All posts by GalacticJourney

Dreaming of a White Christmas (12-24-1958)

Are you dreaming of a White Christmas?  I know I am.  San Diego has beige Christmases at best.  If we want snow, we have to head for the mountains or manufacture the stuff. 

That said, a growing consensus of scientists is concerned that White Christmases may become a rarity for everyone, not just the privileged few living in Southern California.

It’s a big world we live in.  It’s so big that we still don’t have a picture of the whole thing.  At some point, someone will send up a satellite that will snap a family photo of our planet, but for now, we barely can resolve the curvature of the globe with high-flying sounding rockets.  It is difficult to imagine something as tiny as a single species having a profound effect upon an entire planet.

And yet, that is exactly what may be happening.  Every year, humanity puts out six billion tons of carbon dioxide.  It’s a relatively harmless gas as industrial byproducts go.  It certainly isn’t Strontium 90 or even coal dust.  But its effects are far-reaching. Carbon dioxide is transparent to light but opaque to heat, which means it lets in the suns rays, but doesn’t let heat from the Earth escape.  This is called the “Greenhouse Effect.”  To some extent, we rely on this effect; without it, the Earth would be much chillier. 

However, the amount of carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere is enough to measurably increase the Greenhouse Effect, thus increasing the global temperature.  It has been predicted (and most-recently related in Asimov’s science fact article in the January 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction) that in 350 years, the average global temperature will rise some 3.8 degrees Celsius, or a little more than half a degree per semi-century.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, does it?  But it would be enough to melt the polar ice caps, flood our coastal towns, generate more inclement weather, and change the inhabitability of the Earth dramatically.  Good-bye, glaciers.  Hello, new deserts.

There even appears to be corroborating data: though the measurements were not as comprehensive in 1900 as they are today, it does appear that the global temperature has risen half a degree since then.  I suppose the real test will be to see if the global temperature continues to rise.  We shall have to wait and see if it is half a degree hotter in, say, 2013. 

It is likely, however, that there is no cause for alarm.  After all, long before then, we should have nuclear fission and fusion reactors powering the world, and fossil fuels will be a thing of the past. 

One dares hope.

Merry Christmas Eve. 

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America SCORES! (12-22-1958)

Unless the Soviets can pull a rabbit out of their hat, it looks like the United States will come out the winner in the Space Race for 1958.

It was only a matter of time before we finally used our Atlas rocket, the nation’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), to launch a satellite.  With the Atlas, we can finally throw up payloads of similar weights to those launched by the Soviets with their ICBM.

The first Atlas mission, Project SCORE, was launched on December 18, 1958.  It is the heaviest payload ever to be launched by the United States into orbit—a whopping 8000 pounds’ worth!  That compares favorably to the 9000 pound payload launched by the Soviet Union in May (Sputnik III).  Of course, those figures are a little less impressive when one realizes that the vast bulk of that weight actually comprises the last stage of the rocket.  Moreover, Sputnik III carried over a ton of instrumentation.  SCORE carries a bare 150 pounds of payload.

What SCORE does, however, is unprecedented.  Quite simply, it is the world’s first communication’s satellite.

Currently, if one wishes to send a message across the country or the world, one must either use archaic transoceanic cables or, more frequently, send the signal via some sort of radio.  The former method puts strong limits on destination (messages can only go where the cables are strung), and the latter is only as reliable as the atmosphere will allow.  Reception at remote locations is virtually impossible.  But with a satellite, one truly has the high ground.  Messages can be beamed anywhere along the satellite’s line of sight, which is essentially limitless. 

Developed jointly by the Air Force and veteran communications company, RCA, SCORE has the ability both to broadcast messages as they are beamed to it from ground stations and to store received messages and transmit them later.  Seeing how it was an Air Force mission, there were probably plenty of classified messages sent and re-transmitted, but the one everybody got to know about was this one, recorded by President Eisenhower the day after launch:

“This is the President of the United States speaking.  Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space.  My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and to all mankind, America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.”

Once again, science fiction has become fact.  Arthur C. Clarke predicted communications satellites in the ’40s, and here we are at the dawn of a new era. 

If that era comes.  It must be cynically pointed out that this launch had a second purpose—to show the Soviets that we, too, have the ability to send a nuclear bomb 6,000 miles across the globe.  While this represents a technological achievement and another example of science fiction become fact, I somehow can’t be as excited about this development.  It is yet another reminder that, thus far, the exploration of space has been primarily a military endeavor, and our plowshares are barely modified swords.

