The Black Star Passes
by John W. Campbell
 

Review by
Ron Grube
originally as three stories —
"Piracy Preferred" — Amazing Stories, June 1930
"Solarite" — Amazing Stories, November 1930
"The Black Star Passes" — Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1930

Fantasy Press
Reading, Pennsylvania; 1953

254 pages

January 2002

  

The Twenty-Second century, viewed from 1930: giant propeller-driven aircraft carrying two thousand passengers across the country at 500-plus miles an hour, progressing to molecular-motion drives run by solar heat, to interplanetary voyages and war with Venus, to an "invasion" by a rogue star crossing the solar system. Few authors could maintain this pace and still make an interesting story, not just bare bones and action. John W. Campbell was one.

The Black Star Passes is the first of a science fiction trilogy dubbed the Arcot-Morey-Wade series after its central characters. The other books are Islands of Space and Invaders from the Infinite. The Black Star Passes was originally published in Amazing Stories as three shorter stories: "Piracy Preferred", "Solarite", and "The Black Star Passes", and the book is divided into these sections.
  

Richard Arcot is the nation's leading physicist, only recently supplanting his father, also a great scientist-inventor. Robert Morey, a brilliant mathematician who complements Arcot's genius, is the son of a transcontinental airline owner and Arcot's best friend. Wade is a chemistry genius who turns to air piracy in the first section of the book. Cured of his mental imbalance, he teams up with Arcot and Morey on their adventures. Surely it isn't a coincidence that the heroes are all young, technically-oriented men. Campbell himself was only about 20 years old when this book was written, and still an engineering student. Politically correct types will object to the very manly story lines and the total absence of women, children, and political agendas. To me, it just keeps the story moving along faster. There's plenty of newer literature out there if I, or anyone, wants mushier reading.

From the introduction by John W. Campbell:

These early science-fiction tales explored the Universe; they were probings, speculations, as to where we could go. What we could do.

They had a reach and sweep and exuberance that belonged.

They were fun, too...
  

The book opens with a million-dollar securities robbery from one of the huge transcontinental aircraft, involving an invisible pirate, suspended-animation gas, and landing a rocket-powered glider atop the monster plane. Hang on though, this is only in the first handful of pages. From here it really starts to move! Arcot and Morey figure out what's happening and proceed to invent a whole new drive system-molecular motion-mostly just to catch the pirate. Of course, it's no problem for Arcot to solve the invisibility scheme, too. One of my all time favorite scenes involves dinnertime with Arcot, senior, and Morey, senior. Arcot, junior says he will be a little late, walks in invisibly, and plays a little prank on the older men:

[Morey, junior:] "Look over there!"

The men turned with one accord toward the opposite end of the room, looked, and seeing nothing particularly unusual, glanced back rather puzzled. What they then saw, or better, failed to see, puzzled them still more. Morey had disappeared!

"Why-why where-ohhh! Quick work, Dick!" The senior Arcot began laughing heartily, and as his astonished and curious companions looked toward him, he stopped and called out, "Come on, Dick! We want to see you now. And tell us how it's done!"

This all comes off so casually, like most of the technical feats in the story, that it's been stuck in my mind for years. Ho-hum. Invisibility? No problem, Dad. In John Campbell's world, problems are meant to be solved, and his characters are capable, can-do types who don't know the meaning of failure. As the book progresses, the Pirate is caught and cured, and the new space drive is so successful that a voyage is made to Venus. Our Heroes find themselves involved in a global war, with the baddies planning to invade Earth if they're not stopped.
  

Once this problem is resolved, Earth and Venus both face a menace from the people of the Dark Star, who want to escape their wandering, dead sun and start a war across space almost accidentally. Who could blame them for trying? Campbell really doesn't, and that brings up another little piece of his 1953 introduction:

There's another thing about science-fiction yarns that is quite conspicuous; it's so difficult to pick out the villains. It might have made quite a change in history if the ballads and tales of the old days had been a little less sure of who the villains were. ...

Life's much simpler in a thatched cottage than in a dome on the airless Moon, easier to understand when the Villains are all pure black-hearted villains, and the heroes are all pure white-souled Heroes. Just look how simple history is compared with science-fiction! It's simple — but is it good?
  

Do you like action? High-tech inventions? Maybe just a great escape for a few hours? A look at a fast-disappearing world where young men are gentlemen, with manners, morals, ambition, and integrity? Read The Black Star Passes for any or all of these reasons.

  

© 2002 Ron Grube


  
The Arcot-Morey-Wade series
(including Campbell's 1953 introduction) is collected in —

A John W. Campbell Anthology: Three Novels
by John W. Campbell
Doubleday: New York, 1973

1. The Black Star Passes
2. Islands of Space
3. Invaders from the Infinite

  
Ron Grube fixes things at
Serendipity Electronics
in Carlin, Nevada

Aerospace at Troynovant
air and space travel and development
  


 

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