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Jack Williamson's "Legion of Space" Series

When people speak of the classic space opera (space adventure) of the 1930s, they usually mean the Universe-shaking blockbusters by Edmond Hamilton, E. E. "Doc" Smith and John W. Campbell. Jack Williamson should be in this company as well: his "Legion of Space" series is a capable romp through time and space, with enough portion of spaceways glamour to qualify for Space Opera Hall of Fame. Consider this page as a sort of tribute to the epic era of "all stops pulled" (even if rather primitive) story-telling.

Jack Williamson
The Legion of Space series:
"The Legion of Space"

© Astounding Stories, Apr-Aug 1934
Fantasy Press, 1947

"The Comeeters"
© Astounding Stories, Apr-Aug 1934
Fantasy Press, 1951

"One Against the Legion"
© Astounding Stories, Apr-June 1939
Pyramid Books, 1967

--/ fourth place space sf series
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ awesome scale

Jack Williamson is one of my favorite "space adventure" writers: his prose sings and inspires, his plots are dynamic and thrilling, his sense of wonder is perhaps the best in the business. For the ultimate in space opera try his majestic stories "Breakdown" (1942) or "The Dark Destroyer" (1976). However, I expected more from this series, mostly because I've read so much of Jack Williamson's other soaring stuff in the past.

"The Legion of Space" - The first entry in this seminal space opera series is a bit one-dimensional. Actually, quite one-dimensional, primitive and mostly flat. The adventure is fine (but very predictable), color is there (but not full throttle yet), characters are introduced over a grandiose background, and conflicts are hatched to be resolved on ever-so-widening cosmic scale. Also, I see how this series was different from other outer space outings (by Campbell, for example) - it's rather more free-wheeling and less rigid.

"The Legion of Space" has all makings of a classic, but it does not age too well. Read it for a dose of wide-eyed wonder and lower your stylistic expectations. Here is a good plot summary. One thing I am going to mention - the cosmic superweapon is entrusted to a beautiful woman... which adds to her mystery and complicates her marriage quite a bit. See, the Medusae want the weapon, too: "they vaguely resemble a jellyfish, but are actually elephant-sized, four-eyed, flying beings having hundreds of tentacles." Cool.

"The Comeeters" - Here is the blurb from paperback reprint: "a spaceship twelve million miles long, the secret weapon that controls the Universe, a superhuman traitor to all mankind and, defying mortal peril, fantastic dangers, and the dread powers of the invincible Cometeers, the grandest trio of swashbucklers in all of science fiction". Lots of ambitious action, however some of it is pretty comic-like, the writing is crude, and only a wonderful scale and totally awesome creatures set this trilogy apart from the lesser Campbell-era "space opera" efforts.

The Cometeers of the title are an alien race of energy beings controlling a "comet" which is really a giant force field containing a swarm of planets populated by their slaves. Some say that the series' characters are taken from "The Three Musketeers" with Falstaff added, but I find it a bit far-fetched. Just a good old large-scale non-sophisticated space opera.

"One Against the Legion" obviously predates Berserkers - the evil, almost invincible machine civilization (created by Fred Saberhagen and very popular in the 1980s) - and yet it features a robotic base threatening our Solar system. The narration switches between space adventure and a neat little detective plot - and even includes a bit of tentacle-robot fetish (way before the Japanese took it and developed it out of all proportion).

Good pulp read, plenty of scenery, even though it's the weakest book in the series, with little steam left to up the scale and action of "Comeeters". Make no mistake, though - Jack Williamson's writing is always colorful and intense. Addictive... I still have to read the last novel in the series - "The Queen of the Legion" (originally published under the "Timescape" imprint of Pocket Books in 1983 and now available again from Haffner Press) Haffner Press also published the latest "Legion of Space" story ("The Luck of the Legion", 2002) in their tribute volume "The Worlds of Jack Williamson"


Jack Williamson
"Nowhere Near"

(The Legion of Space series)
© 1967, Pyramid Books
Included in Pyramid Books 1967 edition of "One Against the Legion"
Three from the Legion, 1979
--/ third place space sf novella
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ awesome scale
--/ romance award
--/ rare find

I liked this novella more than the whole series... and here is why: it takes place in a closed, mysterious, ghastly environment (partly-abandoned space station Nowhere Near, hovering at the edge of a weird space-time anomaly). The claustrophobic, lost feeling adds to the mystery and dramatic effect, making the adventure all the more effective - almost cinematic... This would make great Japanese animation (complete with a big-eyed female character, dressed as a nurse). Giles Habibula is being his old slightly-annoying, but lovable self. The story overflows with great space adventure elements: gigantic alien robotic spaceships, suitably grandiose cosmology, the budding of romance in the face of insurmountable odds, colorful prose that gets better as the story progresses - and the sheer tremendous sense of COSMIC ABANDONMENT and centuries of doom - all this makes the story a diamond-in-the-rough, a gem to be discovered. This novella is little known, as it was only printed inside "One Against the Legion" paperback and SFBC editions.

"Nowhere Near" shines with great space adventure brilliance, starting with a perfect title and ending with love on abandoned station and melancholy on a cosmic scale. A sheer joy to read, a classic adventure in the style of Edmond Hamilton (or even early George R. R. Martin, or Alastair Reynolds).


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Blogger Fred Kiesche said...

"The Legion of Space" is my all-time favorite space opera. Williamson packed enough action in that one slim tome that it took "Doc" Smith an entire Lensman saga to equal (not that I don't love "Doc" as well!).

I've lost track of the number of times I've read it, including once this year.

O.K., it has "aged", but dang if it doesn't get the blood pounding!

7:12 PM  

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