Thursday, March 17, 2011

Icky mind-controlling octopods!!!

I'm insufferably proud whenever I'm cited as a source in a Wikipedia entry. It doesn't really mean that much, but it helps feed my ego. And my ego is big enough to need a lot of nutrition.

Anyway, the entry on the wonderful pulp magazine Planet Stories cites my book Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio as a source. (They spell my last name wrong, but what the hey.)

Planet Stories provided a nice balance for science fiction fans of the 1940s. The other great SF pulp was Astounding Stories, edited by John Campbell. Campbell insisted on scientific veracity in the fiction he published, one of several standards he set that helped raise the genre up into the level of true literature.

But Planet Stories went with pure space operas, eschewing a strict scientific realism to tell straightforward adventure stories. Here, the galaxy was full of planets full of inexplicably human barbarians, bizarre monsters and larger-than-life alien threats. Beautiful princesses in need of rescuing were common as dirt and the average astronaut often had to be as skilled in swordsmanship as in stellar navigation in order to survive.

Planet Stories was the child of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars and Venus stories and the grandfather of Star Wars. It was a reminder that not every science fiction story has to be steeped in what might be realistically possible. Sometimes, it's nice to visit a galaxy full of beautiful princesses for a time.

Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett (later one of the script writers for The Empire Strikes Back) were the two most important contributors to the magazine. But a lot of other lesser-known writers provided some great stuff. The Winter 1949 issue, for instance, included a short novel by Emmett McDowell titled Sword of Fire.

A space explorer named Jupiter Jones is lost and crash lands his small ship on an unexplored planet. He soon ends up with a small parasite attached to the back of his neck, allowing a race of octopod-like aliens to control his mind. The aliens have been in charge of the planet for thousands of years, enslaving the humans and breeding them into different specialized sub-species (warriors, workers, meat animals, etc.).

Jones just wants to get back to his ship and escape. But the local humans think of him as a savior--the legendary "Wanderer-from-Beyond" who will free them from slavery. Besides, the only source of spaceship fuel Jones can find is a radioactive idol right smack in the middle of the aliens' city. He may have no choice but to become a leader and a hero.

It's a fun, fast-moving adventure story. It gives us a cool alien world with bizarre threats and a hero capable of taking those threats on. It doesn't worry about scientific veracity, nor should it. I love hard science fiction and I'll always enjoy the work of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Larry Niven. But its a good thing to from time to time mix a little bit of fantasy together with science fiction trappings.

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