Tag Archives: jules verne

[December 4, 1962] Like Five Weeks in a Theater (Five Weeks in Balloon)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]

by Lorelei Marcus

“5 weeks in a balloon!” What an exciting phrase — so much potential for many interesting stories and ideas.  Thus, you can perhaps understand the excitement I felt in anticipation of the new Jules Verne spectacular based on the book of the same title. Going in without a hint of what the film might be about, I already had a bunch of wild adventures thought up. I was certain the movie would involve a group of explorers struggling to survive a month in the air. Maybe they would run low on food. Perhaps they’d get on each others’ nerves. A giant storm might throw them off course or prevent their landing. Seeing it on the big screen was going to be fantastic!

Or so I thought. To be frank, the movie that I actually got was disappointing, especially compared to the wondrous stories that I’d already imagined before the movie. Rather than a cool and creative survival movie of living in a balloon, we got a rather dull sight-seeing trip.

Get used to scenes like this.  There are a lot of them.

The movie stars a small cast of stereotypes: The witty professor, the kooky general, the teenage heartthrob (Fabian), the obnoxious American reporter (Red Buttons), the slave girl who knows just enough English to sound foreign (but is totally understandable), and the love interest.

I’m glad Fabian’s working again.  Dig that 19th Century hair!

“Which man do you want to end up with?”  “Anyone but Red Buttons, please.”

Oh, and I can’t forget their ape companion either, because every Jules Verne movie has to have an animal companion.

This seems thoroughly responsible.

Now if I told you that this movie was about this crew racing in a balloon across Africa to beat slave traders from staking a valuable claim, and getting caught in various misadventures along the way, you would probably say, “Well how could such an adventure be boring?” I’m not sure, especially considering the movie started off so well!

Everything before the balloon’s take off (the first 20 minutes or so) was funny, clever, and fast paced. The first scene, in which the professor and his inventor friend take reluctant investors on a demonstration flight, and then the next bit in which the professor prepares for the expedition and collects funds and crew, was quite fun to watch!

“Jane!  Stop this crazy thing!”

“This is Africa.”  “Oh!  Good to know!”

But once he’d picked up the American reporter, and the balloon took to the skies, the movie ground to a sudden halt. Unfortunately it never seemed to pick back up again either. The entire movie was: the balloon flies around, lands someplace; the crew gets out and gets into trouble, they run back to the balloon and fly away. There were no real conflicts, because they could always just retreat to the balloon and escape danger. Moreover, many of these scenes went on for ‘way too long. There was never any real tension through the whole movie, and without tight pacing of events, the movie felt like it was really dragging on for five weeks!

Now I will give the credit for its visual quality. It was in color like all the Jules Verne classics, and it had many exotic settings and beautiful sets. However, with the lack of a real plot, the movie really just felt like “Look at this pretty thing!” over and over again. I’m hoping this doesn’t become a common trend, the substitution of pretty special effects for a good story.

The acting was alright. In fact, the best part of the movie was the interaction between the singleminded professor and the prissy general sent by the Prime Minister to co-lead the expedition.  Their banter was genuinely funny.  But it was also very British, or I should say, what Americans think of as British.  That was a big problem with this movie: racial stereotyping. There were certainly quite a few racist portrayals of different cultures, to say the least. The journey took place over Africa, so there several scenes set in Muslim palaces. The problem was, rather than using this opportunity to show these cultures in an interesting and insightful way, we got very clearly not Muslim African actors in brown makeup spouting nonsense. And the Black Africans were hordes of dancing/yelling savages. It really just felt kind of insulting.

“I’m British, you know.”  “What a coincidence!  So am I!”

Sensitive portrayals of foreign cultures.

In the end though, the largest fault of this movie was not its own shortcomings, but the fact that we’ve already seen this plot done better. Master of the Air, another film inspired by a Jules Verne novel, lived up to the expectations set by its title. It has a tense and satisfying story, characters with lots of depth, an awesome set…and weeks spent in an airship! That movie is everything Five Weeks wants to be.

