Tag Archives: japan trip

[July 29, 1960] Changing Landscapes (Japan, the Republican Convention, and the Journey Forecast)

The results of the Republican National Convention, held in Chicago this year, are in.  They should hardly come as a surprise to anyone: Vice President Richard M. Nixon is the Republican candidate for President of the United States.

I say that this news is unsurprising with good reason–namely, that Nixon essentially ran unopposed.  Oh, sure, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was putatively in the race, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller has been front and center in the headlines over the past two months, but the former never had a chance, and the latter never formally threw his hat into the ring.  In fact, it appears that “Rocky’s” blistering rhetoric, put forth in print as a set of polemics, was intended to influence the Republican platform rather than propel him into the candidacy.  Well, Rockefeller can certainly boast this season–he got Nixon to come to his parlor on bended knee, and much of what Rockefeller espoused made its way into the platform and Nixon’s agenda.

In fact, given the rather moderate tone of the GOP platform, voters may have trouble choosing between the two parties’ men come November.  One thing I noted, comparing Nixon’s acceptance speech to Kennedy’s, I would give the inspirational and demagogic nod to the latter.  While Kennedy poetically described the New Frontier of the 1960s, challenging us all to become its pioneers to make the nation and the world a better place, the main thrust of Nixon’s message seems to be, “We’re better than the Communists.”  Well, no one doubts that, but as a wise person once said (this quote is attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, but it predates him), “There is no nobility in being superior to someone else; true nobility comes in being superior to one’s former self.” 

The only real mystery of the convention was Nixon’s choice for his running mate.  Interestingly, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate is Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts Senator whom Kennedy defeated in 1952 to begin his career in the upper division of Congress.  Now ambassador to the United Nations, and a strong advocate for that body’s peacekeeping capabilities, I believe he is a good selection for the No. 2 spot.  He will, however, not help Nixon sway the South from the Democratic grasp anymore than Nixon’s rather progressive stance on racial issues.  I expect this election to be a tight one, fought largely in the relatively liberal areas of the North East, the Great Lakes, and the West Coast.

For those who follow my travels, I am currently on the train to the industrial city of Nagoya, a few hours west of Tokyo.  Here are some pictures of the Shinjuku area of Japan’s capital, which is currently experiencing something of a revitalization in anticipation of the Olympics, time after next.  For anyone who was worried for our welfare, there were no signs of unrest, and we have been treated with courtesy, even warmth.  We had a great time in Kabukicho and Nihonbashi–in the latter, we supped at an excellent little jazz club where someone had set up a mobile projector and was showing old Felix the Cat cartoons.  The best part of travel is the serendipitous pleasures.

In other, Journey-related news, the month of July is over, and it’s time to see how the Big Three digests fared, quality-wise.  It’s a tough choice between Galaxy and F&SF this month. Both clock in at a little over three stars.  I think I’ll give the nod to the former, for being longer if nothing else.  My favorite story this month was probably Stecher’s An Elephant for the Prinkip, though none stood out prominently.  Only one female writer made an appearance this month: Rosel George Brown.

As for next month, I didn’t see any new books of interest, but I will be watching the films Dinosaurus and The Time Machine.  Also, expect coverage of a number of exciting, recently announced satellite launches, both military and civilian.  I’ve also just finished the final installment of Anderson’s The High Crusade, and it was excellent.  I’ll have a review for you next time around.

Stay tuned!

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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The short flight of Pioneer II (11-13-1958)

Sometimes the third time isn’t the charm.

On November 8, NASA (read: The Air Force), sent the third of its “Pioneers” toward the moon.  For those following the topic, the first one, launched in August, exploded.  The second one, launched last month, strayed from its intended course and made it just halfway to its destination.

There were high hopes for this mission: the new little Pioneer had a couple of new instruments including a proportional counter developed by the University of Chicago for the detection of cosmic rays, and a TV camera designed to take the first picture of the Moon from space. 

Sadly, Pioneer II (the first one was “0”, hence the misnomer), didn’t make it either.  Though the first and second stages worked perfectly, the third one simply refused to fire.  The little Pioneer limped up to an altitude of 1550 kilometers before burning up over Africa.  It was an inauspicious ending for the world’s ninth space shot, but it was not entirely in vain.  I understand Pioneer II returned some interesting data on micrometeors and orbital radiation.  It will be interesting to compare this information to that collected by Explorer IV and see how they line up.

So where do we go from here?  It seems STL, builder of Pioneers 0-2, has shot its bolt for now.  Von Braun’s group has announced that it will be launching its own lunar Pioneers starting next month, and that Venus is in the cards as a destination in the near future.  The Soviets surely have their secret plans, too.  In fact, I have to wonder why the Russians haven’t already launched a lunar rocket.  On October 12, a Soviet ambassador congratulated us for launching Pioneer I and explained that the Communists weren’t interested in a moon probe.  But four days later, the Soviets hinted that a moon probe was in the works.  Perhaps they are having their own failures, but they are unwilling to share this news with the world. 

