Short Story Review: Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” (1952)

This is the second post in a loose series on SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.

Thank you “Friend of the Site” Jennifer Jodell for alerting me to the existence of this gem, our discussion, and for providing a summary  of  Damon Knight’s 1962 introduction.

Previously: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “Death of a Spaceman” (variant title: “Memento Homo”) in Amazing Stories, ed. Howard Browne (March 1954). You can read the story online here.

Up Next: William Tenn’s “Down Among the Dead Men” in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (June 1954). You can read it online here.

Walter Popp’s cover for the December 1952 issue

5/5 (Masterpiece)

In the December 1952 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Samuel Hines (the editor) presents “What’s It Like Out There?” as the culmination of Edmond Hamilton’s Phoenix-like evolution from a “primitive period” of writing extravagant pulps to “grown up” tales of “human emotion” (see full statement below).

Contrary to Hines’ narrative of authorial evolution, Damon Knight recounts in his introduction to A Century of Science Fiction (1962) that Hamilton wrote the story in 1933 but couldn’t find a publisher as it was “too gruesome, too horrible.” Found later by Leigh Brackett in a file, Hamilton rewrote the tale–and I’m glad he did!

Edmond Hamilton argues that returning spacemen will experience similar trauma to that of war veterans. And just like we glamorize war in media, the dangers of space travel (both physical and mental) are sanitized by gaudy pulp adventures. The story succeeds as a complex analysis of the tales we tell each other to obfuscate traumatic experiences and give comfort to those suffering loss.

Brief Plot Summary

The Second Mars mission, twenty rickety and cramped rockets, sets off to acquire cheap uranium. Suffering the internal organ-crushing terrors of takeoff, a rocket-splitting landing, Martian disease, isolation, and an abortive mutiny,  Sergeant Frank Haddon returns a different man. Like a veteran from a foreign war, Haddon must confront not only his own experiences but also the grieving relatives of his dead companions, who see him as the last connection to their loved ones.

This mission is told via flashbacks as Haddon travels from family to mourning family.  He tells the relatives of Joe Valinez that their son died without pain while “looking out the window at the stars” (12). In reality, due to Joe’s injuries he lay writhing in his hammock for hours and hours. At a dinner with two families, Haddon invents a cosmic accident that resulted in the death of their sons. Rather, the isolation and fear created a mutiny where their sons likely shot each other in the dry red dust. He confesses later to Breck’s father that “it was just a story” (27). In each instance, the fabrication acts as a salve—the narrative people need to soldier on.

Haddon, struggling with the cognitive dissonance created by what he remembers and what he must vocalize, returns to his small Ohio hometown—and he realizes that his lived experience will only upset those who do not have the same memories. And he is compelled to perpetuate the same narrative that the First Mars expedition told the Second.

Final Thoughts/Analysis

“Welcome home, Frank! What was it like out on Mars?” I said, “It was cold, Mr. Robinson. Awful cold.” “You should have been here last February!” he said. “Eighteen below—nearly a record” (28).

“What’s It Like Out There?” contains a brilliant structure that explores the cognitive dissonance I mentioned above. The question in the story’s title is asked repeatedly by Haddon’s adoring Earth-bound fans. Haddon answers in the same way, a small neutral comment that hints at his truly horrifying experience. The listener, unable to grasp the alienness of Mars, attempts to answer with an Earth-bound parallel that dodges understanding.

There is no wonder in “What’s It Like Out There?” While those on Earth project a heroic colonization of the unknown, Haddon strips all romanticism from his experience. I found the most fascinating moment of the story involved Haddon’s interactions with Jim’s fiancé, who preserves all of Jim’s pulp science fiction magazines. Haddon realizes that some of his companions might have held their experience on Mars in a more romantic light.

“What’s It Like Out There?” is not a screed against SF pulp. “What’s It Like Out There?” lays bare the operations of pulp narratives.

Highly recommended.

