In the 1940s, largely because of the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. at _Astounding_, American science fiction grew up. It became more mature, more sophisticated, less pulpish. Standards for story acceptance were tougher than before.
But what of the old guard of pulp writers from the twenties and thirties? Many (like Otis Adelbert Kline and Ralph Milne Farley) stopped writing. Others (like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, Stanton Coblentz, E.E. Smith, and David H. Keller) continued to write. But their stories of the forties and beyond were pretty much the same fare as what they wrote in the thirties.
A few (like Jack Williamson, Murray Leinster, Edmond Hamilton, Clifford D. Simak, and Raymond Z. Gallun) were talented and flexible enough to change with the times. Gallun is still best remembered for his work from the thirties. But the other four writers are best remembered for their later, more mature works.
Jack Williamson's _The Cometeers_ was written for Harry Bates, not John Campbell. It does not come from the days of the mature Williamson who wrote _The Humanoids_ or _Darker Than You Think_. It comes from the days when he was still experimenting with scientific adventures, weird horror tales, and space operas. It was serialized in _Astounding_ in 1936 and was first published in hardback in 1950. It is a sequel to his 1934 serial, _The Legion of Space_. The action takes place about twenty years later. Bob Star, son of John and Aladoree Star takes center stage. Returning are Legionaires Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu, and that loveable rascal, Giles Habibula-- always searching for food and drink:
"A platter of ham and steak and eggs, with hot brown bread, and a pot of coffee to wash them down. And then perhaps an apple pie. You got up too mortal early, dragging a poor old soldier out of his bed without a blessed bite to eat. Let's go back to breakfast!" (187)
As before, Giles is still moaning and complaining every step of the way:
"Ah, me!... If that last lock was difficult, this one is impossible. The masters of the comet couldn't open it themselves, with all their precious science, if ever they lost the combination. What a lock! You could try possible combinations at random till the universe runs down, and the odds are a million to one the door would still be closed." (314)
But it seems to me that there is a difference. In _The Legion of Space_, Giles makes complaints that are often whining and self-serving. Here, he tends to complain more about the latest cliff-hanging predicament our heroes are dealing with. It is consistent with his character, but it also forces the reader to ask: "How _will_ they get out of that scrape?" We feel sure that they will. But it isn't easy to guess how.
For villains, we have an alliance between a traitorous Earthman and gaseous alien slaveholders. The latter are residents of a giant green comet with a tail twelve million miles long. Wow! The former is a fellow named Stephen Orco, who cold-bloodedly tortured Bob Star in the Legion Academy. Bob is convinced that he could never stand up to Orco in a showdown.
Williamson's style is still a bit pulpish, still loaded with visual imagery of sharp shapes and solid colors. But it also seems to be a bit smoother than in _The Legion of Space_. There is more action, less description. And the dialogue is more natural and less stilted.
E.M. Forster (1927) notes that a story is necessary but not sufficient to make a great novel. That is, a great novel must be more than a good story. But it must _at least_ tell a good story. _The Cometeers_ is not a great novel. But it is a good story. It maintains suspense. It keeps the reader guessing: What will happen next? It invites the reader to keep turning the pages. It is a skill that goes back to prehistoric times. A story teller who did not maintain suspense was doubtless killed. In later writing, Williamson learned to do more. But here, perhaps, he did enough.
_Reference_: Forster, E.M. "The Story". In _Aspects of the Novel_. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1927, 25-42.