In any event, it is clear that the moon marks the end of the next lap in the ongoing Space Race.  Watch this space for further updates as they occur. I may not be as punctual as David Brinkley, but I am better-looking.

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Gojira (Godzilla) 1954 (11-11-1958)

Greetings from the Orient!  More specifically, hello from the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, Japan.

It is hard to believe that, just thirteen years ago, the ward that is now Shinjuku had been virtually destroyed by American bombs.  Shinjuku today is a bustling commercial and transport hub with a giant train station and every imaginable kind of shop.

These days, if the movies coming out of Japan are any indication, Tokyo’s biggest threat comes not from the skies, but from the sea.  In 1954, Japan began what appears will be a long-running series of motion pictures featuring a giant dinosaur from the deep ravaging the countryside of this archipelago.  The Japanese call him (her?) Gojira, which is a punning combination of Gorilla and Kujira, the Japanese word for whale.  This name is meant to convey Gojira’s immense size. 

You may not have heard of Gojira, but you certainly know its renamed alter-ego–in 1956, a largely similar cut of the film was released in the United States, dubbed in English, and with linking scenes featuring Raymond Burr.  In this version, the monster was named Godzilla, and it looks like it will keep this name when the sequels come to America.

The phrase “Japanese product” generally connotes a cheaply made, mass-produced good.  When I watched this film back in ’54, this is what I expected.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The premise is simple: Godzilla is a several-hundred foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex that can shoot fire from its mouth.  He comes out of the sea, attacks Tokyo, is repelled at first by an enormous, hastily erected electric fence, but he quickly recovers and demolishes the city.  He is repelled at last through the use of a pseudo-scientific substance that strips an area of all of its oxygen thus removing the flesh of all creatures within the affected zone.

That does sound awfully silly at first blush.  What redeems the film is its style.  It is shot in a very effective moody fashion, almost film-noir.  The characters are nicely developed, especially Hirata Akihiko, who plays the erratic, noble scientist who develops the anti-oxygen substance; the famous Shimura Takashi, playing the elder scientist, Dr. Yamane Kyouhei; and the lovely Kochi Momoko, who plays Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko.  Takarada Akira, who plays the movie’s protagonist, Hideto, is handsome enough, but he failed to impress as strongly. 

What’s particularly affecting, and this was highly controversial with the Japanese public, are the scenes of widespread destruction.  Japan’s war wounds, self-inflicted though they ultimately may have been, are but half healed.  The burnt wastelands shown in the film can’t help but evoke landscapes that were widespread a short decade ago.  For many, it was gratuitous and exploitative.  I’m sure many moviegoers walked out.

On the other hand, the movie scratches the same itch as knocking over sand castles.  Let’s face it–most people have an inner child that likes seeing things go boom, and Gojira/Godzilla does this very satisfyingly.  Moreover, it manages to do so while maintaining high production values, good acting (at least in the original Japanese), and even some decent moralizing.  If you get a chance to see the original film with subtitles, I recommend it.  It is a more serious film, I think. 

As for the sequels… well…

Stay tuned for the next article!

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Farmer in the Sky (11-09-1958)

When I started this column, I had not expected this to turn into a travelogue.  Given that I do much of my reading on a plane heading somewhere glamorous and exciting, I suppose it can’t be helped.  I hope you can all bear with me.

Northwest Orient, a Seattle-based airline, has been filling the air waves with advertisements about their shorter route to “The Orient” (i.e. East Asia).  Well, I decided to bite, and this weekend found us on a plane to the Far East.  There is no direct route to Japan, but Northwest has the next best thing: after a hop back to Seattle (how familiar!), there was a short layover in Honolulu.  Less than a day after takeoff from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, we arrived at Tokyo’s modern air hub, Haneda airport.  The DC-7 is not as fast as the 707, but I think I prefer the gentle drone of propellers to the loud roar of jets.  Call me old-fashioned.

When I get used to the time difference (they should come up with a term for that logy feeling you get after long-distance air travel), I’ll tell you all about the wonders of Japan.  Or perhaps not–you come here for the science fiction commentary, don’t you?

With Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” deterring me from rushing off to finish this month’s Astounding, I decided to catch up on my burgeoning backlog of Heinlein novels.  I liked “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” recently serialized in F&SF, so I read Farmer in the Sky on the trip.