This explains a lot…

All in all, I would not say Five Weeks in a Balloon is a bad movie. I think the creators were trying to make an exciting adventure movie and mix it with comedy, and they ended up succeeding at neither. Still, the high budget did make it a fun tour through Africa. The movie wasn’t a waste of my time, but I was disappointed that it didn’t meet the standard previous Verne films (particularly Master), have set. Overall, I give this movie 2 stars. It was quite mediocre, and I would say if you’re looking to watch a great Verne spectacular, then you’re better off with one of his other films.

This is the Young Traveler, signing off.

[I watched this movie, too, and I really have very little to add to this excellent review.  I might charitably give the film 2.5 stars as it is less bad than not good.

One interesting observation — we saw this in a double-feature with This is not a Test, and both flicks featured chicken abuse.  Is this a new cinematic trend? [Ed]]

[November 21, 1961] Jules Verne on a Budget (Valley of the Dragons)

by Rosemary Benton

Very little deters me from seeking out science fiction films. Even if the venue is a little disreputable I will still venture in. Even when a film is being trashed by critics I’ll still give it a chance. But in the case of Valley of the Dragons I wish I had turned around at the entrance to the seedy theater I found it in. I wish I had heeded the warnings of fellow film reviewers. Valley of the Dragons is this month’s science fiction B-movie and 1961’s third Jules Verne inspired motion picture. It has everything including a story slower than my Greek tortoise, well known bit-role actors and of course copious use of stock footage. But is it still watchable? No.

Set in 1881 Algiers, the motion picture begins with two men facing off in a duel when a comet swipes past Earth, and pulls them to its surface and off into space. Suddenly finding themselves in a new and hostile world, the duelists must put aside their differences in order to outmaneuver a herd of mammoths, roaming giant lizards and bloodthirsty cavemen. Eventually they learn to adapt to their new home and are each adopted by a rival tribe of prehistoric humans. The second half of the film focuses on the emerging romances each man sparks with a cavewoman from his tribe. The script concludes with the tribes learning to come together to better fight for survival on the unforgiving comet. 

The poster for Valley of the Dragons touted several interesting aspects that I was hoping would be delivered. First and foremost, in bold red lettering the poster said that the film was photographed in “Monstascope.” Would this mean that the movie was in an aspect ratio other than 1.37:1? Yes, the film was definitely not 1.37:1, but neither was it CinemaScope with it’s glorious 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Herein lay the first let down of Valley of the Dragons. If I had to hazard a guess I would say it was closer to a 1.85:1 ratio.

Next, the poster advertises the involvement of director and writer Edward Bernds. Bernds is best known for Return of the Fly (1959) and World Without End (1956), although he has made his mark in exploitative films like High School Hellcats (1958) and even comedies like the Blondie Bumstead franchise. Being well versed in such a wide expanse of genres, I was interested to see what Bernds could cook up with subject material as potent as a Jules Verne novel. But despite my initial interest in the setting and the two protagonists, the plot quickly dissolves into painfully cliché storytelling with little in terms of originality. The former being especially true with the ridiculous amount of footage from other movies that Bernds stuffs in. Bernds relies so heavily on repurposed footage of monster fights and special effects that I felt like I was watching a fan-made reimagining of One Million B.C. rather than an original movie that happened to borrow some of its more memorable scenes.

But I can’t say that Valley of the Dragons is completely without charm. Hector Servadac, the only character retained from the original 1877 Verne novel Off On a Comet, fits well into the role of the more logical and methodical of the two protagonists. His monologue theorizing how they came to their current situation is also characteristically in keeping with Jules Verne’s fantastical science.

“There’s only one explanation that fits all the facts as we know them… A heavenly body, a small planet, or a comet perhaps, collided with the Earth and bore us into space carrying an envelope of the Earth’s atmosphere with us.”

It was also fun, as with almost all B-movies, to see how many different films they used stock footage from. At least I found it fun recognizing the various 40s and 50s films meshed together with original footage. But then again, I’ve seen too many movies. I was able to instantly recognize the alligator and monitor lizard fight, not to mention the woolly mammoths and giant iguana, from the 1940 film One Million B.C. It seems strange to me to use widely recognizable footage from a classic like One Million B.C., a movie that is played repeatedly on television, but not knowing the mind of Edward Bernds I can only assume he thought it looked interesting and would shave precious money from the production budget. In the last half hour of the film there is even some Rodan (1956) and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) footage.

