Monday, December 14, 2015

Espers in Space: Edmond Hamilton's Legion of Lazarus [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The 1950s was an odd time for Science Fiction. After decades of robots and space travel and time machines and external battles, the struggles went inward. Whether you called them psionics, or espers, or any other version of telepaths, SF became about men who fought with their minds. (The other big theme in the 1950s was flying saucers.)

The most powerful editor in SF was John W Campbell and he lead the charge on Psionics, publishing AE van Vogt's Slan in 1946, and even writing non-fiction articles on mental powers. Astounding became the focal point for psi-fiction as well as other unusual ideas like the Dean Drive. (Life even imitated art as L Ron Hubbard sold a mental SF idea to the masses as a new Science called Dianetics (Astounding, May 1950) and later as a religion that survives today as Scientology.) Readers had become obsessed with the idea of using their minds to do fantastic things.

The classic 1950s psi novel is usually identified as The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester. Bester wrote the serial for HL Gold at Galaxy, not Campbell. Many decades later Michael J Straczynski honored Bester's contribution by giving his leader of the Psi Police on Babylon 5 the name "Bester" (played by Walter Koenig of Star Trek fame).

But Astounding and Galaxy weren't the only magazines using espers. One of my favorite esper tales was written by Edmond Hamilton for Imagination in April 1956, entitled "The Legion of Lazarus." This 21,000 word novella was written for Ray Palmer (the editor that virtually invented the UFO craze) and its appearance in Imagination was not considered a prestigious event. Hamilton's reputation had lost much of its shine by 1956. He spent most of his time writing Batman and Superman comics for DC. Before that he had written the juvenile series Captain Future for Mort Weisinger (who would later go into comics at DC as well). When Hamilton did write SF in the 1950s he was doing some of his very best work (largely unappreciated) in novellas for Palmer. "The Legion of Lazarus" belongs to this part of his career.

The short novel begins with the idea of a humane penalty for murderers. Rather than kill them, they are put in suspended animation for fifty years. The only problem is this process changes them into espers. Hyrst wakes from his wrongful conviction to find himself in the middle of a power struggle, with Lazarites (his word for espers) in the thick of things. The crime for which Hyrst was put to sleep involved a mining operation on Titan. There, one of his colleagues named MacDonald had stumbled upon a cosmic treasure, a lump of Titanite, a power source so precious it would make him fabulously rich. MacDonald is murdered, the Titanite disappears, and Hyrst is convicted of his death.

The plot follows Hyrst's joining the Lazarites, defying Mr Bellaver, the grandson of the rich man who engineered his arrest, and the creation of an intergalactic spaceship. The Lazarites want the Titanite to power their ship to freedom while Bellaver and his goons want only riches. Both sides want Hyrst to tell them where he hid the Titanite, but Hyrst is innocent. All Hyrst wants is the man who killed MacDonald and to clear his name. The final product is a fast-moving tale (with a chase through the asteroids right out of a Star Wars movie!) with ESP and a mystery and a puzzle to solve. Only Edmond Hamilton could write an esper tale that was also first class space opera. (The Demolished Man author, Alfred Bester attempted this type of adventure-oriented SF in The Stars My Destination, but he lacks Hamilton's verve. I found that novel tedious by comparison, it being based on Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.)

And that's why "The Legion of Lazarus" is my favorite ESP tale, at least up to 1956. It's not dull. The regular Astounding tale reads like one of Campbell's non-fiction articles. The Galaxy stories, like The Demolished Man, are better, but still focused on sociology or humor first. Only a magazine like Imagination, which had no illusions about winning any Hugo Awards, could have published "The Legion of Lazarus." Ray Palmer wanted excitement as well as ideas.

ESP stories after the 1950s have their own later classics. Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside (1973) or George RR Martin's Dying of the Light (1977) both emphasize the cost of having a gift and the price the protagonist has to pay for the ability. Any idea of a fast-paced ESP tale would have to wait for the movies, in cheesy series like Scanners. Perhaps a better legacy is Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) and the character of Viceroy played by Ron Perlman, an Esper who uses his gift to do harm. Here is a film that Hamilton might have seen a glimmer of "The Legion of Lazarus" in.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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