All posts by GalacticJourney

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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What’s in a name? (12-4-1958)

I’m still waiting for my January F&SF to show up, so here’s another topical scientific post.  Just call me Willy Ley’s poor cousin.

The space stories in today’s newspapers are filled with a mixture of alphabet soup and Roman mythology.  Keeping track of what’s what can be a headache.  For instance, there has been a lot of confusion regarding the naming of the rocket that launched Explorer I (and III and IV, and tried to launch II and V).  Some accounts called it a Jupiter-C.  Others have since called it a Juno I.  Which is correct?  Is there a Jupiter missile somewhere in there?  Does it even matter? 

Let me clear things up.  The answer shines an interesting spotlight into the politics of naming and the jockeying for position being done by this country’s armed services.

Back in 1953, Von Braun and his Alabama team of German expatriates finished the first significant rocketry development since the V2 (which they had also built).  It was the Redstone Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) with a range of more than a hundred miles.  Von Braun knew he had a vehicle that was powerful enough to send something into orbit, and he lobbied heavily for his “Project Orbiter” so that he, and the Army, could launch the first artificial satellite.  He lost that fight to the Navy, who started work on the Vanguard, based in turn on the Viking sounding rockets, which were based on the V2.

Nevertheless, Von Braun did win the contract to build the longer-ranged successor to the Redstone, the Jupiter Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missile (IRBM).  This let Von Braun keep Project Orbiter alive, at least under wraps.  The first step toward turning the Redstone into a satellite booster was a series of test launches with Jupiter IRBM components on board.  He called the resulting machine “Jupiter-A,” even though at its heart, it was really a Redstone.  This helped ensure launch pad availability, since the Jupiter was a higher-priority program.

Then he added 11 miniaturized solid-rocket boosters called Sergeants (descendants of the WAC Corporal rocket, of course) as a second stage and one more as a third stage.  This new booster was used as a sounding rocket, probing the outer reaches of the atmosphere in short suborbital flights, and was called the “Jupiter-C.”  I don’t know if there were ever plans for a “Jupiter-B.”

Once Sputnik was launched, America was hard-pressed to make a quick response.  Von Braun trotted out the Jupiter-C, all ready to launch a payload.  It wasn’t quite enough to get Explorer I into orbit, however, so another mini-Sergeant was attached to the satellite and placed on top of the Jupiter-C third stage.  This technically made the Jupiter-C a four-stage rocket, even though one could argue that the fourth stage was really part of the payload. 

It was important that there be little connection between the military space programs and the civilian space programs, at least in the press.  That’s why Vanguard was given the nod for the first satellite launch.  While it was developed by the Navy, it was run under the auspices of the civilian National Research Laboratory.  Jupiter-C was renamed “Juno I” to distance the rocket from its military origins.

It was not a very successful move.  Contemporary newspapers universally referred to the rocket as the Jupiter-C (which, of course, it was).  The name “Juno I” is only now common in retrospective use, as its last flight was on October 23.  It is a useful distinction, however, as Von Braun has taken the 2nd, 3rd and “4th” stages from the Juno I and affixed them to a true Jupiter IRBM, thus creating the “Juno II.”  This new vehicle should have about the same lifting capacity as the Air Force’s Thor-Able, maybe a little less.  It will launch Pioneer III next week.  Note: Pioneer III has nothing to do with Pioneers 0-II save that they have the same destination, the moon.

All clear?

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Less is More; Rocket Clusters in Science Fiction (12-02-1958)

Science advances rapidly, and with it, our visions of the future.  People have been dreaming about traveling to outer space for thousands of years, and their dreams have necessarily been based on extrapolations of the time.  For instance, when Daedalus and Icarus made their flights, they used bird-like wings.  What else was there?  When Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon, a giant cannon was the propulsion. 

Then the rocket came along, and that became the vehicle of choice for space jaunts.  Yet the portrayal of rockets in science fiction even just a few years ago differs dramatically from how they ended up actually being used for space travel.  One crucial development changed the whole game in the span of just five years.

Two books in my library illustrate what I’m talking about.  In 1953, Jeffery Lloyd Castle wrote Satellite E One, and Murray Leinster wrote Space Tug, both near-future tales of space stations.  In the beginnings of both books, our heroes are blasted into orbit with the use of rockets—lots of rockets.  Castle’s booster is 150 feet tall and has 50 rocket engines.  Leinster’s is even more creative.  Dozens of independent jet engines propel the rocket assembly to about 12 miles up and then detach, whereupon solid rockets fire and subsequently detach.  Finally, the rocket’s own engines (presumably liquid fuel) ignite to finish the journey.

