Friday, September 22, 2017

Guest Post | The Comet Doom: SF's Second Chance

By GW Thomas

There really isn't any way to predict if an author will one day become important to you. A perfect example of this is Edmond Hamilton. When I was kid in the 1970s, collecting paperbacks at an alarming rate, I had piles of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard books. Lin Carter as well. Now I think back to how much of that was because I was a super fan of these writers and how much was because that's what was being printed at the time. It's a combination, no doubt. I had no source of steady income, so I spent my quarters and dollars frugally. This might have been a third factor.

The only paperback I had by Edmond Hamilton was a copy of Lancer's The Valley of Creation (1967). This was the red reprint version with a swordswoman riding a black horse alongside her pet hawk and tiger. In the background, armed space marines watch her ride by. (I'm pretty sure the cover art was by Gray Morrow.) The blurb says, "In the Tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs." Another edition uses the words: "Sword and Sorcery." Those Lancer people really wanted me to buy this book. Because usually that's all it would have taken. I did buy it or acquired it second-hand. I never read it back then.

Why? Because it's neither in the tradition of ERB nor sword-and-sorcery. In fact, it was in the tradition of A Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage. None of which I knew back then. I had no idea it had been published in Startling Stories, July 1948. But I never read it because I didn't know who Edmond Hamilton was. I was pretty limited in my pool of reading material. But we grow up. And we learn better.

Edmond Hamilton has since become special to me. The Burroughs and Howard have become so familiar over the last forty years that I dip into them only occasionally. My interest in Lin Carter has become mostly academic. But Edmond Hamilton is a rich vein that I continually explore. Sure, not every story is a masterpiece. He wrote over 200 of them. Yes, he did write Superman and Justice League comics (and I enjoy these too). But Hamilton is never dull. He always knew how to take an idea and make it a story. And when he's brilliant (such as in "Day of Judgment" or "He That Hath Wings"), then he is unstoppable. Hamilton is unbridled imagination. He deserves so much more than "in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs." The name Edmond Hamilton is a magic all its own.

A story that possessed such a magic was "The Comet Doom" (Amazing Stories, January 1928). This early story contains the original idea of placing a human brain inside a machine, a standard trope of science fiction since. It may have even inspired the idea of Neil R Jones' Zoromes, mechanical men with organic brains that became one of SF's longest running series. It may have inspired Lovecraft's evil Yuggothians, who steal human brains to run their technology on Pluto in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (written in 1930). Keith Laumer would use the idea in the 1950s and '60s for his super tanks known as Bolos. The BBC would use the idea for their cyber-men on Doctor Who starting in 1963. And on it goes...

The story begins with a lengthy (far too lengthy by modern standards) build-up with a comet coming closer to Earth. It is supposed to miss the Earth, but the planet is inexplicably drawn into a collision course. Hamilton's knowledge of comets is quite dated, as they are thought to be vaporous only and as ethereal as the Northern Lights. This comet, of course, in true Wellsian style, proves to be a vehicle bringing space invaders. The comet folk are robotic bodies run by alien brains. The relentless machine men are building a device that will neutralize the sun's gravity on the earth, allowing the comet to snag and claim the planet for its uranium; killing all life in the process.

Two men, Coburn and Hanley, are held captive and Hanley joins the invaders, having his brain placed in a robot. Coburn escapes and joins forces with the narrator, Marlin. Despite the slow beginning, the story fires up as the desperate hour approaches. Marlin has one last ditch chance to destroy the gravity machine, but fails. In the end, it is the converted human-robot Hanley who does the deed and saves the world. The invaders are drawn away from Earth by the comet and are powerless to take over. The finale involves self-sacrifice on Hanley's part as he is destroyed by ruining the machine. He will be an unknown hero of the human race.

It is easy to under-play how inspirational this story was. Cyborgs have become such a part of science fiction that we don't often think when did they begin? And this seems to be the pattern with Hamilton. He was an innovator, but his work tended to be ignored after the fact, partly because of where it was published (Weird Tales, quite often) and partly because SF moved so fast in the old days, with ideas sparking off single stories to be absorbed by SF as a whole. This is a fate Hamilton shared with Raymond Z Gallun, another innovator who is barely remembered. This may explain a little more why Edmond Hamilton took a while to find a home in my library.

Hamilton did get a chance to revisit this story idea when he wrote "The Comet Doom" for DC's Mystery in Space #2 (June-July 1951). In this ten-page comic story there are no robots. Set in 1986, the next year that Halley's Comet would appear, Hamilton gives his future vision. This, of course, is hilarious for anyone who was around in the '80s and remembers how it really went. Hamilton's version has rocket-planes that travel from LA to New York in an hour and are commonly used instead of cars. There is tele-news on some new-fangled thing called a television. With the comet's passing, the earth begins to follow Halley's Comet in space. A group of scientists go to the North Pole to cut the tether that attaches the comet magnetically to Earth. They are sucked into the beam and land on the comet where they discover a solid planetoid and air and a city and the weird comet-folk who are floating globes. The lead scientist, Dr Stanton, talks with the aliens and his friends think he has betrayed them. The scientists rush the control panel, knocking Stanton over and fatally wounding him. Before he dies, he explains that the comet-folk wanted to move the planet because of deadly sunspot activity. The world is saved, but Stanton dies, Earth's greatest hero. Many of the elements are the same but inverted in this second version. In his second career as a comic-book writer, Hamilton again innovated in the pages of DC comics.

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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