All posts by GalacticJourney

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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Pilgrimage to Earth (11-19-1958)

There is nothing that satisfies like a good collection of short stories.  And there is nobody who consistently releases good collections of short stories like Robert Sheckley.

A fellow lanzmann, Bob Sheckley emerged onto the science fiction magazine scene early in this decade, and he has elevated the standards of every digest for which he’s written (Galaxy seems to be his primary literary residence).  His first compilation, 1954’s Untouched by Human Hands, was a masterpiece right out of the gate.  I am especially partial to his second collection, Citizen of the Galaxy, perhaps because it is the first one I read.  It was published in 1955.

Somehow, I missed his third, Pilgrimage to Earth, even though it was published last year (1957).  It’s good, though perhaps not quite as good as the previous two.  It does deliver the qualities I’ve come to expect from Mr. Sheckley–whimsy, comedy, satire, horror.  The collection also has several stories I had missed when they were first published.

Standouts include the AAA Ace stories, Milk Run and Lifeboat Mutiny, featuring the unlucky yet plucky interstellar hustlers, Gregor and Arnold.  Bad Medicine, in which the protagonist receives psychiatric aid from a machine tuned to the Martian brain, is quite good.  I enjoyed All the Things You Are, a tale of a disastrous first contact between humanity and an alien race, but with an unexpectedly happy coda.  Protection is a cautionary tale regarding guardian angels–sometimes we’re better off without their help!

There are a few stories in this collection that miss the mark, to my mind.  These are stories that betray a certain degree of misogyny or at least resentment toward the female (I understand Mr. Sheckley divorced a few years back, and this may have colored his views; he is recently re-married, mazel tov.) We saw a bit of this attitude in last collection’s Ticket to Tranai and it is quite evident in the titular Pilgrimage to Earth.  In the latter story, a hayseed colonist travels to Earth, where he purchases a very convincing love affair.  The unsatisfactory ending leaves him bitter and soon a customer of another Earth commercial specialty–shooting galleries with live women as targets. 

Also unpleasant was Fear in the Night.  I won’t spoil the story, but it highly disturbed my wife when she read it. 

On the other hand, Human Man’s Burden features a mail-order settler’s bride, but the execution and the twist make the story surprisingly good.  There is a bit of male fantasy and wish-fulfillment in it, but I thought the bride was well-developed and a strong, self-reliant character.

In short, this collection is worth getting despite being more of a mixed bag than the previous two.  I am not too worried.  Anyone as prolific as Sheckley is bound to dash out a few clunkers, and perhaps his second try at marital bliss will improve his outlook on women.  Moreover, I’ve enjoyed Sheckley’s (and his alter-ego, Finn Donnovan’s) recent, as-yet unanthologized stories, and that’s a good sign.

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Godzilla raids.  Again.  (11-17-1958)

Greetings from Nagoya, Japan!  This industrial city emerged from the Second World War a drab and gray place with little of the charm of the new Tokyo.  Still, it is not without its attractions.  For instance, Nagoya castle is a national treasure dating back to the warring fiefs period of Japan; it is the legendary birthplace of Oda Nobunaga, the first of the 16th century warlords who tried to unify Japan.  It’s all very picturesque what with the brilliant fall colors accenting everything.

But you didn’t tune in to read about my travels.  You tuned in to hear about my encounters with giant sea monsters.  Dear readers, I shall not disappoint.

“Giant sea monsters?” you ask.  Yes, the use of the plural was deliberate.  The Japanese film industry has determined that, if one sea monster is thrilling, then two will be twice as much so (or more).  And thus, we have a movie about the recently-deceased Gojira and his intense rivalry with the Ankylosaurus, Anguirus.

The film’s title translates as “Gojira’s counter-attack,” and I am not certain whether or not it will reach American shores, though it came out three years ago (1955).  It is a decidedly inferior film to the first one, though Shimura Takashi does gamely reprise his role as Dr. Yamane (if you’re wondering where you have seen Shimura-san before, he was the lead samurai in the now-classic The Seven Samurai). 

The city that enjoys urban renewal this time around is Japan’s #2 metropolis, Osaka.  There is a good deal of interminable fighting between Gojira and Anguirus with the attendant collateral damage.  Gojira is ultimately the victor, biting the neck of the Ankylosaur and tossing him onto picturesque Osaka castle, or at least an unconvincing model thereof.  It is determined that Gojira cannot be stopped with conventional weapons, and they have lost the formula to the anti-oxygen concoction that (seemed to have) killed Gojira last time.

Gojira is thus not killed but simply stopped when the air force leads it away to the side of a frozen mountain, which is then blasted by missiles causing an avalanche that buries the giant dinosaur.  I remember this scene most distinctly from the movie as I had doubts it would ever end.  Perhaps they simply cut the same footage of a model plane doing spins around Gojira and spliced several copies into a ten-minute sequence.  That was the impression I was left with.

Were I an optimist, I would say that the film marked the death knell for Japanese monster movies given the sharp decline in quality from the original.  More have come and are coming out, however, including the turgid Rodan and the not-terrible Mysterians.  And so a genre is born.

