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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