Both of these stories are products of their era.  Until 1953, rockets were pretty small affairs.  In the 30s, they were strictly hobbyists’ stuff.  Even in the 40s, the vaunted German V-2 was what would now be classified a Short Ranged Ballistic Missile (SRBM).  Missile development languished in the early post-war compared to the prodigious effort expended on the development of jet engines.  To science fiction writers, it seemed any space rocket would have to be purpose-built, and it would take a tremendous number of these small engines to get a craft to orbit.  That’s why most predictions saw humanity reaching the moon around the end of the century.  Clarke was particularly visionary in Childhood’s End when he wrote about a manned lunar mission as early as 1975 using atomic rockets.

What few authors predicted was the InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) race.  In 1954, the Air Force and Army began working in earnest to develop titanic missiles to send nuclear warheads across the world.  Since all must crawl before walking, their first product was the Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missle (IRBM), which will be based in Europe.  The Army finished their first proto-IRBM, the Redstone, in 1956.  All of a sudden, the United States had an off-the-shelf method to send payloads into orbit.  With the completion of the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in 1957, as well as the Navy’s Vanguard (not a military vehicle but based on the earlier Viking, in turn based on the V-2), America suddenly had a stable of boosters.

That year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.  They didn’t use a purpose-built space booster; they borrowed an ICBM from their arsenal and stuck a satellite on top.  We know it was an ICBM for two reasons: the Soviets had, just a few months before, announced that they’d built and tested an ICBM.  And Sputnik III, which used the same launcher as Sputniks I and II (presumably) weighed a ton-and-a-half, so an ICBM class booster was needed to loft it.

We don’t know how many individual rockets make up the Soviet booster, but the Redstone, Thor and Jupiter use just one.  Of course, it is more efficient to send multi-staged rockets into orbit, so the Juno-I that launched the first Explorer actually has 14 engines (the one on the Redstone and 13 solid-fueled Sergeants on top).  The Juno-II also has 14 (Jupiter plus 13 Sergeants).  The Junos are stopgaps, however.  The Thor-Able that launched Pioneers 0-2 only has three engines.  The first crop of American ICBMs, the Atlas and the Titan, have just 2-3 engines.  Even Von Braun’s proposed lunar mission monsters will only have around 12, tops.  So much for cluster rockets with dozens of engines.

It is no coincidence that the Space Race started when it did.  It is a direct side-effect of the ICBM race.  Science fiction authors are going to have to revise their timetables as well as their portrayals of rockets.  It just goes to show that science progresses awfully fast when we want it to, sometimes faster than our ability to predict its progress.

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To the Moon (Alice?); Wrap-up of January 1959 Astounding and more (11-30-1958)

I promised a wrap-up of this month’s Astounding, so here it is.  “Study in Still Life,” by Astounding’s resident satirist, Eric Frank Russell.  It is a 20-page depiction of governmental bureaucracy whose only connection (I should say connexion; Russell is British) with science fiction is its having been printed in a science fiction magazine.  I’m sure some find tedious depictions of tedium humorous (humourous?).  I just find them tedious.  Oh well.

This makes the January 1959 issue of Astounding the worst in quite some time.  With the exception of the lead story, which is undoubtedly good, but not exceptional, and the brief “Seedling,” the book was a bore.  2 stars at most.

Still, it did inspire a think.  I like my science fiction with a touch of verisimilitude.  One of the tropes I find tiresome is the “spaceship as automobile” trope.  Particularly, the one man builds a rocketship in his backyard and flies it to the moon story.  Now, I have no doubts that the Space Age will have spaceship pilots, and they may well be a rare breed.  I also don’t have too much trouble swallowing the idea that, in the far future, spaceships may be as reliable as the present-day automobile. 

But for the foreseeable future, spaceships, and their atmospheric cousins, airplanes, are incredibly finicky beasts that require dozens of hours of prep time for every hour of flight.  The recent Pioneer launches had crews topping one hundred.  Manned jaunts are sure to require more crew, and a lunar shot will have, I’ll bet, thousands of people involved.  A few authors have gotten it right.  I recently read Satellite E One by Jeffery Lloyd Castle, which is half textbook, half British wish-fulfillment, and it does a good job of depicting the long logistical tail any expensive, high-tech aeronautic project has/will have.

