galacticjourney: (Default)

Are you dreaming of a White Christmas? I know I am. San Diego has beige Christmases at best. If we want snow, we have to head for the mountains or manufacture the stuff.

That said, a growing consensus of scientists is concerned that White Christmases may become a rarity for everyone, not just the privileged few living in Southern California.

It's a big world we live in. It's so big that we still don't have a picture of the whole thing. At some point, someone will send up a satellite that will snap a family photo of our planet, but for now, we barely can resolve the curvature of the globe with high-flying sounding rockets. It is difficult to imagine something as tiny as a single species having a profound effect upon an entire planet.

And yet, that is exactly what may be happening. Every year, humanity puts out six billion tons of carbon dioxide. It's a relatively harmless gas as industrial byproducts go. It certainly isn't Strontium 90 or even coal dust. But its effects are far-reaching. Carbon dioxide is transparent to light but opaque to heat, which means it lets in the suns rays, but doesn't let heat from the Earth escape. This is called the "Greenhouse Effect." To some extent, we rely on this effect; without it, the Earth would be much chillier.

However, the amount of carbon dioxide we are putting into the atmosphere is enough to measurably increase the Greenhouse Effect, thus increasing the global temperature. It has been predicted (and most-recently related in Asimov's science fact article in the January 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction) that in 350 years, the average global temperature will rise some 3.8 degrees Celsius, or a little more than half a degree per semi-century.

That doesn't sound like a lot, does it? But it would be enough to melt the polar ice caps, flood our coastal towns, generate more inclement weather, and change the inhabitability of the Earth dramatically. Good-bye, glaciers. Hello, new deserts.

There even appears to be corroborating data: though the measurements were not as comprehensive in 1900 as they are today, it does appear that the global temperature has risen half a degree since then. I suppose the real test will be to see if the global temperature continues to rise. We shall have to wait and see if it is half a degree hotter in, say, 2013.

It is likely, however, that there is no cause for alarm. After all, long before then, we should have nuclear fission and fusion reactors powering the world, and fossil fuels will be a thing of the past.

One dares hope.

Merry Christmas Eve.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

Unless the Soviets can pull a rabbit out of their hat, it looks like the United States will come out the winner in the Space Race for 1958.

It was only a matter of time before we finally used our Atlas rocket, the nation's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), to launch a satellite. With the Atlas, we can finally throw up payloads of similar weights to those launched by the Soviets with their ICBM.

The first Atlas mission, Project SCORE, was launched on December 18, 1958. It is the heaviest payload ever to be launched by the United States into orbit—a whopping 8000 pounds' worth! That compares favorably to the 9000 pound payload launched by the Soviet Union in May (Sputnik III). Of course, those figures are a little less impressive when one realizes that the vast bulk of that weight actually comprises the last stage of the rocket. Moreover, Sputnik III carried over a ton of instrumentation. SCORE carries a bare 150 pounds of payload.

What SCORE does, however, is unprecedented. Quite simply, it is the world's first communication's satellite.

Currently, if one wishes to send a message across the country or the world, one must either use archaic transoceanic cables or, more frequently, send the signal via some sort of radio. The former method puts strong limits on destination (messages can only go where the cables are strung), and the latter is only as reliable as the atmosphere will allow. Reception at remote locations is virtually impossible. But with a satellite, one truly has the high ground. Messages can be beamed anywhere along the satellite's line of sight, which is essentially limitless.

Developed jointly by the Air Force and veteran communications company, RCA, SCORE has the ability both to broadcast messages as they are beamed to it from ground stations and to store received messages and transmit them later. Seeing how it was an Air Force mission, there were probably plenty of classified messages sent and re-transmitted, but the one everybody got to know about was this one, recorded by President Eisenhower the day after launch:

"This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and to all mankind, America's wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere."

Once again, science fiction has become fact. Arthur C. Clarke predicted communications satellites in the '40s, and here we are at the dawn of a new era.

