COSMOS – a trivial review by Don Wilson

[From IF!, Conrad Pederson, Editor, January, 1949]

COSMOS – a trivial review by Don Wilson

IF-Jan-49-coverTHROUGHOUT the history of what some are pleased to call the science fiction movement, people have been coming forth periodically with Plans and Ideas.  Every so often, somebody in the fantasy field, pro or fan, has a brainstorm, and, presto!, plans are made for a Project.  You might say, I suppose, that Old Hugo was the originator of the first major Idea in modern science fiction.  Another brainwave resulted in the first weird companion magazine.  Elsewhere, someone got the idea for the first fan club, the first fan mag, the first convention, the Thought Variant, the Shaver Mystery… the list is endless.

Many of these ideas have been genuine moving forces in the history of science fiction.  The push of a finger, you know, can destroy or save a universe.  Likewise, had Gernsback not been struck with the Idea of publishing stf in a separate magazine of its own, today John W. Campbell Jr. might be a practicing physicist and science fiction would never have progressed beyond Serviss and Geisy.  So it goes.

But the vast majority of Ideas in science fiction, as in any field, have been turkeys.  Anyone familiar with the field could enumerate numerous projects which have fallen flat for one reason or another – and I think the usual reason is lack of any intrinsic merit.

Let us put “Cosmos” in the latter category.  We shall see why presently.

I have no notion who was the guy who was first hit with the idea of having a dozen or fifteen top authors collaborate on a novel with an assigned theme.  I rather have a hunch Ray Palmer was if not the originator of the project, at least the principal guiding hand behind it.  Perhaps I may be accused of some sort of sophistry in mentioning Palmer’s name right here at the start of the review; it would be hard to imagine a more effective means of prejudicing certain elements of the fantast population against the project in question that to imply it was Palmer’s baby.  I assure you I have no such intent.  I think the work can be condemned because of its own characteristics with no need of resorting to propaganda techniques.

Basically, the plot of “Cosmos” runs something like this:  An evil hitlerish dictator of one of the planets of Alpha Centauri, unsatisfied with ruling one planet, must spread out and subjugate others.  He knows none to conquer in his own system – they are all either uninhabitable or invincible.  So he casts his evil eyes on the solar system.  This dog’s name incidentally is Ay-Artz.

There exist saviors on Lemnis, Ay-Artz’s home planet.  They are Dos-Tev, rightful heir to the throne of Lemnis who was bounced out by the rebellious Ay-Artz, his scientist friend and mentor Mea-Quin, and their servant-warrior-errand-boy Bullo.  Hearing of Ay-Artz’s evil designs they determine to warn to solarites and help defeat Ay-Artz once and for all.  Their struggle to inform the various solar planets’ peoples of Ay-Artz’s designs, the struggles of the people of Sol to defeat Ay-Artz and to defend their planets against him, forms the general run of the “novel’s” progress.  Eventually, of course, Ay-Artz is defeated – in the final installment, written by old universe-wrecker Edmond Hamilton.

In the scope of the story, each author was assigned a certain period of progress in the main narrative, and then apparently turned loose to handle this motion in any way he saw fit.  Thus each chapter is more or less distinct unto itself.  Say an author is assigned to making sure the Mercurians help in the battle against Ay-Artz, and send delegates to the great war-conference at Copernicus.  He is at liberty to populate Mercury as he sees fit; create any kind of complications to render Mercurian cooperation more difficult; do anything he pleases as long as he does not interfere with the novel’s course.

You can readily see how much unity of structure this makes for.

Another cause of some trouble, I think, is the fact that many or most of the “Cosmos” authors wrote their installments with a “hell with it attitude” in mind.  Phooey, I’m not getting paid for this, they don’t dare reject it, why give it more than a fleeting thought?  For example, Arthur J. Burks wrote his installment in two hours.  Rae Winters wrote hers in four hours.

There seems to have been no coordination between the writers to speak of.  And this is not to be blamed on anyone, of course.  Naturally they could not meet in personal conference, and seventeen writers’ collaborating by mail is obviously nearly impossible.  The SFD editors who coordinated the project seem to have done the best they could with what they had.

Chapter I, Farley’s “Faster Then Light” is more or less of an introductory nature.  It gives us the idea of Ay-Artz, Dos-Tev, Mea-Quin and the conflict between them that is to form “Cosmos'” basis.  And it brings our heroes, via a faster-than-light propulsion mechanism (you are familiar with ancient stf’s penchant for Wonderful Superconcepts?) to Copernicus, which is to be the site of the great solar system war conference.  This installment could have easily sold to one of the old stf magazines of the early thirties.  It may have for all I know.  We have all the ingredients necessary to sf of the period: super concept, goshwowboyoboy wondering attitude on the part of the characters, successful accomplishment of mission.  Again you see how, but for a few tie-ins with the novel structure, every chapter (even the ones connected with Dos-Tev and Ay-Artz) is virtually sufficient unto itself.  This individual chapter-completeness is the reason for the basic criticism of “Cosmos” as judged by modern standards, and by 1933 standards I guess it was pretty good.  It suffers from stiltedness, forcedness, and of course a certain decrepitude that is apparent in nearly all pre-1938 stf.  And it doesn’t have the interest-catching quality that should be present in all introductory chapters or passages.