On the subject of saving money, Valley of the Dragons did include one prop that I was surprised and frankly impressed that Bernds employed. After our protagonists begin exploring the strange comet they find themselves on, they stumble into a cave to escape some roaming giant lizards. In this cave exist giant spiders. Very familiar giant spiders in fact. Since having them built for World Without End, Bernds has said that the mechanics nearly never worked and were a constant source of frustration for himself as well as the actors. Despite this, he has continued to employ these props in nearly every one of his science fiction films. It has become nearly a trademark to see these Labrador-sized furry spiders jumping on scientists, adventurers and heroines in an Edward Bernds movie. 

Ultimately Valley of the Dragons has not won me or the critics with either its Jules Verne appeal or its a giant spiders. This might a passable movie for anyone who has not seen a science fiction film over the last twenty years. Or anyone who doesn’t owns a television set and hasn’t seen over half of this movie via reruns of Rodan, One Million B.C. or Cat-Women of the Moon. But for those who are looking for a competent science fiction movie with fun special effects and originality, I would strongly advise looking elsewhere. Valley of the Dragons has its moments, but I can’t say it was worth the price of admission. Edward Bernds may be a competent enough director and writer, but Valley of the Dragons will not go down as a shining moment in his filmography.

[July 30, 1961] 20,000 Leagues in a Balloon (Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island)

by Gideon Marcus

Jules Verne, the father of scientific adventure, has probably inspired more movie spectacles than any other writer.  Verne’s characters have conquered all areas of the globe, from the center of the Earth, to the heights of the clouds, to the bottom of the ocean. 

Perhaps the most famous of Verne’s protagonists is Captain Nemo, skipper of the magnificent submarine, the Nautilus.  In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, adapted to film in 1953, Nemo led a one-man crusade against war, sinking the world’s warships in the cause of pacifism.

My daughter and I just came back from the premiere of Mysterious Island, the latest translation of a Verne novel.  It is a sequel of sorts to 20,000 Leagues, though this is not immediately apparent from the beginning.  The initial setting is the siege of Richmond at the end of the American Civil War.  Four Yankee prisoners make a daring escape in a balloon along with an initially wary, but ultimately game, Confederate prisoner.  The film begins with no indication of where it’s going other than the title (and the mention of Nemo in the cast list – an unfortunate spoiler).

This first act sets the pace for most of the movie – fast and exciting.  It continues for a good twenty minutes before the balloon crash-lands onto the movie’s namesake, a volcanic spot of land in the South Pacific.  In this span, we get a good feel for the characters, all of whom are interesting and likable.  We have Captain Harding, a brusque, efficient sort who has little trouble commanding authority.  Neb is his aide-de-camp and good friend, a Negro soldier who’s clearly served with Harding a long time.  Young Herbert is another of Harding’s men, an ashamed coward who wishes he could be a better man (and gets the opportunity!).  The captured Rebel, Sergeant Branson, is an amiable sort.  After some initial mistrust, he falls in line with Harding.  The last of the adventurers is Gideon Spillet, a cynical and jaunty war reporter.  It is, perhaps, no surprise that the middle-aged journalist named Gideon is my favorite character…

Once upon the island, the band discovers a host of extraordinary features.  The volcano is ominously active.  Many of the flora and fauna of the island are unnaturally large.  Yet, despite these dangers, the castaways seem to have a guardian angel, always providing aid at the brink of catastrophe.

The oversized critters are beautifully brought to life by the master of stop-motion effects, Ray Harryhausen.  We’ve seen his work before in films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and this may well be his most impressive outing.  Not only does he do a wonderful job of rendering a giant crab, a Diatryma, and a swarm of outsized bees, but their interactions with living actors are convincing. 

Not long after my daughter lamented the lack of women in the movie, two were thoughtfully provided.  The shipwrecked duo are the Lady Mary Fairchild, and her niece, Elena.  I greatly appreciated that the newcomers were treated, as characters, with dignity.  They quickly become members of the team, the noble Mary proving to be quite resourceful, indeed. 