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If we’re not alone, will we be lonely?  (12-20-1958)

Are we alone in the universe?  That’s a question that has been asked with greater frequency and intensity recently, corresponding with Humanity’s first faltering steps into outer space.  Are we about to enter an interstellar community?

If you ask me, the answer is “no.” The time scales involved are just too immense.  Allow me to explain.  Let’s be optimistic and assume that most stars have solar systems like ours around them.  Let’s be more optimistic (starry-eyed?) and assume that a good portion of these solar systems possess Earth-like planets that can support life.  There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy—perhaps as many as 300 billion.  Surely, around some of these stars, intelligent life must have evolved.

I don’t dispute any of the above, actually.  I think life is a fair inevitability given the right original conditions, and once you have a creature that is multi-cellular, eats other creatures, and is mobile, you have a creature that would benefit from some kind of brain.  Once the brain gets started, it seems likely that it would continue to grow in the creature’s descendants as intelligence is generally a useful trait.

Here’s the problem: Homo Sapiens, if we are being charitable, has been a species for about a million years.  We have been a civilized society (again, charitably) for 6,000 years.  Industrialization began 200 years ago, and space travel is exactly one year old.  At this rate, we’ll have a window of a few hundred or maybe even a thousand years during which we will be spacefaring and recognizably human, whereupon we will “graduate” to whatever the next step is.  Or we’ll blow up the Earth when the Federation of Atomic Scientists’ clock strikes Midnight. 

That few thousand years compared to the entire history of the universe is a razor thin slice.  It’s the width of a penny atop the Empire State Building.  Sure, there are probably intelligent aliens out there, but odds are extremely high that they are either behind us, and therefore limited to their planet, or beyond us, and therefore uninterested.  Humanoid aliens with technological levels similar to ours make decent fiction, but they might as well be fantasy, not science fiction.

If we ever do meet an alien civilization, it is bound to be unrecognizably alien and bewilderingly beyond our comprehension technologically.  Not many authors have tackled the subject, but some stories do exist.  Clarke’s Childhood’s End is perhaps the archetypical example.  Much of that book is devoted just to the effects this contact would have on humanity: the humbling, the shaming, the frustration, and the technological/sociological benefit. 

Another example, and the catalyst for this article, is William Tenn’s Firewater.  This story actually came out six years ago in Astounding (where I missed it), but it was recently reprinted in a Tenn anthology called Time in Advance.  Tenn is a good writer; I have come to look forward to his stuff, and the anthology is worth picking up.

In Childhood’s End, the aliens at least had the decency to talk to us.  In Tenn’s story, they appear simply as jiggling dots in ethereal brown or umber bottles floating above our cities.  They hang in the sky, watching us, intentions unknown.  If we attack them, with rocks or missiles, it has no effect.  Worse, it sometimes invites retaliation—the destruction of the weapon and/or the weapon’s user. 

Yet, there are some people who can communicate with them.  These are the Primes—people who have lost their sanity trying to conform to the aliens’ thought patterns.  In doing so, they have acquired the ability to do tremendous psionic feats, but they are also quite mad.  The Primes live on reservations camped out next to a congregation of aliens in Arizona.

The Primes have figured out a number of technological and sociological advances, though they do not apply them.  It is a kind of game to them.  Moreover, because dealing with the Primes can be so dangerous, due to their instability and contagious insanity, dealing with them is highly illegal.

One person, Algernon Hebster, is willing to take that risk.  A highly successful businessman, he has perfected the art of trading with the Primes, exchanging various artistic gimcracks for new technologies: washless dishes, better televisions, finer clothing, etc.  But his situation is becoming increasingly untenable.  The United Humanity government is hot on his trail with an investigation into his illegal activities and the atavistic Humanity First movement is plotting a revolution with Hebster as Enemy No. 1. 

I particularly liked Hebster’s (admittedly over-simple) analogy for the situation.  He likens Earth’s contact with a vastly more-technologically advanced civilization to the (devastating) meeting of the American Indians and the Europeans.  The native Americans generally responded in one of two ways: they either resisted the Europeans, futilely (as Humanity First wishes to do in the story), or they were subjugated, accepting the European firewater and becoming worn-out shadows of themselves. 

