Outside the Universe by Edmond Hamilton (1929, 1964)
Edmond ("World Wrecker") Hamilton (1904-1977) was one of the founders of the old-fashioned, galaxy-spanning space opera. Both Hamilton and his good friend Jack Williamson helped blaze the path that led to E. E. "Doc" Smith's equally wide-ranging but somewhat more cohesive Skylark and Lensmen novels. Hamilton began publishing with "The Monster-God of Mamurth" in 1926 and continued into the 1970s. In the middle of his career much of his work was in juvenile SF with th Captain Future series of adventures which he originated in 1940 and continued through 1951. Captain Future was based on an idea by magazine editor Mort Weisinger, who then moved over to DC Comics and took Hamilton and several other writers with him. There, Hamilton worked on Superman, Batman, and others. He created many of the characters and tropes for both caped heroes, including their first team-up. (Perhaps most notably perhaps, to internet surfers anyway, Hamilton wrote the story in which the popular internet meme of Batman slapping Robin appeared.) Hamilton's SF writing in the Fifties and beyond. became more polished and more well-plotted than his earlier work. Although he still concentrated on planetary adventure and space opera, Hamilton managed to bring it to a more sophisticated audience. His versatility and talent beyond his standard tropes became evident in a number of sophisticated, emotional tales. Hamilton wrote to entertain, something he did in spades over six decades.
Although his very first stories were well-received, Hamilton began getting major recognition in the field with "Crashing Suns" (1928), the first story in his Interstellar Patrol series. Man has joined the many races of the Galaxy in an organization of Federated Suns, with the Interstellar Patrol being part of the justice divisions of the Galaxy. Here we get to have adventures limited only by Hamilton's imagination -- distant planets, strange beings, interstellar threats, the fates of entire worlds...all laid out in exciting prose to capture the reader's sense of wonder. Outside the Universe was the only novel in the series and its a darned good one. It first appeared as a four-part serial in Weird Tales magazine and was eventually published by Don Wollheim's Ace Books as a paperback in 1964 and can also be found in 2009's The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two: The Star-Stealers: The Complete Tales of the Interstellar Patrol*.
The first thing you have to do is jettison your senses of logic and science. In these pages pseudoscience rules: things are the way they are because the author says they are. In this melieu, a galaxy is considered a universe, so traveling to other universes is simply (simply, hah!) traveling to another galaxy. Also, because super-science says it's so, some ships can travel at a speed of over a million light years. Relativity ain't relative in space opera.
Our three heroes are Dur Nal, the human Captain of Patrol Squadron 598-77, and his two associates,Korus Kan and Jhul Din. "Korus Kan, of Antares, was of the metal-bodied races of that star's countless worlds, his brain and heart and nervous systems and vital organs encased in an upright body of gleaming metal whose powerful triple arms and triple legs were immune to all fatigue, and from whose ball-like upper brain-chamber or head his triangle of three keen eyes looked forth. Jhul Din, too, was as patently of Spica, of the crustacean people of that sun's planets, with his big, erect body armored in hard black shell, his two mighty upper arms and two lower legs short and thick and stiff, while from his shiny black conical head protruded his twin round eyes. Drawn as the members of our crew were, from every peopled star in the galaxy, there was yet nostranger or more dissimilar shapes among them than these two..."
Our heroes are on patrol at the galaxy's rim when thousands of strange ships from the galactic void descend and attack.
"Even as we swerved, though, there leapt from the foremost of the up-rushing craft a pale broad beam of ghostly white light that stabbed upward and past us, grazing our ship, and that struck the foremost of the ships of our squadron behind us. I saw the broad beam strike that ship squarely, saw it playing on it and through it, and for a moment could see not effect apparent. Then, as the great pale beam played across the ship in a swift slicing sweep, I saw that as it shone through that ship's pilot room the figures inside it suddenly vanished! The next moment the ship had suddenly driven crazily into space, whirling blindly away without occupant and crew, all life in it wiped out instantly from existence by that terrible death-beam that had played through it! Now the attacking ships were leaping up toward us, flashing up lightning-like with ghostly beams of death whirling and stabbing about and toward us..."
The battle is joined by the main force of the Interstellar Patrol, but the deadly invaders are proving too much for them. Dur Nal's ship is badly damaged but manages to land on top of one of the invading ships. He, his lieutenants, and his remaining men gain access to the alien ship and are amazed to discover what the invaders were.
"Serpent people! Long, slender shapes of wriggling pale flesh, each perhaps ten feet in length and a foot in diameter, without arms and legs of any kind, writhing swiftly from place to place snakelike, and coiling an end of their strange bodies about any object they wished to grip. Each end of the long, cylindrical bodies were squarely cut off, as it were, in in one such flat end of each were the only features -- a pair of bulging, many-lensed eyes like those of an insect, big and glassy and unwinking, and a small black opening below that was the only orifice for their breathing. These were the beings who had come from outer space to attack our universe! These were the beings who had annihilated the galaxy's fleet and were preparing now to seize the galaxy itself."
Hundreds of these serpent-beings attack our heroes. At the end of that bloody fight, the serpent people were dead, along with much of Dar Nal's crew. Korus Kan is able (dunno how) to pilot the utterly alien ship back to the Interstellar Patrol's home base, where eventually a bit of alien writing was able to be translated (dunno how). It told of the serpent people's home galaxy dying, with only a few remaining stars left, and how the serpent people, determined to save their race, readied mighty ships to conquer a neighboring galaxy, wipe out all life there, and settle in their place. To this end, a scouting fleet of thousands were sent to the Andromeda galaxy, but were driven back by that galaxy's natives. (Andromeda was the nearest to their home galaxy. Because their galaxy consisted of mainly dark, dead stars it was hidden and completely unknown to us.) They then turned to our galaxy.
The serpent people had ships and weapons far advanced from our galaxy's science, yet the Andromedans were even further advanced -- so much so that the serpent people did not dare attack them. Now the serpent people have settled on the planets around Canopus at our galactic rim, waiting for their main force to come to complete the conquest of our galaxy. The only hope our galaxy has is to take the stolen alien ship to Andromeda and persuade those inhabitants to come to
our aid. Our three heroes (with an expanded crew) were chosen for that mission.
Alas, as they approached Andromeda they were captured by the serpent people and taken to their dark galaxy. In case you are wondering if their galaxy was populated by races other than the serpent people, it was once. The serpent people keep the few survivors of the other races in a state of suspended animated, presumably for experiments and probably just for the fun of it. Our heroes learn the serpent people are working on a giant ray that can destroy all life on a planet in a single shot; once this ray is completed, the entire serpent galaxy will begin the conquering of our galaxy.
Of course our heroes escape and, despite many harrowing battles with fleets of serpent-people ships, make it to Andromeda. The Andromedans are peopled by gaseous people. (No, they did not live on beans, but were actual columns of gas.) Their technology has allowed them to reconfigure their galaxy into many circular rings of stars with thousands of planets orbiting inside the rings. Yep, they have ships that can move stars around. They decided to help in the fight against the snake people and (dunno why) they place Dur Nal in charge of their fleet of tens of thousands of ships.
Epic battles ensue. And ensue. And ensue.
All this may sound a bit repetitive, but the actions scenes are well-done, as are the many cliff-hangers. The thirteen-year-old boy inside of me was thrilled. If you are interested into dipping into a good, old-fashioned, sense-of-wonder space opera, you may be thrilled, too.
* Highly recommended.