Island maintains its tempo and excitement for a good 75 of its 101 minutes, prematurely climaxing with the introduction of the party’s benefactor, Captain Nemo.  The final act, depicting Nemo’s plan to leave the island in a captured brigands’ vessel (the Nautilus having been crippled in the last movie), is somewhat inconsistent and expositional.  We lose a bit of the character interaction that made Island so entertaining. 

Nevertheless, there’s no question that Island, despite its simple, linear plot and its uneven ending, is a delight.  It’s a lovely film with a fine cast, yet another success in the long line of Vernian films.  Perhaps what I enjoyed the most about the movie, aside from the diverse cast, was its lack of an opponent.  So many films involve some degree of treachery or antagonism, an enemy to overcome or a traitorous party member.  I find that rather tedious.  In Island, all of the cast are basically good, and they work together to master their situation.  The setting, itself, provides enough drama to hold interest.

Moreover, the only animals we see killed and eaten are ones that attacked the party.  No goats or Gertrudes lose their lives in this film.

3.5 stars.

by Lorelei Marcus

Today we watched Mysterious Island, which was a pretty good movie, I would say.  Like most of the Verne movies we’ve watched, it has an exciting setup.  The special effects were amazing, as to be expected from Ray Harryhausen.  I loved seeing all of the creatures they’d come up with and seeing them turned into giant forms. The stop motion was meshed so well with the actual footage, it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t!  I can’t pick a favorite creature — they were all so good.

The acting was also very good, and there was a lot of attention to detail on the actors.  I particularly liked the strong relationship between the Captain and Neb.  I’m not surprised that neither of them got involved with the castaway women as they had each other. 

My favorite thing is seeing people surviving and rebuilding, and this movie really scratched that itch. They came up with a lot of creative ways to create modern implements in the wild, from the goat pen to the shell bowls.

Overall the pacing was very good, until around the end where it slowed down a bit, but otherwise it was a fun movie.  It’s hard to describe a plot because there wasn’t much of one. They escaped from prison, they found an island, they built on the island, they escaped the island, The End.  Despite this though, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  The sets were all very beautiful, and it was edited very well.

I think I would give this movie a 3.5 out of 5.  It was very good, but kind of lost me at the end. Still, I highly recommend you go see it yourself, if not for the story, then for the amazing special effects.

This is the young traveler, signing off.

[Jan. 23, 1961] 20,000 Leagues over the Air! (Master of the World)

Every once in a while, my faith is restored in Hollywood, and I remember why I sit through the schlock to get to the gold.

My daughter and I sat through 90 minutes of the execrable, so bad it’s bad Konga because we had been lured in by the exciting posters for Master of the World.  It promised to be a sumptuous Jules Verne classic a la Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it starred the inimitable Vincent Price to boot.

It was worth the wait–the movie is an absolute delight.

The year is 1868, and a team of intrepid adventurers takes off in a steam-powered balloon to investigate what appears to be a volcanic eruption in the midst of Pennsylvania.  They include the doddering but genuinely humorous arms maker, Mr. Prudent, his lively daughter, Dorothy, her outwardly chivalrous but really quite petty fiance, Philip Evans, and the enigmatic yet utterly capable government agent, John Strock. 

As it crests the crater of the Mid-Atlantic’s newest volcanic crater, the balloon is shot down by a stream of missiles.  When the aeronauts awake, they find themselves on a tremendous flying ship, part helicopter and part battleship.  It is captained by the fearsome Robur (Price) festooned with shaggy facial hair appliques.  The skipper’s goal is mad yet laudable: to end war on Earth by destroying each nation’s ability to make war.  With the captured Pennsylvanians in tow, Robur launches a crusade of terror against the navies and armies of the world.  Can this madman be stopped?  You’ll have to watch to the end to find out!

It is an amibitious movie for American International Pictures, an attempt at an epic from a studio better known for it’s “B”-level drive-in fare.  It very well could have been a classic-based dud like last year’s The Lost World.  Certainly, the special effects are nothing special–primarily rather limp model-work, back-projection, and liberal use of stock footage.

