Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Legion of Space: Lest We Forget [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

We live in a world that ignores its past. "Everything old is new again" is a kinder way to say it. Even Science Fiction does this. I was reminded of this when I finally got around to reading Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space. Written in 1934 as a serial novel for F Orlin Tremaine's Astounding (the one in between the BEMs of the Clayton Astounding and the Golden Age of John W Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction). The novel offers a roller-coaster ride of wonders, fights, and escapes, as you would expect before things got serious (and frankly often dull) in that "Golden Age." What I hadn't expected was the blueprint for hit after hit of Science Fiction's most popular films.

Star Wars is the most obvious. You have a democracy (The Green Hall) guarded by a small corps of elite warriors (The Legion) who are supplanted by devious means by an evil empire (The Purple Hall). The character of Adam Ulnar is Palpatine, trying to get his weaselly nephew on the new throne. His other kin, John Star, is Luke Skywalker, who refuses to join the dark side and falls in with the Three Musketeers of the tale: Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu, and the ever annoying Giles Habibula. Their job is to rescue the princess from an impenetrable base where she is being tortured for information. The scene where John Star enters her cell is hauntingly familiar. The only thing missing is the line, "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" The bunch escape through the sewers and everybody gets medals at the end.

That's just Star Wars. There's more. The princess in question is Aladoree Anthar, a kind of goddess who possesses a super weapon called AKKA. She's up against the evil race of aliens known as the Medusae who are about to claim the Solar System. Aladoree, who has suffered greatly, is too weary to fight any longer. Only John Star's declaration of love is enough to revive her and to vanquish all evil in the universe. Sound familiar? Leeloo and The Fifth Element. But as they say on television, "Wait! There's more!" The evil Medusae who have invaded Earth with their squidgy tentacles have a giant ship that will kill the heroes. A brave hero (actually that Palpatine stand-in, Adam Ulnar, in a Darth Vader moment of reconciliation) smashes the ship The Purple Dream into the alien vessel, saving everyone. All we need is Randy Quaid's middle finger to finish this scene from Independence Day.

I'm sure there are others. Star Trek. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And it goes to show how we forget. George Lucas based his Jedi on the samurai of Akira Kurosawa's Forbidden Fortress, but he must have read The Legion of Space at some point. As must have Luc Besson. And Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Or did they? Science Fiction has tropes, motifs and clichés, handed generation to generation, inherited almost on the genetic level, hidden in the canon that is Sci-Fi. The similarities are just so strong I can't quite believe it. Could George Lucas get these ideas second-hand through the Flash Gordon serials he loved as a kid?

I have to shake my head and think that much more of Jack Williamson. The man was influential, important, germane to Science Fiction. He gets mentioned for "With Holded Hands" (a story that has its own legacy as the inspiration for The Terminator series), but SF snobs down-play his more adventurous stuff like The Legion of Space. And it makes us "forget" how important it was. Along with writers like Edmond Hamilton, CL Moore, Leigh Brackett (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back script with Lawrence Kasdan) and EE 'Doc' Smith, Jack Williamson shaped Space Opera into a thoroughly enjoyable form of Science Fiction that fills us with wonder and excitement.

With the explosive appearance of Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 (and the much anticipated return of Star Wars in 2015) Space Opera is back in fashion, zipping and zapping across the cosmos once again. And I think of Jack, whom I was fortunate enough to meet briefly in Vancouver back in 1985, and how he never got the accolades he deserved. But that is also Science Fiction in the old days. Its writers gave willingly, almost feverishly to its cause, and unless you were a complete glory-hog like Isaac Asimov, you didn't get the ticker-tape parade (or the big Hollywood bucks). I try to imagine Jack sitting through the first screening of Star Wars back in 1977 and being filled with both the glory of seeing something he had created forty years earlier jumping across the screen, and also with the knowledge that no one in that audience knew he was the one who accomplished that. Bittersweet reward. Thank you, Jack.

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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