the sunport vista:
zendexor's
oss
diary

January 2017

Thought for the day...

2017 January 31st:

SOLARIAN TRAPPED IN STONE

It would be a mistake to interpret the plot of Olaf Stapledon's The Flames (1947) as merely a vehicle for the author's socio-political and philosophical speculations.  Stapledon had the true science-fictional attitude.  Admittedly, the book is mostly ideas, but the meaning of "idea" spills over into the meanings of "wonder" and "imagination", especially as this writer has a genius for infusing drama into the depiction of modes of consciousness. 

Thus the trapped flame-being, long ago ejected from its home in the Sun, is no mere mouthpiece of Stapledon's recurrent themes of social harmony and the progress of the spirit.  We are actually given to feel what it is like to be the exiled Flame, as its poignant thoughts - and those of its companions in misfortune, trapped deeper in the Earth's crust - are overheard by the telepathic human who accidentally re-awakened it:

...After a while the flame's call for help and comradeship was answered.  A voice replied to it; or rather it received directly into its experience (and I into mine) a stream of answering thoughts which I cannot report otherwise than in human speech.  In doing so I inevitably give the impression that I was overhearing a perfectly intelligible conversation, but actually it was only with great difficulty and doubt that I could catch the general drift of this strange dialogue between minds profoundly alien to myself.  Even so, I should not have understood as well as I did, had I not been aided (as was later made clear to me) by the influence of the flame population itself, who were determined to make use of me...

"Do not despair," the voice said, "you will soon have less discomfort.  Since you fell asleep, with so many others, the whole earth's surface has turned cold and hard, save where there is cold liquid.  So long have you slept, that the very laws of nature have changed, so that the processes of your body are all out of gear with each other and with the changed world.  Soon they will readjust themselves, and establish a new harmony; and then you will have health."  The flame cried out, "But why am I a prisoner?  What is this cold, cramping cell?  And where are the rest of you?"  The answer came, "We are all prisoners..."

Stapledon had a vast respect for H G Wells and probably saw him as his master.  But Stapledon was Wells' superior as a thinker and outlasted him as a narrator - for the younger writer did not suffer the decline in story-telling power which the elder unfortunately underwent after the glorious zenith of 1895-1901.

2017 January 30th:

LUNAR BRAINS

On the hyper-brains page I discuss Wells' Martians, but what about his Selenites?  They're no slackers in the head-swelling business either, and deserve at least equal mention.  Interestingly, they're not as fearsome as the Martians, probably because the hypertrophied lunar brains are not the only instances of their species - they are just one segment of a more varied society.  Admittedly it's a society that achieves its biological variety through somewhat horrific manipulation of the young, but the results (if not the process) are perhaps less ghastly than the vampiric Martians.  Pitiful rather than shuddersome.

...Usually they are led about by little watchers and attendants, and often there are small and active-looking creatures, small females usually, that I am inclined to think are a sort of wife to them; but some of the profounder scholars are altogether too great for locomotion, and are carried from place to place in a sort of sedan tub, wabbling jellies of knowledge that enlist my respectful astonishment...

- H G Wells, The First Men in the Moon (1901), p.228

And just as the genius of Wells relates our nature to that of the Martians by speculating on the long spectrum of evolutionary possibility, so he relates us to the Selenites by comparing the pros and cons of their biological manipulation versus our economic acculturation:

...I came upon a number of young Selenites confined in jars from which only the fore-limbs protruded, who were being compressed to become machine-minders of a special sort.  The extended "hand" in this highly developed system of technical education is stimulated by irritants and nourished by injection, while the rest of the body is starved.  Phi-oo, unless I misunderstood him, explained that in the earlier stages these queer little creatures are apt to display signs of suffering in their various cramped situations, but they easily become indurated to their lot... It is quite unreasonable, I know, but such glimpses of the educational methods of these beings affect me disagreeably... That wretched-looking hand-tentacle sticking out of its jar seemed to have a sort of limp appeal for lost possibilities; it haunts me still, although, of course, it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them...

That's Wells talking, not Cavor.

2017 January 29th:

OSS DAY

Back to normal with the site stats; the 27th January surge was a flash in the pan - but why did it occur?  The only answer I can think of, is that 27th Jan must be International OSS Day, causing widespread celebrations and crowds flocking to look at the site.

THE FAR-FUTURE NIGHT SKY

...The hillside was quiet and deserted, but from the black of the wood there came now and then a stir of living things.  Above me shone the stars, for the night was very clear.  I felt a certain sense of friendly comfort in their twinkling.  All the old constellations had gone from the sky, however: that slow movement which is imperceptible in a hundred human lifetimes, had long since re-arranged them in unfamiliar groupings.  But the Milky Way, it seemed to me, was still the same tattered streamer of star-dust as of yore.  Southward (as I judged it) was a very bright red star that was new to me; it was even more splendid than our own green Sirius.  And amid all these scintillating points of light one bright planet shone kindly and steadily like the face of an old friend...

- H G Wells, The Time Machine (1895)

I expect that no computer simulation could give us an estimate of the view in the night sky of 802,701 A.D.  Even if we knew the proper motions of all the stars in the galaxy, chaos theory would forbid such a prediction.  After all, it's not just the stars but the gas and dust clouds in interstellar space, which would surely affect the result.

But who knows - we all may be wrong about the limits of knowledge.

The famous instance of Comte in the nineteenth century should give us pause.  He proclaimed that one item of knowledge which must surely remain forever beyond us is the composition of the stars.  What makes this so poignant a mistake is that one can easily imagine how impossible it must have seemed, that we would ever know what substances made up those unimaginably distant, unreachable points of light.  And yet, in the same century, spectroscopy began to indicate that starlight itself brought the information within it...

I wonder if what now seems utterly beyond our reach, such as knowledge of political and personal details of our prehistoric past, may one day be gained.  Think of being able to know the names and the thoughts of those who built Stonehenge and Silbury Hill!  There was a great civilization in Britain in the third millennium BC, except that they had no writing...

And what has all this got to do with the Old Solar System?  Why am I writing this?

Perhaps because my crazy mind is leaping further, to wondering if sometime we might gain the power to simulate fictional universes...  not just by consciously writing tales, but by tapping into the id, or whatever - the place these ideas come from...

Scary, man.

2017 January 28th: 

SITE SURGE SHOCK

The day after having confessed an error, I find usage of the site has more than doubled, giving record figures.  Page-views topped 1,000 in a single day for the first time ever.  This during an otherwise mediocre month.

Maybe I should make mistakes more often. 

EARTH'S CULTURE LAYER

My page on John Greer's Star's Reach approaches the novel from the angle of interest in how the deepening history of Earth can edge our planet towards a glow of Barsoom-like antiquity.