I blame World War II, specifically post-war depictions of the war.  We’ve gotten used to tales of doughty pilots soaring into the skies on a moment’s notice, and we’ve forgotten just how much sweat goes into building and maintaining the crates.  Movies don’t get made about mechanics, anymore than they get made about quartermasters and cooks.  And so science fiction stories not only fail to depict their space age counterparts, they omit them entirely.  I think that’s too bad.  While the general public may like reading stories of plucky rocket-jocks making it to the moon on ingenuity and baling wire, I think a far more meaningful story is made when the spaceships sent to the moon (hopefully with more than just one person inside!) have thousands, if not millions of people behind them as part of the effort.  It’s like a mountain, with the spaceship comprising just the very top, and the rest being not just the people who were directly involved in building and supporting the ship, but a collective effort representing all of humanity.

(Note: Danny Dunn and the Antigravity Paint, published in 1956, is actually a delightful story; I almost feel bad using it as my demonstrative picture, but it’s what I have on hand)

By the by, the Air Force may have failed in America’s first efforts toward the moon (Pioneers 0-2), but it looks like the Army plans to launch a probe on a modified Jupiter IRBM next week.  I think their odds are pretty good.  Their “Juno II” rocket is identical to the Jupiter-C that launched Explorer, at least from the second-stage up, and I understand the Jupiter to have a decent record.  Moreover, the probe is smaller and less sophisticated than its Air Force predecessors, and Von Braun said there is no intention of hitting the moon or sending it into orbit; a near miss will be good enough.  I suppose if one sets the bar low enough, it’s hard not to clear it!  I shall cross my fingers, toes and eyes.

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January 1959 Astounding (2nd of 3 parts; 11-28-58)

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving from sunny San Diego!  Sorry for the delay, but the travails of travel put a crimp in my bi-daily update schedule.  I am now happily back at the typewriter and ready to tell you all about….

The January 1959 Astounding was particularly lackluster.  Filled with turgid tales of men running world governments with smug omnipotence, it was quite the slog.  Some details:

“To Run the Rim,” was the stand-out exception, as described earlier this week.  Sadly, it simply set the bar higher for the subsequent stories, which did not even try to clear the hurdle.

Gordy Dickson’s “By New House Fires,” wasn’t bad so much as inconsequential.  In this story, humanity has made the planet unlivable for any but humans, animals being found solely in preserves.  I’ve seen this concept before, and I never buy it.  I have no trouble believing that humans will run pretty roughshod over planet Earth, and many thousands if not millions of species will be the casualties.  We may pollute the world into a stinking mess and/or incinerate the surface in atomic hellfire, but we’ll never reduce its inhabitants to people and food-yeast.  Of course, Dickson’s set-up is necessary for the tale, the story of the world’s last dog, and the master he adopts.

Oh look!  The next story is a Poul Anderson, surprise, surprise.  In premise, “Robin Hood’s Barn,” is not unlike Piper’s story in the last Astounding following the leader of a decadent Empire.  In this case, the Empire is solely terrestrial, only one inhabitable extrasolar world having yet been discovered.  This is the story that predicated my recent rant on the dearth of women in science fiction.  Though it takes place far in the future, all government is run by men, and worse still, it is one of those smug stories where the person in charge has perfect Machiavellian control of the various competing factions beneath him. 

I suppose I must sound hypocritical.  After all, I gave Piper’s story a pass (and even a favorable grade).  I think the difference is two-fold: Piper’s story was meant to be somewhat fanciful.  Moreover, I’ve seen Piper write strong women.  Anderson’s never tried (except that isn’t quite true—he managed five years ago in Brainwave, his one excellent book).  Maybe Piper is just as bad, but Anderson was the straw that broke my back.

“Seedling,” by Charles V. de Vet (he worked with Katherine MacClean in Astounding earlier this year) is a pleasant, albeit brief, interlude about the drastic steps one might take to establish relations with an alien race.  The twist is nice, too.

All too soon, we’re plunged back into another top-level womanless depiction of world government: “Deadlock,” by Robert and Barbara Silverberg.  This is one of those old-fashioned stories in which a problem is introduced and the solution comes as a gotcha at the last second.  What’s particularly frustrating is the Silverbergs spend 40 pages on what should have been a 10-page tale. 

Here’s the set-up: It is a hundred years from now, and humanity is on the eve of settling Mars.  The Americans want to terraform the planet; the Chinese want to biologically engineer humans to settle the planet as is.  One intrepid U.N. representative is tasked with finding a suitable compromise.  This set-up is described over and over again in several slightly varying ways (newspaper clippings, interviews with officials on both sides) until the inevitable and unclever solution is presented.  It would be fine as backdrop to characterization, or as bookends to a novel, but it just can’t bear the weight of a novella.

