Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sea Monsters on Pluto

Read/Watch 'em In Order #49

The nefarious Doctor Zarro has an unusual scheme for taking over the Solar System--convince the populace that a "Dark Star" approaching the system will destroy everyone and that only he--Doctor Zarro--knows how to save us all. This will create a panic reaction and mass protests that will sweep him into power.

And something is approaching the Solar System, though scientists cannot detect any significant mass to it despite its large visible size. But then scientists begin vanishing. Doctor Zarro announces that they are fleeing the Solar System because they know it is doomed. Only Zarro can save us!

This is the set up for "Calling Captain Future," the story that appeared in the second issue (Spring 1940) of his magazine. It's another fun entry in the series--like other Space Opera stories I've talked about in recent weeks it creates a fictional version of our Solar System that's so cool, it leaves you perpetually disappointed with real life space.

Captain Future, along with his odd companions (a disembodied brain; a shape-changing android; and a robot) investigate, hoping to find the truth before the frightened human race makes Zarro a dictator.

Of course, Zarro is kidnapping the scientists. Future manages to rescue one of them, along with Planetary Police agent Joan Randall. He then sets a trap, but this backfires and he is himself captured by Zarro's Legion of Doom.

From here, there's a mini-adventure in space when Future, Joan and the rescued scientist end up stranded in a Sargasso Sea of wrecked space ships, battling blood-sucking and multi-tentacled aliens. I find that interesting, because it recycles an idea Hamilton had used in the story "The Sargasso of Space," published in Astounding Stories in 1931.  (Though that story had space pirates rather than aliens as the antagonists.) Apparently, Hamilton like the general idea of a Sargasso Sea in space. And why not? An area in space where wrecked or stranded ships from centuries of space travel eventually drift together? That's a cool enough idea to use over again.

Eventually, various clues bring the Futuremen to Pluto. They need to find Zarro's base, which seems to be on one of Pluto's three moons. This leads to another series of action set pieces--escaping rapidly moving glaciers and fighting a sea monster on Pluto; escaping a prison riot on one of the moons; fighting a six-legged grizzly bear-like monster on another moon. While all this is going on, Simon Wright--the brain-in-the-box--is kidnapped. Eventually, Captain Future finds Zarro's base, but he and his men are all paralyzed by a gas that freezes your metabolism but leaves you fully aware of your surrounding environment. Well, except for Simon Wright, who doesn't breath. Zarro then simply sets him in a corner and unplugs his speech device. Oh, and Grag the robot doesn't breath either, does he? So his control circuit is severed.  The point is that the villain incapacitates all the good guys in such a way that there is no hope of escape. Doctor Zarro is not a nice person.

All seems doomed. But perhaps there is hope in the form of Grag the Robot's frightened metal-eating
pet. Eek the Moon-Pup might be the key to saving the Solar System.

The first Captain Future story was set primarily on Jupiter and was a lot of fun. This time, the action is set mostly on or near Pluto and its moons and the result is, I think, even more fun. The story is fast-paced, constructed around a series of action set-pieces, but also logically laying out the clues that the heroes must follow to find Doctor Zarro and deduce his real identity. Few writers did Space Opera better than Edmond Hamilton.

I mentioned Eek the Moon-Pup. This is the new addition to the cast and its easy to see where the idea comes from. Grag the Robot and Otho the Android are modeled after Doc Savage's companions Monk and Ham, who were always bickering with each other. Eventually, the two each got an unusual pet (a pig and an ape respectively), which they constantly used to further annoy each other.

Eek is Grag's pet and its metal-eating habits constantly annoy Otho, so the additional parallel to Doc is obvious. But there is a difference. As much as I love the Doc Savage stories, I will admit I always hoped those stupid useless pets would just eat each other and be done with it. But Eek is unusual enough to be interesting and Hamilton actually uses him a a key plot device. That's definitely a step up.

And, gee whiz, I love the idea of Pluto and its moons being habitable and populated by furry natives, sea monsters and six-legged grizzlies. Why isn't the real Solar System more like that? Stupid physics!

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