Samuel Mines’ comments on Edmond Hamilton’s evolution in the December 1952 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories

Alex Schomburg’s cover for the 1st edition of The Best From Startling Stories, ed. Samuel Mines (1953)

H. R. Van Dongen’s cover for the 1977 edition of The Best of Edmond Hamilton, ed. Leigh Brackett (1971)

Don Maitz’s cover for the 1st edition of The Best of Edmond Hamilton, ed. Leigh Brackett (19771)

Uncredited cover for the 1st edition of What’s It Like Out There? and Other stories (1974)

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

57 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” (1952)

  1. It’s so interesting to me that only a very few people in the gung-ho era stopped to consider the physical and psychic costs to the men (all men then) who would go into this unknown and unimaginable Otherwhere. “Scanners Live in Vain” and a few others. This one. Most just love them the adventure…and luckily the reality wasn’t as bad as the worst imaginings.

      • I liked how the only person Sgt Haddon had no problem with was the town drunk, who was barely aware that he’d even been gone and didn’t care at all. As you say, this was a story of AEF veterans returning to an America that didn’t know and didn’t want to know.

    • Does Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” fit the general parameters of this series? I have struggled with his work in the past — and I’m hoping to explore a bit more (and of course, I’d be even more willing to do so if it would fit this series).

      • I would say so. It’s about the habermans, convicts and miscreants who, to work off their debt to society, agree to work in outer space. The catch: The Agony. The solution: Habermans, living men who are killed before they go into the agonizing radiationsphere of Earth orbit.

        Then comes a twist….

          • It is my favorite of his stories. NORSTRILIA got a bit too triumphalist for my comfort. Northern Australians sounded more and more like the awful stereotype Texans I left to escape.

            • I think his strength in fiction was at shorter lengths. I read PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE when I found out he was the same guy, and was aware that it was more like concept-explanation-illustrative vignette than a standard psych text. Sprinter, not marathoner.

            • I love Norstrila! For me, as a long time resident of Old Australia, Smith nails Aussie stereotypes circa the 1940s and 50s. It’s also a good novel.

            • It’s that nailing that presents me with a problem: had he nailed them to the door with scorn, I would’ve been far less revolted. As it was, he held the stereotypes up for admiration and that is one emotion I don’t feel for them.

            • I can’t remember Smith being laudatory of aussie-isms, and like you i’m not that interested in such. I do recall the idea of the longevity drug growing “on the sheep’s back” and thought that was a trope deployed at the expense of Australians. But maybe i’m wrong. Tbh it’s been 20 years since i read it so the memory is a tad dim.

            • Twenty years ago is about when I started getting into the review groove because so many details started getting lost. Now I can read my own reviews and wonder if this guy even read the book…and discover it was me.
              I miss my mind….

      • “Scanners Live in Vain” is very different from the other Smith stories. It was a breakthrough in writing style. I thought it and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber the two groundbreaking stories of 1950 that signaled a change in how people wrote SF for the 1950s.

        • James: It surprised me as well. He was an author I’ve avoided so far in my SF reading adventure as I assumed most was in the Captain Future vein. I find it humorous that Hines, in the editorial comment I mentioned above, suggests that SF had “grown up.” The rest of the magazine, other than Hamilton’s story, comes off as rather juvenile… hah.

          Anthony: Sounds like I should track “Alien Earth” down. I’ll check out your review. I do not know any good secondary lit. on Hamilton — although I’ll ask around.

          • Another Hamilton story you might want to track down, since it’s at least parallel to the theme you are pursuing, is “A Conquest of Two Worlds,” published in 1932, which could be described in today’s jargon as “interrogating the conquest of space from an anti-imperialist perspective” or something along those lines. The writing is pretty old-fashioned, which actually makes the story more effective. It’s in THE BEST OF EDMOND HAMILTON.

            • It’s a shame that apart from the critique of colonialism and imperialism in A Conquest of Two Worlds the story is pulpy in a not very good way.
              Still, I’d love to hear from someone whose made a more exhaustive study of Hamilton’s oeuvre—Captain Future and all!

            • Imagine cutting from “What’s It Like Out There?” all the earth scenes (I’m guessing that’s how the original story was — the depressing voyage and Mars experiences of the tale). I’d wager that it would transform into a pretty pulpish vision. I don’t think we can deny that the entire act of rewriting WILOT in the 50s (vs. publishing in the 30s) elevated the story as well!