Our own Dr. Keller handled Chapter 2, Chapters 2 – 5 and 7 – 9 concern individual planets’ efforts to answer the summons of Dos-Tev and appear at the great System Defense Conference at Copernicus.  Chapter 2 concerns the inhabitants of Mercury.

I’d have a much more meaningful basis for criticism if I knew whether authors had been assigned the type of planetary natives to use, or, as I surmised earlier and perhaps inaccurately, were left to their own devices in selecting the type of inhabitants to use.  I still hold to the latter view, for surely any fan of the period would have assigned Grotesque Interplanetarians to every planet.  The fact that Mercury was not so assigned lends wind to my thesis, does it not?  Keller produces bogus Mercurians who are a scientist, a young man, a woman, and several dogs who fled from robot-dominated Earth to peaceful Mercury.  The planet had no natives.  The doc handles this situation in his old familiar manner.  Friends and neighbors, homely humanism.  I can now see how refreshing Keller’s stories must have been in the period of the super concept novels.  He was the only early sf author who ever got his feet on the ground.  Though “The Emigrants” is trivial, it’s a nice respite from bang bang tomswiftism.  Too bad it appeared so early in the series.

I don’t feel much like handling chapters 3, 4 and 5 in much detail.  The same comments apply to all three.  They are respectively Burks’ “Callisto’s Children”, “The Murderer from Mars” by Bob Olsen, and the late Francis Flagg’s “Tyrants of Saturn”.  Unlike Keller’s installment, these three episodes are handled in traditional antique sf manner – war, intrigue, revolt, etc., of Grotesque Interplanetarians.  (Thank you, Wollheim, for inventing that phrase.)  The Callistonians are Amazons who’ve conquered, almost, the problem of sex.  A male hero named Parcele or Parlece (both spellings are used with equal frequency) takes ove the dominant females in the emergency, this probably giving vent to a prejudice of Burks’.  Olsen’s and Flagg’s Martian and Saturnian heroes and villains do not deserve mention.

WIth Chapter 6 we return to the heroes, Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin, for another respite from our completeinthemselves planetary chapters.  This one is Campbell’s “Interference on Luna”.  The Great Man introduces new trouble – something called the “wrongness of space”, an entity which eventually proves to be an insane interdimensional hitler whose this-dimensional base is located far down under Copernicus, At The Crater’s Core.  The Campbell here is the pre-Stuart scientist-writer.  Nevertheless, John shows his colors and turns in an interesting and (refreshingly!) absorbing chapter – and no doubt chuckling the while, creates plenty of trouble for writers of later chapters to get our heroes out of.

The next three concern Neptune, Venus and Earth.  Rae Winters substituting for Miles J. Breuer MD who was ill and unable to write his portion, was the creatress of “Son of the Trident,” which would probably sell to Planet today.  Chapter 8, which I enjoyed above the run of “Cosmos” chapters, was co-authored by two master craftsmen, Otis Adelbert Cline and Sword and Blood Price.  “Menace of the Automaton”, by Abner J. Gelula, is #9.  In this installment Earth’s delegates out-wit the robots who rule the earth and slip away to Copernicus.  Gelula you will remember was the author of “Automaton”, in which the very robots who have Terra in their evil grip were invented.

With Chapter 10, once again Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin are brought back into the narrative.  In this chapter we finally reach the long-awaited “Conference at Copernicus”.  Funny Rap didn’t make the conference much more climactic and dramatic than he did.  By storytelling rules an event that is awaited so long should be very dramatic.  Campbell’s baby, the Wrongness of Space, is again present and causing trouble in this chapter.  In some ways I liked Palmer’s contribution best of the works.  Certainly it ranks with Campbell’s and Cline/Price’s writings as one of my 3 favorites in the 17.  Still, the lack of drama in the momentous Conference bothers me.

Every do often we go back and clean up one the Minor Menaces left untouched for a few chapters.  So it is with 11, Merritt’s well-known “Last Poet and the Robots” (“Rhythm of the Spheres”).  Most of you have read of the way Narodny the Russian accounted for the Menace of the Automaton.  As has been remarked elsewhere, this short is unworthy of Merritt.