There was a third kind of Indian, however (in Hebster’s analogy).  This one didn’t fight the Europeans nor had any interest in firewater.  What was exciting to this Indian was the bottle in which the firewater came.  This artifact represented a product of a technology far beyond what was possible for the natives, and it was something that could be traded for, if one were canny enough to develop goods that the Europeans wanted.  Hebster notes that after a wretched period of adjustment, the American Indian cultures adapted to the new situation and managed even to profit from it.  Perhaps humanity as a whole could do the same, if a good that the aliens wanted could be found and developed.

How Hebster deals with this crisis and ultimately is the lynchpin to establishing real contact with the aliens, makes for an excellent 50 pages of reading.  It is an ambitious story, and one of the few attempts to posit a truly alien species and the likely effects the meeting with such a race would have on humanity. 

Find it.  Read it.  Let me know what you think.

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Brrrr!  IGY wrap-up (12-18-1958)

Last time, I talked about some of the wonders of the International Geophysical Year.  The term is a bit of a misnomer–it has actually lasted some 18 months, and the dividends from its successes will be paid out for many years to come.  For those who don’t know, the “IGY” is actually the third event of its kind, a twice-a-century international effort to learn about Earth’s more exotic mysteries.  Originally, the event was known as the International Polar Year; the first started in 1882, and the second in 1932.  Due to the growing science of aeronautics and the newfound ability to directly measure the astronomical medium, the scope of the IPY was expanded to include outer space, and the IGY was scheduled to occur just 25 years after the last IPY.  In this period, America has launched seven successful (or semi-successful) space missions, and the Soviets have launched three.  As discussed last time, American submarines have stayed underwater for months on end and have cruised underneath the North Pole.

In keeping with the original intention of the international year-and-a-half of science, the poles have been subject to the most massive investigation in history, particularly the forbiddingly cold continent of Antarctica.  The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union all have sent large teams into the frozen wastes of the world’s southernmost continent, and more than 50 other countries have contributed scientists and resources. 

As the punctuation mark to cap off an unprecedented 18 months, an expedition has finally arrived at one of Earth’s most exotic locales–the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility.  You are likely familiar with Earth’s South Pole, the southernmost point of Earth’s axis of rotation, and also with the Earth’s South Magnetic Pole.  The Southern Pole of Inaccessibility was a headscratcher even for me when I first heard it.  It is the point in Antarctica equidistant from any ocean shore.  It is probably the hardest place to get to in the world (hence the name).  Of course, calling anything inaccessible is just begging to be challenged.  It is appropriate that the team that made it there, just in the nick of time, was from a country quite used to freezing climes: the Soviet Union.

On December 14, a team of the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition reached the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and established a small research facility.  Yes, you can now get weather reports even from the bottom of the world (or the top, if you’re from Australia).  This team will brave the -72°F temperature for two weeks.

So let us all give a nazdarovya toast to our brave Soviet comrades.  One can only imagine where we’ll be for the next IGY in 2007.  Colonies on the moon, under the deep sea, and at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, I’ll wager!

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February 1959 Galaxy Wrap-up (12-16-1958)

At long last, the February 1959 Galaxy is done, and I can give my assessment of the new bi-monthly format.  It is likely that this issue was composed of material the editor, Mr. Gold, had accumulated before the decision to reduce the number of annual issues.  Therefore, the real proof of the pudding will happen when the next issue comes out in the first week of February next year. 

Two stories remained to be read when last you saw me.  One is by newcomer, Ned Lang, whose short story, Forever is about the peril one faces when one has developed the world’s first immortality serum.  Or, at least, when one thinks he/she is the first.  It’s not a bad story, and it has a cute ending, but the writing has a certain clunkiness to it.  I suppose allowances have to be made for neophytes, especially ones working for a penny-and-a-half a word.

The other story, a novella by J.F. Bone called Insidekick, is quite good.  This is, in part, because it turns a genre on its head.  Thanks to people like Bob Heinlein, the “Body Snatcher” trope is well-known: Evil, amorphous alien insinuates itself into its host human and turns it into a hollow shell.  In particularly gory instances, the parasite eats its host like the larvae of the Digger Wasp.  I have a friend who is relatively immune to the most nauseating of phenomena, but show him a movie about bodysnatching beasts, especially when they enter through cranial orifices, and he fairly faints.