I think the most significant difference between the movies is the attitude toward the atomic bomb.  In both movies, it is H-bomb testing in the Pacific that awakens the beasts and mutates them to their improbable sizes and gives them their incredible powers.  In the first movie, significant parallels were drawn between the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused by American bombers and the devastation of Tokyo at the hands of Gojira–in essence, another atomic event.  Gojira was a cautionary tale: should we believe ourselves masters of these monstrous forces, we shall become victims of the monster.  A bit heavy-handed, but certainly legitimate, especially given the national source.

By this second movie, the moralizing is virtually absent.  Instead, the atomic bomb is merely a vehicle for creating giant monsters that knock down model cities and eat miniature trains.  The TOEI monster franchise has clearly shifted its demographic target.  It is now a series for children, the ones for whom World War II is a now-distant memory. 

That said, I am but a human; my inner child did delight in watching two actors in rubber suits locked in mortal overcranked combat amidst a miniature cardboard city.  If that’s all you want from a movie, by all means, find this film when it is translated into your language and enjoy.  Just don’t expect anything as well-made or thoughtful as the original.

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Astoundingly bad (11-15-1958)

I’m willing to concede that we (currently) live in a “man’s world.” Men make up most of the protagonists and characters in science fiction, and the vast majority of science fiction authors are men.  This month’s Astounding does not buck this trend–virtually every story has no, or at best a token, female presence.  I suppose I should be grateful for this, however, as I would rather have no women in my stories than see them horribly mistreated and poorly portrayed, as I saw happen rather gratuitously in the second half of the magazine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Poul Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” ended as it started with a fine premise, an interesting if whimsical storyline, and horrible execution.  The resourceful engineer of the Mercury Girl managed to escape from the occupied planet by fashioning a ship from a sealed crate and several barrels of beer (providing the reaction mass for propulsion).  The national and gender stereotypes were tired by page 2 of the last installment, and they don’t get better here.  All’s well that ends, and I was happy to see this story finish.

Miller’s pre-book-review column focused on UFOs, which are still popular.  I remember reading in an Asimov or Ley article that the number of UFO sightings climbed sharply in the late ’40s coincident with the testing of new jets and sounding rockets.  At the same time, the number of reported demonic encounters dropped dramatically.  You may draw your own conclusions from this.

“Seller’s Market,” by Chris Anvil, is another inconsequential but readable story of the type that has characterized his writing since he started.  It depicts a small military force on a harsh planet as it struggles against a nominally superior but fatally flawed foe.

And now, I can put it off no longer.  The story that ruined my morning and my impression of Randall Garrett, and by extension, Astounding magazine: “Queen Bee.”

I don’t think misogyny can adequately convey the sentiment in this story.  “Hatred of women,” may get closer to the mark.  The setting of the story was interesting-enough: Four men and three women marooned on a wild planet for life.  However, the story begins with the viewpoint character hitting a woman (she was hysterical, of course), and it goes downhill from there.

It is decided, pursuant to codified law (!) that the males and females must breed constantly and switch partners each time such that a colony with a maximum of genetic diversity can be produced.  One of the women, the only married one, seems fine with this, much to the consternation of her old-fashioned husband.  The other two women resist the idea for some reason.  One of them is diagnosed by the resident doctor as a “man-hater,” and the other is a Taming of the Shrew Kate-type character.  That’s all right–the male characters beat sense into them, quite literally.  The man-hater, after being walloped a good one realizes the error of her ways and becomes pregnant shortly thereafter.

But the other hold-out won’t budge despite several clouts and a full course of spanking (!!) Eventually, she kills the other two women so that she, as the only woman, can enjoy an indispensable (and perhaps beating-free) status.  Given the circumstances, I’m not sure that I find her actions unreasonable.  Of course, the men are horrified, and they exact a horrible revenge… er… mete out appropriate justice.  They hold a trial and find her not guilty by reason of insanity.

And then they lobotomize her, turning her into a mindless child-bearing factory.

What is so maddening about this story is its contrast with Judith Merril’s story in this month’s F&SF.  The set-up is quite similar, except the women don’t have to resort to constant brutality to keep the men-folk in line.  One could argue that the arrangement in Merril’s story was consensual and thus a whole different matter.  This only emphasizes the horror of Garrett’s scenario: the women in his story didn’t sign up to be mothers of a colony.  They certainly never agreed to be dominated and brutalized by their fellow castaways. 

Perhaps, if the story had been meant as satire, I could have taken it.  But I think Randy Garrett’s premises, that men should automatically be in charge, that a woman’s duty is to bear children, and violence against women is the best method to keep them in line, must ring natural and true to Mr. Garrett, to Mr. Campbell, and if the readers of Astounding do not subscribe to them, I imagine they do not generally find them egregious.

Well, I did.  This is worse than the story that turned me off of Venture (“Eve and the Twenty-Three Adams” by Robert Silverberg; the set-up was similar–in that one, all starships came equipped with a ship’s whore, and when the story’s ship’s whore wouldn’t perform, the Captain drugged her up so that she could fulfill her role while unconscious).  Garrett’s lost me as a fan, and I am sending a copy of this article straight to Mr. Campbell. 

Sorry to end this piece on a down note.  I will hopefully have cheerier things to discuss next time around.  The final score: 4 stars for the first half, 1.5 stars for the second, 2.25 for the whole magazine.

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