And now to tackle the topic from (as it were) the opposite end.  A far-future Earth so old it makes Barsoom seem young.  The culture layers have become geological strata, merging the categories of natural and artificial, all laid bare as the narrator descends a cliff:

...The past stood at my shoulder... as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain.  Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men.  The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone...  Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity...  I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines... 

- Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor (1982) - volume three of The Book of the New Sun

In view of its late date - the 1980s - one interesting aspect of The Book of the New Sun is that it ignores scientific orthodoxy regarding the future output of the Sun.  For if we are to believe the scientists, the Sun is getting hotter.  A far-future Earth, hundreds of millions of years ahead, will become uninhabitable not because the Sun becomes feeble, but for the opposite reason.

In that respect, the more realistic vision is that of Brian Aldiss' Hothouse.

But of course the vision of a gradually cooling dying Sun is as much an un-dislodgable part of planetary folklore as are the canals of Mars.  Both have won poetic acceptance.

2017 January 27th:

ZENDEXOR CAUGHT IN BOO-BOO SHOCK

Stid:  A surly and evasive Zendexor was wincing at the flashbulbs as he left the porch of the Archon's Palace in Ceres this morning.  Dialogue went as follows.

Reporter:  Can you confirm, Archon, that there is an error on your Keith Laumer page?

Zendexor:  Not for much longer - it shall soon be excised, deleted, annihilated.  And then it will be as if it had never been.  I have spoken.

Second reporter:  How did it come to be, Archon, that you stated that A Plague of Demons was partly set on "The Moon", when it turns out that the scene depicts not Earth's moon but the moon of an extra-solar planet?  Wasn't that misleading?  And somewhat careless? 

Zendexor:  Guards!  Take away this hack and disintegrate him.  On second thoughts, that might tarnish my image as the humble servant of the people.  So - track down the blurb-writer of A Plague of Demons, and disintegrate him instead - on a charge of misleading the Archon.  If the fellow pleads for mercy, offer him the alternative penalty of being forced to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show.

2017 January 26th: 

WILLIAMSON'S WIDE-SCREEN EPIC NOVELLA

When you read a story and then forget some of the main details pretty soon, the amnesia can have two causes.

One: the story is unmemorable, it's boring, it's not worth another read.

Two: the story is so rich in ideas and images and mood, that the logical underpinning - the actual reasons for the events of the plot - get smothered under the weight of vivid impressions.

The second reason is the one that makes me forget some of the main points of Jack Williamson's The Crucible of Power (Astounding, February 1939), every time I read it.

It deserves its classic status.  It's well written by Williamson's standards; deft command of English was not his strong point but this one is not as clunky as most of his tales, and maybe that's because the starkness of the narrative suited the blunt, machete-hacked style of his sentences.  It's a tale of a brutal, out-sized ego redeemed by courage and persistence and eventual success.  It's the story of a man who staked the existence of whole worlds on the fulfilment of his ambition, and won - and by winning, became a benefactor of both Earthmen and Martians.  A man who was both hero and villain - and who might have been pure villain, if he hadn't also had some luck; but one feels that, in a way, the luck was at least partly deserved.

All in all, it's quite a character-study as well as a rollicking adventure, and that's more than one expects from the pulp era.

And because I keep forgetting the details, I can re-discover them, wide-eyed, at next reading.

2017 January 25th:

ERB'S GAWI IN THE CHESSMEN OF MARS

"Getting Away With It" is a Burroughs speciality, demonstrating that he has the secret of story-telling - the secret which allows you to make all sorts of mistakes and yet produce unputdownable stuff.

Here's an egregious example from the fifth novel in the Barsoom series.

..."You are not wounded?" she asked.

"No, Tara of Helium," he replied.  "They were scarce worth the effort of my blade, and never were they a menace to me because of their swords."

"They should have slain you easily," said Ghek.  "So great and highly developed is the power of reason among us that they should have known before you struck just where, logically, you must seek to strike, and so they should have been able to parry your every thrust and easily find an opening to your heart."

"But they did not, Ghek," Gahan reminded him.  "Their theory of development is wrong, for it does not tend towards a perfectly balanced whole.  You have developed the brain and neglected the body and you can never do with the hands of another what you can do with your own hands...  You, with your kaldane brain and your rykor body, never could hope to achieve in the same degree of perfection those things that I can achieve.  Development of the brain should not be the sum total of human endeavour..."

And so on, and so on; Gahan expounds the balanced view of mens sana in corpore sano in contrast to those weirdly detachable heads and bodies, the kaldanes and the rykors, surely the most bizarre civilization upon Mars.  You may say, well, fair comment, surely?  But -

Gahan delivers himself of these philosophical judgements mere minutes after having encountered the amazing rykor-kaldane symbiosis for the first time, as though he could have acquired a thorough understanding of the creatures' nature and evolutionary history during the hectic moments of sword-play while he was rescuing Tara.

It's impossible, unrealistic even in the book's own terms.  This speech of his is really the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, meditating on his creations.  Gahan could not possibly have grasped it all so fast.

So what now?  How does the reader react?  Answer: the reader excuses - accepts - lets him off - allows ERB to GAWI...  perhaps by saying, well, maybe Gahan stumbled on sudden insights like characters in sf stories sometimes stumble upon dimensional gateways, short-cuts to knowledge...  I dunno, but anyhow, when ERB nods, the excuse-factory goes to work.

Lucky fellow.

2017 January 24th:

A DIFFERENT SLANT ON CAPTAIN FUTURE

I'm not sure, but I am inclined to believe, partly from what I vaguely remember having read and partly from my own hunches, that The Tenth Planet by "Brett Sterling" is not by Edmond Hamilton.

Hamilton wrote most but not all of the Captain Future stories, and judging from the inferior quality of The Solar Invasion by Manly Wellman, I'm tempted to the verdict that the non-Hamilton ones are less good.

However, there's something about The Tenth Planet that I quite like.  It's the characterization of Captain Future himself.  We see him having lost his memory, and having grown a beard.  It's a new, scruffy Curt Newton, who thinks of himself as "Blackbeard".  He's accused of being a pirate, and while he sombrely denies the charge, there's no denying his personality seems to have undergone some interesting alteration.

Blackbeard was staring with so little pretense of politeness or common courtesy that Joan Randall felt a slow blush reddening her cheeks.  Her eyes snapped dangerously.  She was a member of the Planet Patrol as well as a woman, and it annoyed her that something about this horribly disfigured ruffian appealed to her in a way that was quite outside the matter of duty.

"How long have you been a pirate?" she snapped at him.

"I don't think I've ever been one," Blackbeard replied in a husky voice.

"What were you doing aboard that ship?  Vacationing?"

"You might call it that," he agreed coolly...

...In one respect, though, the novel disappoints me.  The Tenth Planet is no real trans-Plutonian world but only an artificial planet constructed to relieve population pressure.  I think that's one more reason to believe that Hamilton is not the author - if he were, he'd have put more zing in the plot.

