Hunt the Space-Witch!

Robert Silverberg
Hunt the Space-Witch! Cover

Silverberg Rocks the Retro SF

Carl V.

I first became aware of this collection of pulp-era short stories by author Robert Silverberg while perusing the internet last fall. The moment I saw Kieran Yanner’s dynamic retro cover I knew this book would have to be mine. I was reminded of the book when posting about my favorite SFF covers from books published in 2011 and promptly ordered a copy. Over the last two days I have immersed myself in the world of pulp-era science fiction and in so doing have discovered the talent that later propelled author Robert Silverberg to Grand Master status.

Pulp-era stories are all too often written off as something of inferior quality and in many ways in a best case scenario the term “pulp” has come to be synonymous with nothing more than guilty pleasure reading. I suspect that there is a great deal of merit in that. Common sense would dictate that in the heyday of pulp magazines publishers were cranking out magazines as fast as they could and authors were expected to follow a formula, write quickly, and be as prolific as possible if they wanted to make a living and keep their work in the public eye. And to be certain there is probably much in the days of pulp science fiction that wasn’t worth reading then and does not merit attention now. By the same token, there are common themes, archetypes, and story structures in pulp adventure stories that resonate with today’s audience. In my childhood it was creators like George Lucas who reached back into the pulp era for inspiration when crafting what would become the pop cultural phenomenon Star Wars. And though some may be loathe to admit it, there is a universality to these tales that are the ancestors of popular stories today.

The stories are often sensational, featuring rugged heroes prone to decisive action, conflict between defined “good guys” and “bad guys”, action over characterization or science, romantic melodrama over reason. These are space yarns, at times little different than their mystery or western counterparts. The setting may be on another planet or on Earth in the far-flung future but the stories themselves are as recognizable to fans of fiction in general as they are to fans of the genre of science fiction.

Planet Stories Books has reprinted 7 of Robert Silverberg’s stories originally published in the short-lived digest Science Fiction Adventures, edited by John Carnell. In the introduction Silverberg sets the stage for what I believe is the proper attitude with which to approach these stories–he relates the story of his first encounter with Planet Stories Magazine and how he found it to be a “treasurehouse of wonders”. He then went on to collect and devour all of the back issues of the magazine. Silverberg relates the circumstances around the creation of these seven stories and where they were originally published and at no time in his introduction does he approach this work with a self-deprecating or apologetic tone. Silverberg remembers the “heady rapture” of the pulp stories of his youth and recalls how both he and Carnell approached Science Fiction Adventures as a way to honor the love they had for Planet Stories.

Please allow me a moment to give a brief synopsis of each novella with my non-spoiler thoughts included.

Slaves of the Star Giants

Lloyd Harkins awakens in a place where quiet, melancholy giants lumber with unknown purpose and 15 foot tall robots crash pell-mell through the woods. Placed unceremoniously in a tribe of barbarians, Harkins soon finds himself at odds with the tribes’ leader and banished back to the savage forest. As events unfold, Harkins begins to suspect that he is merely a pawn in a game much larger than himself and the anger that ignites will lead him to either victory, or to death.

The future-Earth described by Silverberg called to mind other stories that I’ve read, like Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth and Larry Niven’s A World Out of Time. Technology is akin to black magic to the people who no longer know how to use it or what purpose it had. Some of the nostalgic charm that these older stories often possess was present in this first story mostly in the form of an enormous computer that required tape to be fed into the machine in order to make it function.

Spawn of the Deadly Sea

Earth lies entirely underwater, the result of a long-ago invasion by a mysterious alien race. Humanity exists in two-spheres: the floating cities that are the refuge of the progeny of those that survived the invasion and the vast oceans which are home to the Seaborn, hybrid man-made creatures that were mankind’s last hope to defeat the alien invaders. But alas they were too little, too late. In this far future the world is divided into nine sections of the sea, each ruled over by the Sea-lords, brigands who enact tribute to protect the shipments of goods from one floating city to another. Young Dovirr is tired of city life and longs for the glory he imagines is part of the life of a Thalassarch, ruler of the Sea-lords. With the bravado of untried youth Dovirr gambles and wins a spot on the Garyun, determined to make his dreams of naval conquest a reality. He soon discovers there is more to the sea than the occasional battle with would-be pirates and humanity’s pent up anger over the past alien invasion is just about to find a release.

This story is very much a rousing swash-buckling pirate adventure, yet within those confines it nevertheless touches on some very interesting concepts, like prejudice and mindless obedience. The concept of entire Earth cities being covered and remaining covered with water stirred my imagination and I couldn’t stop the flow of cinematic images of what it would look like to dive these remains.

The Flame and the Hammer

The Emperor of the Galactic Empire is growing old and feeble and grumbles of rebellion from a few wayward planets are beginning to reach his ear. Ras Duyair lives on one of these planets, Aldrynne, the capital planet of a seven planet system. His father, High Priest of the Temple of the Suns has often spoken of the mythological Hammer of Aldrynne, a weapon prophesied to bring down the fall of the Empire. When his father is killed under Imperial interrogation as to the whereabouts of this weapon it soon becomes apparent that the knowledge of what this weapon was or where it can be found has died with him. Ras Duyair flees to a neighboring planet to escape those who believe his father has passed this information down to him and he soon becomes embroiled in a rebellion against the Galactic Empire.

With shades of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, particularly in the use of an ancient Rome inspired system of government, Silverberg has crafted his version of the tale of a young hero born into obscurity who will rise up to take on an Empire.