The book was published eight years ago in 1950, but it feelst up-to-date.  It is the story of an Eagle Scout in his mid teens emigrating out to a newish colony on Ganymede with his family.  Interestingly enough, nearly half of its length is devoted simply to getting there: the application, the preparation, the flight to Ganymede on the Mayflower.  Once there, the tale emulates prior settler stories.  You have the hard times, the loving description of food raised and eaten, the triumphs, and the tragedies.  All throughout, Heinlein does a pretty good job of portraying the physics involved in spaceflight as well as a primer on agronomy on a recently dead world.  The book ends satisfyingly if on a slightly bittersweet note.

A few of interesting points from the book:

Bill, the book’s protagonist, is from San Diego, like me. 

As usual, the author does a good job with technology predictions.  His “quickthaw” and “autoresponder” are plausible and seamlessly executed.  I always find it a little jarring when “slipsticks” (slide-rules) are in copious evidence.  In these days of IBMs and UNIVACS, am I alone in thinking that portable computing machines are the wave of the far future?

California has around 50 million people in the book’s indeterminately dated (but probably the mid-to-late 21 century) future.  This is five times that recorded in the 1950 census.  Extending this to the world population, there must be some 10 billion people on Earth.  I talked about this in an earlier piece; 10 billion sounds like a lot, but not in the doomsday area.  But Heinlein’s future Earth has food rationing, and it is big impetus for leaving the planet. 

I would be okay with this, but Heinlein’s depicted future also has developed complete matter conversion drives and power plants.  Humans have the ability, in the book, to manufacture a breathable atmosphere for Ganymede.  As Bill’s father says early on in the story, “Wherever Man has mass and energy to work with and enough savvy to know how to manipulate them, he can create any environment he needs.” It seems to me that once humanity taps the limitless power afforded by mass conversion, or even thermonuclear fusion, providing food for even 10 billion people should be a trifling concern. 

There is a little bit of gentle misogyny: Bill’s father tells his step-daughter that she’s not allowed on the bridge of the Mayflower because she’s a girl, though this may be meant teasingly.  Bill notes that girls should be kept in a well until they are sixteen, and then a decision made to let them out or leave them there.  Again, I don’t know how out of character this is for a teenaged boy.  On the other hand, there is a skilled female pilot, Hattie.  She’s not the most likable of characters, but she knows her job, and she’s been at it for a long time. 

These are minor quibbles.  The book is good and should fire the imagination of many a young (and old!) reader.  It’s worth it just for the chapters describing the trip to Ganymede.

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December 1958: Astounding (1st half) 11-08-1958

With December’s Galaxy and F&SF done and reviewed, I now turn to the last of the Big Three: Astounding.  The elephant in this magazine is, of course, the second half of Poul Anderson’s dreary short novel, “Bicycle Built for Brew.” It lurks at the end of the magazine like an oncoming train at the end of a tunnel.  Thus, I abandoned my usual haphazard reading habits and began at the beginning, like normal people.

Good thing, too.  The first three stories, comprising 65 pages, are good and somewhat of a theme.  I have to congratulate myself for making it through a full three quarters of Campbell’s blatherous editorial before skipping to story #1.

“Ministry of Disturbance” is a fun story of a week in the life of the august ruler of a 1300-planet galactic imperium, one that has persisted virtually unchanged for centuries.  At first it seems that it will be a sort of light farce, but the story takes several turns before arriving at an unexpected conclusion.  It’s a little bewildering: there are a lot of moving parts including a large cast of characters and several concurrent event threads.  Ultimately, there is something of a happy ending.  My favorite line from the story is, “If you have a few problems, you have trouble, but if you have a whole lot of problems, they start solving each other.”

Did I mention it’s by H. Beam Piper?  That should be enough to recommend it.  He did that lovely tale, Omnilingual (from which story the lady in my masthead derives), which you can find in the February 1957 Astounding.

Next up is “Triggerman” by a fellow I’d never heard of before, an “R.T. Bone.” Rather than a tale of the far future, it is highly contemporary.  We’ve all heard of the metaphorical “button” on which the collective finger of the President and his generals rests, the pressing of which initiates atomic armageddon.  In Bone’s story, the button is real, and one man has his finger on it.  It’s a silly concept, but it is thankfully just the set up for a interesting short tale of an overwhelmingly destructive attack on the United States.  As with the last story, there is a surprise, and the subject matter is not apolitical.

The third in the initial trio is “Pieces of the Game” by Mack Reynolds.  Mack has been around for a while, bouncing from digest to digest, but I believe this is his first appearance in Astounding.  Like “Triggerman,” it is set in the Cold War, but a few years in the future, in a recently Communist Austria.  There is mention of a war, but it is clear that both sides are still active, as this story is a tale of espionage by an unlikely-looking agent.  It’s a pretty standard thriller; I hesitate to even call it science fiction.  But it is entertaining, and it fits in well with the theme of the first two stories.

That makes a solid 4 out of 5 stars for the first half of December’s Astounding!  Lord knows where that score will finish, however…

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