In Insidekick, however, the symbiont is charitable rather than menacing.  The Zark, as it is known, only wishes to help its host survive as best it can, for in doing so, the chances of success for both host and symbiont is maximized.  The host, in this case, is a government agent by the name of Johnson, who is investigating a corrupt interstellar corporation under suspicion of growing tobacco illegally for profit on the planet Antar.  Johnson is quickly fingered, and he certainly would not have lasted long were it not for the happy accident of his meeting with the Zark, a native to Antar.  As the union of the two creatures occurs while Johnson is unconscious, he is unaware of the relationship.

The results, however, quickly become obvious.  In Bone’s story, all humans have a certain degree of psionic potential.  Practitioners of psi, on the other hand, are universally psychotic and, thus, only marginally useful.  The Zark unlocks Johnson’s psionic potential without precipitating any nasty psychological effects.  Johnson gradually realizes he has become a telepath and has the ability to teleport.  Telekinetic and precognitive ability follow soon after.  With his newfound skills, he is able to evade death and take down the criminal organization.

What makes the story so fun is how nice the Zark is.  Who wouldn’t want a benevolent guardian angel living inside him/her, and thus enjoy a panoply of superpowers?  Better yet, there is no sting in the story’s tail.  Johnson isn’t doomed to die prematurely; it doesn’t turn out the Zark is really planning on eating Johnson; the Zark isn’t part of an alien invasion.  The story simply is what it is—the happy tale of a man and his symbiont.  The only weakness is the two-page coda, which feels tacked on. 

If I did not know that Bone is a real flesh-and-blood person, I’d think he was a cover for Bob Sheckley (who also appeared in this issue, finishing up Timekiller).  Insidekick has that same light, pleasant touch.

To wrap things up, let’s give the new giant-sized Galaxy a final score.  Timekiller was decent, Installment Plan was flawed and disturbing in its politics, but the rest of the magazine ranged from good to quite good.  Let’s call it three out of five stars. 

And good news!  I managed to secure a copy of F&SF.  Stay tuned!

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Fact and Fiction (February 1959 Galaxy, Part 2; 12-14-1958)

For your reading pleasure today, a piece in two parts.  First a bit on fiction, and then a bit on the other stuff.

Plowing on through the new maxi-sized Galaxy, the first story after Installment Plan is a slight bit of atmospheric by Charles A. Stearns called Pastoral Affair.  If you’ve read the Wells classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau, then you’ve essentially read this story.  Stearns, I understand, largely wrote for the pulps and less prestigious magazines, and his work reads like something from the 30s.  Not bad, just not much.

But the succeeding Fred Pohl piece, I Plingot, Who you?, is quite good.  My father was a science fiction fan of “Golden Age” vintage before his untimely passing some twenty years ago.  He once said, rather presciently, that the only way one could ever really unite the world would be the invention of an external threat, perhaps a world-destroying asteroid or (even better) an extraterrestrial invasion. 

Pohl takes this concept and turns it on its head: What if someone convinced all of the world leaders separately that an alien race was approaching, and the first to encounter it would get an exclusive and most rewarding deal?  And what if the race landed their spacecraft not in America or the U.S.S.R., but in the neutral powder-keg of French Algeria.  Why, it might kick off a bloody competition resulting in an all-out atomic war!  Now, what if that instigating someone were actually a representative of an alien species whose job was to fabricate the alien arrival to cause the destruction of Earth and ensure that interstellar competition was kept to a minimum?  You’d get Plingot.

The pacing and the writing really make this story, as well as the unexpected ending (which is very Heinlein-esque).  The story is from the eponymous Plingot’s point of view, and his wording and mood are subtly and suitably alien.  Interestingly enough, it is decidedly fixed in a very specific period of time—perhaps the next few months.  For the flag of the United States has 49 stars, and it is pretty clear by now that Hawaii will be a state very soon, to balance Republican and Democratic votes in the Senate, if nothing else.  Moreover, given the recent turmoil in France that brought DeGaulle back to the fore and created yet another French Republic (Number 5!), I can’t imagine that France’s hold on Algeria is anything but tenuous.  This all works, however, since the story is not a prediction of the future but rather a prediction of how the present might deal with a futuristic threat.