If that era comes. It must be cynically pointed out that this launch had a second purpose—to show the Soviets that we, too, have the ability to send a nuclear bomb 6,000 miles across the globe. While this represents a technological achievement and another example of science fiction become fact, I somehow can't be as excited about this development. It is yet another reminder that, thus far, the exploration of space has been primarily a military endeavor, and our plowshares are barely modified swords.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

Are we alone in the universe? That's a question that has been asked with greater frequency and intensity recently, corresponding with Humanity's first faltering steps into outer space. Are we about to enter an interstellar community?

If you ask me, the answer is “no.” The time scales involved are just too immense. Allow me to explain. Let's be optimistic and assume that most stars have solar systems like ours around them. Let's be more optimistic (starry-eyed?) and assume that a good portion of these solar systems possess Earth-like planets that can support life. There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy—perhaps as many as 300 billion. Surely, around some of these stars, intelligent life must have evolved.

I don't dispute any of the above, actually. I think life is a fair inevitability given the right original conditions, and once you have a creature that is multi-cellular, eats other creatures, and is mobile, you have a creature that would benefit from some kind of brain. Once the brain gets started, it seems likely that it would continue to grow in the creature's descendants as intelligence is generally a useful trait.

Here's the problem: Homo Sapiens, if we are being charitable, has been a species for about a million years. We have been a civilized society (again, charitably) for 6,000 years. Industrialization began 200 years ago, and space travel is exactly one year old. At this rate, we'll have a window of a few hundred or maybe even a thousand years during which we will be spacefaring and recognizably human, whereupon we will “graduate” to whatever the next step is. Or we'll blow up the Earth when the Federation of Atomic Scientists' clock strikes Midnight.

That few thousand years compared to the entire history of the universe is a razor thin slice. It's the width of a penny atop the Empire State Building. Sure, there are probably intelligent aliens out there, but odds are extremely high that they are either behind us, and therefore limited to their planet, or beyond us, and therefore uninterested. Humanoid aliens with technological levels similar to ours make decent fiction, but they might as well be fantasy, not science fiction.

If we ever do meet an alien civilization, it is bound to be unrecognizably alien and bewilderingly beyond our comprehension technologically. Not many authors have tackled the subject, but some stories do exist. Clarke's Childhood's End is perhaps the archetypical example. Much of that book is devoted just to the effects this contact would have on humanity: the humbling, the shaming, the frustration, and the technological/sociological benefit.

Another example, and the catalyst for this article, is William Tenn's Firewater. This story actually came out six years ago in Astounding (where I missed it), but it was recently reprinted in a Tenn anthology called Time in Advance. Tenn is a good writer; I have come to look forward to his stuff, and the anthology is worth picking up.

In Childhood's End, the aliens at least had the decency to talk to us. In Tenn's story, they appear simply as jiggling dots in ethereal brown or umber bottles floating above our cities. They hang in the sky, watching us, intentions unknown. If we attack them, with rocks or missiles, it has no effect. Worse, it sometimes invites retaliation—the destruction of the weapon and/or the weapon's user.

Yet, there are some people who can communicate with them. These are the Primes—people who have lost their sanity trying to conform to the aliens' thought patterns. In doing so, they have acquired the ability to do tremendous psionic feats, but they are also quite mad. The Primes live on reservations camped out next to a congregation of aliens in Arizona.

The Primes have figured out a number of technological and sociological advances, though they do not apply them. It is a kind of game to them. Moreover, because dealing with the Primes can be so dangerous, due to their instability and contagious insanity, dealing with them is highly illegal.

One person, Algernon Hebster, is willing to take that risk. A highly successful businessman, he has perfected the art of trading with the Primes, exchanging various artistic gimcracks for new technologies: washless dishes, better televisions, finer clothing, etc. But his situation is becoming increasingly untenable. The United Humanity government is hot on his trail with an investigation into his illegal activities and the atavistic Humanity First movement is plotting a revolution with Hebster as Enemy No. 1.

I particularly liked Hebster's (admittedly over-simple) analogy for the situation. He likens Earth's contact with a vastly more-technologically advanced civilization to the (devastating) meeting of the American Indians and the Europeans. The native Americans generally responded in one of two ways: they either resisted the Europeans, futilely (as Humanity First wishes to do in the story), or they were subjugated, accepting the European firewater and becoming worn-out shadows of themselves.

