Vintage Treasures: The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson
A few months ago I wrote about The Best of Jack Williamson, a fun refresher course for me in one of the great science fiction writers of the pulp era. It also reminded me that I wanted to read his Legion of Space novels, one of the most popular pre-Campbell space operas.
Time is running out, too. Isaac Asimov, a huge fan of The Legion of Space when he first read it in Astounding Stories in 1934, sadly found it virtually unreadable when he returned to it as an adult. It’s not unusual for these early pulp novels to be a tough read as you get a little older — if you want to really enjoy them, you pretty much have to experience them first in your youth. And since I turn 50 this year, I figured I better get cracking.
The story goes that Jack Williamson was in a Great Books course when he heard that Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel Prize-winning writer of Quo Vadis, had written at least one of his novels by mashing The Three Musketeers with Shakespeare’s John Falstaff. Recognizing a brilliant idea when he heard it, the young Williamson took Falstaff and the Musketeers and shot them into space, and went looking for a market for his new masterpiece.
Williamson’s Legion, the military and police arm of the newly-liberated Solar System, was led by Jay Kalam and the brilliant warrior Hal Samdu. The part of Falstaff is played by Giles Habibula (frequently described on the jacket copy as “the incomparable Giles Habibula!”, with an exclamation mark). The setting is the 30th Century, where the solar system is colonized but mankind dares venture no further, since the first team of interstellar explorers to Barnard’s Star returned as barely-alive madmen, babbling about a massive planet filled with deadly aliens — and a city inhabited by evil “Medusae,” floating jellyfish with terrible powers.
Astounding turned out to be the right market at the right time. Editor F. Orlin Tremaine published The Legion of Space as a five-part serial, beginning in April 1934. It was a success and Williamson followed with The Cometeers, a four-part serial in Astounding starting in May 1936, and then One Against the Legion, a three-parter starting in April 1939. All three were collected in 1980 as Three from the Legion; one of the first books I ever purchased from the Science Fiction Book Club. Williamson re-visited the Legion a final time, nearly 50 years after he penned their first adventure, with The Queen of the Legion, an epic set after the disbanding of the Legion. It was published in 1983.
I’ve been reading a lot of pulp fiction recently, and mostly enjoying it — especially the short work of Clark Ashton Smith (“The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis“), Murray Leinster (“Proxima Centauri“), and the fanzines that cover the pulps, like Fantasy Review. I have high hopes that The Legion of Space will add to that list.
50?! As someone who’s been 47 for only about six weeks, I don’t think 50 is old at all.
I read The Legion of Space in high school and can still remember some of the details vividly. Some of the details. The rest is something of a blur. But I thoroughly loved them. I should go back and reread them.
I read LOS about ten years ago, and thought it great fun. I’m wary of Asimov’s dismissals – he hated Clark Ashton Smith, and it’s easy to see why. Smith (Williamson too) could do what Asimov was seemingly incapable of; Smith could make you see colors, smell scents, feel textures. Asimov was the least sensual writer alive. (I read The Gods Themselves a while back, and enjoyed it, but Asimov takes you all over earth, the moon, and an alien planet, and never once give you any real sense of what anyplace looks like).
And I mean, c’mon – with a cover like that, it has to be good!
Hey, it’s the Grell from D&D…
But which came first, the brainy chicken or the brainy egg…?
I wonder if that cover was the inspiration for the grell in D&D?
> I read The Legion of Space in high school and… I thoroughly loved them. I should go back and reread them.
Did you read all three, or just the first one? Oddly, I find myself wanting to read THE COMETEERS first. It seems like a lot of fun.
> I read LOS about ten years ago, and thought it great fun. I’m wary of Asimov’s dismissals – he hated Clark Ashton Smith, and it’s easy to see why.
Yeah, I think you’re certainly right about Asimov’s disdain for ornate prose. He had no taste for it at all.
You did better than I with THE GODS THEMSELVES… I found it dry most of the way through, and never really enjoyed it. Asimov’s early short stories, however, are a different matter.
> I wonder if that cover was the inspiration for the grell in D&D?
Oh, absolutely. I would point you towards Appendix N as proof — Gygax listed Jack WIlliamson as a prominent influence on D&D — but of course Gygax didn’t create the grell. I first read it in the FIEND FOLIO, but I believe it first appeared even earlier, possibily in White Dwarf.
Wikipedia credits the grell to the April/May 1979 issue of White Dwarf (#12), where it appeared in the “Fiend Factory” column, in a submission by FIGHTING FANTASY author Ian Livingstone. I guess he’s the one who can tell us for sure.
Yeah, that’s the copy I have. That book not only has the three original novels, but also a short story written years later (but before Queen) called Nowhere Near.
I read the whole series not too long and had great fun, and I think Asimov is a jackass of a critic (to be fully honest, I find him too dry as an author, too). I like the first two novels best, as the third felt like Williamson trying to pull the story back to something more down to earth (relatively) while my preference was for the cosmic hugeness of the prior stories.
Queen of the Legion is an odd book because it feels like Williamson saw Star Wars and realized “I used to do stuff like that!” And then he basically wrote a Legion story tweaked to resonate with Star Wars fans. The effect is that you have a concept that probably influenced Star Wars and then got influenced by Star Wars back and it feels sort of inbred.
> Queen of the Legion is an odd book because it feels like Williamson saw Star Wars and realized “I used to do stuff like that!”
> And then he basically wrote a Legion story tweaked to resonate with Star Wars fans. The effect is that you have a concept that
> probably influenced Star Wars and then got influenced by Star Wars back and it feels sort of inbred.
I’ve never heard your STAR WARS theory before… but it makes total sense. If I get that far in my reading, I’ll have to see if I get the same impression.
I just reread Legion a few months ago. I still enjoy it. Lots of fun.
[…] Vintage Treasures: The Legion of Space, by Jack Williamson […]
[…] Black Gate — “Time is running out, too. Isaac Asimov, a huge fan of The Legion of Space when he first read it inAstounding Stories in 1934, sadly found it virtually unreadable when he returned to it as an adult. It’s not unusual for these early pulp novels to be a tough read as you get a little older — if you want to really enjoy them, you pretty much have to experience them first in your youth. And since I turn 50 this year, I figured I better get cracking.” […]