One has to wonder if John Campbell simply needed to fill space and asked the Silverbergs to pad their submission out.  Since authors are paid by the word, I can imagine there was little resistance to the idea.

Now, I do have some praise for the story.  I am impressed with anyone willing to throw her or his hat over the fence and make a timeline of future history, especially when it makes assumptions that few others do.  For instance, in this world, the Soviet Union collapses in the early 21st century not from American success in a Third World War, but from economic inadequacy.  An economically revitalized (but probably still Communist) China takes its place as a superpower.  The U.N.’s power is enhanced after an abortive and politically fraught Space Race.  While this makes for a more peaceful Earth, preventing large-scale conflicts, it also means that any plan to settle other planets requires a consensus of most of the Earth’s countries.  Hence, the presented dilemma.  It’s a plausible set-up, they just don’t do much with it.

I am also impressed with how far science fiction (and science) have come.  Just 16 years ago, Heinlein was writing about transforming humanity at glacial speed through selective breeding a la Mendel.  Genetic engineering reduces the process time to a single generation.  I look forward to seeing more stories with this development as a component.

There’s more, but I find myself in danger of over-writing this column, so I’ll save it for next time.

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Predicting the Future (hand-waves, Astounding, smoking, and women; 11-25-1958)

Writing good science fiction is hard.  Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity.  Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society.  Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities.  I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s. 

Take smoking, for example.  Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco.  They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer.  Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction.  You would think someone would portray a smokeless future. 


Another example is the portrayal of women.  For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men.  The trend has historically been in their favor.  They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact.  In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes.  There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard.  Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip.  You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common.  Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own.  It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.

It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer.  Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors.  This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm.  We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light.  Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that.  That’s a hand-wave.  Psionic powers are another hand-wave.  People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.

Maybe.  I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street.  Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds.  The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves. 

But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else.  And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world.  Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.

If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece.  I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.

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Running the Rim of Japan; January 1959 Astounding (11-23-1958)

Editors are often capricious creatures.  Depending on the busyness of their schedules, they will one month wax poetic on some topic, and the next, they will give their columns short shrift.  Forgive me, but this is going to be a brief column.

“Why?” you ask.  The answer is simple.  Travel between cities in Japan is about as convenient as any travel can be, but until someone builds a super-express high-speed train from Osaka to Fukuoka (on the southernmost main Japanese island of Kyushu), the trek is an arduous one leaving little time for extracurricular activities.  Moreover, while I sometimes can find the time to write while train-bound, we picked an unfortunate day to travel: Saturday during a holiday. 

Nevertheless, we have arrived at Fukuoka, and it is a lovely city.  Their ra-men (white noodles in fish broth) is nationally famous, and the weather has been most kind to us.

Another trick editors employ is spending a great deal of verbiage on frivolous topics to disguise the fact that they don’t have much to talk about.  You’ll never see that tactic employed here, no sirree!

The new Astounding is out, and it is the only one of the Big Three magazines available to me in Japan.  Thus, even though Astounding made my stomach churn last month, it is at the top of my list this month.  Don’t ask me how I obtained a copy in advance of the normal publishing schedule.  I have my methods.

Nevertheless, I got it so recently that I’ve only managed to read the opening story, “To Run the Rim,” by A. Bertram Chandler.  I don’t know much about him, but I understand he is an Australian with a nautical background.  This is evident in his writing; “Rim” is a tale of tramp space freighters on the frontier of the galaxy, and it is redolent with terrestrial nautical tradition.  Our hero, Calvert, is a retiree from the regular navy who signs up as second mate on a rickety boat.  Chandler’s characters, especially the ship’s quartermistress, Alden, are well-drawn.  The setting, with its few but highly distinguishable worlds, is interesting and would make a good setting for more stories.

Everyone has a favorite style of science fiction.  You may enjoy psychological science fiction, or dystopias/utopias, or space opera on a Doc Smith scale.  Gadget stories may be more your thing, or tales of Martians and Venusians.  My favorites are stories that feature interstellar exploration and commerce on a personal level, particularly if they have a strong naval tradition.  The idea of seasoned sailors plying the space lanes in a kind of star trek strongly resonates with me.  Moreover, my hat is off to Chandler for featuring a strong female officer whose steadiness and expertise are vital to the success of her ship.  I will definitely look forward to his future works.

Well, that turned out to be not as short as I’d feared.  I hope you feel you got your money’s worth.  In the meantime, while you wait for my next article, why not send a letter expressing your favorite kinds of science fiction.

