Retro Review: “Intruders from the Stars” by Ross Rocklynne

Amazing Stories, January 1944“Intruders from the Stars” is a novella by Ross Rocklynne. It was first published in the January 1944 issue of Amazing Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“Intruders from the Stars” opens on a far off planet, where a decisive battle is taking place. It’s the battle for the fate of an empire, with insurgent forces led by the unnamed prime minister about to vanquish the forces loyal to the Empress, a former slave girl named Bess-Istra. Her forces beaten, Bess-Istra and her surviving soldiers retreat to their citadel, where an escape ship is being readied.

The reader quickly realises that Bess-Istra, though beautiful, is a nasty piece of work, a typical pulp fiction femme fatale. Her reign was bloody, the revolution necessary to depose a tyrant. The prime minister, who is in love with Bess-Istra, even offers her to rule by his side and rebuilt the planet together. However, Bess-Istra will have none of that. She even knocks out her own general Bandro, when he urges her to negotiate to save his own neck.

Bess-Istra and her surviving forces, including the unconscious Bandro, board the escape ship. Her plan is to leave her homeworld and head to a neighbouring solar system and conquer a planet there. The journey is supposed to take thirteen years, which all aboard will spend in suspended animation courtesy of sleep gas.

However, the inhabitants of the neighbouring planet spot Bess-Istra’s ship in time and deflect it away from their world. So Bess-Istra and her loyal troops float through space until they happen to land on Earth.

The scene now shifts to Mozambique in the middle of World War II, where American war correspondent Bill van Astor Smythe encounters two missionaries, the Reverend John Stevens and his assistant Thomas Reynolds, while both parties are hiding from the Japanese, who have invaded Mozambique. The young Reverend and his assistant are on their way to a village, for the locals have abandoned Christianity for a new god and also stolen the Reverend’s altar candles. Bill is on the run, for the squadron of British soldiers he was embedded with has been wiped out by the Japanese.

Now there never was any Japanese military activity in Africa during World War II – the only axis countries fighting in Africa were Italy and Nazi Germany and they had largely been driven out by 1944. Furthermore, Mozambique was a Portuguese colony and Portugal remained neutral during World War II, so what a squadron of British soldiers was doing there is anybody’s guess. It’s interesting that Ross Rocklynne messes up something as basic as World War II frontlines. Though the summary of events he gives is correct up to the point where the British take over Mozambique and the Japanese invade Madagascar and Mozambique. Was this a scenario that was considered plausible at some point, since it seems extremely far-fetched to me? I have no idea.

Bill, the Reverend and his assistant make their way to the village, where they find Bess-Istra’s spaceship. It turns out that the new god the locals are worshipping is none other than the sleeping Bess-Istra herself, who is conveniently visible (and conveniently half naked) through a porthole of the spaceship.

The Reverend is deeply upset that his converts have abandoned Christianity to worship scantily clad women. He is even more upset, when Bill points out that the sleeping woman is not from Earth, for the existence of extraterrestrial life is not compatible with his faith. Bill, the Reverend and Reynolds are still arguing what to do, when Bill spots a plunger and pushes it downward, because messing with an alien spaceship is obviously such a brilliant idea. As a result, the sleep gas is vented outside the ship, knocking out Bill, the Reverend and his assistant. Bess-Istra awakes.

The three men are taken prisoner and come to aboard the ship. They are subjected first to an interrogation machine and then taken to see Bess-Istra herself. The Reverend immediately accuses Bess-Istra and her people of planning to conquer the Earth. Bill tries to calm him down, but the Reverend has another fit when Bess-Istra mentions gods – in plural – and informs her that there is only one true god. If Bess-Istra had shot him at this point, I certainly would have understood.

However, Bess-Istra has a different plan. Instead of revealing her intentions outright, she tells Bill and the two missionaries that she has scanned their brains and thus learned not only English, but also much about the Earth, including that the world is at war and that the Allies are losing, which is certainly an interesting interpretation of the situation in early 1944, when the battle of Stalingrad (which is generally considered the turning point for Nazi Germany) was already over, even if the Normandy landings were still several months in the future. However, Bess-Istra can help. She and her people will end the war and bring peace to Earth, using their superior alien weapons.

Bess-Istra’s offer quickly convinces the Reverend that she is not evil after all, even though he would prefer world peace to be achieved without bloodshed. I have to commend him for this, especially considering the genocidal tendencies we’ve seen elsewhere on the ballot (“Arena”, cough).

