[originally posted here at Castalia House]
The Starbusters by Alfred Coppel, Jr. appeared in the Summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories. It may be read here at Archive.org.
Sometimes a story can have all the right pieces, but they can fail to come together in a satisfying way. Sadly, that is the case for Alfred Coppel’s The Starbusters.
Commander “Strike” Strykalski and the Whedonesque crew of the T.R. Cleopatra will be reunited with their old Engineering Officer (and Strike’s old flame), Ivy Hendricks, to test out a new warp drive engine right as humanity is on the brink of total war with the tentacular hive-mind of Eridani who are preparing to invade the Centauri system. Naturally, they’re called on to help fight against the gathering Eridan fleet AND try to test out the warp drive engines the Cleopatra has been fitted out with, and they turn a near catastrophe into a decisive victory.
That sounds great, and it really should’ve been, but it turned out only so-so. This tale could’ve used the touch of a heavy-handed editor, but even an extra pass of line-editing would’ve helped in this case.
I had high hopes for this one, because a) I really enjoyed the other Alfred Coppel story I read, and b) there were not one, but two dames in the crew of the Cleopatra! It’s on the latter count that this story really drops the ball, because even though they’ve got a lady Radar Officer and an Engineering/Science Officer who is set up as the captain’s old flame, this story where the ship keeps getting referred to as “Lover Girl” and “Old Aphrodisiac” has NO TANGIBLE ROMANCE! Celia Graham and Ivy Hendricks end up falling into the “Lt. Whatshisface, Dr. Soandso, and Ens. Theotherguy” trap. I’m not saying that ladies should only be on spaceships if they’re gonna be romanced, but if you’re going to build up the initial premise of your story as a gang of misfit toys on a spaceship, your misfit toys need to actually be lovable misfits, and the best way to do that if you’ve only got 11 pages is to actually do something with the characters you introduce as being a big deal because they’re gonna see each other again and “ZOMG, are sparks gonna fly!?”
I know there’s a meme that ‘pulps are poorly edited and garbage’, and I definitely don’t want to feed into it – I remark upon it because this is the first piece I’ve read that seems to have really fallen apart on the editorial level. The clumsy phrasing, lack of romance, and the awkwardness of referring to the ship in three different ways was only exacerbated by the multitude of spelling and punctuation errors.
Frankly, I’d love to see this story retold from the bottom up, because the whole dropping into warp, discovering everything in the warp field is made of anti-matter resonance, and pulling some of it into realspace to throw it into a sun and destroy a star system was pretty awesome. It just needed more work than Coppel and Payne had the time or effort to put into it. If you’re up to the task, you know where to find me.