There was a third kind of Indian, however (in Hebster's analogy). This one didn't fight the Europeans nor had any interest in firewater. What was exciting to this Indian was the bottle in which the firewater came. This artifact represented a product of a technology far beyond what was possible for the natives, and it was something that could be traded for, if one were canny enough to develop goods that the Europeans wanted. Hebster notes that after a wretched period of adjustment, the American Indian cultures adapted to the new situation and managed even to profit from it. Perhaps humanity as a whole could do the same, if a good that the aliens wanted could be found and developed.

How Hebster deals with this crisis and ultimately is the lynchpin to establishing real contact with the aliens, makes for an excellent 50 pages of reading. It is an ambitious story, and one of the few attempts to posit a truly alien species and the likely effects the meeting with such a race would have on humanity.

Find it. Read it. Let me know what you think.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

Last time, I talked about some of the wonders of the International Geophysical Year. The term is a bit of a misnomer--it has actually lasted some 18 months, and the dividends from its successes will be paid out for many years to come. For those who don't know, the "IGY" is actually the third event of its kind, a twice-a-century international effort to learn about Earth's more exotic mysteries. Originally, the event was known as the International Polar Year; the first started in 1882, and the second in 1932. Due to the growing science of aeronautics and the newfound ability to directly measure the astronomical medium, the scope of the IPY was expanded to include outer space, and the IGY was scheduled to occur just 25 years after the last IPY. In this period, America has launched seven successful (or semi-successful) space missions, and the Soviets have launched three. As discussed last time, American submarines have stayed underwater for months on end and have cruised underneath the North Pole.

In keeping with the original intention of the international year-and-a-half of science, the poles have been subject to the most massive investigation in history, particularly the forbiddingly cold continent of Antarctica. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union all have sent large teams into the frozen wastes of the world's southernmost continent, and more than 50 other countries have contributed scientists and resources.

As the punctuation mark to cap off an unprecedented 18 months, an expedition has finally arrived at one of Earth's most exotic locales--the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility. You are likely familiar with Earth's South Pole, the southernmost point of Earth's axis of rotation, and also with the Earth's South Magnetic Pole. The Southern Pole of Inaccessibility was a headscratcher even for me when I first heard it. It is the point in Antarctica equidistant from any ocean shore. It is probably the hardest place to get to in the world (hence the name). Of course, calling anything inaccessible is just begging to be challenged. It is appropriate that the team that made it there, just in the nick of time, was from a country quite used to freezing climes: the Soviet Union.

On December 14, a team of the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition reached the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and established a small research facility. Yes, you can now get weather reports even from the bottom of the world (or the top, if you're from Australia). This team will brave the -72°F temperature for two weeks.

So let us all give a nazdarovya toast to our brave Soviet comrades. One can only imagine where we'll be for the next IGY in 2007. Colonies on the moon, under the deep sea, and at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, I'll wager!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
At long last, the February 1959 Galaxy is done, and I can give my assessment of the new bi-monthly format. It is likely that this issue was composed of material the editor, Mr. Gold, had accumulated before the decision to reduce the number of annual issues. Therefore, the real proof of the pudding will happen when the next issue comes out in the first week of February next year.

Two stories remained to be read when last you saw me. One is by newcomer, Ned Lang, whose short story, Forever is about the peril one faces when one has developed the world's first immortality serum. Or, at least, when one thinks he/she is the first. It's not a bad story, and it has a cute ending, but the writing has a certain clunkiness to it. I suppose allowances have to be made for neophytes, especially ones working for a penny-and-a-half a word.

The other story, a novella by J.F. Bone called Insidekick, is quite good. This is, in part, because it turns a genre on its head. Thanks to people like Bob Heinlein, the “Body Snatcher” trope is well-known: Evil, amorphous alien insinuates itself into its host human and turns it into a hollow shell. In particularly gory instances, the parasite eats its host like the larvae of the Digger Wasp. I have a friend who is relatively immune to the most nauseating of phenomena, but show him a movie about bodysnatching beasts, especially when they enter through cranial orifices, and he fairly faints.