2017 January 23rd:

GIBSON AND ASIMOV ON THE FULLNESS OF EMPTY

It's perhaps not too surprising that an evidently religious writer like Robert Gibson should be able to depict a world where the silences and the wide open spaces are pregnant with spiritual meaning.  I'm thinking now in particular of the dead-but-not-dead wilderness of the Earth-precursor, the hollow world Korm in Man of the World.

...It was not quite true to say that Outer Matter was featureless.  Minor discolorations, rare shades, showed up on the milky, hazy vastness... for the non-atomic matter was not always smooth.  Also there were the wilderness lights, those occasional, much-debated flashes.  But it remained true for all practical purposes that out here the only complexity within reach under the Sun was himself, Midax Rale, riding on the Krenarc, a moving dot traversing a cosmic distance.  A far cry from the "afterlife" of which many thinkers and believers had dreamed, and yet he was not discontented but nourished, sustained by the "pointiness" or inner finger in all material, the hint that stuff is always more than itself, so that as you learn to climb the staircase of awareness you sniff transcendence of transcendence, a higher discovery lying in wait wherever you are... 

As the author Sarah Luddington says on the book's back cover, "The bad news is, that we are surrounded by emptiness.  The good news is, that emptiness is full."  Any religious writer worth his salt is likely to be good at bringing this out.  Yet it's much more surprising when we get the same kind of evocation from a rationalist like Isaac Asimov who - consciously at any rate - is entirely devoid of the religious sense.  There are depths to Asimov of which he himself seems not to have been explicitly aware.

Here is his likeable Marlene Fisher, heroine of Nemesis, as she explores the red-lit trans-plutonian planet Erythro, which orbits the Sun's deep-red dwarf faint companion star on the outermost fringe of the Solar System (she has arrived there on board a travelling space colony called Rotor):

...On Rotor it was always noisy.  Wherever you went, the air quivered and shook and battered your tired ears with sound waves.  It must be even worse on Earth, with its eight billion people, and trillions of animals, and its thunderstorms and wild surges of water from the sea and sky.  She had once tried to listen to a recording entitled "Noises of Earth", had winced at it, and had quickly had enough.

But here on Erythro, there was a wonderful silence.

Marlene came to a creek, and the water moved past her with a soft bubbly sound.  She picked up a jagged pebble and tossed it into the water and there was a small splash.  Sounds were not forbidden on Erythro; they were merely doled out as occasional adornments that served to make the surrounding silence more precious.

She stamped her foot on the soft clay at the creek's edge.  She heard a small dull thump, and there was the vague impression of a footprint.  She bent down, cupped some water in her hand, and tossed it over the soil in front of her.  It moistened and darkened in spots, crimson showing against pink...

Erythro is a kind of mezzo-tinted world, dominated by the redness of the Nemesis-light.  It ought to seem bleak, luridly barren, and yet I as a reader find myself sharing in Marlene's delight at the place.  Asimov has pulled off some mysterious coup here.

2017 January 22nd:

EMOTION AND THE WORLD OF NULL-A

For some reason I have until now missed the ironic truth about van Vogt's notoriously confusing classic, The World of Null-A.

It's obvious when you think about it.  An utter incongruity.  Here's a work which purports to be about a new and more effective way of thinking; and yet, the result we get is a book which is memorable only for emotional reasons.

I don't know if I shall ever read it again; I have read it more than once, but with decreasing hopes that I shall succeed where Damon Knight failed in his famous critique - i.e. in making sense of the plot.

Philip K Dick, defending the work against such literal attacks, made the point that the novel is true to life in that life itself is confusing.  Well, there is that, yes.  And while Dick's own works are often open to the criticism that their plots don't really hang together, in both his case and van Vogt's the stories can be justified by their imagery and emotional impact, their poetic truth.

Only, the trouble is, van Vogt's book was supposed to underpin an intellectual advance... proclaiming the power of non-Aristotelian logic.  Lateral thinking, we would call it nowadays, or so Brian Aldiss said.  Lateral or not, I confessed to being unimpressed by the way it's portrayed.

But never mind, I can suspend disbelief and take it as a colourful "prop".

So we're left with a colourful tale, in which I remember the Games Machine, the mighty Venusian forest (Venus is the actual "world of null-A"), the multi-bodied hero...  the continual twists and turns of a mind-boggling plot.  I'm glad I read it at least twice; I'm just rather doubtful that I will ever read it again.  Van Vogt did some much better stuff than this.

2017 January 21st:

SELLING SHORT A SATURN BOOK

Yesterday's grumble concerned an inadequate blurb.  Today's grumble concerns a ridiculous title plus an irrelevant cover picture.

A bit more care ought to have been taken to relate title to content.  It's not often that we find a story which takes us to the surface of Saturn, after all.

Just supposing that I, on a limited budget, had been hunting for OSS stuff in a bookshop - my eye might well have skimmed over Galaxy Mission, thinking: it can hardly be a Solar System adventure with a title like that.  (Although if I'd noticed the book was by Hamilton, I would of course have bought it anyway.)

In actual fact, the title must be the most inappropriate I've ever come across.  Utterly un-connected with the contents.  In some Captain Future tales, the hero does venture outside the Solar System, but he hadn't yet got round to doing that at this stage.  I wonder who thought of tossing in the word "Galaxy".  Not Edmond Hamilton himself, surely.  Some dope in the publishing house, presumably.  (Many people seem to be ignorant of the meaning of Galaxy; from the way they use the word it rather seems as though they think it means "circumstellar planetary system".  E.g. in the voice-over in the old TV series "The Invaders".) 

The cover picture, likewise, seems to have nothing to do with the plot.

On the other hand the blurb, in this case, is all right.  Quite good, actually, except that it would have been handy to mention that the "master fiend's plot" turns out to be based on the planet Saturn.

2017 January 20th:

UNDERESTIMATING A MOON BOOK

The blurb on a book's back cover can sometimes sell the book sadly short.

Consider this:

"MURDER ON THE MOON - The HAPU (Harwell Atomic Propulsion Unit) had made rocket ship history.  With its automatic pilot and artificial gravity, anyone was qualified to fly to the moon.  But its scientists did not envision the hidden dangers of moon exploration.  Nor did they foresee the kind of violence that could erupt among four men and a woman in a lonely space capsule..."

Boring, I say.  Who cares what the propulsion unit is called, and why waste valuable blurb-space on that?  Besides -

They miss the main point.  Shoot At The Moon by William F Temple is one of those rare sf tales which make us think profoundly about the boundary between life and non-life; they thus make us ponder what life is.  The book thus gives us a lot more than just a tale of human tensions, though the author does handle that part of it excellently.  Surely, some hint of its true richness of theme ought to have shown up in the blurb. 

...There were scores - doubtless, in the far flow, thousands - of thousands of these diamonds laid out neatly, slightly overlapping.  They were like the scales of some enormous goldfish.

