Review of The Ultimate Weapon (1936)
John W. Campbell (writer).
Read in 2022.
Humans are forced to innovate to defend the solar system against a sudden invasion of aliens who able to travel faster than light, yet observe the laws of war.
True to form, Campbell spends more time than most writers discussing semi-plausible advances in science and engineering. Here, they include atomic bombs and a variety of ray- and subatomic-particle guns, as well as more general fictional advances that are immediately put to military use. There is a lovely dieselpunk feel to those sequences: “Confine your paraffin between tungsten walls, and you’ll stop the secondary protons as well as the neutrons.”
The characters and cultural aspects of the setting are proportionately weak. The battle scenes are not exciting, but the author does make an effort to imagine space combat as something distinct from the naval and aerial combat of the 1930s. The results are frequently eery; it’s difficult to determine what impact a weapon really had. In the end, the humans win through another scientific advance and make friends with the aliens, but even so, war is less of a masturbatory thrill than in Under meteorernas trumeld (1932), and more like real the industrial-pessimist modernity of WW1.