Bill is a little bit more sceptical, probably because he spares the occasional glance for General Bandro and Bess-Istra’s subordinates who are having a hard time keeping a straight face at Bess-Istra’s sudden commitment to world peace. Furthermore, Bess-Istra is also a little too dominant for Bill’s taste, though he quickly becomes as besotted with her as everybody else. Bess-Istra, meanwhile, asks Bill and the Reverend (Thomas Reynolds has wandered out of the story and returned to the mission by now) where her forces shall begin their mission to bring peace to Earth. Bill and the Reverend both suggest liberating beleaguered Mozambique and Madagascar from the Japanese. And so they set off in Bess-Istra’s ship to disable the Japanese supply fleet, leaving it floating aimlessly in the Indian ocean. Cut off from supplies, the Japanese will be forced to retreat and surrender.

Next, Bess-Istra directs her spaceship to New York City and lands on the roof of the offices of the newspaper syndicate Bill works for, so he can deliver his report in person and will also be believed.

The next target of the campaign for world peace is Italy. Now by early 1944, the Allies had already invaded Italy and Mussolini had been deposed, arrested and subsequently freed by the German army and installed as a sort of puppet ruler in those parts of Italy that were still under Axis control. Nonetheless, the situation did not look particularly desperate for the Allies in Italy in the real world, though the battle of Monte Cassino happened in the winter of 1943/1944. And even though it’s never named in the novella itself, it’s clearly this battle that Bess-Istra’s forces interrupt by knocking out the Italian and German forces with a gas ray, causing Mussolini to flee to Germany.

The Russian front and the western front are next. Bess-Istra’s gas ray and another weapon which causes amnesia take out the German forces and the Allies converge on Berlin, where a revolution breaks out (which would coincide nicely with the group around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and their ultimately failed plot to assassinate Hitler) and Hitler is deposed.

Once World War II has been ended in Europe – and with less bloodshed than in the real world, though we might have ended up with Stauffenberg and his fellow reactionaries in charge, which would likely have been worse for Germany in the long run – the next aim is ending the war in Asia and the Pacific. This time around, Bess-Istra’s forces deploy contracting fire rings around Japanese occupied cities in Asia. These fire rings destroy all sulphur and render gunpowder and therefore all firearms useless, leaving the Japanese soldiers at the mercy of the locals. In his review of the story, Steve J. Wright points out that even with alien super science, this scenario would not have worked, because modern armies including the Japanese forces had abandoned blackpowder by World War II.

As a coup de grace, Bess-Istra also teleports Hitler, Goebbels, Göring (at any rate, I assume that the fat, cruel man is supposed to be Göring, since it’s unlikely to be Churchill), Mussolini, Admiral Tojo, Emperor Hirohito and other Axis leaders aboard her spaceship as prisoners. Quisling, head of the Norwegian Nazi puppet government, commits suicide.

Bill finds himself falling hard for Bess-Istra, even though he knows it’s a bad idea. Meanwhile, Reverend Stevens tries to convert her – not entirely without success, for Bess-Istra is quite fascinated by the idea of a god who is not in favour of power and cruelty. And of course, the Reverend falls for Bess-Istra, too, because every man in this story eventually falls for Bess-Istra. Bill, however, still has sense enough to wonder just what exactly Bess-Istra’s motive is in all this.

During a broadcast to the entire world, Bess-Istra declares herself ruler of the Earth. Bill launches himself at her, only to be shot down by her stun gun. He and the Reverend are thrown into a cell aboard her ship.

Meanwhile, Bess-Istra has been busy. She has set up a world court to try the Axis leaders and other war criminals, has ordered all warships and warplanes scrapped, has redrawn the world map and set up new states, has introduced a world currency, set up a climate control system and overhauled the global transportation system to use the same technology her spaceship uses. In short, she’s been remarkably efficient and also hasn’t proven herself a cruel tyrant so far, because apparently she has been listening to Reverend Stevens extolling the virtues of Christianity to her and was convinced.

Bess-Istra frees Bill and the Reverend and makes Bill her personal press agent to make her look good, since someone from her own camp is feeding negative stories about her less than glorious past to the press. Bess-Istra refuses to suppress these stories, because she now believes in the freedom of the press. Bill, on the other hand, is still not convinced that Bess-Istra really has the world’s best interests at heart, even though she has only done good so far. By now, he’s also completely in love with her, even though he hates himself for it. Bess-Istra is also falling for Bill, though she hates the idea almost as much as he does.