It was the strangest natural formation I had seen since the forty thousand truncated basaltic pillars, hexagonal or octagonal in section, of the Giant's Causeway in Ireland.

I remarked as much to L. A. Marley.

She replied witheringly, "When you're through sightseeing, I should appreciate some assistance here."

L. A. Marley was herself again, it seemed.

I assisted.

It was difficult to assess the texture of the stuff as it hung in the resistless void from one's stiff, encased fingers, but I got the impression that it was as floppy as wet cardboard.  The sheets that the colonel had brought back seemed to me, retrospectively, somewhat stiffer.  I thought it possible that the composition might vary from place to place...

And so we're treated to the dramatic irony of characters who proceed in ignorance of the true enormity of what they have found: life, or at any rate purposive matter, on the Moon...

2017 January 19th:

HAVOC CAUSED BY IMPORTED MERCURIAN CRITTERS

You'll perhaps remember from John Russell Fearn's Something From Mercury, the idea that it's not a good idea to bring home animals from the Inmost Planet.  They're really not suitable.  Their natures being adapted to their unusually fierce native environment, they are likely to have capabilities which cause trouble in gentler surroundings.

Arthur K Barnes' The Energy Eaters (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1939) is a variation on this theme. 

In this "Gerry Carlyle" adventure the Mercurian life-forms which cause the trouble - they're called Prometheans and they eat electricity - get let loose inside Earth's Lunar colony.

...Normally everything in the power house is more or less automatic and few attendants are necessary.  At the moment one of these, a burly man with a harassed expression, was trying frantically to pry loose one of the Prometheans from the terminals of a generator.

Since the Mercurian was more than ten feet in diameter and spread over most of the generator's surface, the burly man's efforts were not notably successful.  Indeed, his attempt to pry the creature loose with a crowbar seemed merely a gesture.

As Quade ran forward the whole cavern seemed to explode in a blinding blaze of flame...

The Prometheans reproduce by multiple fission, when they've gorged on enough electricity.  So suddenly there are myriads more of the metallic furballs, growing, sucking power, threatening the life of the colony.

Well, I just thought I'd warn you.  Don't bring home any Mercurians as pets.

2017 January 18th:

[Note: this diary entry contains an error.  See the entry for 27th January, where I blame it on the book's blurb.  Fact is, the "moon" in the episode is not our Moon.  However, I have left this 18th January entry as it was, because the mere fact that I was fooled for so long is a significant testimony to the lunar character of the place in question.]

KEITH LAUMER AND THE LURKERS ON THE MOON

A Plague of Demons (1965) is one of those monochrome, stark, eerie and unforgettable Laumer novels which are so unmistakably his: no aficionado would have any trouble guessing the author.

It brings together many of his recurrent themes: the intelligent war machine (though here they are not totally artificial, but cyborgs); the man with special powers; the truly fearsome aliens; the defeated or marginalised ordinary folk coming into contact with the incredible.

To this medley it adds the idea of secret combat on the Moon.  The imagery is so powerful that for me it eclipses the rationale of the story: I can never remember, from one reading to the next (spaced several years apart), just what the cyborgs were doing on the Moon and why the aliens saw fit to fight their battles there.  Why their appearances on Earth were so secret...

It doesn't matter.  I know that next time I read it I will, as usual, accept the reasons given, whatever they are.  The shape and sense of the story are what matters.

And above all I remember being shown what it is like to be able to see the awful truth when no one else can.  A Laumer technique which surfaces here is the skewed dialogue, where the speakers begin to talk past each other, because the one who needs to listen is refusing or is becoming unable to do so...

...He was smiling again, looking happy.  He leaned towards me, talking against a strident voice from the next table.

"I've been working for twenty years, preparing for what I've termed a 'surreptitious war', based on the premise that when the next conflict took place, it would be fought not on battlefields, or in space, but in the streets and offices of apparently peaceful cities - a war of brainwashing techniques, infiltration, subversion, betrayal.  It's been in the air for a hundred years: a vast insanity that's kept us flogging away, nation against nation, race against race - with the planets at our fingertips..."

Something was happening.  The music was changing to a sour whine in my ears.  The chatter at the tables around me was like the petulant cries of trapped monkeys in vast, bleak cages.

Felix was still talking, jabbing with a silver spoon to emphasize his points.  My eyes went to the double doors fifty yards distant across the brittle-patterned floor.  Beyond the dark glass, shapes moved restlessly, like dim shadows of crawling men...

I pushed my chair back.  "Felix!" I croaked.

"...could have established a permanent colony of perhaps five thousand.  Carefully picked personnel, of course - "

"The door!"  My voice was choking off in my throat.  The air in the room seemed to darken; tiny points of light danced before me.

"Something wrong, old boy?"  Felix was leaning forward, a concerned expression on his face.  He looked as unreal now as a paper cutout...

2017 January 17th:

CONFESSION TIME

Today it's time to talk about a page I want to write but (due to lack of ability) can't.

One never knows, maybe somebody else might help me out here, sometime.

I've been looking at The Moon People by Stanton A Coblenz.  Trying for the umpteenth time to get into it. 

It ought to be just what I want - a book about a lunar civilization.  An immensely fascinating topic.  And yet for some reason I can't take the story seriously. 

Stid:  Well, you know, it is pretty implausible...

Zendexor:  You ought to know me better than that, Stid.  The idea that I'd reject a tale just becauses it's implausible, just isn't plausible, in view of my stalwart record as a supporter of the wildest, most colourful and extravagant products of the OSS imagination.

An OSS tale can survive scientific implausibility and even serious internal inconsistency, but it cannot survive a wrongness of tone.  That's what's the problem here.

And it's very hard to pin down textually.  Impossible, in fact, or at least impossible without more work that I'm prepared to put into it.  But, to be honest, I feel rather bad about this, professionally.  I'm supposed to be a critic, who can tale a tale to pieces and find out what's wrong with it, smartly and swiftly.  Yet in this case I'm just not willing.

It's the same with Ray Cummings' series about Mercury.  Perhaps the narratives do not contain sufficient reflection upon the awesomeness of the theme.  That sense of awe and of being involved in something special ought to be conveyed either in the thoughts or words of the characters, or in the words of an omniscient narrator.  If it's not conveyed at all, we're left with a heap of words that tell us we're on the Moon or Mercury or whatever, without, however, inviting us to feel it.

I'd rather read some early Hamilton saga written in far worse style, which nevertheless leaves me some whiff of the author's enthusiasm and breadth of spirit.

I ought to be citing chapter and verse in proof of what I'm saying.  But - I confess - I can't be bothered!

But if any of you wants to argue, and try to convert me to another view about the Coblenz and Cummings books, feel free to go ahead - I should be genuinely interested, and, indeed, grateful that you have taken on the job I should have been doing.

