Islands of Space

I just finished Islands of Space (1931), the second installment of John W.  Campell’s early science fiction trilogy. The preceding volume is The Black Star Passes and the final book is Invaders from the Infinite. Admittedly the hard sci-fi of that period, especially Campbell’s, doesn’t have a lot of character development. The emphasis is on amazing gadgetry and weapons and space flight techniques that are ridiculously unbelievable and which are all pulled off quickly and without a hitch.

That said, the best part—and something I never tire of—is travel to other worlds. After lengthy preliminaries in which Campbell’s spacemen develop a faster-than-light drive (which apparently became the basis for the “warp drive” in Star Trek) they finally launch their vessel, dubbed The Ancient Mariner, on a journey of millions of light years beyond our own galaxy. One of the first star systems they encounter tells a tragic tale:

Below the ship lay the unfamiliar panorama of an unknown world that circled, frozen, around a dim, unknown sun, far out to space. Cold, and bleak, the low, rolling hills below were black… Far ahead and to their left loomed a strange formation of jutting vertical columns, covered with the white burden of snow. Arcot turned a powerful searchlight on it, and it stood out brightly against the vast snowfield. It was a dead, frozen city.

There is something strangely enchanting about these ghost towns of space, these interstellar equivalents of the fabled ruins of Atlantis. It brings back the fun and awe of the stories of my youth. Along those lines, I recommend George Griffith’s A Honeymoon in Space (1901). While Campbell’s travelers hop from galaxy to galaxy, Griffith’s newlywed astronauts more modestly journey from planet to planet in our own solar system. What makes his tale stand above many of the Victorian fantasies of the time is that he developed the conventions for alien beings (both benign and hostile) that would become the staple for Campbell and later generations of science fiction writers.

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