Retro Review: “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton

Super Science Stories, May 1943Now that we’re waiting for the finalists for the 1945 Retro Hugos to be announced, let’s take the time to look at some of the finalists for previous years of Retro Hugos. I’ll start off with “Exile”, a science fantasy short story by Edmond Hamilton that was published in the May 1943 issue of Super Science Stories and was a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

“Exile” begins with four science fiction writers – Madison, Brazell, Carrick and the narrator – sitting around the fireplace, sipping whiskey and talking about hunting, baseball and science fiction. The narrator remarks that all four of them are trying very hard to seem like ordinary, solid citizens, even though they don’t feel at home in this world and never will. They all want something different, something more, that’s why they became science fiction writers in the first place.

Brazell points out that the fact that they get paid for it is a large part of the reason why they all write. The narrator agrees that yes, the money is important, but that they nonetheless all dreamt up stories and new worlds long before they were paid for it, even long before they started to write down their stories, because none of them fit in the real world.

“We’d feel a lot less at home in some of the worlds we write about,” Madison says, whereupon Carrick pipes in, “That happened to me. I once wrote about an imaginary world and then I had to live in it.”

Of course, everybody is eager for the story, so Carrick delivers it. It happened, he says, after he moved out to the edge of the city right next to a new power station, because it was quiet there and he needed the quiet to write. Carrick was about to start writing a new series of stories all set in the same world, so he began to create the world and its inhabitants. He made the inhabitants human, but he also made them and their world less civilized and more superstitious and barbarian than the real world, because that would provide conflict and fiction needs conflict.

Carrick is so engrossed in his worldbuilding that he suddenly experiences a click in his brain, as if the world he created and its people had crystallized into existence in another reality, likely due to the energy generated by the power station next door. Then Carrick wonders what would happen if he imagined himself living in that world and creates a character and history for himself.

There is another click and Carrick suddenly finds himself in his imaginary world, as if he’d been born there and always lived there. Carrick is excited at first, as he goes out and walks the streets of the world he created and looks at the people he dreamt up. But eventually, he becomes unhappy, because the world he created is just too barbarian for him and all the things that had seemed exciting from a distance are repulsive and unpleasant close-up.

So Carrick tries to imagine himself back into his own world, only to find that it doesn’t work. He’s stuck. He considers killing himself, but eventually he adapts. Brazell asks Carrick what he did in the other world. Carrick explains that he didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to do most of the jobs in the other world, so he did the only thing he could do. He wrote stories. He wrote stories about his own world, which seemed like science fiction to the inhabitants of the other world and made him popular.

Madison wants to know how Carrick got back in the end. “I never got home,” Carrick says sadly, “I’m still here.”

The Best of Edmond Hamilton“Exile” is very short, only two and a half pages long in magazine format, but it sure packs a punch. It is an example of the “twist in the tale” stories that were so popular during the golden age, stories which exist only to deliver the final punchline. “Exile” wasn’t even the only “twist in the tale” story on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot – “Death Sentence” by Isaac Asimov and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch, both finalists in the same category, are “twist in the tale” stories as well.

“Exile” is however an excellent example of a “twist in the tale” story. It is a lot more effective than “Death Sentence” and on par with “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, which is remarkable, because unlike the Robert Bloch story, “Exile” doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s merely a story about four people sitting around the fireplace, drinking whiskey and telling stories. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” by Stanton A. Coblentz is probably the closest comparison. But “Exile” is much better. In fact, it is remarkable how well this little story works.

I suspect part of the reason why “Exile” works so well is that it perfectly captures the sense of alienation that many writers and fans of speculative fiction feel. Like the unnamed narrator of Hamilton’s story, a lot of us don’t feel at home in the real world, so we dream up imaginary worlds. And while getting paid to write about adventures in imaginary worlds is a nice side-effect, many of us dreamt up stories and worlds long before we were ever paid to do it and would continue to do so, even if we didn’t get paid for it.

But even if we don’t really fit into the real world, would we truly want to live in the worlds we create or could we even survive there? I guess, as with poor lost Carrick, the answer is no.