  2. Literary criticism has been arrogant with SF even in newer times. Is this editorial note an early try to climb out of the pulp pit and get approval of a kind?
    I‘ve never read a Hamilton story and this sounds interesting!

  3. The down beat quality of this piece must have been quite confronting to pulp editors in the 1930s. Perhaps influenced by the mood of post WW1 and the Depression?
    I’ve found a few Hamilton gems over the years. This one, ‘Alien Earth’ and ‘Requiem’. Maybe its time to make a more concerted search through his back catalogue?

    • Highly speculative, the tie to WWI, but I wondered the same when I reviewed Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire. It’s hero also finds it impossible to tell folks on the home front about the horrors of trench warfare. Instead, he finds himself offering patriotic platitudes. It was translated into English in 1917, so it is possible Hamilton read it before writing this story, but, as I said, that’s speculation.

      • Speculative—sure. I was not only thinking of the literature available to Hamilton but also the then recent memory of the war—even to those not directly involved. It was in the air so to speak.

        • I wonder how much was added/rewritten in the 50s when Leigh Bracket found the earlier version in his files. I’m with Anthony here — even if Hamilton’s isn’t overtly referencing a specific war, it was in the “air” either deliberately on his part or not. And, perhaps his 50s rewrite was inspired by the general feel of even more recent conflicts (Korea was underway and of course WWII had just ended).

          • “WILOT?” is a total re-write. The original story was titled “Colonists of Mars” and ran 19,000 words. “WILOT?” is an economical 9,000 words. The original story is equally bleak, but rough in style and blunt in approach. Imagine a fleet of rockets on simultaneous launch with hundreds of crewmen in each rocket vomiting in unison. Not exactly the rosy future editors like Harry Bates and Gernsback sought. David Lasser almost bought it for WONDER STORIES, but it obviously didn’t happen.

  4. This is the first SF of Edmond Hamilton’s I’ve read. I suppose it was quite a good piece on what might be called a very unromantic polemic on space travel, even though it isn’t a particular favourite.

    • What didn’t you like about it? I think to understand this particular story, you need to keep in mind how radical/brave it was equating war trauma with space travel — especially as a kernel of the story was written two decades before it was published.

      • I wasn’t that keen on it, but nor did I dislike it. It has realistic depth of human character and location, but it also seemed bland. I compare it to Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, which understandably you’ll think is a more quixotic SF piece about space travel and colonizing of planets than anything Hamilton wrote, but I prefer it for it’s richer prose and composition.

        I suppose it does have something to something to be said for it though in “equating” war trauma with space travel, but in this case then the bleakness of space travel is also political I think. The astronauts could be victims of unthinking bureaucracy.

        • I mean, Hamilton is famous for his quixotic/trashy pulp adventures on alien planets — that’s what’s shocking about this particular story, it’s radically different than his standard gaudy “world-wrecker” fare.

          • Well, although Bradbury is more critically aclaimed, I think he is a better author than Hamilton, despite the harshness of this one’s themes. Bradbury however, in “The Martian Chroncles”, does consider the plight of Earth and the dissonance of the Martian colonists, as well as the tragedy of the Martians. so isn’t entirely distant from more worldly concerns.

  5. Expendable Mudge argued above that Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ fits within the purview of stories “critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.”

    And it does, technically.

    That aside, on the one hand, the ‘astronaut culture’ depicted in ‘Scanners’ fits into Smith’s usual exotic far future setting several thousand years hence, so connections to ‘spaceman culture’ as the 20th or 21st centuries would understand that are remote. On the other hand, that far future setting does let Smith depict that spaceman culture as a fully-elaborated cyborg-priest caste, as anthropologically distinct as the powerful eunuch civil service class of classical China.

    So Smith’s story is an interesting outlier, and it’s unclear whether it fits into your aim here, JB.

    Still, some years back I wondered why there was this immense assurance in the 1960s and 1970s that O’Neill colonies in L5 orbit and colonies on Mars etc., were inevitable (rather than the result J.G. Ballard was almost alone in correctly predicting). After all, the science even then showed how unrealistic such assumptions were: space is hard.