And yet…

The script is by Richard Matheson, possibly the best fantasy/science fiction screenwriter in the business.  The performances turned out by the five stars are excellent.  Price’s Robur conveys single-minded fanaticism sublty tinged with resignation and regret.  Here is a villain one can sympathize with, even admire, despite the insanity of his vision.  Henry Hull’s Prudent captures the archaicisms of early 19th Century speech and manners.  The clear attraction between Dorothy Prudent (Mary Webster) and John Strock (Charles Bronson), much to the dismay of Mr. Evans (David Frankham), is convincing. 

Moreover, there is a consistent tone and pacing to the movie.  It is never dull.  The story twists and turns such that you are never certain what will happen next.  It is fun in an over-the-top way that mitigates the enormity of Robur’s actions, making them watchable rather than sickening.  The humor is intentionally funny.  The action scenes are exciting.  The doffing of shirts by the ship’s muscular crew mid-way through the film is inexplicable, but not unwelcome (for at least half of the audience). 

And in the end, it is both satisfying and touching.  More, please. 

Four stars.

[May 11, 1960] Spelunkers Unite! (Journey to the Center of the Earth)

With so much schlock crowding out the marquees at our local cinemas, it’s nice to get a chance to see a quality production for a change.

Last weekend, my daughter and I managed to finally catch the Cinemascope epic, Journey to the Center of the Earth, loosely based upon (read: with the same title as) the Jules Verne classic.  Thankfully, mine eyes are virginal—I have never read the Verne novel.  Rather, I was always partial to Burroughs’ Pellucidar series (about which a movie is coming out this Summer!), so while I am sure there are egregious departures from the original story, they did not and could not offend me.

There is much to like about this charming movie about a priggish Scotsman geologist (who sounds a lot like James Mason), a fresh-faced geology student (who sings a lot like Pat Boone), a strong-willed and competent widow, a strapping Icelandic farmer, and (the true hero of the story), a duck named Gertrude.  This team forms the Lindenbrook Expedition, which aims to penetrate the depths of the Earth.  The access point is an Icelandic volcano, this entry having been pioneered by Arnie Saknussemm decades before.

Four of the five intrepid explorers

Did you know Pat Boone could sing?  Who’da thought?

The science is silly, of course, but that’s acceptable since this is based on a novel of Victorian (3rd Republican?) vintage.  Beneath the Earth, there are giant mushrooms (all edible, of course), ubiquitous phosphorescent algae, intelligent cannibal Dimetrodons, and a giant subterranean ocean.  And, of course, none of our heroes need shave or brush their hair.  Apparently, in the deep vaults of the Earth, little invisible gnomes keep chests, underarms, and coiffures in perfect order.

Less palatable is the rather artificial conflict between the Mason party and his rival, an Icelandic self-styled “Count,” the descendant of Saknussemm, who attempts to derail and vanquish the expedition.  I would have been just fine with a Human vs. Nature spectacle rather than an obligatory Man vs. Man piece.

A most charming aspect, however, is the movie’s streak of feminism.  The Widow Goteborg, who came to Iceland at her husband’s request (Professor Goteborg having attempted to get the jump on Lindenbrook) convincingly argues herself onto the Lindenbrook expedition.  Lindenbrook sputters on about the uselessness of a female explorer, and is then shown up at every turn by the cleverer, more capable Goteborg.  The cleverest member of all, however, is the duck, Gertrude; she unerringly guides the team to safety and profit, and she was my daughter’s favorite character. 

At one point, I noted, “The message of this film is that women are always right.”  My daughter replied, “I’m fine with that message.”

Gertrude leads the crew across the Nonestic Ocean

In sum, it is an absolutely stunning film, in gorgeous color and with fantastic visuals.  I was engaged throughout, even on the several occasions when the movie nearly careened into the musical theater genre.  Immediately upon finishing the movie, I wanted to find my own mustard-coloured traveling outfit.  Sadly, they are in short supply these days.

Coming up, more science, more television, more books, and more magazines.  May is proving to be a month of embarrassing riches.  Stay tuned!

[Oct. 10, 1959] Middle Ground (Nov. 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

It’s going to be a dreary month, if October’s selection of digests is any indication.

