the sunport vista:

April 2017

Thought for the day...

2017 April 30th:  


Russell has a wonderfully refreshing bluntness at times, especially regarding how to deal with officialdom. 

The officialdom is often stupid, but even when it isn't, the Russell protagonist is likely to be bluntly assertive - in sheer relish at telling unwelcome truths.

In Three To Conquer (1955), Wade Harper encounters hostile aliens masquerading as humans (they turn out to be Venusians, who had taken over the first Terran expedition to that planet), and he has to warn the authorities before it is too late.  His task would be impossible, especially as he is wanted for murder, and so humanity would be doomed, but for one stroke of luck - Harper happens to be a telepath, and can prove it. 

How he overcomes one official obstacle after another, and finally gains a hearing in Washington, is a delight to read.  This is one of those books which I've read so many times, I've lost count of them.  It never fails to grip.

"...I gave her the magazine right through the head.  I heard the alien mentality cease sizzling and fade to nothingness.  That showed it could die."

"Then you went away, without making further examination?"

"I did; I had no time for further horsing around.  I didn't dare risk being picked up anywhere but here.  To tell this story in any police barracks or sheriff's office, where they didn't know the score, would eventually land me in an asylum."

"Couldn't you have saved time, trouble and anxiety by calling us long distance?"

"How far would I have got that way?  Some underling would have sent police to the booth to pick up a loony.  I've had a tough enough job reaching the right people in person."

None of the listeners relished that remark, but were unable to deny the truth of it.  A formidable guard of minor officials stood between the high executive and a besieging force of malcontents, theorists, half-wits and world-doomers.  Perforce they also held at bay the rare individual with something genuinely worth hearing.

General Conway harumphed, decided that there were no satisfactory methods of overcoming this difficulty...

Of course, that was back in 1955 (though the story is actually set in 1980).

Nowadays, if I found myself in Harper's situation, I might adopt a more relaxed attitude to interplanetary invasion - it would just be one weirdness invading another, and I'd be tempted to leave them to it.  (Do I really mean that?  Let's hope not.)

2017 April 29th:  


"Topological" is a word I like to bandy around when trying to discuss the way quantities can be treated as merely relative in the OSS.  For example, it's all right for Captain Future to walk around in the open air on Pluto, as long as he wears furs to show that Pluto is colder than most worlds.  The degree of cold doesn't matter.  It's just the comparison that counts, for purposes of the story.

We get topological Time, too.

For instance in the film One Million Years BC, we're given cave-folk and dinosaurs co-existing, since both were in our far past.  Never mind that dinosaurs were actually a thousand times further back along the time-line.

You likewise get topological Time in Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle In the Moon (1929), in which we learn that Earth's satellite split off from the mother planet during the prehistory of Man, and actually carried one prehistoric man with it - Otho Bludge, who became the Man in the Moon.

It may be that even as a child I wondered at the chronology of this, but I expect that I was already good enough at double-think to accept the tale for its own sake.  (A stickler for hard science fiction will also doubtless quibble at the way the Doctor travels to the Moon - he gets there with his few companions on the back of a giant moth.)

As an adult I dislike the idea that the Moon split off the Earth - it would mean to me that the Moon is not a real other world - but I sufficiently remember my child-self (who hadn't yet decided that the idea demeaned the Moon's status) that I can recapture some faint echo of the old wonder when I open the book.

A monkey relates some simian folk-memory of the great disaster:

"...even my grandmother's ideas of time and place in these stories she told us were very hazy.  She had only had them handed down to her by her parents and grandparents, just as she passed them on to us.  But I am pretty sure it was around the time of the Great Flood...

"...I imagine they were both great catastrophes - perhaps both came together - and such confusion fell upon all creatures that they were far too busy to take notes, and too scattered afterwards to keep a very clear picture in their minds.  But I do remember that my grandmother said the first night when the Moon appeared in the sky some of our monkey ancestors saw a group of men kneeling on a mountaintop worshipping it...

"...It seems that to begin with the confusion was terrible.  Darkness covered the Earth, the noise of a terrible explosion followed and there was great loss of life.  Then the sea rushed into the hole that had been made, causing more havoc and destruction still.  Man and beast slunk into caves for shelter or ran wild across the mountains, or just lay down and covered their eyes to shut out the dreadful vision..."

I wonder if Velikovsky ever read Dr Dolittle In the Moon?

2017 April 28th:  


In the mood for analogies today... I recall how the old yeoman class was sometimes referred to as the "backbone of England": neither rich nor poor but solidly prosperous in a modest way, sturdy, decent, and numerous, so that without being at all pretentious they had become staunchly representative of the national character.

Now - as is my wont - I shall indulge in far-fetched analogy-construction by drawing a parallel between the Backbone of Old England and the Backbone of the OSS.

I feel that there is a great number of competent tales, most of them to be found merely in old magazines - stories which aren't individually great and don't aim to be so, but which are adequately written, and embody the straight stuff.  They are "original" in the literal sense of springing from the archetype, not in the more usual and opposite sense of being innovative.  And so they do the essential work of strengthening the archetype, of helping it to accrete its literary mass.

...He left the spaceport and headed out into the hot, lush Venusian afternoon.  The air was warm and moist with the ever-present rain-that-never-fell, and the thick vegetation was a riot of color before his eyes.