Valley Beyond Time

Sam Thornhill lives alone in a peaceful valley, a place of utter tranquility. Or at least he thought he was alone until the arrival of a beautiful woman and a squat man shatter his peace. Soon there are nine people in the valley, six humans and three aliens. As the bliss of Thornhill’s illusions begin to fade he discovers that this majestic valley may not be all that it seems and forces beyond his imagination might never allow any of them to leave.

This is the kind of story you would expect to have been later adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone. And in some manner it has, for this is a story that has been told many times and in many ways in short story format and also in television shows like the aforementioned Twilight Zone and the various iterations of Star Trek. Despite its familiarity, the themes of freedom and control are as compelling as ever and Silverberg builds the suspense in a satisfyingly deliberate manner.

Hunt the Space-Witch!

When the starship on which Barsac serves lands on the planet Glaurus, he begs leave of his captain to set out to track down an old friend of his to fill a vacant position on the ship. In the years of his absence, Glaurus has become considerably more dangerous and Barsac soon discovers that his friend has gone missing, a possible recruit of the enigmatic Cult of the Space-Witch. As people begin to die around him Barsac becomes more determined to rescue his friend at any cost, even if the cost is his own life.

What sounds as if it would be an incredibly hokey bad-religious-cult story demonstrates that not all pulp stories are created equal and that “space adventures” can sometimes be as dark and sinister and deadly as the cold reaches of space itself.

The Silent Invaders

Major Abner Harris of the Interstellar Development Corps is on his way to Earth for a long overdue vacation. Except that it really isn’t overdue nor is it a vacation. For Major Harris is not really Major Harris, nor is he the Terran male that he appears to be. Harris is really a member of the race of the planet Darruui, a reluctant recruit chosen to infiltrate Earth for reasons that will be revealed as the story unfolds. Harris soon finds he is not alone in his deception and that members of Darruui’s sworn enemy, the Medlin, are also on Earth in the guise of native-born Terrans. In a story worthy of the espionage/counter-espionage of noir detective stories, The Silent Invaders foretells the next stage of the evolution of humanity and examines the lengths people, and aliens, will go to in order to make sure that their self-interests are protected.

This is an interesting addition to the collection because it bucks the tradition of the rest of the stories printed here, and presumably the majority of pulp sf stories, in that it introduces a strong and capable female character into the mix and allows her to be just that. In the introduction Silverberg mentions that he has expanded this story into a novel and I can safely say it is one novel I will be keeping an eye out for.


Barr Herndon has a grudge, the kind of deep-seated grudge born out of seeing his family murdered and their lands destroyed at the whim of a self-indulgent ruler. Now he is back and it soon becomes apparent that he is looking for revenge and he will stop at nothing, including an almost fanatical devotion to his own gray moral code, to get it.

This is a story of nobles and serfs, a feudal society in a far distant galaxy. More than any other tale in this collection, Spacerogue shocked me. Right from the beginning something happens that I did not see coming and the surprises continue as Herndon gets closer to his desired vengeance.

Hunt the Space-Witch! not high literature. Deep characterization and exhaustive examination of ideas were not the order of the day. These seven novellas were written with magazine space considerations in mind and were written to capture the imagination and to hopefully infuse a sense of wonder in the reader. They were meant to thrill and to excite. Today they are works of pure nostalgia but at the same time they demonstrate that even at an early age Silverberg was talented and imaginative. The stories may follow a predictable pattern but do not always have predictable endings and I was pleasantly surprised with how often I was shocked with a particular story element or direction a story was taking. Characters made decisions I did not anticipate and there was a degree of ambiguity about some of the protagonists that made it hard to like them even when you were on their side. At the same time there is a comfort that comes with the certain knowledge that the short stories in a collection will all have a definite beginning, middle and end and will not be reliant on something esoteric or ambiguous to lend them credibility or to elicit praise.

It is akin to damning with faint praise to say that a story, or in this case a collection of novellas, is “fun”. However, it is not my intention to denigrate Silverberg’s pulp science fiction tales when I say that they are just that–pure, unadulterated FUN. I picked this collection up late yesterday evening and found myself reading well into the night. I awoke early this morning and immediately started where I left off, finishing it later this afternoon while sitting out on my back porch in warm, un-January-like weather. My disappointment when there were no more stories left to read is a compliment to how much I was entertained by Silverberg’s wonder-filled nostalgic science fiction.

Before I leave off I have to give praise to Planet Stories for their book design. I have already mentioned my affection for the cover art, but what makes the book’s presentation special is the nod to the pulp magazines that inspired Silverberg to write these stories in the first place. From the magazine-style Table of Contents to the ad-filled back pages featuring full-page book art and a retro-style subscription page, this book is an homage to a time when science fiction publishing was so very different than what it is today. I should point out that on the publishing data page it erroneously reports that these stories were previously published separately in Planet Stories magazine. This does not concur with Silverberg’s introduction in which he talks about the untimely (for him) demise of Planet Stories magazine saying, “I never did get a chance to have some grand and gaudy space adventure published in that grand and gaudy magazine”. As mentioned above these stories were published in Science Fiction Adventures magazine. A minor quibble about an otherwise snappy trade paperback.

And so I leave you with this. Silverberg’s stories are indeed “grand and gaudy”, filled with tropes and trappings that by this era are well worn and sometimes eyed with scorn. But Robert Silverberg is a skilled writer and evidence of that skill is present in these early stories. Where others wrote unrestrained and sometimes incredibly wacky over-the-top pulp, Silverberg concentrated on telling a good story with evidence that he was putting his heart into being a success. Hunt the Space-Witch!is a fun-filled collection of space adventures that open a window to a fascinating period of science fiction history.