Now the non-fiction.  Willy Ley’s article this bi-month wraps up his article on “The World Next Door:” the alien realm of the deep sea, and ties in nicely with the unusually large number of undersea accomplishments achieved by the United States this year.  Did you know that the nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Seawolf stayed underwater for 60 consecutive days?  The air its crew left port with was the air the crew breathed for two straight months.  That kind of self-contained endurance is relevant to travel in Outer Space, where fresh air is even less accessible.

The Seawolf is the younger sister of the U.S.S. Nautilus, which made history in August by being the first ship to travel to the North Pole under water.  I saw/heard in a recent newsreel that there is talk of opening up underwater polar trade routes between East and West.  I don’t know how feasible that would be, but it is exciting nonetheless. 

So stay tuned!  I predict that the undersea science fiction genre (heretofore severely underrepresented—Fred Pohl’s Slave Ship serialized two years ago in Galaxy, is one of the few examples) will become a big component of published sci-fi in the near future.

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The Incomplete Enchanter (12-12-1958)

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I’ve given anything unreserved praise.  Moreover, it’s been a while since I’ve reported on anything really fun.  To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. 

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago.  He didn’t write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels.  He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College. 

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together.  Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber.  It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic.  Sort of.  You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”).  Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea’s adventures.  They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940.  In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology.  He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok.  None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional.  On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy.  This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect. 

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants.  All of this is written with a fun, light touch.  Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don’t go too badly. 

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition.  This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers.  They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queen.  It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse.  Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart).  It’s all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun.  It’s also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer’s realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review.  There are so many fun scenes.  For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine ‘Goldtop’, after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor.  Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword.  The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent’s armor.  These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter… or you really must do so post-haste!

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The way it is (February 1959 Galaxy, Part 1; 12-10-1958)

December is here, and San Diego is feeling the uncommonly cold bite of near-winter weather.  Why, temperatures barely make it into the upper 60s around noon-time.  I’m not sure how we manage.

My subscription copy of F&SF never arrived.  I may have to pick it up at the newsstand, if there are any left.  Luckily, the February 1959 double-sized edition of Galaxy did arrive.  That’s how I was able to finish “Timekiller.”  Yesterday, while briskly walking along the beach dressed appropriately for our local sub-arctic temperatures, I finished the lead novella, “Installment Plan”, by Clifford Simak.  This will be the subject of today’s piece.

For those who don’t know Cliff, he has been a staple of science fiction for a couple of decades now.  I first encountered him in 1952 with his excellent story in Galaxy, “Junkyard.”  Since then, he’s written the serialized novel, “Ring Around the Sun,” and a number of shorter stories.  I like Cliff, but I find his work tends to be aimless, though completely readable.  “Installment Plan” is no exception.

It starts out promisingly-enough with a pack of biblically-named anthropomorphic robots and their human coordinator, Steve Sheridan.  They have been sent to clinch a trade deal with a race of backwards humanoids on Garson IV.  The Garsonians have a cash crop that, properly distilled, produces the galaxy’s most potent tranquilizer.  The deal had been set up fifteen years prior by previous expeditions to the planet and then left to languish.  By the time Sheridan gets to the planet, however, the natives universally refuse to deal.  Thus, there is a double-mystery to solve: how did this turn of events come about, and is there any way to make a deal?

The story is interesting throughout.  The problem is that it wraps up altogether too quickly and conventionally.  The thoughtful tone and the careful characterization are, in my opinion, wasted.  Moreover, it appears Simak is attempting to make some allegorical points, but he never quite gets there.

For instance: Sheridan’s robots are portrayed as a friendly, competent, and essentially human lot.  Yet, Sheridan muses, despite their abilities, and despite their being better than humans in terms of endurance and ability to learn (since their skills are banked in storage units called “transmogs”), they lack that spark necessary for independent operation.  They need a man around to lead them, tell them what to do. 

In other words, these beings may look like us, but their proper place is in servitude rather than self-mastery.  With a proper guiding touch, we can help them accomplish what they are simply unable to do themselves.  I don’t think the parallel to slavery and its attendant rationalizations is accidental.  Whether Simak meant his portrayal of robots to condone or condemn this mindset is not clear, however.  It is never made the point of the story.