In Chapter 12 another dangling thread is picked up again.  Our heroes journey to the Crater’s Core (by J. Harvey Haggard) and  combat the Wrongness of Space.  Haggard leaves Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin in one helluva situation – at the menace of the Wrongness, bound and imprisoned in his stronghold.  Ahh, these complications, this clumsily handled suspense!

Maybe you thought Narodny finished off the robots.  Doc Smith’s “What A Course!” (“Robot Nemesis”) dashes your fond hopes; a few of them survived, and another great struggle is necessary to finish off Gelula’s creations once and for all.  Eke, ole Skylark places the Grand Fleet of Earth in grave danger of falling into the sun.  Amazingly, he doesn’t leave them there, but removes them from danger!

I see I’ve been falling into an old reviewing pitfall and neglecting to give any commentary upon style, construction, and the like.  Well, I have an out.  The style of every one of these installments is typical of the period.  All are crude.  All are juvenile.  None of them present any evidence of “fact” that their authors were worthy of being considered great.  The only really gifted men in the group, Campbell and Merritt, were poorly represented here; Merritt apparently was in an off mood, or perhaps his chapter is a good argument for “inspiration” in the ceaseless and meaningless inspiration-craftsmanship way.  Campbell hadn’t developed to his later Dan A. Stuart level at the time.  The rest of the writers all were and likely are just talented hacks.  Nay, some of them weren’t even talented.

Back to the narrative:  For some unexplainable reason, Chapters 14 and 15, PSMiller’s and Eshbach’s introduce still more comparitively major complications.  “The Fate of the Neptunians” concerns Miller’s effort to finish off the sons of the Trident, cruelly and mercilessly, by having them given false directions for reaching Copernicus by Ay-Artz.  Eshbach, kinder, rescues them.  Also here, the Saturnians run into troubles which aren’t worth the effort of writing down.  Elo Hava, in case you wonder, is an interdimensional monster who menaces the Saturnians.  He was a Saturnian deity, supposedly revered.  He turns out to be an Evil Villain.  Is this logical?  To their credit, both Miller and Eshbach evidence themselves to be competent pulp craftsmen in their installments.

There remains one big loose end to tie up before the big battle with Ay-Artz: the Wrongness of Space.  In Binder’s Chapter 16, “Lost in Alien Dimensions,” this menace is finally put out of the way by Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin.  Good lord, the complications in this novel.

Edmond Hamilton turns out to be a merciless dog.  He kills off Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin, annihilates the poor Neptunians after Eshbach so considerately rescued them, demolished the Saturnians.  As if this isn’t enough, he wrecks three worlds: Pluto, Neptune, and Uranus.  GhuFoo.  You’d think they could have provided a better conclusion than this:  (1)  He kills the heroes, illogically.  This is unnecessary to the story’s proper development.  It’d have been much better to keep them alive and let them have a conclusive moment of triumph before stopping the story.  (2) A race which we have known and perhaps liked, the Neptunians who were handled sympathetically in two or three previous installments, is killed off to the last globe.  (3) Planets and forces are slung around like missiles from a pea shooter.

This all violates storytelling techniques.  Apparently at the time Hamilton was a “needler” or he hadn’t learned to be a competent hack.  The conclusion is in many ways the worst thing about “Cosmos,” for a good conclusion could have remedied many of the bad points in the yarn itself.  Moment of Triumph is a valuable device for clinching interest in the final pages.  There is none here.  The characters who could have shared this Moment, thus inspiring the reader, are both killed as by a snap of the fingers.  Not even a tragic And So To Die ending.  Just killed.  Poof.

Defects of “Cosmos,” mentioned casually with no attempt to get them all, include disjointedness IF-Jan-49-Wilsonand lack of anything resembling integration or evenness, crude and near incompetent handling, a ghawdawful conclusion, bad characterization, too much emphasis on trivialities.

Good points are an excellent basic theme, a few fine passages, comparatively good lead characters ruined only by the bad treatment given them.  Unfortunately these good points do not come near balancing the numerous defects.

To sum it up, then, “Cosmos” as a project and as a novel was a failure.  Perhaps it wasn’t recognized at the enthusiasm of the time, but it was a failure, miserable and near-complete.  As a collector’s item it has value.  For reading it is an interesting curiosity.  But its literary value and craftsmanship are nil.

I would like to express my thanks to Forrest J Ackerman for so kindly loaning me this valuable set of chapters so I could review it.  Also, my thanks go to Dr. Keller, without whose idea for this all-Cosmos issue of IF! I would likely never have had a chance to satisfy my curiosity about this famous project of the past.  Finally, my best wishes go to Con’s readership, who must try to follow the story from my meager description and who must accept my arbitrary judgment.  I know I don’t like to read reviews of stories I’ll never in my life get a chance to read.


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