In Insidekick, however, the symbiont is charitable rather than menacing. The Zark, as it is known, only wishes to help its host survive as best it can, for in doing so, the chances of success for both host and symbiont is maximized. The host, in this case, is a government agent by the name of Johnson, who is investigating a corrupt interstellar corporation under suspicion of growing tobacco illegally for profit on the planet Antar. Johnson is quickly fingered, and he certainly would not have lasted long were it not for the happy accident of his meeting with the Zark, a native to Antar. As the union of the two creatures occurs while Johnson is unconscious, he is unaware of the relationship.

The results, however, quickly become obvious. In Bone's story, all humans have a certain degree of psionic potential. Practitioners of psi, on the other hand, are universally psychotic and, thus, only marginally useful. The Zark unlocks Johnson's psionic potential without precipitating any nasty psychological effects. Johnson gradually realizes he has become a telepath and has the ability to teleport. Telekinetic and precognitive ability follow soon after. With his newfound skills, he is able to evade death and take down the criminal organization.

What makes the story so fun is how nice the Zark is. Who wouldn't want a benevolent guardian angel living inside him/her, and thus enjoy a panoply of superpowers? Better yet, there is no sting in the story's tail. Johnson isn't doomed to die prematurely; it doesn't turn out the Zark is really planning on eating Johnson; the Zark isn't part of an alien invasion. The story simply is what it is—the happy tale of a man and his symbiont. The only weakness is the two-page coda, which feels tacked on.

If I did not know that Bone is a real flesh-and-blood person, I'd think he was a cover for Bob Sheckley (who also appeared in this issue, finishing up Timekiller). Insidekick has that same light, pleasant touch.

To wrap things up, let's give the new giant-sized Galaxy a final score. Timekiller was decent, Installment Plan was flawed and disturbing in its politics, but the rest of the magazine ranged from good to quite good. Let's call it three out of five stars.

And good news! I managed to secure a copy of F&SF. Stay tuned!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
For your reading pleasure today, a piece in two parts. First a bit on fiction, and then a bit on the other stuff.

Plowing on through the new maxi-sized Galaxy, the first story after Installment Plan is a slight bit of atmospheric by Charles A. Stearns called Pastoral Affair. If you've read the Wells classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau, then you've essentially read this story. Stearns, I understand, largely wrote for the pulps and less prestigious magazines, and his work reads like something from the 30s. Not bad, just not much.

But the succeeding Fred Pohl piece, I Plingot, Who you?, is quite good. My father was a science fiction fan of “Golden Age” vintage before his untimely passing some twenty years ago. He once said, rather presciently, that the only way one could ever really unite the world would be the invention of an external threat, perhaps a world-destroying asteroid or (even better) an extraterrestrial invasion.

Pohl takes this concept and turns it on its head: What if someone convinced all of the world leaders separately that an alien race was approaching, and the first to encounter it would get an exclusive and most rewarding deal? And what if the race landed their spacecraft not in America or the U.S.S.R., but in the neutral powder-keg of French Algeria. Why, it might kick off a bloody competition resulting in an all-out atomic war! Now, what if that instigating someone were actually a representative of an alien species whose job was to fabricate the alien arrival to cause the destruction of Earth and ensure that interstellar competition was kept to a minimum? You'd get Plingot.

The pacing and the writing really make this story, as well as the unexpected ending (which is very Heinlein-esque). The story is from the eponymous Plingot's point of view, and his wording and mood are subtly and suitably alien. Interestingly enough, it is decidedly fixed in a very specific period of time—perhaps the next few months. For the flag of the United States has 49 stars, and it is pretty clear by now that Hawaii will be a state very soon, to balance Republican and Democratic votes in the Senate, if nothing else. Moreover, given the recent turmoil in France that brought DeGaulle back to the fore and created yet another French Republic (Number 5!), I can't imagine that France's hold on Algeria is anything but tenuous. This all works, however, since the story is not a prediction of the future but rather a prediction of how the present might deal with a futuristic threat.