2017 January 16th:

ANOTHER LATE OSS MARS

Recently I've been re-adjusting my views as to how far into the twentieth century the literary era of OSS Mars extended.  It went on further than I had given it credit for.

I've recently mentioned the Martian invaders in the Colossus trilogy (1970s), and yesterday I did a page on A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1963).  Now here's an excerpt from another inhabited-Mars tale that appeared in 1963: the novel Shield, by Poul Anderson.

....Suddenly, blindingly, he wished he were back on Mars.

On the edge of Trivium Charontis, looking across the Elysian desert, where the small brilliant sun spilled light from a sky like purple glass, a universe of light, floored with red and tawny dunes, on to the horizon where a dust storm walked crowned with ice crystals; a stone tower which was old when Earthlings hunted mammoths; Elkor's huge form coming from behind, scarcely to be heard rustling in that thin sharp air; the palp laid on Koskinen's neck, so strong he felt the detailed touch through his thermosuit fabric, yet gentle as a woman's hand, and the coded vibrations that could by now be understood as readily as English, sensed through flesh and bone: "Sharer-of-Hopes, there came to me, while I merged myself with the stars last night, a new aspect of reality which may bear on the problem that gives us mutual joy."

That brief flashback is the novel's only actual Martian scene.  But the whole story is dominated by the fact that Martian technology has developed in some un-earthly directions.

This includes the attainment of a defensive force-field... a secret innocently brought back to Earth by the hero, who discovers to his dismay that various powers are ready to kill to possess or to suppress the Shield.

So this is a story, not of an invasion from Mars, but of a revolutionary influence from Mars.  In that broad sense it could be classed with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, though it would be hard to imagine two books more different in flavour and tone.

2017 January 15th: 

JOVIAN ECONOMY IN TROUBLE

Have you ever had the feeling that you've veered into another dimension?

Temporary veerings of this sort (dimensional micro-shifts reminiscent of those mentioned in Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium as being constant, standard fluctuations in the world-lines of the continuum) have happened to me more than once while I've been reading the paper. 

For instance, years ago my eyes goggled as I noticed a minor reference to the "Confederate Air Force".  As if I had wandered into the alternate time track of Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee.  I really did see it - honest.  Confederate Air Force.  Suggesting that the CSA had won after all... somewhere.

And in today's Daily Telegraph Business News pages I came across another little heading which is liable to intrigue the OSS fan mentality.

I'm not frightfully interested in finance or in the fortunes of private companies, but I do find the Business pages worth looking at because I often come across interesting comments about the way societies and economies work, or are thought to work, and the direction in which social and technological change may be taking us.

Anyhow, today I read the following:

"Jupiter shares drop after exodus of £373m from funds."

Er - well, it seems to me that this could have serious implications for the entire System economy.  You know the old saying: when Jupiter sneezes, the Solar System catches a cold.

Only, I would have thought that £373m is too small a sum to make a difference to the stock exchange ranking of the Giant Planet.  £373 trillion might be more like it.

However, financial confidence is irrational and intuitive and perhaps the sudden directional change is as important as the actual figure.  If a manipulator is offloading Jovian bonds... hmm.  Could the Saturnians be behind this?

2017 January 14th:

NEW COLUMN HAS LIFT-OFF

I'm proud to announce the first ever guest-column on this site.  It's called The Intrepid Travelogue, (you'll find it on the nav bar between "OSS Diary" and "What's New?"), and it's by our roving interplanetary correspondent Dylan Jeninga.

As many of you will have noticed, Dylan is in particular a Mars enthusiast, so expect a wealth of  musings on the Red Planet, but don't expect that my own areological comments will grow any fewer as a result - there's plenty of room, plenty of material for two Red Planet musers, or indeed more than two; the field is sufficiently vast. 

It costs me very little effort to set up a guest-column page, so if anyone else wants one, just let me know.  Or if you, Dylan, eventually decide it's more practical to split yours into two - say, The Jeddak's Court Circular for Mars material and The Intrepid Travelogue for the rest, just say so.  Or I might decide to exercise my autocratic power and do so anyway.  It will depend on circumstances.

One bonus of this new column is that it gives the site a younger voice.  I'm in my sixties; Dylan is in his twenties.  The chances are, therefore, that we each know a lot which the other does not.  Also, I am British and Dylan is American - another cultural stereoscopy which ought to give greater depth to Solar System Heritage.

A further boon would come from a columnist from Continental Europe.  Who knows what OSS treasures lie hidden by a language barrier?  I would not care to abdicate editorial control by posting a column in a language which I could not read myself, but I can read French and Italian, and can get by at a pinch in German, so I would be happy to give space to commentators from those lands.

2017 January 13th:

ANOTHER QUITE LATE MARTIAN THREAT

This one came out in 1946.  Written by one of the greats in the hard-sf field - his first published story, actually.  Evidently it wasn't too ridiculous an idea, as late as 1946, that the Martians might still be watching us, and getting alarmed by our progress in rocketry:

...The only hope of security lies in preventing the Terrestrials from making further advances in this direction.  From what we know of them, this will require some overwhelming threat.

Since its high gravity makes it impossible for us to land on the planet, our sphere of action is restricted.  The problem was discussed nearly a century ago by Anvar, and I agree with his conclusions.  We must act immediately along those lines...

Pre-emptive action, containment...  these Martians aren't seeking our resources or our world: they can't live on it.  No, the reason they resort to aggression is because they fear us - our future development.  That's an interesting twist on the usual invasion theme.

The story, as you've doubtless guessed, is Arthur C Clarke's Loophole.  A tale made up of quotations from documents - you could call it an "epistolary" framework except that any kind of document or memo or recording can form the narrative.  It can be a most vivid and effective literary form, and here it's perfect for the theme. 

It reminds me of a few other good examples of this way of constructing a story: Keith Laumer's Rogue Bolo; A E van Vogt's Dear Pen Pal and Secret Unattainable.

Great fun to read.  I wish it were longer.

2017 January 12th:

FAR, FAR FUTURE NEPTUNE

Readers of Olaf Stapledon are used to thinking of Neptune as the far-future home of humanity.  But Stapledon's Last And First Men takes us "only" a couple of billion years into the future.  Another writer takes us some orders of magnitude further into the Universe's dark finale.

Yes, I am talking about John W Campbell's Night. The story in which a man from our age is accidentally capapulted into the last Night of the Solar System.

"...As I looked, a dim, incredibly dim, red disc, suddenly appeared, expanded - and I looked in awe at Neptune.

"The planet was scarcely visible when we were already within a dozen millions of miles.  It was a jewelled world.  Cities - the great, perfect cities - still glowed.  They glowed in soft, golden light above, and below, the harsher, brighter blue of mercury vapour lighted them..."

One detail of this tale I had remembered incorrectly from way back.  From my first reading of Campbell, some aeons ago, I remembered that Night was an early landmark of sf, and I vaguely assumed that it portrayed Neptune as the last home of life (albeit mere mechanical life) because that was the outermost known planet when Campbell was writing. 