Bess-Istra’s benevolent dictatorship is interrupted, when her former general Bandro, now head of the international world police, and chief scientist Sab-Hallo revolt against her, because they have had enough of Bess-Istra’s sudden desire for peace and democracy. They take Bill and Bess-Istra prisoner and end the trial of the Axis leaders by summarily executing them, turning Hitler into an oily stain on the courtroom floor. Bill and Bess-Istra are about to be executed as well, when Reverend Stevens crashes a power glider into Bess-Istra’s headquarters, takes out the rebelling soldiers with the gas ray and rescues Bill and Bess-Istra.

The Reverend explains that a convert among Bess-Istra’s soldiers tipped him off about the plot. Together, they head for the Reverend’s old mission in the jungle of Mozambique (which is still a Portuguese colony, Bess-Istra not having gotten around to eliminating the evil of colonialism yet), Bandro’s forces hot in pursuit. Bandro’s forces sweep the jungle with the green ray, a devastating weapon, but luckily Bess-Istra has an energy shield which can protect them – but only one, so they have to huddle together. They make it to the mission, where they find Thomas Reynolds and several of the converted locals dead, killed by the green ray. I honestly wonder why Thomas Reynolds is in this story at all, since his character serves no real purpose, disappears from the story about a third in and only reappears to be killed off.

Bill, the Reverend and Bess-Istra hole up in the mission house, where tension quickly comes to a head. Bill accuses Bess-Istra of not being sincere in her newfound conversion to Christianity and tells her point blank that deep inside, she still worships the terrible goddess Stuz, even though the priests of Stuz abused her and turned Bess-Istra into the warped person she has become. Bess-Istra hotly denies this and declares that she must kill Bill for his presumption, whereupon he hits her repeatedly, even though he normally does not strike woman.

This is one of my least favourite tropes in older works, where the masculine hero hits an “uppity woman” to make her more pliable and she goes along with it instead of kicking the bastard to the curb. This trope usually occurs within the framework of an “I hate you, I hate you, I love” relationship, which is of course what is happened between Bill and Bess-Istra. The “man hits woman” trope that’s extremely common in old Hollywood movies and also shows up in genre fiction, though it is not all that common in SFF, probably because golden age SFF is not particularly interested in interpersonal relationships. “I hate you, I hate you, I love you” relationships are somewhat more common. Examples include the relationship between Jirel of Joiry and Guillaume in “Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore or the relationship between Eric John Stark and Ciaran in “Black Amazon of Mars” by Leigh Brackett or the relationship between Matthew Carse and Ywain of Sark in “Sea-Kings of Mars” a.k.a. “The Sword of Rhiannon”, also by Leigh Brackett. However, in all three examples attempting to use physical violence against the woman they definitely are not in love with does not end well for the men in question. Guillaume gets magically slain and has his soul banished into hell (Jirel eventually frees him, once she realises that she loves him after all), while Eric John Stark and Matthew Carse get whipped for their trouble and Eric John Stark gets decked by Ciaran, too (they both eventually get the woman after many exciting adventures). And while I suspect that Jirel, Ciaran and Ywain would get along just fine with Bess-Istra, none of them would allow a man to hit them and get away with it. I guess the difference here is that those stories were written by female authors, while “Intruders from the Stars” was written by a man.

And so Bess-Istra does not make Bill suffer, but instead starts crying, while her features becomes softer and less cruel, after Bill hits her. Her conversion to Christianity is also a lot more sincere now. However, Bill is still not happy, because Bess-Istra does start to become a bit too affectionate towards the Reverend John Stevens.

While Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend are busy with their own interpersonal drama, Bandro hasn’t been idle either. He executes all captured war criminals and completely destroys Berlin and Tokyo. Bill is not at all happy with the former – he believes in trials and due process – but does find some justification for the latter. After all, the Japanese and the Nazis considered themselves superior to others, which apparently excuses killing civilians who may not even have agreed with their respective regimes. It’s one of those slap in the face moments I occasionally experience when reading/watching Retro Hugo finalists – the realisation that as far as some long dead author is concerned, I’m not really a human being and deserve to be killed just because of my nationality. The worst examples usually occur in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories, though I have also seen a few examples in the fiction categories. It’s not even limited to the Retro Hugos – there are alternate history novels written in this century that openly fantasize about how wonderful it would be, if the Allies had nuked Germany.

