemed essential. "The styles are antique, the plots slow and obvious, the ideas outmoded and the cultural assumptions invalid or even distasteful." Is there any merit to these arguments?

First, one might observe that "'Twas ever thus." Readers in the 1960s made fun of pre-Campbellian stories from the 1930s. "'The Revolt of the Pedestrians'?!? *snort* Don't make me laugh!" Every generation looks back 10, 20, 30 years or more and finds old-fogey stories that don't resonate any longer. The cruel and accelerating pace of modern change in literature and the real world practically guarantees this reaction.

SF suffers more than mainstream fiction in this regard, because so much of it offers predictions or intellectual speculations that the real world has a way of dramatically outmoding, rendering the central conceit of certain stories (first moon landings, anyone?) unrealistic in an untenable fashion. But this same problem applies to all art. High-school students rebel against Shakespeare and Henry James and J.D. Salinger for all the reasons given above. This is an eternal truth.

But it seems to me that there is something timeless and immortal in the best storytelling from any era. Once readers make the determination to enjoy an older work, reset their cultural expectations and recalibrate their knowledge base (the hero is not going to be found using a cell phone in a contemporary novel set in 1980), there is still plenty of pleasure and usefulness to be derived from stories that were written, *gasp!*, even before the 19-year-old reader was born!

Otherwise, please explain to me the continuing popularity of Jane Austen and H.P. Lovecraft—often conjoined—among others.

Now, not every "quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" has aged the same. The years render some totally unreadable. Others retain mere historical interest for the scholar alone. But the best continue to deliver pure entertainment.

Our case study today is the earliest work of Edmond Hamilton, now available in three gorgeous, sumptuous hardcovers, with more installments planned to follow: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volumes One and Two (Haffner Press, each $40.00) and The Collected Captain Future, Volume One (Haffner Press, $40.00). These books have been assembled with the scholarship and love typical of Haffner Press, and they contain literally hundreds of thousands of words of pulp reprints. You certainly get sheer volume for your money.

Hamilton's first story appeared in 1926 in Weird Tales, when he was only 21. (He went on to have a solid career right up till his death in 1977.) Influenced by the fantasist A. Merritt, Hamilton quickly evolved to help codify and develop the more rigorous type of science fictional tales involving space travel, aliens, hyper-technology and all the other great tropes utilized today by everyone from George Lucas on down.

The stories in Volume One, The Metal Giants and Others, all involve various enormous dooms that threaten humanity, initiated either by misguided scientists or by evil aliens. As such, they invariably focus on pure pulp heroism and suspense at the expense of intellectual speculation. Yet at the core of each can be found a germ of genuine thought experiment. The speculations on artificial intelligence in the title story resemble musings about the Singularity in a Stross story, for instance. And the standout piece, "The Time-Raider" (1927), because it attempts something different from its mates (dying race from the future assembles army of warriors from every era), reads like A.E. van Vogt near his prime.

The second volume, The Star Stealers, is comprised mainly of a series of stories revolving around "The Interstellar Patrol." This crime-fighting force of the future, which features benevolent aliens of all types as equals with the humans, faces threats that are ramped up cosmically from those in the first book. It's single-minded space opera with the focus on death and destruction rather than federations and exploration.

Because Hamilton was striving to support himself solely on his writing, and because all these stories derive from a mere three-year period, their repetitiveness cannot be denied. Plot structures and MacGuffins repeat from story to story. But on a sentence-by-sentence level, Hamilton is generous, facile, creative and eminently readable. Nothing is ever unclear or awkward. Characterization, while minimalist, is deft. He conjures up outre images by the scores with vivid precision. Consider, just for one, the undersea city in "The Sea Horror" (1929), miles of Lovecraftian buildings with giant slugs perambulating their streets.

The Captain Future volume jumps ahead to the 1940s, when Hamilton was even more polished, and contains four complete novels about that titular hero. They resemble a cross between the early disaster stories and the Interstellar Patrol stories. Captain Future inhabits that most famous of "yesterday's tomorrows," the one in which all nine planets of our solar system are habitable. With his teammates—a robot, an android and a brain in a box—he battles one over-the top bad guy after another.

Your mileage may vary with these tales, especially when they're taken in large doses. But I found them all to be historically informative, well-crafted yarns that still compelled my attention and stoked my delight. Hamilton was a craftsman who never delivered shoddy goods, and he only got better after the foundational stories on proud display here.

One last aside: Hamilton went on to do much important work for DC comics from 1946 to 1966, and the comics-savvy reader will have fun picking out precursors of DC iconography. When a character named Mur Dak addresses a goverment council about the future destruction of their planet ("Crashing Suns," 1928), one will instantly envision Jor-el on Krypton. Surely Siegel and Shuster must have had Hamilton at the back of their minds 10 years later. When altered vibrational frequences allow a villain to become intangible (Captain Future and the Space Emperor, 1940), thoughts of the Flash going through walls will pop up. And when Captain Future is summoned by the authorities with a visible signal from the North Pole, who else but Batman and Commissioner Gordon will come to mind?