Of course, my mood isn’t buoyed by the fact that I must compose this article in long-hand.  I hate writing (as opposed to typing; and typing on an electric is sheer bliss).  On the other hand, I’m the one who chose to occupy much of the next few days in travel, and fellow airplane passengers don’t appreciate the bang bang of fingers hitting keys.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  As I write, I am enjoying my annual plane trip to Seattle for the purpose of visiting my wife’s sister, myriad local friends, and to attend a small but lively science fiction convention.  This one is singular in that its attendees are primarily female, and its focus is woman creators.  People like Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Pauline Ashwell, Anne McCaffrey, etc. 

Once again, I get to ride in the speedy marvel that is the jet-powered Boeing 707.  San Diego to Seattle in just a few hours is a luxury to which I hope I never become jaded.  Although I will concede that the roar of jets is less pleasant a sound than the thrum of propellers. 

I made several attempts to read this month’s Astounding, but I could find nothing in it I enjoyed.  I’ll summarize that effort later.  In the meantime, I have just finished the November 1959 F&SF, and if you can read my chicken-scratch (I hope my editor cleans it up before publication), I’ll tell you all about it.

F&SF often features brilliant stories.  Last month, the magazine had an unheard-of quality of 4.5 stars, just under the theoretical maximum of five.  This month, we’re at the nadir end of quality.  It’s readable but fluffy, forgettable stuff.

Story #1, The Martian Store by Howard Fast, recounts the opening of three international stores, ostensibly offering a limited set of Martian goods.  They are only open for a week, but during that time, they attract thousands of would-be customers as well as the attention of terrestrial authorities.  After the Martian language is cracked, it is determined that the Martians intend to conquer the Earth.  The result is world unity and a sharp advance in technological development.  Shortly thereafter, an American company begins production and sale of one of the Martian products, having successfully reverse engineered the design.

Except, of course, in a move that was well-telegraphed, it turns out the whole thing was a super-secret hoax by that company in order to create a demand for those putatively Martian products.  World peace was a by-product.  Thoroughly 3-star material.

G.C. Edmondson’s From Caribou to Carry Nation is a gaudily overwritten short piece about transubstantiation featuring an old man who is reborn as his favorite vegetable… and is promptly eaten by his grandson.  Two stars, and good riddance.

Plenitude, by newcomer Will Worthington, is almost good.  It has that surviving-after-the-apocalypse motif I enjoy.  In this story, the End of the World is an apparent plague of pleasure-addiction, with most of the human population retreating into self-contained sacks with their brains hooked into direct-stimulation machines.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the quality is such that I anticipate we’ll see ultimately see some good stuff from Worthington.  The editor says there are three more of his stories in the bag, so stay tuned.

There is a rather pointless Jules Verne translation, Frritt-Flacc, in which a miserly, mercenary old doctor is given a lordly sum to treat a patient only to discover that the dying man he came to see is himself.  Two stars.

Then there is I know a Good Hand Trick, by Wade Miller, about the magical seduction of an amorous housewife.  It’s the kind of thing that might make it into Hugh Heffner’s magazine.  Not bad.  Not stellar.  Three stars.

I’ll skip over the second half of Starship Soldier, which I discussed last time.  That takes us to Damon Knight’s column, in which he laments the death of the technical science fiction story.  I think Starship Soldier makes an argument to the contrary. 

Then we’ve got Asimov’s quite good non-fiction article, C for Celerity, explaining the famous equation, E=MC^2.  I particularly enjoyed the etymology lesson given by the good doctor regarding all of the various scientific terms in common physical parlance.  I’ve been around for four decades, and my first college major was astrophysics, yet I never knew that the abbreviation for the speed of light is derived from the Latin word for speed (viz. accelerate).

James Blish has a rather good short-short, The Masks, about the futuristic use for easily applied nail polish sheets.  It’s a dark story, but worthy.  Four stars.

Ending the book is John Collier’s After the Ball, in which a particularly low-level demon spends the tale attempting to corrupt a seemingly incorruptible fellow in order to steal his body for use as a football.  Another over-embroidered tale that lands in the 2-3 star range.

That puts us at three stars for this issue, which is pretty awful for F&SF.  Given that Astounding looks like it might hit an all-time low of two stars, here’s hoping this month’s IF is worthwhile reading.  Thankfully, I’ve also picked up the novelization of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and it’s excellent so far.

Back in a few days with a convention report and a book review!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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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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