The Starcombers

A Night-Land–Inspired Story by Edmond Hamilton

by

Hamilton is well known as a perpetrator of crude SF juveniles, and later as a creator of Space Opera, but towards the end of his career he became a much better and more serious writer. His output from this period includes the interesting short novella "The Starcombers," which contains elements clearly based on Hodgson's The Night Land.


This review contains spoilers for "The Starcombers". Be ye warned.


Four spaceships — scavengers and junk merchants as much as explorers — descend towards a dead planet under a dead, black, sun. They are looking for alien technologies and treasure to rip out (the story title is a riff on "beachcomber") and on a plateau ornamented by the ruins of vast, ancient structures, they think they've found it. They land, and begin to tear the ruins up looking for anything saleable.

Their crews are borderline criminals, drunks, whores and junkies. Sam Fletcher, decent guy fighting alcoholism, turns his eyes away from the money-grubbing for a moment of peace and, scanning the ruins around them, sees something else: a humanoid figure, watching them.

The plateau is split by a vast crevasse, miles deep, and the humanoid has apparently just climbed up out of it. Sam suits up and investigates, but the alien retreats and leaves him on the edge of the great deep looking down for what seems to be tens of miles to a vista of fires, mists, and volcanic lights at the bottom. The other starcombers follow him and bring him back, but he manages to convince them that the watchers are genuine: a guard is accordingly set and quite soon one of the child-sized humanoids is captured and bought back to the ship.

The little man has vacuum gear that weighs next to nothing and other evidence of a high if decadent tech, including a formidable pen-sized beam weapon. He is subdued — with some loss — and forced to unhelm.

"For a minute nobody spoke. Then Lucy muttered, "He looks so wild." She stepped back, half sheltering herself behind Harry.

... It was a man's face, losing nothing of strength in its smallness. The cast of it was alien, but not so much so as many that Fletcher had seen that were still classed as humanoid. The bone structure was very sharp .. the lines were deep, and the mouth was bitter."

(It should be mentioned at this point that the "humanoid" aliens in Hamilton's cosmos are more or less classifiable as other branches of humanity, no more alien than distant human races. Sometimes a sop to plausibility is thrown out in the form of legends of ancient colonization, but the real reason is probably that "Space Operas" are cultural echoes of the last heroic era of European exploration and conquest on Earth.)

They attempt to communicate, by sign language: an understanding is reached. The little man and his people live at the bottom of the crevasse. They will trade goods for food. A single ship is loaded with food and, piloted by Fletcher, descends into the pit. Ten, fifty, miles down, and they enter thick atmosphere. The little man is anxious, and no wonder: they are attacked by a vast flying thing, and escape only by turning their jet exhaust onto it. The little man directs them toward one of the volcanoes and a vast ruined building, two miles square, beside it. They land.

The rest of the story can be summarized quite quickly. The trade is harassed by mountain-sized crawling beasts and by rival enclaves of survivors: it breaks down in mutual treachery, but not before Fletcher has a chance to see some part of the crevasse dwellers' culture at close hand. The humans escape, the little men are left victorious over their enemies but still ultimately a doomed race, and Fletcher gets a shock that may cure him of drinking.

Analysis: Links to The Night Land

It's an effective little story, but its whole force is in the image of the dwindling colony of humanoids in their ruined and monster-haunted Night Land far below the planet's surface. And this is of course a direct steal from WHH, unacknowledged anywhere in the text, though I'm sure Hodgson wouldn't mind.

The parallels between "The Starcombers" and its inspiration are obvious.

First is the physical position of the two Night Lands — at the bottom of enormous cracks or canyons in the surface of their respective planets, planets which circle dead suns. Hamilton's planet is split by "A hell of a big crack" which extends "Right across the planet," while the Great Valley in THE NIGHT LAND has two branches a thousand miles long. Their depth is comparable — they both contain the planet's only breathable atmosphere.

Hodgson recounts X's musings at one point in his journey:

And this thing did strike me very solemn, as I did lie; and I do trust that you conceive how that there was, in truth, afar above in the eternal and unknown night, the stupendous desolation of the dead world, and the eternal snow and starless dark. And, as I do think, a cold so bitter that it held death to all living that should come anigh to it. Yet, bethink you, if one had lived in that far height of the dead world, and come upon the edge of that mighty valley in which all life that was left of earth, did abide, they should have been like to look downward vaguely into so monstrous a deep that they had seen naught, mayhaps, save a dull and utter strange glowing far downward in the great night, in this place and in that.