Now the non-fiction. Willy Ley's article this bi-month wraps up his article on “The World Next Door:” the alien realm of the deep sea, and ties in nicely with the unusually large number of undersea accomplishments achieved by the United States this year. Did you know that the nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Seawolf stayed underwater for 60 consecutive days? The air its crew left port with was the air the crew breathed for two straight months. That kind of self-contained endurance is relevant to travel in Outer Space, where fresh air is even less accessible.

The Seawolf is the younger sister of the U.S.S. Nautilus, which made history in August by being the first ship to travel to the North Pole under water. I saw/heard in a recent newsreel that there is talk of opening up underwater polar trade routes between East and West. I don't know how feasible that would be, but it is exciting nonetheless.

So stay tuned! I predict that the undersea science fiction genre (heretofore severely underrepresented—Fred Pohl's Slave Ship serialized two years ago in Galaxy, is one of the few examples) will become a big component of published sci-fi in the near future.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I've given anything unreserved praise. Moreover, it's been a while since I've reported on anything really fun. To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt.

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields. Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago. He didn't write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels. He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College.

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together. Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber. It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic. Sort of. You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”). Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea's adventures. They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940. In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology. He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok. None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional. On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy. This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect.

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants. All of this is written with a fun, light touch. Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don't go too badly.

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition. This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers. They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer's poem, The Faerie Queen. It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse. Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart). It's all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun. It's also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer's realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review. There are so many fun scenes. For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine 'Goldtop', after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor. Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword. The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent's armor. These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter... or you really must do so post-haste!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
December is here, and San Diego is feeling the uncommonly cold bite of near-winter weather. Why, temperatures barely make it into the upper 60s around noon-time. I'm not sure how we manage.

My subscription copy of F&SF never arrived. I may have to pick it up at the newsstand, if there are any left. Luckily, the February 1959 double-sized edition of Galaxy did arrive. That's how I was able to finish "Timekiller." Yesterday, while briskly walking along the beach dressed appropriately for our local sub-arctic temperatures, I finished the lead novella, "Installment Plan", by Clifford Simak. This will be the subject of today's piece.

For those who don't know Cliff, he has been a staple of science fiction for a couple of decades now. I first encountered him in 1952 with his excellent story in Galaxy, "Junkyard." Since then, he's written the serialized novel, "Ring Around the Sun," and a number of shorter stories. I like Cliff, but I find his work tends to be aimless, though completely readable. "Installment Plan" is no exception.

It starts out promisingly-enough with a pack of biblically-named anthropomorphic robots and their human coordinator, Steve Sheridan. They have been sent to clinch a trade deal with a race of backwards humanoids on Garson IV. The Garsonians have a cash crop that, properly distilled, produces the galaxy's most potent tranquilizer. The deal had been set up fifteen years prior by previous expeditions to the planet and then left to languish. By the time Sheridan gets to the planet, however, the natives universally refuse to deal. Thus, there is a double-mystery to solve: how did this turn of events come about, and is there any way to make a deal?

The story is interesting throughout. The problem is that it wraps up altogether too quickly and conventionally. The thoughtful tone and the careful characterization are, in my opinion, wasted. Moreover, it appears Simak is attempting to make some allegorical points, but he never quite gets there.

For instance: Sheridan's robots are portrayed as a friendly, competent, and essentially human lot. Yet, Sheridan muses, despite their abilities, and despite their being better than humans in terms of endurance and ability to learn (since their skills are banked in storage units called "transmogs"), they lack that spark necessary for independent operation. They need a man around to lead them, tell them what to do.

In other words, these beings may look like us, but their proper place is in servitude rather than self-mastery. With a proper guiding touch, we can help them accomplish what they are simply unable to do themselves. I don't think the parallel to slavery and its attendant rationalizations is accidental. Whether Simak meant his portrayal of robots to condone or condemn this mindset is not clear, however. It is never made the point of the story.

Slightly more developed is the phenomenon of the bilked aboriginal. The natives of Garson IV are portrayed as an honorable but stupid, primitive lot. They seem ripe for the cheating, which is why their being uncheatable is so frustrating and incomprehensible to Sheridan. Sheridan is further hamstrung by his government's rules that strictly prohibit the wholesale appropriation of native land or slaughter of its owners.