Slightly more developed is the phenomenon of the bilked aboriginal.  The natives of Garson IV are portrayed as an honorable but stupid, primitive lot.  They seem ripe for the cheating, which is why their being uncheatable is so frustrating and incomprehensible to Sheridan.  Sheridan is further hamstrung by his government’s rules that strictly prohibit the wholesale appropriation of native land or slaughter of its owners. 

It ultimately turns out that the Garsonians have already been bilked–by another race.  Having committed themselves, under most unfavorable terms, to this other debtor, they have nothing left to trade to the humans.  Moreover, the provisions of the deal include the mass exodus of the natives from their planet, leaving it fallow for the taking.

It’s an uncomfortably familiar scenario, one that has been repeated on Earth on many occasions when “civilized” men have encountered “primitives.”  Again, I waited for some kind of commentary from the author.  Instead, Simak has Sheridan capitalize on the opportunity.  With no one on the planet, the government’s rules regarding non-interference are inapplicable; Sheridan plans to establish his own corporate farm and milk the planet for all its worth.

Put this way, the story sounds like satire.  It is written completely without irony, however.  I’ve said before that our cultural prejudices are the air we breathe.  It takes conscious effort to take a deep whiff and catch the stink.  Science fiction should be (and occasionally is) more progressive than your average literature, but too often, as happened in this story, it is simply a product of its time.  In the end, Simak put some interesting and challenging ideas into this novella, and they would have made interesting stories in their own right.  As is, they instead seem to tacitly condone a status quo I’m not comfortable with.

(on the other hand, at least the protagonist has a beard, and skintight clothes are available for all genders in this future!)

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Oops, Part 4 (12-08-1958)

Well, at least we’re consistent.

The past few months, the newspapers have run headline after headline describing America’s failures in trying to shoot the Moon.  The Air Force had the first at-bat with its three Pioneers.  #0 blew up so early that it wasn’t even dignified with a name.  #1 limped about halfway to the Moon before falling back down.  #2’s performance was somewhere in the middle.

If you believe the papers (and/or the Vice President), all of these flights were successes.  After all, any launch, even one that doesn’t meet its goals, is a learning experience.  Sarcasm aside, Pioneers I and II were not total washes–they sent back a lot of good data on the Earth’s magnetic field and the radiation trapped therein.  Moreover, they went a lot higher than any of our previous probes, certainly higher than anything the Russians have sent up.

The day before yesterday (Dec. 6, 1958) was the Army’s chance to step up to the plate.  If hitting the Moon is a Home Run, I’d say they hit a double.  Pioneer III, a teeny 13-pounder launched on a Juno II made it out about 67,000 miles before falling back to Earth.

As always, I collected as many papers as I could and kept my ears glued to the radio.  Early editions simply announced the launch, but it was clear pretty quickly that something had gone wrong.  Apparently, Pioneer’s rocket ran out of fuel about four seconds early, which sent the probe off at too low an angle.  Even though Pioneer III left Earth with more speed than Pioneer I, its journey was only half as high.  38 hours after launch, the poor little probe was ashes in the ionosphere. 

Silver lining: A good 22 hours of data was collected from the probe, and it is already adding to our knowledge regarding the two (count them: two!) radiation belts girdling the Earth.  As a matter of fact, those belts are the only phenomenon Pioneer III could report on.  Unlike Pioneers 0-II, which had a whole suite of experiments including even a TV camera, Pioneer III had just one experiment: a pair of Geiger-Muller tubes for counting the cosmic radiation particles hitting the spacecraft.  I am not sure why Pioneer III was such a simple probe.  It may be that the Army got the assignment in a hurry and had to rush things.  It might also be that the Army’s Juno II doesn’t have the enough strength to lift anything heavier.

In any event, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from the Army.  Pioneer IV will be up sometime soon, though Major General John Medaris, head of the Army’s rocket development center in Alabama, had no firm dates for the press.

“See me after Christmas,” he told the television people.

Get a load of that puss.  That looks more like a toothache than a booster failure. 

Here’s an interesting question: The Space Race has been marked by more failures than successes.  Did anyone ever write a science fiction story that predicted this level of teething pain in a space program?  It seems to me that space vehicles in fiction simply work.  If they don’t work perfectly, they have maintenance issues like those that afflict an automobile or perhaps a naval vessel.  This goes back to my previous comments regarding the focus of science fiction on the pilot rather than the large and necessary logistical tail. 