Compare Fletcher's first look into the Crevasse:

He flung himself back from that shocking brink, and gasped and trembled, bathed in cold sweat. Presently he got down on his hands and knees and began to crawl forward, placing his hands carefully. When he reached the edge again he was flat on his belly. He looked down. And down. And still down, and there was no end to his looking. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried again. There were stars in the bottom of the cleft. Not bright and clear like the ones overhead, but misty, burning with an unsteady flicker.

The landscape at the bottom of the Crevasse is one of darkness, smoke, mists, fire, volcanoes, and Cyclopean ruins.

Presently he was able to make out a group of three squat cones with fire coming out of their tops. They shed light over the surrounding country much in the manner of gigantic flambeaus, and Fletcher thought he saw something else. He thought he saw a very large building in the plain below the cones, caught and half crushed in the terminus of a lava field. He pointed at it inquiringly. The little man gave it a brief glance, shook his head, and motioned Fletcher on.

Joe Leedy, though, was curious. "Must of been a lot of people living there once," he said. "That looks to be a good mile broad, if it was all in one piece."

"Remember the bearings on it," said Harry Axe to Fletcher.

"Why?"

"Ought to be a lot of salvage there. We might bring one of the ships down."

Fletcher said, "It beats me, Harry, why you aren't a millionaire."

The scout passed out of the fire-lit area into darkness again. But it was a darkness in which other torches burned. The little man looked and peered and pondered, and then fastened on one of them as a beacon.

The monsters at the bottom of Hamilton's Crevasse also seem quite familiar, if a bit nippy on their feet:

... the snarling beams snapped out from the roof batteries, probing along the edges of the light. The faces of the cleft-dwellers tightened. They all stopped what they were doing and waited, poised for instant flight or action, their hands on the firetubes at their belts. The Earthmen stopped, too.

A THING like a mountain heaved into sight. It moved slowly, as a mountain would move, and it bawled as it came, in the kind of a voice a mountain might have. Fletcher, peering out of the lock, thought he could see a head on a thick high neck, a head shaped square and rough as a boulder, and a great jaw hanging to it like the scoop of a power shovel.

The weapon-beams found it. White fire sparked and flashed, and the mountain floundered heavily aside, but it was not killed. It lay quiet behind a ridge of rock and watched.

The little men grabbed up cases and threw them out of the ship.

The mountain piped, boomed, and charged.

Harry Axe jumped in through the port. "Good God," he said. "That thing'll crush us. It'll crush the ship." He shoved past Fletcher and made for the pilot's chair. "Come on, let's get out of here. Fast, for Godsake!"

Outside the white beams struck again, and this time the mountain rolled completely over, a stunning and titanic vision, but still it was not dead. It flopped back behind its ridge and sulked, making the cliffs ring with its hunger and its rage.

Harry Axe, his hands shaking, began to paw at the controls. The little man who had guided them here went up to Harry. He shook his head and pointed to the stack of crates still remaining. His fellows were still passing them out as fast as they could while Zakarian and Joe Leedy stood petrified.

Harry reached around without even looking and gave the little man a backhanded blow. "Get 'em out of the ship," he said. "Hell with 'em. It's not worth getting' killed for."

From where he sat on the deck, the little man burned two neat holes through Harry Axe's wrists, one to each arm. Harry screamed. He looked at his wrists and then he clapped them between his knees and rocked back and forth. He began to cry. The little man moved, very fast ...

One more thing here is familiar from Hodgson's The Night Land — the indomitable will and courage of the remaining human inhabitants. Despite their violence and treachery, one is moved to admiration.

Of course this is not the Night Land. It's an alien-world scenario based on The Night Land. As such it does not have any supernatural elements: there are monsters of various sorts, but no Forces. no soul-eating Dark Powers, no Doorways in the Night. But it does have people, trapped in essentially the same situation, fighting to the end.

Hamilton on Hodgson

Hamilton's attitude to Hodgson was positive: he is quoted in an interview in Tangent Online 6:

HAMILTON: (Pointing to a fanzine with a photo in it) But this chap here, William Hope Hodgson, he had the most supreme imagination in his stories even though he had some awful faults in them. His stuff is hard to read, dreadful, and yet the world would be poorer without him, because he broke every rule —

Interview originally appeared in Tangent No. 5, Summer, 1976

Conclusion — final words

"The Starcombers" a late story by Hamilton, is a fine piece of work, a real pleasure to read, and it should be better known. It is not a story of the true Night Land, though it contains many elements derived from it. But it shows that Hodgson's influence spread further and earlier than many understand.

I have purchased this story in the usual way, and can lend copies of it to students of Hodgson's work.


© 2013 by Andy Robertson.