It ultimately turns out that the Garsonians have already been bilked--by another race. Having committed themselves, under most unfavorable terms, to this other debtor, they have nothing left to trade to the humans. Moreover, the provisions of the deal include the mass exodus of the natives from their planet, leaving it fallow for the taking.

It's an uncomfortably familiar scenario, one that has been repeated on Earth on many occasions when "civilized" men have encountered "primitives." Again, I waited for some kind of commentary from the author. Instead, Simak has Sheridan capitalize on the opportunity. With no one on the planet, the government's rules regarding non-interference are inapplicable; Sheridan plans to establish his own corporate farm and milk the planet for all its worth.

Put this way, the story sounds like satire. It is written completely without irony, however. I've said before that our cultural prejudices are the air we breathe. It takes conscious effort to take a deep whiff and catch the stink. Science fiction should be (and occasionally is) more progressive than your average literature, but too often, as happened in this story, it is simply a product of its time. In the end, Simak put some interesting and challenging ideas into this novella, and they would have made interesting stories in their own right. As is, they instead seem to tacitly condone a status quo I'm not comfortable with.

(on the other hand, at least the protagonist has a beard, and skintight clothes are available for all genders in this future!)

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
Well, at least we're consistent.

The past few months, the newspapers have run headline after headline describing America's failures in trying to shoot the Moon. The Air Force had the first at-bat with its three Pioneers. #0 blew up so early that it wasn't even dignified with a name. #1 limped about halfway to the Moon before falling back down. #2's performance was somewhere in the middle.

If you believe the papers (and/or the Vice President), all of these flights were successes. After all, any launch, even one that doesn't meet its goals, is a learning experience. Sarcasm aside, Pioneers I and II were not total washes--they sent back a lot of good data on the Earth's magnetic field and the radiation trapped therein. Moreover, they went a lot higher than any of our previous probes, certainly higher than anything the Russians have sent up.

The day before yesterday (Dec. 6, 1958) was the Army's chance to step up to the plate. If hitting the Moon is a Home Run, I'd say they hit a double. Pioneer III, a teeny 13-pounder launched on a Juno II made it out about 67,000 miles before falling back to Earth.

As always, I collected as many papers as I could and kept my ears glued to the radio. Early editions simply announced the launch, but it was clear pretty quickly that something had gone wrong. Apparently, Pioneer's rocket ran out of fuel about four seconds early, which sent the probe off at too low an angle. Even though Pioneer III left Earth with more speed than Pioneer I, its journey was only half as high. 38 hours after launch, the poor little probe was ashes in the ionosphere.

Silver lining: A good 22 hours of data was collected from the probe, and it is already adding to our knowledge regarding the two (count them: two!) radiation belts girdling the Earth. As a matter of fact, those belts are the only phenomenon Pioneer III could report on. Unlike Pioneers 0-II, which had a whole suite of experiments including even a TV camera, Pioneer III had just one experiment: a pair of Geiger-Muller tubes for counting the cosmic radiation particles hitting the spacecraft. I am not sure why Pioneer III was such a simple probe. It may be that the Army got the assignment in a hurry and had to rush things. It might also be that the Army's Juno II doesn't have the enough strength to lift anything heavier.

In any event, this isn't the last we'll be hearing from the Army. Pioneer IV will be up sometime soon, though Major General John Medaris, head of the Army's rocket development center in Alabama, had no firm dates for the press.

"See me after Christmas," he told the television people.

Get a load of that puss. That looks more like a toothache than a booster failure.

Here's an interesting question: The Space Race has been marked by more failures than successes. Did anyone ever write a science fiction story that predicted this level of teething pain in a space program? It seems to me that space vehicles in fiction simply work. If they don't work perfectly, they have maintenance issues like those that afflict an automobile or perhaps a naval vessel. This goes back to my previous comments regarding the focus of science fiction on the pilot rather than the large and necessary logistical tail.

It's a pity we don't see more stories incorporating launch failures. They could be an exciting dramatic device.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

Regular readers of this column know that I am unreserved in my praise of Robert Sheckley. Since bursting on the scene early this decade, he and his alter-ego, Finn O'Donnovan, have graced the pages of Astounding and Galaxy and probably more magazines. If you haven't read his three short-story anthologies, you need to plunk down the $1.05 and expand your library.