    And yet even writers who knew that, like Clarke and Benford, overlooked Why?

    The primary real-world explanation, of course, is the fact of NASA’s space program in the 1960s, which culminated with the Apollo program’s landing men on the Moon. That made everyone ludicrously optimistic. Today the Moon, tomorrow the Solar System, right?

    Wrong. Space is hard. And the primary hard fact in terms of organic creatures’ survivability out there is cosmic radiation, and especially solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and such. That’s why, for instance, for the last thirty years NASA has been running a (somewhat far-fetched) nanotech R&D program aimed at putting into any Mars project astronauts’ bodies nano-devices to zap the cancers that’ll almost inevitably accrue during a Mars mission.

    The reason 1960s-era SF could forget the reality of cosmic radiation was that the Apollo program was a special case: the Moon is within the Earth’s magnetosphere and the Apollo astronauts were mostly protected from cosmic radiation by that fact. And this, I realized, had in large measure enabled the ludicrous 1960s and 1970s-era optimism about the space program.

    So then I wondered whether there were SF stories before the 1960s and Apollo distorted SF writers’ thinking that did deal with the problem of cosmic radiation. I came up with two. One was Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Scanners Live In Vain.’

    The was Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’ in 1959.

    Sturgeon’s story not only got the radiation problem right. In 1959 it was also scientifically correct about the necessity for a staged nuclear rocket to go to Mars.

    Since ‘The Man Who Lost the Sea’ is one of the great SF masterpiece short stories, I assumed you’d reviewed it already. But I did a search and as far as I can see you haven’t (though you may have read it.)

    Arguably, Sturgeon’s story is the most prominent example in SF history of a story ‘critical of the assumptions of the space program.’ You might want to look at it here at some point.

    • Mark: the optimism of Clarke et al predates the space program—and in his case even helped to provide some of its ideas. But I am intrigued by the idea that the space race both fuelled this and ultimately undermined it. For me Apollo is the ultimate utopian gesture of post war state capitalism. Tho utopian in the worse sense. No doubt space is hard, but surely the difficulty speaks more to the limits of the free market and state capitalism (both Western and Eastern variants) then it does to the potential for ongoing space exploration?

    • Hello Mark, the far future can also be a way to explore issues of the author’s present. I am curious to read the Smith story considering my how I’ve disliked his stories in the past. I haven’t made up my mind about his work yet.

      I have not read Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea” — yet. I’ll see if I have a copy.

      EDIT: I recently purchased a copy of Alpha 8 — so I’ll read it when it arrives.

    • Mark, I read “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” It is, undoubtedly, a brilliant story. There are so many things I loved about it. I will have a review hopefully up this weekend.

      That said, I don’t see how it’s “critical of the assumptions of the space program.” His death is triumphant one. I’ll have a bit of my review comparing it to Katherine MacLean’s “Echo” (1970) in Infinity One which I just reviewed. That too has has a spaceman dying — in her case, he dies without conquering his traumatized mind (i.e. regaining sanity and placing one’s life in a history of scientific triumph like Sturgeon’s hero) after the horrific accident (with something truly alien) that has transpired. The death in MacLean’s story is void of triumph. She focuses more on its emptiness/accidentality than presenting it as heroism embodied. Likewise, in Miller, Jr.’s “Death of An Astronaut” his spacer dies questioning his life and refusing to acknowledge how his choices have impacted his descendants (and then realizing that either his memories are all he has and/or the fantasy is the most reassuring in his final hours). I don’t think that the nature of death in Sturgeon’s story is in itself complex or critical. I read it as a death with objective, positivist, purpose. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my review when I post it. No worries. I loved reading it. So much that I found an audio recording online and “read” it again (via Escape Pod). It’s a 5/5.

  6. By the way, there is a reprint of The Best of Edmond Hamilton at Amazon of what appears to be the Ballantine/Doubleday edition. Just $6.99 for the ebook, and it has the Leigh Brackett intro that the original book had, as well as the same line up of stories, but neither of the original covers.

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