But no, that wasn't the case.  Sloppy thinking on my part!  Pluto (as I knew perfectly well) was discovered in 1930, and if I had stopped to reflect I would have realized that Campbell's tale had certainly appeared after that date.  Now, actually this means something interesting.  Think of it - Pluto was known, but passed over. 

The plot's focus upon Neptune, therefore, is an instance of Neptune's special pull, the gestalt at work: "last flicker of life... far future life... Neptune" - the association of ideas spanning Stapledon and Campbell; yet another instance of the cumulative, layering build-up of the OSS heritage.

2017 January 11th: 

HOW LATE COULD THE MARTIANS INVADE US?

How recent was their latest effort?

I was browsing in my copy of The Best of C M Kornbluth, and came across his tale The Silly Season, in which the Martians have (quite successfully) invaded Earth.  That story came out in 1950.  I thought, that's late - I wonder if that could be the last one?

But no, 1950 was not anywhere near the cut-off date.  I suddenly remembered the Colossus trilogy by D F Jones.  The Martian invasion is threatened at the end of the second volume, The Fall of Colossus, which came out in - wait for it - 1974!

Now that sounds like it should be the Martian record for tardiness in aggression towards our planet, surely.  Mariner 9 had mapped the planet and shown it more or less as we now know it to be.  That a realistic author like D F Jones felt free to write of intelligent and powerful Martians two years later than that, is startling and (to me) refreshing.  I bet it's a one-off.

But if anyone knows of a later colonizing effort on the part of the Red Planet, please let me know.

To be quite accurate, the Martians in The Fall of Colossus and the next volume, Colossus and the Crab, aren't quite colonizers - in a sense they're even more dangerous than that.  They're plunderers, in the deadliest possible manner, and as fantastically powerful in relation to twenty-first century Man, as Wells' Martians were to the humanity of the year 1900. 

...He remembered Lunar One's report of the alien departure from Martian orbit: another calculation showed the transit speed to have been at least a quarter the speed of light...  His mind raced; he was almost happy.  Nothing that size could land - it would envelope the globe.  The craft must reduce in size...  That he should see such incomprehensible wonders!  He could not expect to remotely understand...

(Of course one could also mention the extremely dangerous Martians in the even more recent Daedalus trilogy, but as I said yesterday, that particular Mars is part of an eccentric off-genre dimension, one which I'm not quite up to coping with at the moment.)

2017 January 10th:

CITIES ON THE RINGS OF SATURN

I haven't said much about Michael J Martinez's recently-published Daedalus trilogy.  It has plenty of native Solar System life in it - Martians, Venusians, Saturnians; so as far as that's concerned, it could well count as neo-OSS.  However, the difference in the nature of space or of physical laws among his OSS worlds, and the clearly stated idea that they are in some other dimension, plus the fact that they are somewhat thinly portrayed, make me unwilling to include them in the sub-genre that is catered for on this site.

Yet having said all that, I want to note an exception.  That is his depiction, in The Enceladus Crisis, of cities sited actually upon the Rings of Saturn.  A daring concept which, I think, he pulls off startlingly well, so that a real OSS feel does emerge in a sudden brilliant glimpse amid his eccentric and anachronistic format of alchemic space-going sailing-ships.

..."You look bewildered, Thomas," Anne whispered as they stood upon the quarterdeck of HMS Fortitude, the city-rings of the planet stretching out nigh-infinity.

"I truly am," he replied quietly.  "Had I a poet's gift, I could begin to do it justice.  As it stands..."

No more needed be said, and the two watched as the rings began to differentiate and become patchworks of different neighborhoods - if a neighborhood of similar character and architecture were to be the size of France or Spain, perhaps!  The spires of these buildings seemed utterly small at first, but scale was misleading here... individual Babels, all reaching for the sky.

They also reached downward, for the rings themselves were set exactly upon their own gravitational axis... It was as if a child glued two towers together at the base of each, and hung them in the Void with millions of their fellows.

As Fortitude drew closer, all aboard could see that these structures were linked by an innumerable series of pathways, bridges and, for want of better words, gangplanks...  These were necessary, for each building was anchored to a boulder or series of boulders - the materials of Great Xanath's rings themselves...

Further fascinating details follow to feed our imaginations with the beauties of these inhabited Rings.  A glimpse, as I said, of what the trilogy could have been, if Martinez had been interested in "straight" OSS fiction rather than in his wacky alternative universe, or even if he had merely infused more character into the actual worlds of his universe.  However, lest I mislead, may I stress that his trilogy is a ripping good yarn in many ways - high adventure from the somewhat expanded days of sail, extended into the Void....

2017 January 9th:

GANYMEDEAN SCENE TWO YEARS BEFORE VOYAGER

As in yesterday's entry, I am again on the theme of the transition between Old Solar System and New.

Inherit the Stars (1977), by James P Hogan, is a transitional work, as I have mentioned elsewhere.  To my mind it is classifiable as an OSS tale because its plot concerns discoveries relating to the asteroid progenitor planet.  Modern science no longer believes that such a planet ever existed.  In other respects, however, the novel is realistic, or so I assumed until I was browsing in it again today, when, to my surprise, I came across a Ganymedean scene with an aspect which I don't remember noticing before; I can't have paid proper attention, or maybe I just hadn't remembered.

...He realized with some surprise that the mists around him were getting brighter again; also, he could suddenly see farther.  He was climbing upward across an immense ice field, now smooth and devoid of rocks.    The light was an eerie glow, permeating evenly through mists on every side as if the fog itself were luminous.  He climbed higher.  With every step the horizon of his vision broadened further, and the luminosity drained from the surrounding mist to concentrate itself in a single patch that second by second grew brighter above his head.  And then he was looking over the top of the fog bank.  It was just a pocket, trapped in the depression of the vast basin in which the base had been built...  The slope above him finished in a long, rounded ridge not fifty feet beyond where he stood.  He changed direction slightly to take the steeper incline that led directly to the summit of the ridge.  The last tenuous wisps of whiteness fell away.

At the top, the night was clear as crystal.  He was standing on a beach of ice that shelved down from his feet into a lake of cotton wool...  For miles around, ghostly white bergs of Ganymedean ice floated on an ocean of cloud, shining against the blackness of the night.

(Shining in Jupiter-light, of course.)  So here we are on a Ganymede with an atmosphere!  Interesting, that this could be believed, in 1977.  It reminds us of how much we weren't sure of, before the Voyager encounter in 1979.  Evidently the earlier Pioneer flybys hadn't resolved the issue of whether or not Ganymede was airless.  On the other hand, Titan's unusually thick atmosphere had been discovered spectroscopically much earlier, in the 1940s...

Anyhow, I suppose it wouldn't take much of an atmosphere to create a visible mist under some conditions.  Don't the Voyager images of Triton show some degree of haze?

