Brigands of the Moon
I’m squeezing in one last Vintage SciFi post, here at the very end of the month. As with every other book in this year’s series, I consumed today’s subject as an audiobook, listening while at work. This time I bypassed my supply of dodgy audiobook apps and went straight to the source: librivox.org. I chose the book in question because, when one is browsing randomly, a title like “Brigands of the Moon” is pretty much impossible to resist. I knew nothing of Ray Cummings, but if there are moons and brigands, well, I’m all in. I defy any reader to pass up a chance like this.
To be honest, I was expecting a steaming pile of pulpy garbage. Anything using the word “brigands” in an SF context just seems destined to be a Roger Corman movie, complete with cardboard rocket ships and “robots” wrapped in tinfoil. (Also, the word brigand will forever be tied in my imagination to the sadistic board game Dark Tower, but that is probably another story.) So while this is indeed pulpy, I am happy to report that Brigands of the Moon is not nearly the disaster it could have been. It’s not perfect, or even great, but it’s certainly not embarrassing.
The story centers on Greg Haljan, officer on a ship that plies the routes of the near Solar System. His ship is somehow shanghaied into a secret government mission to bring back some guy named Grantline, who is exploring the inexplicably ignored Moon and has found a motherlode of one or another valuable minerals. Things quickly go south when a devious band of Martians (colonists, not aliens) plots to take the treasure for themselves. Haljan has to be heroic and resourceful to save the day and win the girl. The story is conventional, but fast moving and entertaining.
The plot breaks down a bit if the reader thinks too hard about things. Why is everywhere colonized but the Moon? The government types admit that the cover has been blown on their secret mission to the Moon, so why are they sending a single, civilian ship to make the pickup? If this cargo is worth what they say it is, where is the cavalry? Why is this the single most incompetently planned operation in the history of operations? And while we’re at it, why do all the chicks dig Haljan so much? He has to beat them off with a stick. I ignored most of this as a way to keep my sanity. At least the action was fun and the fights dramatic. Also as a bonus, Haljan makes plenty of mistakes and miscalculations, rather than just being constantly triumphant. It’s an interesting mix of face palms and wise nodding when reading Brigands.
The science is probably my favorite part of it all. Brigands is from that magical time when attaching the word “ray” to the end of pretty much anything made it instantly respectable. There are heat rays, death rays, zed rays (my favorite!), and who knows what else. Rays everywhere. I don’t even know what zed rays do. There was also a mind bending scene when an undetected asteroid flew by the spaceship somewhere in between the Earth and Mars. Apparently nobody in this future saw the movie Armageddon and they remain blissfully ignorant of what such a giant rock might do to our delicate homeworld. We later find out that the asteroid has lakes, a breathable atmosphere, and jungles. Colonies on Mercury and Venus I can go with, but this is a bit much, even for me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Sexism Fairy makes an appearance or two. Oh, who am I kidding. The Sexism Fairy is everywhere and it hurts. In fact, in honor of the upcoming Super Bowl, here is a Seahawk-y version of what the Sexism Fairy is doing to the story. (Go Hawks.) To Cummings’ credit though, while Haljan makes me want to sear my eyes with fire, a pair of the ladies is actually quite capable when they want to be. Maybe he really wants to have strong women, but feels constrained by the realities of publishing in the 1930s? I don’t know, but there is a strange tension going on there. And I will just toss in here that the romantic subplot was within a page or two of bursting a blood vessel in my forehead. At least one chapter in its entirety should be skipped for those disinclined to endure a litany of Depression-era sweet nothings. Gag me, to borrow a Valley Girl phrase, with a spoon.
Mocking aside, this is a perfectly respectable effort. Action jumps from the Earth to Haljan’s ship, onto the Moon, and into a desperate siege defense. The villains talk too much, plan poorly, and would twirl moustachios if they had any. The heroes are bold, benignly misogynistic, and resourceful. There are flying carpets (or at least an equivalent). There is tragedy, sacrifice, bravery, and love. There is a boatload of plot convenience. I can’t recommend this to anyone looking for the best that SF has to offer, but I would say that anyone who feels like digging into the dusty attic of SF will be amused. Zed rays for everyone.