Recently, when I was reading content from the golden age of science fiction, mostly from pulps, I remarked on how much the stories didn't fit the stereotype of what pulp stories are. Then I picked this volume from the to-read stack (where it landed as a birthday gift from the lovely Mrs. Speculator), and I found the stereotypical stories that I had been missing.
I originally saw this volume advertised in Locus, and I immediately wanted it for two reasons. First, as a fan and aspiring reader of the golden age of science fiction, I am well aware of the cachet that Edmond Hamilton's name carries. He is considered one of the great pioneers, and any fan of the golden age cannot truly be so if they aren't at least familiar with his name. In addition, he was married to the great Leigh Brackett and worked on DC comics. His work was a hole in my knowledge I needed to fill. And second, I have to geekily admit that there is a Captain Future poster beside the front door of Sheldon and Leonard's front door on the TV series Big Bang Theory (look at the picture at the bottom of this page: http://www.chasingprops.com/bigbangtheoryfuture.html). With a referral like that, how could I resist following up?
The volume consists of the first four novels in the Captain Future series, published in Captain Future: Wizard of Science magazine starting in early 1940. The book also contains editorials from the magazine, letters to the editor from the fans, and reproductions of the internal artwork associated with the reprinted novels. Reading the editorials and fan letters makes it clear that the full magazine is not being reproduced; ISFDB.org lists two other short stories as well as a serial in each issue, but since those stories are neither Captain Future nor written by Edmond Hamilton, I can understand their exclusion. What I can't understand however is why there are no reproductions of the cover art, both delightful and representative of the genre and the stories themselves. There may well have been costs associated with such reproduction, but given the fondness the volume seems to hold for Captain Future, their absence looms pretty large (for a taste, look at http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/captain-future).
The novels themselves are fluff, formulaic but engaging, seemingly intended for a younger audience. Captain Future is in reality Curtis Newton, a young man raised on the moon by guardians after his parents are murdered by interplanetary mobsters. His guardians are now his associates: Grag, the robot with superhuman strength; Otho, the synthetic android, master of disguise; and Simon Wright, the smartest man in the solar system, reduced to a brain in a box. Together the three of them have trained Newton respectively in strength, endurance, and scientific knowledge and know-how until he has become the very model of human endeavor. It's not really clear why Newton has his nom de guerre, except of course as he comes speeding out of the sky, it's much more heartening to shout "Here comes Captain Future!" than "Hey, it's Curt Newton!".
It is at this point that I have to sadly admit that there is very little science fiction in these stories. While there are gadgets and spaceships and alien races on all the planets (and some moons) of the solar system, those all just setting pieces; the stories really aren't about those things other than that they are exotic locales and characters that the main characters interact with. The plots in the novels could easily have been set in exotic locations on Earth, but then, that probably would not have sold so well to the adoring fans. Hamilton really is at his best describing the action sequences that fill the stories—usually last-second escape from horrible dangers and traps—while the mysteries that drive the plots are usually pretty much the same. Some malign force threatens the solar system, and Captain Future is summoned by a giant flare shot from the North Pole of Earth. The president runs down the scenario for Captain Future, and he is asked to face down villains with names like The Star Emperor, Dr. Zarro, and The Wrecker. Within a couple of chapters, the suspect list is narrowed down to a handful of malcontents and the rest of the novel is spent with Future and his associates speeding off from planet to planet eliminating suspects, generally by one of them either dying or being present when the antagonist performs another heinous act elsewhere. So, while the stories have the trappings of science fiction, the stories really aren't about science at all. Some critics have compared Captain Future to the stories of Doc Savage, but that's a disservice to Savage; while there are some parallels in the plot structure, Savage's writing seems brilliant in comparison.
There is also a girl (isn't there always?)—Joan Randall, agent for the Solar System's Secret Police, who somehow always ends up wherever Captain Future needs to be. She has a…fondness…for Newton that Hamilton makes obvious to even the most jaded readers. Sadly, Newton has only been raised by two artificial beings and a living brain; it's not clear he has any ideas that women are suspiciously and happily different from men, and that he has any idea what to do about it if he figured it out.
The introduction by Richard Lupoff makes it clear that this volume is a labor of love, and altogether, the volume represents a theory that a dear friend holds: sometimes a person really likes a book because they perfectly fit the intended audience when they first read it. For him, it's Conan, and for me, it's John Carter. We each recognize that there are flaws with the books that we grew up loving, but we love them nonetheless. I'm pretty sure that Captain Future is the same for a number of older speculative fiction fans; they loved it because it fulfilled a need as they were reading, and looking back now, they may well giggle at the stories. Nevertheless, it still is an act of art to make work so appealing to an audience, and the volume is worthwhile just to get a feel for a source of the pulpy stereotype and pop culture in 1940. And there can be little doubt about the repercussions Captain Future had on the genre. For in the letters to the editor, there is a fan letter from a Harry Harrison, who I'm going to assume grew up to become the writer of such books as Make Room! Make Room! (the source for Soylent Green) and the Stainless Steel Rat series.
Not to damn with faint praise—Captain Future is fun, but it is not great. I was transported to other worlds when I read and entertained a good bit as well. But I was able to put away my adult mind and read as a child, laughing at the antics of Newton and his crew. I wouldn't put Captain Future high on a list of books that must be read, but it should be considered by fans of pop culture and the history of speculative fiction alike.