Thursday, April 12, 2012

City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton

On September 23, 1949, President Harry S. Truman announced that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb, thereby ending the four-year-old American nuclear monopoly. This came as a terrible shock to most people, who had become accustomed to thinking of the American nuclear monopoly as an unalterable fact of life.

The main implication of President Truman’s announcement was obvious: the USSR was now in a position to launch a sneak attack on the USA using nuclear weapons. It had only been eight years since the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and the possibility of a future sneak attack by another nation had become a national obsession. Now that the Soviets could launch such an attack with nuclear weapons, it was taken as a given by some people that, sooner or later, they would.

This was the background against which Edmond Hamilton wrote his time-travel novel City at World's End, which first appeared in the July 1950 issue of Startling Stories. City at World’s End tells the story of John Kenniston, a nuclear physicist working at a secret nuclear research facility hidden in Middletown, a Midwestern steel town of 50,000 people. However, the facility was not secret enough, because it was the first target of a surprise nuclear attack using “the long-feared super-atomic bombs”.

The attack leaves the town intact, but sitting in the middle of a desert, under a large red sun. Instead of being destroyed, Middletown was sent forward in time millions of years, to an age when the Earth’s seas had evaporated and the sun had dwindled into a dull red star. Thus, City at World’s End is an early entry in the small-community-displaced-in-time subgenre that has since given us S. M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy and Eric Flint’s 1632 series.

The future that Middletown travels to is the classic “dying Earth” future that was popularized by H. G. Wells in the penultimate chapter of The Time Machine: the sun is slowly cooling down, and the Earth and other planets are slowly spiraling in toward it. Despite being closer to the sun, the Earth is still much cooler than in the past, and the inhabitants of Middletown find themselves burning up their supply of coal in an effort to keep warm. Kenniston and Dr. Hubble, the head of the research facility, go out in a Jeep to explore, and find an abandoned domed city about twenty miles southwest of Middletown. The transparent dome keeps the abandoned city relatively warm, and the Middletowners move in, naming it New Middletown.

Kenniston tries to get some of New Middletown’s communications equipment operational in an effort to contact other inhabitants of the future Earth. Since the technology is literally millions of years in advance of his own knowledge, he operates mostly by guesswork. However, after several weeks, his efforts succeed – except that the people who respond are not from Earth, but are from a planet orbiting Vega. Kenniston had unknowingly been operating an interstellar radio set. A huge starship sets down outside of New Middletown, and its passengers emerge. Most of them are humans, descendants of Earth people who settled the stars, but one of them is an alien named Gorr Holl from Capella, a big, furry anthropoid who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chewbacca. The rest of City at World’s End describes the interactions between the people of the 20th century and their far-future descendants.

All literature reflects the time of its composition, and City at World’s End is no exception. Middletown reveals itself to be a mid-twentieth century city in countless ways, large and small: the fact that all the homes are heated with coal; the fact that much of the workforce is employed in steel mills; the fact that there don’t seem to be any black residents; the fact that the mayor communicates with the citizens via radio broadcast rather than television.

Most of all, it’s the Middletowners’ reaction to Gorr Holl and the other aliens on the Vegan starship that dates the story. All of them, including the young scientist Kenniston, react with horror at the very sight of them. In the sixty-two years since the original publication of City at World’s End, people have become accustomed to the idea of space aliens, from Mr. Spock to the Na’vi. These days, the arrival of a starship full of aliens might produce some fear, but not the deep-seated horror that the Middletowners experience.

Science fiction is meant to invoke a sense of wonder, and Hamilton does a good job of it in City at World’s End. By rooting the people of Middletown so firmly in the here-and-now of the mid-twentieth century, Hamilton gave his mid-twentieth century audience a standard to measure themselves against: here is what I think would happen to modern people who found themselves transported to the far future, he told them. If it happened to you, what would you do? It’s a tribute to Hamilton’s storytelling that a reader in 2012 has the same reaction: if this happened to me and the people I know, what would we do?

What would you do?

City at World’s End was published in hardback by Frederick Fell in February 1951, and subsequently published in French, German, Italian, and Portuguese translations. The novel is now in the public domain, and can be downloaded for free at ManyBooks, while an audio version read by Mark Nelson is available at LibriVox.


John said...

Thanks, Tom, that's a great review -- made me go off to ManyBooks to download it. While some of the Golden Age themes no longer speak to us, we do find ourselves continually living in the future (I imagine my grandparents faced with an iPad). Or the citizens of mid-century America who suddenly found themselves trasported to the science-fictional future where world-destroying weapons existed. Hopefully, we can respond to such challenges gracefully and with humanity, and we do well to re-read pioneers like Hamilton for inspiration. Thanks!

M. Bouffant said...

These days, the arrival of a starship full of aliens might produce some fear, but not the deep-seated horror that the Middletowners experience.

I dunno. Depends, on the aliens & their appearance, & the humans in question. Lynch mobs wouldn't surprise me.