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Beyond this Horizon (11-21-1958)

The traveling circus has moved to Osaka, Japan’s second metropolis.  It’s a grubby, earthy place, with a colorful dialect and brasher manners.  For an American, it’s actually kind of refreshing; the formality is less forced.  Like Tokyo, the city is alive with new construction and industry.  In contrast to cities back home, which have infrastructure dating back to the turn of the century, Japan looks like the future. 

It was thus the perfect place to finish Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon, which was first published under a pseudonym back in 1942 and republished under his own name in 1948.  This was a second-hand copy I’d picked up specifically for this trip. 

Beyond this Horizon is an odd duck of a novel, particularly in comparison to Heinlein’s recent, more conventional works (i.e. The Puppet Masters, The Door into Summer, etc.).  It divides neatly into three parts, and only the middle section has any real plot.  I didn’t read the version originally serialized in Astounding, but I imagine much of the disjointed nature stems from the story having been written for magazine publication.

The book is set in a utopic far future, and it follows the life of Hamilton Felix (the order of names is reversed, Japanese-style, for reasons central to the premise of story).  He is the genetically superior result of a dozen generations of eugenic breeding.  In this regard, he is no different from most of his fellows.  Most everyone on Earth in the story is the result of the weeding out of undesirable traits and the promotion of positive ones.  People are allowed to find their own mates, but the children are artificially assisted to be the best possible offspring.  Only the “control normals” are left unmodified.

Hamilton’s primary involvement in the story is to be resistant to the possibility of having offspring (the first part), to infiltrate and disrupt a revolutionary group bent on deposing the world government and eliminating the control normals (the second part), and to give in to having offspring (the third part).  Hamilton’s children offer glimpses into an understanding of the world beyond the veil of mortality, the philosophical and scientific exploration of which is a recurring theme.

It is difficult to tell with Heinlein when he is portraying the mores and opinions of his characters and when his characters are simply spouting the mores and opinions of Heinlein.  I suspect the latter is more common.  I find this book fascinating as it makes a point of distinguishing between bad eugenics (which led to two devastating wars in Beyond’s timeline) and good eugenics as practiced by the government in the book.  Hamilton is, himself, dubious of the benevolence of the concept as exemplified by his statement in Part 1, “There is something a little terrifying about a man with too long a view.” Given that the world war raging at the time the book was written was in large part motivated by eugenics, the positive portrayal of same is a bit disturbing. 

On the other hand, Heinlein may simply be a seer.  In the book, the field of ultramicroscopy makes genetic mapping possible and turns breeding into a scientific art.  With the recent discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, we seem right on Heinlein’s predicted schedule.  Who’s to say that we won’t soon find it desirable to edit out the genes that may cause disease and disorder for the good of humanity?

The other concept explored by Heinlein in the book is the idea of universal bearing of arms.  Most of the men pack heat (so long as they are sober), and many women as well.  It is made clear by the wearing of distinctive clothing that one is in an unarmed state, and those wearing the signifying brassards must defer to their armed fellows.

For most of the book, the practice is neither lauded nor condemned.  It simply is.  Near the end, however, one of the main characters praises the practice.  He recites the old maxim, “An armed society is a polite society.” As depicted in Heinlein’s novel, an armed society is an overly peevish one, prone to potentially lethal dueling for the most trifling of insults.  The other justification is that it weeds out the overly combative, a crude element of the eugenics project, essentially.  I suppose this makes sense coming out of the mouth of someone in Beyond’s world.  I hope Bob Heinlein doesn’t agree with him.

There are no female viewpoint characters, but many strong women are featured, and one has a decidedly central role to play in scouting “Beyond this Horizon.” I don’t know if Heinlein was exceptionally progressive (this was 1942!), or if we’ve simply gone backwards since the war.  Perhaps both–Heinlein generally populates his stories with smart, resourceful females, even if they are never quite the star.

Hamilton’s son, the only child character, does not fare so well.  In fact, other than his spotless genetics, I can find nothing at all to endear him to anyone.  I don’t know if Heinlein has kids, but I’d bet that he was not a father back in 1942, otherwise the relationship between dad and boy would have rung more true.  On the other hand, perhaps the lack of connection was meant to be a commentary on the world they inhabited. 

In summary, Beyond this Horizon is a bit of a meandering, preachy mess.  It is, however, quite readable.  Moreover, like many of Heinlein’s works, it does an excellent job of portraying a future, if not the future.  Heinlein presents the technology and culture with a glib vagueness that will help preserve the novel from becoming dated. 

3 stars out of 5.

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