I'm not quite so enthusiastic about Sheckley's first novel, serialized in Galaxy as Timekiller. It's not bad; it just doesn't rise to the standard set by his shorter work.

Timekiller is the story of the bland Thomas Blaine, a junior yacht designer from 1958. He lives a pleasant but uninteresting life as the dogsbody of an East Coast boatwright. Blaine is charming-enough, but he's never really scored with ladies, work or life. On the way home one night, his car swerves out of control causing a fatal collision with an oncoming driver.

Yet Blaine awakens—in 2110! It turns out that some time in-between Blaine's death and rebirth, it is discovered that each person has a soul distinct from his/her body, and about one in ten thousand make it through the death trauma with the soul intact. The soul hovers about in a transition between Here and the Hereafter, occasionally wreaking havoc on Earth. Hence the stories of ghosts and poltergeists.

Not long after the discovery that one's persona survives death, a company is founded to insure that everyone with enough cash on hand can safely navigate death and journey to the Hereafter. The company is fittingly called “Immortality, Inc.” Unfortunately, the work of this company has played havoc with the world's religions, who are staunchly against Immortality, Inc. This is why they tried to save the soul of a 1958 religious leader, who could serve as a spokesman for the company after his resurrection.

Unfortunately for Immortality, Inc., they got Blaine instead.

I commented in an earlier piece that science fiction authors tend to incorporate only one or two truly revolutionary changes into their stories, either for fear of alienating their audiences or for inability to envision more (or both). Sheckley's future is not that different, technologically, except for the flying cars that we all expect to be driving. Instead, Sheckley focuses on the social and medical implications of resurrection. People sell their bodies in exchange for Hereafter insurance to rich people who want to stay on Earth for another lifetime. Others transplant their souls to other bodies for kicks or more-nefarious purposes. Imperfectly transplanted souls never synchronize properly with their host bodies, which become zombies and eventually decay to uselessness.

In a story about independent souls, the consuming questions to my mind are (1) does a transplant body retain any vestiges of the old soul inhabitant? and (2) what is the Hereafter like? The first is answered pretty well. The second isn't touched upon. I suppose that makes sense, but it is hardly satisfying.

My issue isn't with set-up but rather the execution, which is a bit lacking. Much of this can be attributed to the format. The novel began serialization way back in the October 1958 issue of Galaxy, and it was spread over an unprecedented four installments. As a result, the story reads a lot like four connected novellas. The first primarily deals with Blaine's arrival, in which Blaine narrowly escapes death at the hands of a body peddler. In part two, Blaine is a “hunter,” an assassin hired for an elaborate suicide game in which the quarry expects to die in a blaze of combat. Part three, perhaps the most interesting, reveals a sinister plot against Blaine's life and introduces us to the subterranean zombie community. Part four wraps things up in an exciting escape from the country and finishes off with a good (though not unguessable) twist.

Because of the format, Timekiller feels a bit padded and uncoordinated. I had a similar problem with Heinlein's latest serial, Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Part 2 of that novel was largely filled with an exciting but rather pointless escape attempt that ended in frustration.

The characters in Timekiller aren't terribly exciting either. Most prominent besides Blaine is Marie Thorne, the scientist in charge of Blaine's recovery; she ends up largely a love interest. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, though I did like Ray Melhill, a fellow target of the aforementioned body peddler, who provides Blaine a lot of assistance despite being dead most of the story. Smith, a zombie, probably has the most interesting story to tell, and his thread runs from beginning to end.

So what's the final verdict? I'm afraid this review makes me sound a bit harsh. Timekiller is thoroughly readable, and the world it portrays does capture the imagination. I could see the novel being improved in editing for book publication, which I understand is forthcoming. As is, however, it is merely competent.

For Bob Sheckley, that's damned faint praise indeed.

3 stars out of 5.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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?

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
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 depicted 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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)
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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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 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 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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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.

Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

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.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)


galacticjourney: (Default)

March 2017

    12 34
56789 1011
1213 141516 1718
192021 22232425



RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Mar. 24th, 2017 06:16 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios