“The Free-Lance of Space” by Edmond Hamilton is a space opera short story, which appeared in the May 1944 issue of Amazing Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!
Like so many space operas and noir stories, “The Free-Lance of Space” starts out in a disreputable bar cum cosmic opium den near the Uranus spaceport. In a private room, two men are meeting, the Saturnian agent Brun Abo and the Earthman Rake Allan, the notorious Free-Lance, a broker and fixer who owes no allegiance to Earth or any other world, after he was kicked out of the Earth diplomatic corps, disgraced and outlawed.
Brun Abo has a job for Rake Allan. For it turns out that a Martian biologist named Doctor Su has discovered a drug that can revive people who have died of “spaceshock”, i.e. the sudden exposure to the vacuum of space. Such a drug is invaluable to any power who possesses it and therefore Brun Abo wants to acquire the formula for the Saturnian space navy, because it would give them the edge in case of an interplanetary war. The Saturnians aren’t the only ones interested in the formula, other worlds have made Su an offer as well. However, Doctor Su refused all of them and intends to return to Mars that very night. Abo now offers Rake Allan half a million Earth dollars, if he procures the formula for the Saturnians.
Allan listens to Abo’s story with interest, but he has no intention of selling the formula to the Saturnians. Instead, he’ll sell it to the highest bidder, whoever that might be. And so he overpowers Abo and leaves him in the intergalactic opium parlour, drugged out of his mind. Then Allan heads for the spaceport to catch the Draco, the spaceship that will take Doctor Su back to Mars. He gets lucky, too, for the Draco has been delayed, because half her crew got drunk on Uranus and had to be replaced.
Allan boards the Draco under an assumed name and secures a cabin for himself. Unfortunately, the cabin right next to Doctor Su’s is already taken by a young Earthwoman, so Allan has to improvise. He tries to sneak into the woman’s cabin and when he finds it already occupied, he sprays narcotic gas through the keyhole to knock the woman out.
However, Allan is in for a surprise, because the young woman in the cabin next to Doctor Su’s is also onboard under an assumed name. In truth she is Jean King of the Earth diplomatic service, Allan’s former co-worker and ex-lover. And she’s aboard the Draco for the same reason as Allan.
When Jean comes to again, she tells Allan that she isn’t looking to secure Doctor Su’s formula for Earth. Instead, she wants to keep the agents of other planets from stealing the formula, because Doctor Su is a true humanitarian (Martianitarian?) and wants to give the formula to the entire solar system rather than any one power.
Allan, however, is much more sceptical about the alleged noble motives of Jean and the Earth diplomatic corps. After all, the corps disowned him and left him to rot in a Venusian prison for two years, after a mission went south. Jean begs Allan to reconsider his decision, but he’s not listening. Instead, he gags Jean and continues with his mission.
He drugs Doctor Su with the same narcotic gas he used on Jean earlier and breaks into his cabin. He quickly find a sample of the elixir, but he can’t find the formula. So Allan has to wait for Doctor Su to wake up. He threatens Su with his blaster, even though the Free-Lance does not kill, and tricks him into revealing the whereabouts of the formula. Su begs Allan not to take the formula, because he can never reproduce it from memory. And besides, he really wants to give it to the whole solar system.
“Why didn’t you already publish it already then?” Allan asks, “Why wait?”
Su declares that he doesn’t want to publish the formula until it has been tested on a human being. That’s why he is returning to Mars, because he wants to test the formula. And Su’s chosen test subject is none other than his own son who died in a spaceship accident two years before and whose body being kept refrigerated on Mars. Su also begs Allan to leave him as much of the elixir as Su needs to revive his son and take the rest, if he must.
Su’s plight touches what remains of Allan’s conscience where Jean’s could not. He releases Jean and Su. “You win,” he tells them and advises Su to publish the formula as soon as he has tested it, because there will be other agents after it.
And indeed one of those other agents, a Jovian named Stakan Awl, attacks as soon as Allan has made his decision. Turns out that the Jovian secret service got the crew of the Draco drunk on Uranus to replace them with their own agents. Once safely in space, those agents take over the ship and proceed to procure the formula. However, Stakan Awl wants to test the formula first. And the test subject he picks is none other than Rake Allan.
As Allan is on his way to the nearest airlock (though Hamilton calls them “space-doors”), he manages to trick his guards and escape. He makes his way to the bridge and barricades himself in, intending to turn the Draco around and alert the Uranian space patrol. However, Stakan Awl has disabled the engines. Worse, the Jovians are about to cut their way onto the bridge. Allan cannot deal with them all. And if he is recaptured, the Jovians will kill not only him, but everybody aboard the Draco, because Jovians never leave witnesses.
So Allan decides on a risky gamble. The controls for the airlocks and life support system are on the bridge. So are spacesuits for emergencies. Allan put on one of those spacesuits and opens the airlocks all over the ship, just as the Jovians break down the door. Within seconds, Allan is the only person left alive aboard the Draco.
He closes the airlocks and starts up the life support system again. Then he races back to Doctor Su’s cabin to retrieve the elixir. He revives first Jean and then Doctor Su. Allan informs the stunned Doctor that his elixir works and has been tested on humans and that there are plenty more people to revive, the passengers and non-treacherous crew of the Draco and the Jovian agents, too, once they have been bound and disarmed.
