Sword of Fire, by Emmett McDowell, was the featured cover story of the Winter 1949 issue of Planet Stories. It can be read here at Archive.org.
At last we get to the exciting cover story of the Winter issue!
Dashing raygun pulp hero Jupiter Jones is on a mission for the Galactic Colonization Board to chart nearby star system with potentially habitable worlds when his ship, the Mizar, gets hit by a space warp that throws him half-way across the universe. Without fuel and supplies to get back, he’s forced to land on an earth-like alien world to seek out the necessary fissiles to get him home.
Jones finds himself on a strange planet with several divergent humanoid races, most of which are the bred-slaves of a race of evil telepathic mollusk men! Lucky for Jones, in the octopods’ temple, they have a giant tentacle monster statue made out of uranium that may be his ticket home!
The Octopods managed to take over the world because the humanoid civilization had found these small creatures that, when affixed to the neck, gave them telepathic powers. Having telepathic powers and small mollusks attached to your spinal cord became all the rage. Of course, the small mollusks were the young life-stage of horrible tentacle monsters from the sea, and everyone who had one of the buggers stuck to his or her neck was easily enslaved.
Sword of Fire fits the mold of this kind of raygun romance nicely: hero lands, hero gets captured by aliens and learns about the world from his fellow prisoners, hero escapes from aliens, hero gets back to the free people to unite them against the evil aliens, evil aliens are defeated, hero departs with a dame in tow.
That’s not to say it’s rote. One of the fun twists in this story is that there’s not one dame, but two. Lete, one of the captive “wild peoples” (as opposed to the bred peoples), is the first to meet Jones and teaches him what she can of the language and the situation on their world. She also reveals that he may fulfill the prophecy of the Wanderer with Sword of Fire: typical man from the sky with technology mistaken for heavenly powers. The other dame, Tabak, is one of the slave priestesses of the octopods—when she reads Jones’s mind, it’s an eye-opening experience, and she agrees to help Jones if he’ll liberate her world.
There’s a tease at a love triangle, but until the end, Jones is more concerned with getting back home alive after he’s done his good deed in liberating the world than hooking up. Frankly, Lete is Best Girl in the story—she’s one of those ERB inner earth savage type dames who ends up leading her peoples in the battle against the tentacle monsters. Tabak is a bit more of the wide-eyed swooning types, though she still manages to hold her own.
Funniest part is when Tabak is feeling jealous and she straight-up plays the hypergamy card:
“Jupiter,” [Tabak] said soberly, with one of her quick shifts of mood. “Are—are you very fond of Lete?”
He raised his sandy eyebrows. “What made you ask that?”
“I don’t want to see you hurt, Jupiter.” Tabak grew more and more confused under his level stare. “You don’t know the Kagans. They—they’re promiscuous like animals. Lete would never understand your morals. She couldn’t—“
Jupiter slapped his leg, burst into laughter.
“Good heavens, I’m not in love with her. Why, I’ll be leaving Yogol as soon as I can get enough fuel. I couldn’t take her with me anyway.”
“Oh,” said Tabak.
Like the other novella in this issue, Sword of Fire is perfect fodder for crafting a tabletop adventure. You’ve got your basic set-up, a few set-pieces, key-locations, content to populate a small hex-crawl map, objectives, and even some NPC hirelings to stat up [Jones’ guard when he’s captured eventually makes a heel-face turn and joins the fight against the octopods]. It would be great to run for your B/X game, Star Frontiers, or Traveller.
I think this is it, guys! My last review for Castalia House! Don’t worry, we’ve still got one more Retro Fandom Friday to go before we deliver our farewell to our readers here. Maybe even do a spotlight on pulp ads [Planet Stories: A Magazine for Lonely People Breeding Hamsters]. Please be sure to check out the Cirsova Summer Special, and the Illustrated Enchantress of Venus that are coming out soon!