To be fair to Ross Rocklynne, Bess-Istra immediately tells Bill that there won’t be any cities destroyed and civilians murdered on her watch, because they are better than that. And indeed, it is also possible to view this scene as a commentary on the large-scale bombing of cities and other civilian targets in which the US and UK were engaged at the time. After all, our heroes have always attempted to deal with their enemies via non-lethal means and with a minimum of bloodshed throughout the novel and also only aimed their operations at military and not civilian targets. The Reverend even feels ill, when he is forced to shoot some of Bandro’s soldiers.

Bandro also has temples dedicated to the cruel Goddess Stuz built and all other religions banned. Furthermore, he orders that all power gliders be equipped with a device that allows his police forces to take control of the vehicle, making it impossible to use the power gliders against him. And since Bess-Istra had all other vehicles scrapped in an attempt to make global transport faster and more energy-efficient, Bandro’s order effectively makes any resistance against him impossible.

However, Bill, Bess-Istra and the Reverend still have a power glider that Bandro’s forces cannot control. And so they embark on a desperate mission to sneak aboard the spaceship that brought Bess-Istra and her people to Earth and take out Bandro and Sab-Hallo.

The plan works, too. The three of them evade Bandro’s patrols, sneak aboard the spaceship, while it is en route to San Francisco, make their way to the control room, where they kill Sab-Hallo. Bess-Istra then floods the rest of the ship with sleep gas to render Bandro and his forces unconscious. However, Bandro has managed to make his way into the control room just in time and holds the trio at gunpoint, planning to kill them.

However, the Reverend won’t let himself be shot quite so easily. He commands Bandro to stop and drop his weapons in the name of the Lord. Bandro is not impressed by the Reverend’s religious fervour, but caught off balance long enough that Bill can jump him. In the resulting struggle, the Reverend is shot, Bill breaks Bandro’s neck and the spaceship is about the crash into the San Francisco Bay.

Once the dust settles and Bess-Istra gets the ship back under control, only she and Bill are left standing. Bill tries to comfort the grieving Bess-Istra and says that he knows how much she loved the Reverend. Bess-Istra replies that she of course loved the Reverend – after all, he was a truly good man. However, she only loved the Reverend as a brother. In turn, Bill assures Bess-Istra that it does not matter what she did on another planet millions of years ago, for on Earth she did good. They kiss, finally admitting their feelings for each other.

Science Fiction Adventure Classics“Intruders from the Stars” is the first story by Ross Rocklynne I ever read and I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much. I fully expected to read a weak story that would end up at the bottom of my Retro Hugo ballot, either below or just barely above “No Award”. And indeed, the only reason I read it before the remaining two novella finalists is because I found “Trog” unreadable and just couldn’t face another A.E. van Vogt story after struggling through “The Winged Man”.

However, I was pleasantly surprised, because “Intruders from the Stars” is not a bad story at all. True, it’s not a timeless classic either and probably wouldn’t have made the ballot at all, if 1944 hadn’t been a weak year for novellas. However, “Intruders from the Stars” was thoroughly entertaining and genuinely clever in parts in spite of its flaws.

I particularly like that after the alien mass slaughter in the prologue, “Intruders from the Stars” consistently goes for non-lethal solutions and seeks to solve the problems thrown at the characters – including ending World War II – with a minimum of bloodshed. After the “genocide is good” message in stories like “Arena”, the fact that “Intruders from the Stars” privileges non-lethal solutions and actually condemns large-scale slaughter was a breath of fresh air. Also, what happens after World War II is ended early by superior alien technology not only partly mirrors what happened in the real world, e.g. war crimes tribunals rather than summary executions, but also tries to envision a more peaceful postwar world. Interestingly, the picture drawn up of Bess-Istra’s new world order does mirror some quasi-utopian essays about how science fiction can contribute to a better world after the war that you can find in fanzines of the period.

Another thing I enjoyed was that a character who is introduced as an unambiguous villainess in the prologue and who has bad intentions for at least half of the story nonetheless ends up doing a whole lot of good. It’s also interesting that Bess-Istra (and likely Bandro and Sab-Hallo as well) are presented not as intrinsically bad, but as the products of a bad environment. Bess-Istra is a classic example of an abuse victim who becomes an abuser. Except that she changes, once she finds herself in a better environment and meets better people.

Bess-Istra starts out as a 1940s femme fatale, a stereotype that was extremely common at the time, but eventually grows into a character of her own, though I don’t like the taming part at all. Nonetheless, Bess-Istra is one of the more interesting female characters I’ve come across in the course of the Retro Reviews project.