A related issue: I don't know if it was Voyager that discovered the lethal radiation environment around Jupiter, but that environment certainly puts paid to any realistic chance of humans puttering around in that area in the casual time-honoured fashion of space heroes.  The Jovian realm is now off-limits to all but neo-OSS characters!

2017 January 8th:

THE OLD SPACE PROGRAM MEETS THE NEW

There's a rather archetypal OSS/NSS boundary tale by Edmond Hamilton, called The Pro (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1964).

It's a tale of father and son at the launch of the first Moon-ship.  The father, Jim Burnett, is a science-fiction writer and the son, Dan, is one of the astronauts due to go on the epochal trip.

It's poignantly written.  Hamilton expresses the father's mixture of pride and guilt: pride in his son, combined with guilt that his own writings created (he can't help suspecting) the climate of opinion that made possible this huge and risky leap into the dark.

Jim is popular with the crew:

...It seemed to delight them that they had on their team a top boy whose father was a writer of science fiction.  He had no doubt that they had many a private joke about that, but all the same they greeted him with pleasure, and he was glad of them, because he needed some distraction to forget the coldness that was in him.

"Hey!" they said.  "Here's the old expert himself.  Hi, Jim, how goes it?"

"I came down," he told them, "to make sure you were doing everything according to the way we wrote it..."

After more banter, he loosens up.

..."Don't you get smart with me," he said.  "I wrote the lot of you.  When you were drooling in your cribs I was making you up out of ink and sweat and the necessity to pay the bills.  And what did you do, you ungrateful little bastards?  You all came true."

It's a poised, balanced story in which the emotional currents swirl underground while nothing is allowed to spoil the light mood that is considered by all to be essential to the morale of a successful launch. 

..."But I tell you, it isn't funny.  These probes peering around Mars and Venus and blabbing everything they know...  Nowadays I have to know what I am talking about...  And now my own kid going to the Moon so he can come back and tell me what it's really like, and there will go a dozen more stories I can't write."

Talking, just talking, but the talk and the hearty, grinning young faces did him good and the coldness in him was gone...

"Have faith, Dad," said Dan.  "I'll find you something down in the caverns.  A dead city.  Or at least an abandoned galactic outpost."

"Well, why not?" said Burnett.  "Everything else has happened."

He grinned back at them.  "I'll tell you one thing, science fiction is a tough living but I'm glad it all came true while I was around to see it, and to see how the people who laughed at such childish nonsense took it..."

Hamilton thus arrives at the positive verdict, that "it came true".  And it's right to remember, amid all the grumbles we might make about the imaginative superiority of the OSS over the NSS, that as far as the leap through space from Earth to Moon is concerned, it did come true.

Of course, it went wrong after that.  The USA abandoned the Moon soon after reaching it. 

But going wrong, and going wrong in a big way, is also a science-fictional theme.  In fact, the status of sf is the only safe bet in our changing world.  Whatever happens now, we'll be able to say, "it's come true".  Achievements, disasters, glorious futures, sinister futures, disastrous futures, whatever - sf has covered all the options in advance.

2017 January 7th:

PERCIVAL LOWELL'S ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY

...Peculiarly impressive is the thought that life on another world should thus have made its presence known by its exercise of mind.  That intelligence should thus mutely communicate its existence to us across the far stretches of space, itself remaining hid, appeals to all that is highest and most far-reaching in man himself.  More satisfactory than strange this; for in no other way could the habitation of the planet have been revealed.  It simply shows again the supremacy of mind.  Men live after they are dead by what they have written while they were alive, and the inhabitants of a planet tell of themselves across space as do individuals athwart time, by the same imprinting of their mind.

Thus, not only do the observations we have scanned lead us to the conclusion that Mars at this moment is inhabited, but they land us at the further one that these denizens are of an order whose acquaintance was worth the making.  Whether we shall ever come to converse with them in any more instant way is a question upon which science at present has no data to decide.  More important to us is the fact that they exist...

 - Percival Lowell, Mars as the Abode of Life (1908)

Most of the space on this site is given to discussion of the fictional Old Solar System, but there's no reason to limit the OSS as a topic to fiction - the history of scientific ideas belongs to that same mental arena.

To read Lowell's words is to be prodded to reflect on what it might have been like really to believe - as he believed - that the Red Planet held intelligent life.

His work also takes us back to the sense we used to have, better than we do now, of the vastness of the solar system.  For consider: if, nowadays, it turned out that we co-existed with intelligent Martians, well, there'd be no hesitation, no delay; without even waiting to launch a space probe we'd just squirt some radio messages in their direction and doubtless more or less instantaneously get something back.  That's how things would be done, nowadays.  Doubtless before long the citizens of both planets would be joined on sort of interplanetary Facebook...

As a refuge from that annihilation of the grandeur of the solar system, let us ponder how it must have seemed to Lowell's hopeful readers.

2017 January 6th:

NOT-SO-UNREASONABLE FUN

I genuinely believe that the time may come, and should come, when the explosion of imaginative awareness which constituted twentieth-century science fiction is seriously compared with the mental and spiritual awakening of mankind in the sixth century BC - the age of early science and philosophy in Greece, of the Buddha in India, and of Confucius in China, when more or less simultaneously all over the civilized world the vanguard of human consciousness soared to a new level. 

The sheer aplomb of the best classic sf is absolutely amazing - a case of the human mind seizing the whole universe and saying, I'm at home here!

So my historical comparison is not at all meant as a joke.  Mind you, Dylan and I had some good laughs over Christmas with juxtaposing literary themes from sf and the mainstream.  Since then I've failed to top his last one, though I've just thought of the following:

"How far is self-belief the essential equipment of a warrior in every age and clime?  Compare the Wrath of Achilles with John Carter's fight in the court of Salensus Oll."

But then, I suddenly think, hey, this is interesting, I've ceased to laugh and my brow is creased with serious furrows!

We're on to something, you see...  Think "Renaissance" ! 

This time it's definitely more than just fun.  How about:

"Compare Vasari's Lives of the Artists with Moskowitz' Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction.  Discuss how each scholar tackled the issue of how to encapsulate the consciousness of an age in an appropriate medium..."

2017 January 5th:

...AND RUSSELL'S OTHER MARTIANS

Yesterday I omitted to mention that Eric Frank Russell also created an alternatively memorable race of tentacled beings from the Red Planet, in his superb novella, Dear Devil (Other Worlds, May 1950).

This, unlike the stories in Men, Martians and Machines discussed yesterday, is not a happy-go-lucky tale at all.  There's none of the multi-species ribbing and banter that we find amongst the motley crew of the MarathonDear Devil is equally heart-warming, but for a totally different reason, just as its Martians are different in nature, contrasting notably with those in the other stories by their inability to talk.  Dear Devil's Martians are silent, communicating with one another either by signalling their tentacles or by touch-telepathy. 