So Doctor Su takes off to revive the rest of the passengers and crew, while Jean and Allan enjoy their reunion and revival some more. Jean asks Allan to return to Earth with her, for surely the diplomatic corps will forgive all his past transgressions after the great service he did to Earth and the entire solar system. Rake Allan confesses that he never forgot Jean and asks her to marry him. Jean accepts and Rake muses that they will probably get wedding presents from police forces of all nine planets now that the Free-Lance is settling down.
“The Free-Lance of Space” is a neat action-packed spy thriller from one of the pioneers of the space opera subgenre as we know it. I’ve never warmed to E.E. Smith, even though his works are hugely important to the development of the science fiction genre. However, I’ve always liked the works of Edmond Hamilton who started writing space opera only a few years after Smith and whose Interstellar Patrol series is one of the founding texts of the space opera subgenre. But Edmond Hamilton’s work is also important to me personally, because the 1979 anime series based on Hamilton’s Captain Future series (which is eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo for Best Series – hint, hint) was one of works which made me fall in love with science fiction, along with Star Wars, the original Star Trek, Time Tunnel and Raumpatrouille Orion.
“The Free-Lance of Space” is a fairly obscure Edmond Hamilton story and has been reprinted only once in 1974. Nonetheless, it has all the elements that make for a cracking good space adventure. The science is complete nonsense, of course. For starters, it makes no sense that Allan never even considers using the Draco‘s communication system to call for help. And opening the airlocks would have sucked everybody aboard the Draco into space. Furthermore, knowledge of how the vacuum of space works and how it affects the human body was purely theoretical at the time this story was written, though over in Nazi Germany Dr. Hubertus Strughold was putting those theories into practice via experiments carried out on concentration camp inmates, which did not stop NASA from recruiting him for the US space program.
In my review of “Highwayman of the Void” by Dirk Wylie a.k.a. Frederik Pohl, I noted that many science fiction stories of the golden age seem to be set in the same consensus version of the solar system, a solar system that has very little to do with the one we actually live in, but still influences science fiction to this day. “The Free-Lance of Space” is another story that is set in this pulp science fiction shared universe. However, “The Free-Lance of Space” is more than that. It very much feels like Edmond Hamilton was trying to write a Leigh Brackett story. And no, Brackett did not write this one and publish it under Hamilton’s name – the writing style is different.
Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton would marry two and a half years after this story was published. Unlike the other science fiction power couple of the golden age Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, Brackett and Hamilton collaborated only once on “Stark and the Star Kings”, a story intended for Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions. But even though Brackett and Hamilton may not have collaborated very much, they did influence each other.
I first noticed this last year when I reviewed the 1949 Eric John Stark novella “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” a.k.a. The Secret of Sinharat shortly after I had reviewed Edmond Hamilton’s 1948 novel The Valley of Creation for Galactic Journey and realised that even though the settings of both stories were completely different, Himalaya in the late 1940s versus Mars in the far future, there were certain similarities with regard to characters, plot and theme. Reading “The Free-Lance of Space” shortly after reviewing several Leigh Brackett stories from the same year reveals yet more similarities.
Like so many Leigh Brackett protagonists, Rake Allan is an outlaw, a man alienated from his homeworld and embittered because Earth betrayed him. Like Leigh Brackett’s outlaw heroes, Rake Allan does have a personal code. “The Free-Lance does not kill,” he says at one point, ironically while threatening Doctor Su with a gun. And though some of the Jovian agents die in a shootout, Allan later insists that Su revive the Jovians killed when Allan opened the airlocks. Allan is also quickly overcome by his conscience, once he learns why Su developed the elixir. And like Rick Urquart from Leigh Brackett’s Shadow Over Mars and many other Leigh Brackett heroes over the years, Rake Allan realises at the end that love is more important than money and power.
We don’t get many physical descriptions of Rake Allan. We mainly learn that he is tall and rangy, another thing he shares with many Brackett heroes. Another thing we learn about Rake Allan is that he has brown skin. So we have another potential protagonist of colour. And this time around, he even looks dark-skinned in the interior art by Julian S. Krupa. Meanwhile, Jean King is clearly described as blonde, blue-eyed and white, so we likely have an interracial relationship as well.
Edmond Hamilton generally wrote strong female characters and Jean King, diplomat and secret agent, is no exception. In practice, she doesn’t get a whole lot to do and spends most of the story either tied up or frozen to death, but she has potential. The relationship between Rake Allan and Jean King also feels less rushed than some of Leigh Brackett’s romantic couples, but then Hamilton circumvents the insta-love problem by giving Rake and Jean a past romantic history.
Meanwhile, the spaceship with everybody aboard except for the protagonist unconscious and seemingly dead is reminiscent of Leigh Brackett’s novelette “The Veil of Astellar” where the protagonist finds himself in a similar situation, though for a very different reason.
“The Free-Lance of Space” is a highly enjoyable spy thriller in space. It’s a minor Hamilton, but nonetheless a story that deserves to be remembered more than it is.