Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Planets Clashed: War in Space [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman continually surprises me. "When Planets Clashed," his writing debut back in Wonder Stories Quarterly Spring 1931 is no exception. I expected a juvenile effort, technically poor, but showing the spark that would flower in years to come, such as Robert E Howard's "Spear and Fang" in Weird Tales. Instead of some filler piece, "When Planets Clashed" is an interplanetary war tale with a difference. Yes, it has the elements Hugo Gernsback would expect in a story about Earth and Mars waging a war across space. But as Gernsback says in the story's intro:
Stories of Interplanetary warfare usually presuppose earthlings who are all heroes and enemies across space who are all villains. The supposition is also made that earth is fighting to defend its honor or its people from a predatory race from another world.
The idea of an interplanetary war certainly wasn't new in 1931. HG Wells started it off in 1898 with the War of the Worlds, in which the invaders were inhuman, squid-like beings. Future wars between humans go back even further to novellas like George Tomkyns Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871), where England is invaded by thinly disguised Germans, and even Hugo Gernsback's own classic publication of Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419" that featured the Asiatic Hans who conquer America. Gernsback's competitor, the Clayton Astounding, presented numerous examples of stories in this fashion, with brave Americans beating evil invaders. So Wellman is writing within an SF tradition, but it is what he does within that tradition that is surprising.

Despite Gernsback's applause that the story is different, much of it is not. He claims that the hero is not so heroic. This is untrue. Jack Stillwell, our earthling who loves Mars and in particular the Martian girl Yann, promises her he will fight for his side with honor. This involves him going single-handed to the moon to locate a secret base of Martian raiders. Once he finds it, he decides it is too big for a fleet of earth ships to destroy, so he sneaks inside as a saboteur. Fortunately, he runs into Yann's brother Nalo and the Martian naively allows him to have run of the ship. Betraying his friend, he blows up the super-ship, killing Nalo in the process. Torn with feelings of guilt, he still joins the Earth fleet that engages the superior Martian armada and wins. This part of the story is filled with radio-controlled bombs and destructor rays little different than Raymond Z Gallun's "The Crystal Ray" or even John W Campbell's "The Ultimate Weapon" five years later. The middle part of this tale is well-written, but nothing new.

It is the beginning and ending of the story that make it stand out. In the beginning we see Jack torn between his loyalty to Mars and Earth. He leaves Yann with the promise that he will return to her after the war is over. And he does, but carrying a terrible weight. He has caused the death of Yann's brother and indirectly her father as well, who died in the space fleet battle. Yann says, "How sad that the war was needed to assure one world of the humanity of the other..." No glory for Stillwell the war hero. His pain is so great that he says he can not bear Yann's touch and must go away and never see her again. She changes his mind by saying she has lost her brother and father; must she lose Jack too? He relents and says he will take her to Earth, which he describes as so beautiful. Yann accepts his invitation but you can sense she is also losing the planet Mars. The finale is so atypical of pulp science fiction that I am surprised the story lies largely forgotten; unanthologized. I can only surmise it was the occurrence of World War II that made this tale fade away. The philosophy behind it -  the acknowledgement of propaganda and its role in the war - would become unpopular after the Depression was over. From Gernsback's introduction again:
This psychology is not at all new. It is the favorite in our wars on earth, and the propaganda each nation pit out in 1914-18 in the form of books, lectures and motion pictures showed it as a just, peaceable nation defending only its right to existence.
With the perspective of nearly fifteen years behind us, we are able to realize that seldom is any nation solely a villain and another solely a hero. Wars, we have learned, are the work of professional war makers, and are fought by men who kill those they might be friendly with, were they permitted to be. The present story is splendid for the picturization of an interplanetary war, that shows both sides of the picture.
Such a debut should have been noted by historians. (EF Bleiler, in SF: The Gernsback Years, found Nalo's behavior unconvincing, for he would have certainly had Jack arrested as a spy.) Wellman remains largely known for his last works about occult detectives in the fantasy genre and much of his SF work has not been appreciated fully. He would get to return to the interplanetary war theme toward the end of his career in Sherlock Holmes and the War of the Worlds (1975), which he wrote with his son Wade Wellman. And again in The Beyonders (1977) he would show how an alien invasion affects a small, rural town, an approach M. Night Shyamalan would use in Signs, twenty-five years later.

One of the reasons that Wellman could write such a story as “When Planets Clashed” was his unusual upbringing. He began life, not in America - world of hot dogs and baseball - but in Uganda, the child of missionary parents. Manly’s first companions were very unlike himself, allowing him to see the universality in different cultures rather than the differences. It is this perspective that does not allow him to paint the Martians as villains. Wellman would rely on this sensitivity again in his numerous historical works, especially those with Native American people such as The Last Mammoth (1953).

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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