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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.

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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!

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

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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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