Thursday, January 15, 2015

"If the third mine is smashed, hell'll let out across the whole system!"

Read/Watch 'em In Order #51

The villain of  Captain Future's Challenge (Summer 1940) is smarter than most. He realizes that if you take out the superhero BEFORE you instigate your evil scheme, then you eliminate your greatest threat before he even realizes there's a scheme afoot. 

The scheme is to destroy the Solar System's supply of gravium, the most essential element needed to keep civilization running. The villain, known as the Wrecker, launches attacks on several gravium mines while simultaneously sending another ship to kidnap Captain Future.

Edmond Hamilton gets the story moving quickly right from the get-go. At the same time, he concisely explains to us what's going on. Gravium is used to make gravity equalizers, which allows the natives of the various planets to live and work normally on other worlds of greater or lesser gravity. Without gravium, interplanetary travel and trade would collapse. It's a good, solid plot device that gives the Wrecker a believable motivation and creates suspense as gravium mines are steadily destroyed.

There's even a good reason for capturing Captain Future rather than just killing him--we eventually learn that the Wrecker can transfer minds from one body to another. Obviously, a Captain Future body with the mind of one of the Wrecker's minions would give the villain a major advantage.

But, on the other hand, trying to keep the good Captain a prisoner isn't really a good idea. He's soon given the bad guys the slip and rejoins the Futuremen aboard the Comet. Soon, they're in a dog fight with two ships amidst the asteroid field, while Grag the robot ends up on an asteroid inhabited by a primitive tribe that is soon worshiping him as a god.

The trail eventually leads to Neptune, which is (of course) an ocean world. The last three gravium mines are here, located beneath undersea domes. I love this version of Neptune--a world with only a few small island chains, giant sea monsters and legends of mysterious sea devils that are spoken in whispers among the natives. Once again, a Captain Future novel has frustrated me that the real Solar System isn't like this. Stupid, stupid physics!

Anyway, Captain Future needs to not just stop the Wrecker, but also figure out who the heck he is. The list of suspects is narrowed when it becomes certain that one of the mine owners or a mine official must be the villain. The motive, at least, is obvious--the Wrecker will eventually have a monopoly on gravium production. I like that twist. Usually, villains want to take over the Solar System through fear or violence. Here, the bad guy wants to pretty much buy his way to the top. 

The ending involves a pair of action set-pieces, both of which are exciting and full of imagination. First, Captain Future has to escape from an inescapable cage located in a completely alien environment while trapped in a completely alien body. 

Then, he has to lead a fleet of small submarines in an undersea battle against an army of alien creatures riding atop ill-tempered sea monsters.

Many Captain Future fans prefer the later novels, when Edmond Hamilton was paid a higher rate and spent more time re-writing before submitting the finished manuscript. In general, these later efforts had more polish and imagination, so I largely agree with this view.

But Captain Future's Challenge is one of my favorites, nonetheless. It's not lacking at all in imagination and Hamilton's Neptune is a great setting for a space opera. Hamilton was a superb storyteller and even when he didn't do quite as much manuscript polishing as he might have, he still gave us exciting and engaging tales. 

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