The opening of this novel reminded me a bit of the sort of set-up that Cornell Woolrich used in many of his stories. A young man named Neal Banning, who works as a publisher’s rep in New York City, pays a visit to his Norman Rockwell-esque hometown in Nebraska – but when he gets there, he finds a vacant lot where the house he grew up in should be. Not only that, but the neighbors are different and insist that there was never a house on the lot, that they don’t know Neal, and that the aunt and uncle who raised him never existed. Naturally, with his world upended like this, Neal goes to the police and tries to get to the bottom of what he thinks is a conspiracy, only to be locked up because everybody thinks he’s crazy.
Of course, in the hands of the master of space opera, Edmond Hamilton, things play out a lot differently from there than they would in a Cornell Woolrich story. Veteran readers won’t be surprised when a mysterious man shows up, breaks Neal out of jail, and tells him an incredible story about how he’s really the Valkar, the former leader of a galactic empire whose enemies captured him, had his brain wiped clean, and implanted false memories of his life as Neal Banning. Neal’s rescuer is one of his former followers who has finally tracked him down and now wants to return him to his home planet so his memory can be restored and he can lead a rebellion against the New Empire and restore the Old Empire to power. How’s he going to do that, you ask? Simple. Even though he can’t remember it at the moment, Neal is the only one in the cosmos who knows the location of a super-weapon called the Hammer of the Valkar, which will give whoever possesses it the power to rule the galaxy.
If all that doesn’t get your heart pounding . . . well, then, you probably didn’t grow up reading and loving this kind of stuff like I did. There were few authors better at it than Edmond Hamilton. Super-weapons, beautiful haughty empresses, spaceships with fins . . . sure, there’s a certain degree of silliness to it all, but I don’t care. I hadn’t read this novel before, and I found it highly entertaining. Hamilton was never much of a stylist. His prose is simple and direct and very fast-moving, although there are definite touches of poetry here and there, especially when he’s describing things like the vastness of space. This novel rockets (no pun intended) along to a twist ending that probably won’t surprise very many readers but is still quite satisfying.
The thing is, they still write stories like this, only now it would be a 500,000 word trilogy stuffed to the gills with back-story, angst, political intrigue, sex, and realistic-sounding science. Hamilton spins his yarn in less than a tenth of that wordage. You pays your money and you takes your choice, and I know that many modern readers would rather have the fat trilogy than the 110-page Ace Double. As for me, I’m gonna go smash some suns with Ed Hamilton.