Even though there is a pseudoscientific explanation for Carrick’s predicament, “Exile” is more portal fantasy than science fiction. It’s not even the only portal fantasy on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot – “Doorway into Time” by C.L. Moore, which was nominated in the same category, is also a portal fantasy. Furthermore, travel to parallel worlds/other planets by the power of imagination has been a common trope in speculative fiction ever since John Carter wished himself upon Mars in A Princess of Mars back in 1911. Edmond Hamilton himself would also revisit the idea of imaginary space/time travel via pseudoscientific means in his 1947 novel The Star Kings.

The Great SF Stories, Vol. 5, 1943Considering that “Exile” is essentially a story about four science fiction writers sitting around and talking, the question is which real science fiction writers of the golden age, if any, do the four characters represent. When I read the story last year for the Retro Hugos, I assumed that Madison was a stand-in for Edmond Hamilton and that Brazell was a stand-in for his future wife Leigh Brackett due to the vaguely similar names. And indeed, I named the Hamilton and Brackett stand-ins in my Silencer novelette The Heavy Hand of the Editor, in which my fictional 1930s pulp author Richard Blakemore locks horns with John W. Campbell (or rather a Campbell stand-in called Donald Angus Stuart) and interacts with several real authors of the golden age, Ed Madison and Liz Brazell in homage to this story. However, Leo Morey’s interior art for “Exile” shows only white men in suits (and reminds me visually of the Dover reprints of selected pages from old Sears catalogues more than anything), no women anywhere in sight. So is Brazell a stand-in for Ray Bradbury, who was after all friends with Hamilton and Brackett? Or am I completely mistaken and it’s someone else?

What’s even more interesting is who Carrick is supposed to be? Cause I would really like to know which science fiction writer of the golden age dreamt our world into existence. For that matter, I’d also like to know which author of apocalyptic fiction is responsible for our current reality. However, I really cannot come up with any SFF writer of the golden age who’d fit what little we learn about Carrick. Though Carrick does put in a cameo in The Heavy Hand of the Editor, if only because paying homage to obscure golden age science fiction stories is fun.

But even though “Exile” appeared in Super Science Stories, which was one of the lesser science fiction magazines of the early 1940s, it’s not exactly an obscure story. At any rate, it’s less obscure than some of the other stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project. “Exile” has been reprinted several times and was selected for the Best of Edmond Hamilton collection that Leigh Brackett edited as well as for the anthology The Great SF Stories, Vol. 5, 1943, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. And of course, “Exile” was well enough regarded that it won a nomination for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards, even if it lost out to Ray Bradbury’s excellent “R is for Rocket” a.k.a. “King of the Gray Spaces” in the end.

A fine story about alienation and the power of imagination and also a great example of the “twist in the tale” stories that were so popular during the golden age.

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4 Responses to Retro Review: “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton

  1. Sounds Incomplete Enchanter-esque…

    • Cora says:

      Since the Incomplete Enchanter stories predate “Exile”, it’s quite possible that they were an influence.

  2. Steve Wright says:

    I’ve always felt that Hamilton was an underappreciated writer – known for his pulp space operas, yes, but capable of a great deal more range and depth than most of the Golden Age pulpsmiths…. Stories like this are why!

    That Del Rey “Best of” anthology is a good one and worth getting hold of, if you can…. It includes “Alien Earth”, which is one of my favourite SF stories (a neat SFnal gimmick powering a fast-paced adventure story) and “The Man Who Returned”, which Leigh Brackett, in her introduction, says she included specifically because she’d always hated it – and a story that provoked so strong an emotional response had to have something going for it! Of course, if anyone knew what made a good story, it would be Leigh Brackett….

    • Cora says:

      I agree that Hamilton is underappreciated. Even his pulp space operas are usually among the better examples of the breed and of course he was one of the original space opera writers who created the subgenre in the first place along with E.E. Smith. And while Smith is mainly of interest for historical reasons these days, Hamilton’s space operas are still enjoyable.

      But yes, his range was greater than just pulp space opera. Last year, I reviewed his novel The Valley of Creation for Galactic Journey, which is a Shangri-La type Lost civilisation story that also tackles animal rights and has its protagonist end up in the body of an animal for a while.

      The Del Rey “Best of” anthologies are usually good. I also find it amusing that Hamilton and Brackett edited each other’s Best of.

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