It’s a pity we don’t see more stories incorporating launch failures.  They could be an exciting dramatic device.

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Killing Time (Robert Sheckley’s Timekiller; 12-06-1958)

Regular readers of this column know that I am unreserved in my praise of Robert Sheckley.  Since bursting on the scene early this decade, he and his alter-ego, Finn O’Donnovan, have graced the pages of Astounding and Galaxy and probably more magazines.  If you haven’t read his three short-story anthologies, you need to plunk down the $1.05 and expand your library.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about Sheckley’s first novel, serialized in Galaxy as Timekiller.  It’s not bad; it just doesn’t rise to the standard set by his shorter work.

Timekiller is the story of the bland Thomas Blaine, a junior yacht designer from 1958.  He lives a pleasant but uninteresting life as the dogsbody of an East Coast boatwright.  Blaine is charming-enough, but he’s never really scored with ladies, work or life.  On the way home one night, his car swerves out of control causing a fatal collision with an oncoming driver.

Yet Blaine awakens—in 2110!  It turns out that some time in-between Blaine’s death and rebirth, it is discovered that each person has a soul distinct from his/her body, and about one in ten thousand make it through the death trauma with the soul intact.  The soul hovers about in a transition between Here and the Hereafter, occasionally causing unrest on Earth.  Hence the stories of ghosts and poltergeists.

Not long after the discovery that one’s persona survives death, a company is founded to insure that everyone with enough cash on hand can safely navigate death and journey to the Hereafter.  The company is fittingly called “Immortality, Inc.” Unfortunately, the work of this company has played havoc with the world’s religions, who are staunchly against Immortality, Inc.  This is why they tried to save the soul of a 1958 religious leader, who could serve as a spokesman for the company after his resurrection.

Unfortunately for Immortality, Inc., they got Blaine instead.

I commented in an earlier piece that science fiction authors tend to incorporate only one or two truly revolutionary changes into their stories, either for fear of alienating their audiences or for inability to envision more (or both).  Sheckley’s future is not that different, technologically, except for the flying cars that we all expect to be driving.  Instead, Sheckley focuses on the social and medical implications of resurrection.  People sell their bodies in exchange for Hereafter insurance to rich people who want to stay on Earth for another lifetime.  Others transplant their souls to other bodies for kicks or more-nefarious purposes.  Imperfectly transplanted souls never synchronize properly with their host bodies, which become zombies and eventually decay to uselessness. 

In a story about independent souls, the consuming questions to my mind are (1) does a transplant body retain any vestiges of the old soul inhabitant? and (2) what is the Hereafter like?  The first is answered pretty well.  The second isn’t touched upon.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is hardly satisfying.

My issue isn’t with set-up but rather the execution, which is a bit lacking.  Much of this can be attributed to the format.  The novel began serialization way back in the October 1958 issue of Galaxy, and it was spread over an unprecedented four installments.  As a result, the story reads a lot like four connected novellas.  The first primarily deals with Blaine’s arrival, in which Blaine narrowly escapes death at the hands of a body peddler.  In part two, Blaine is a “hunter,” an assassin hired for an elaborate suicide game in which the quarry expects to die in a blaze of combat.  Part three, perhaps the most interesting, reveals a sinister plot against Blaine’s life and introduces us to the subterranean zombie community.  Part four wraps things up in an exciting escape from the country and finishes off with a good (though not unguessable) twist.

Because of the format, Timekiller feels a bit padded and uncoordinated.  I had a similar problem with Heinlein’s latest serial, Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Part 2 of that novel was largely filled with an exciting but rather pointless escape attempt that ended in frustration. 

The characters in Timekiller aren’t terribly exciting either.  Most prominent besides Blaine is Marie Thorne, the scientist in charge of Blaine’s recovery; she ends up largely a love interest.  The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, though I did like Ray Melhill, a fellow target of the aforementioned body peddler, who provides Blaine a lot of assistance despite being dead most of the story.  Smith, a zombie, probably has the most interesting story to tell, and his thread runs from beginning to end.

So what’s the final verdict?  I’m afraid this review makes me sound a bit harsh.  Timekiller is thoroughly readable, and the world it portrays does capture the imagination.  I could see the novel being improved in editing for book publication, which I understand is forthcoming.  As is, however, it is merely competent.

For Bob Sheckley, that’s damned faint praise indeed.

3 stars out of 5.

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