Bill van Astor-Smythe and the Reverend John Stevens similarly start out as stereotypes. The Reverend is a true believer and a pompous fire and brimstone preacher, while Bill is a standard dashing reporter hero – another 1940s stereotype – and speaks in irritating period slang. Like Bess-Istra, both of them eventually grow into more rounded characters and become a lot more interesting. Too bad that the love triangle between the three of them and the “I hate you, I hate you, I love you” relationship between Bill and Bess-Istra never grows beyond cliché.

Intruders from the Stars by Ross RocklynneThose who know me are probably aware that I’m not a fan of religious content in science fiction. Thankfully, golden age science fiction usually doesn’t pose much of a problem in that regard, because if religion plays a role at all, it’s more likely to be a scam like the fake religion from the early Foundation stories or the equally fake and vastly more oppressive religion from Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber. “Intruders from the Stars” in unusual, for religion not only plays an important role in the story, but even serves as an agent of character development, because it is the encounter with Reverend Stevens and his brand of Christianity that causes Bess-Istra to change. Nonetheless, the religious content in “Intruders from the Stars” does not bother me beyond some eye-rolling moments, probably because religion is also used as a shorthand for how the prevailing culture of a society influences character. After all, Rocklynne makes it clear that the cult of the goddess Stuz is the reason why Bess-Istra and presumably Bandro and Sab-Hallo are the sort of people they are. Once Bess-Istra comes into contact with a less violent culture and religion, she changes and becomes a better person.

Considering how prolific Ross Rocklynne was during the golden age and how long his career lasted (long enough that he embraced the New Wave and even had a story in Again, Dangerous Visions), surprisingly little is known about him. According to the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, “Rocklynne had one of the most interesting, if florid, imaginations of the Pulp-magazine writers of his time, and wrote very much better than most.” The first bit certainly applies to “Intruders from the Stars”. As for the second, I didn’t find “Intruders from the Stars” badly written, in spite of some clunky passages,  and dated slang (which is a common problem with older pulp fiction in general). However, I didn’t find it exceptionally well written either, compared to the likes of Clifford D. Simak or Ray Bradbury or C.L. Moore.

Rocklynne debuted in Astounding during the F. Orlin Tremaine era and published several of his early stories there, but by the 1940s, his fiction was more likely to appear in other venues like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories or Fantastic Adventures. Was Rocklynne one of those science fiction writers of the golden age who just didn’t get along with John W. Campbell? Based on “Intruders from the Stars” at any rate, Rocklynne’s fiction wasn’t particularly Campbellian (the aliens triumph, religion saves the day, genocide is bad and non-bloody solutions are preferred), but then much of what Campbell published in Astounding wasn’t particularly Campbellian either. Given the role religion plays in “Intruders from the Stars”, I also wonder whether Rocklynne was a religious man. Does anybody who has read more of his work know whether Christianity appears frequently in his work?

That said, “Intruders from the Stars” does have its share of flaws. I’ve already pointed out some of them above. And while calling Joseph Stalin of all people gallant might be excusable in 1944, when the Soviet Union and the US were allies in World War II and little was known about the system of gulags and general regime of terror in the USSR, it has not aged well at all. Calling Winston Churchill gallant has not aged well either, even though people in the US and UK are only now getting around to recognising the many problematic aspects of the man. Still, it’s a known risk of contemporary set stories – and I’m surprised how many SFF stories I’ve read for the Retro Reviews project that are either directly or indirectly about World War II – that some things will age badly.

Another flaw that the story shares with Henry Kuttner’s “A God Named Kroo” and many other stories with non-western settings from the period is that it is full of dated racial and ethnic stereotypes, which can make a modern reader cringe, even though you have to give props to Rocklynne, Kuttner and others for at least remembering that the world does not solely consist of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans and maybe the occasional Irish stereotype. Rocklynne also remembers that World War II was a truly global war and mentions Chinese and Senegalese soldiers along with various westerners.

In the end, the flaws of the story are too many to make “Intruders from the Stars” a true classic and viable Retro Hugo contender, especially considering that “The Jewel of Bas”, “Killdozer” and “A God Named Kroo” are all better. Nonetheless, this novella was a lot more entertaining and enjoyable than I expected and takes an anti-genocide stand, which is more than can be said for many other stories of the period. That said, it does feel like a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, namely the super science stories of the so-called radium era of the 1930s.

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