The first Martian expedition to Earth discovers an apparently deserted planet, its ruins overgrown with grass and stunted trees.  The captain, Skhiva, sees no reason to remain.  He and the crew are disappointed at the emptiness - they had been hoping to find allies, fellow-beings with whom to explore the universe.  The decision is made, to abandon this empty world, and to regard the expedition as a failure.

However, one crew member, the poet, Fander, asks leave to remain behind, alone.

...That same streak of stubbornness which made Skhiva a worthy commander induced him to take one final crack at Fander shortly before departure.  Summoning him to his cabin, he studied the poet calculatingly.

"You are still of the same mind?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Then does it not occur to you as strange that I should be so content to abandon this planet if indeed it does still hold some dregs of greatness?"

"No."

Skhiva stiffened slightly.  "Why not?"

"Captain, I think you are a little afraid because you suspect what I suspect, namely, that there was no natural disaster, that they did it themselves - to themselves."

"We have no proof of it," said Skhiva uneasily.

"No, Captain, we haven't."

"If this is their own handiwork what are our chances of finding allies among people so much to be feared?"

"Poor," admitted Fander.  "But that, being the product of cold thought, means little to me.  I am animated by warm hopes."

"There you go again, blatantly disregarding reason in favor of an idle dream.  Hoping, hoping, hoping - to achieve the impossible."

Dear Devil is a tale that pits hope against fear.  The Martian poet who saves the human race achieves this stupendous feat by his personal qualities, setting in motion a positive cycle of history, with such success that the next Martian expedition to Earth finds the place transformed... 

This is Russell at his serious best, just as Men, Martians and Machines is Russell at his insouciant best.

2017 January 4th:

ERIC FRANK RUSSELL'S MARTIANS

The mixed interplanetary crew depicted in Jay Score - see my page on plying the spacelanes - later go further out: they enlist for interstellar voyages in the three sequel stories Mechanistria, Symbiotica and Mesmerica, all four tales being collected in Men, Martians and Machines  (1955) - one of the favourites of my collection.

The interstellar scenes are outside the remit of this site, but the tales remain relevant insofar as they all depict Martians alongside the Terran crewmenbers, and I want to discuss these Martians.  They - and their relations with the humans - are an essential aspect of the series.

It's hard to convey to a reader who doesn't know Russell's work, the joyous flavour of his stories.  "Happy-go-lucky" is the term I'd use, but I can imagine it might be misunderstood.  You might hear "happy-go-lucky" and think that this is likely to refer to some quality which detracts from the vividness and intensity and excitement of the tales.  Not so.  How this author performs his balancing act, I don't know, except to make the obvious point that he somehow does it by means of his inimitable style.

Here is one of those interstellar scenes: on the green planet "Symbiotica", full of a sinister, collaborative ecology.  In this episode a group of fugitive Terrans are accompanied by the lazy Martian chess-adict Sug Farn.  They are forced to evade one peril after another.  One of the Terrans has just been killed by an electrical discharge from dangling vegetable threads.

...Giving a wide berth to this newest menace, which we dubbed the voltrree, we hit the end of what passed for Main Street in these parts.  Here we had an advantage in one respect but not in another.  The houses stood dead in line and well apart; we could march along the centre of this route beneath the wider gap of sky and be beyond range of this planet's bellicose vegetation.  But this made us so much the more vulnerable to attack from any direction by natives determined to oppose our escape.  We would have to do the trip, one way or another, with our necks stuck out a yard.

As we trudged stubbornly ahead, mentally prepared to face whatever might yet come, Sug Farn said to me, "You know, I have an idea well worth developing."

"What is it?" I asked, enjoying a thrill of hopefulness.

"Suppose that we had twelve squares a side," he suggested, blandly ignoring present circumstances, "we could then have four more pawns and four new master pieces per side.  I propose to call the latter 'archers'.  They would move two squares forward and could take opponents only one square sideways.  Wouldn't that make a beautifully complicated game?"

"I hope you swallow a chess-set and suffer blockage of the bowels," I said, disappointed.

"As I should have known, your mental appreciation accords with that of the lower vertebrates..."

The mutual irritation between Martian and Terran crew-members does not mean they really dislike each other; on the contrary, there is a strong bond of loyalty and mutual respect underlying the constant ribbing.  Also, the Martians frequently make an essential contribution to the expeditions' survival: escape from perilous situations often occurs thanks only to their great strength, their mutual telepathy, the flexibility of their tentacles and the anchoring power of their suckers, their abiltiy to do metal-work including welding in near-vacuum...  Altogether, a good species to have as an ally.

It would have been nice to glimpse them on their own world; but that could never be.  The way Russell wrote the stories, it would probably have spoiled the tone if he had had to weight it with an actual exploration of Martian culture in situ.  Never mind, we can be grateful for what we have, and re-read Men, Martians and Machines once every few years with never-failing enjoyment.

2017 January 1st:

PLAYING ONE'S LAST CARD ON PLUTO

One theme that occurs often in Keith Laumer's tales - it's a speciality of his, most effectively so - is that of the protagonist at his last gasp, following a faint clue, relying on a forlorn hope, in fact not really a hope at all because it's so unrealistic, just something to aim at, to help him keep going because it's best to die trying...

In The Other Sky the faint clue to salvation involves the planet Pluto.

It's many years since I read the tale; its powerful imagery outlasts the recollection of the mechanics of the plot, which I have utterly forgotten. 

A small elfin alien - "Jimper" - tells the main character, Vallant, that help against the Niss - alien oppressors of Earth - could be sought from the land of "Galliale" which is somehow on, or reachable through, Pluto.

The story has interstellar, even inter-dimensional ramifications.  But some flavour of the Old Solar System attaches to it because of the way Pluto fits into the plot.

Pluto the forlorn hope.

..."We're low on rations and my fuel banks were never intended for this kind of high-G running.  We'll have to turn back."

"Turn back to what, Vallant?  The Not-men will surely slay you - and what will happen to Jimper?"

"There's nothing out there, Jimper!"  Vallant waved a hand at the screen that reflected the blackness of space, the cold glitter of the distant stars.  "Nothing but some big balls of ice called Uranus and Neptune, where the sun is just a bright star - "

"There is Pluto."

"So there is..."  Vallant raised his head, looked into the small, anxious face.  "Where could this nice warm place of yours be, Jimper?  Underground?"

"The sky of Galliale is wide and blue, Vallant, and graced with a golden sun."

"If I headed out that way - and failed to find Galliale - that would be the end.  You know that, don't you?"

"I know, Vallant.  I will not lead you wrong."

"The old man said something about mountains of ice; maybe - " Vallant straightened.  "Well, there's nothing to go back to.  I've always had a yen to see what's out there.  Let's go take a look, Jimper.  Maybe there are still a few undreamed-of things in Heaven and Earth - or beyond them."

>>  December 2016