If he returned empty-handed, the Company had him.  One word from Connaughty and he didn't stand a chance of having his case reviewed.

But if he could come back with evidence that Connaughty, father and son, were busily peddling kerith to the Greenies - then, and only then, did Mayne stand a chance of getting cleared of the frameup and returning to space.

He plunged off into the jungle, not knowing where to begin but knowing he had to make a beginning.  He passed a thicket of waving dornik-trees, undulating with a sinister motion, and pushed his way through the closely-massed vines and bunched, low-lying shrubs.

The glow of the sun behind the cloud layer grew brighter as he headed deeper into the jungle...

- Hot Trip for Venus, by Randall Garrett  (Imaginative Tales, July 1957)

I dare say this eminently readable little adventure has never been anthologised.  Just one of countless undistinguished forays into a lush Venusian jungle.  One bone cell in the spine of the OSS.

2017 April 27th: 


On my pages for the Galilean Satellites I try to tease out the characters of those worlds insofar as such a literary gestalt may have evolved by means of thematic overlaps in the body of OSS literature.  It's a difficult task but not impossible.  Traces of overlap are faint but do have some substance, so that we readers are presented with something a bit more coherent than an utterly random bunch of imaginings.

My latest effort concerns the story I mentioned yesterday - Murray Leinster's Space-Can.  It gives us an interesting version of the native culture on Jupiter's largest moon.

..."Have to warn the crew again, Dick.  Tell 'em to remember all over again that Ganymedians talk like paymasters figure.  Specific.  Exact.  They don't understand exaggeration and they don't understand jokes.  If you tell them something that isn't literally true, they think you're crazy..."

This mental alien-ness gives the tale a frontier feel, because it is combined with a comparative sense of familiarity with the inhabitants of the inner Solar System worlds.  The message is, when descending upon Ganymede: you're really in the back of beyond now.  More so than when on Venus, Mercury or Mars.  And this is what we want, surely, from a story set in the Jovian system.

...There were a good many Ganymedians on hand.  From overhead, the innumerable clumps of grass had seemed without life.  Gannygrass grew thirty feet high in semi-floating islands that were roughly two hundred feet across.  In between the clumps was swamp.  The Ganymedians lived in what amounted to burrows in their floating islands, and progressed from one grass patch to another in queer, skittering hops startlingly like the running steps of a heavy bird just about to take off upwind.

They had a civilization of sorts, but nobody could gather more than minor information about it.  Questioned, they either answered exactly and literally, or else ignored the questioner...

A consequence of this syndrome - vital to the plot of the tale - is that the Ganymedians never lie.  They cannot conceive of telling aught but the truth.  Or of believing that they had been told aught but the truth.  Which turns out to be just as well for the Terrans... as they find themselves in the midst of an interplanetary trap laid by Martian agents on the Jovian moon.

Not so much a "space-western", more like a "space-Cold-War-thriller"... with the kind of solution which you can only find in a science-fiction story.

2017 April 26th:  


Some imaginary people don't know when they're well off. 

...He swore again as the little ship settled down through the misty Ganymedian atmosphere.  The ground below, as seen through the snooperscope, was utterly featureless save for some hundreds of thousands of identical clumps of gannygrass.  That was Ganymede - gannygrass and swamp.

"Remember the recruiting posters we saw, last time on Earth?" growled Dick Harkness to Joe.  'Deep Space is calling you!  Ride a Comet and see the Worlds!'  There oughta be a law!  Look below!  Who wants to see this?"

Space-Can by Murray Leinster  (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1948)

Now just imagine if, for real, the next Jupiter probe finds out that Ganymede has an atmosphere and vegetation... wouldn't the world be agog with excitement?  No matter how swampy and monotonous the Ganymedean plains turned out to be, the scene would evoke frantic excitement in mankind.  Alien life, for Heaven's sake!  

But I haven't finished with the unappreciativeness of Dick Harkness.  There's more.

..."Look at the doggone place!  Venus is bad enough, with an aerosol for an atmosphere, and Mercury is worse!  But at least the natives are human, after a fashion!  Shut your eyes and listed to a Mercurian trying to bargain you out of your back teeth and you feel almost chummy.  Hold your nose and watch a Venus-girl dance and you almost get sentimental!  But these Ganymedeans..."

You see, there's no satisfying some people.  The Old Solar System with its inhabited worlds seems overwhelmingly desirable to us, who have to make do with the apparently barren reality.  But who knows, if things were different, if the worlds were full of life, might we still take them for granted and find things to grumble about? 

I suspect some of us would.

Maybe even I, if I had just been swindled by a Mercurian...

2017 April 25th:  


So many mental pathways lead to the Old Solar System...

I'm currently reading Max Adams' The King in the North (2013).  It's a cracking good read, a riveting account of the life and times of King Oswald of Northumbria, who reigned for eight years, 634-642, dying heroically in battle.  One of the chapters is headed "The Return of the King", and this is deliberate - for according to the author, Oswald served as a kind of model for Tolkien's Aragorn.  Be that as it may, the book is a wonderful exploration of that period of Dark-Age Britain.

It made me think of another history book on a very different topic, which excited me in the same kind of way: G E M Ste. Croix's The Origins of the Pelopponesian War - which I read as a student back in the 1970s.

What both books have in common is a masterly exposition of scant sources.  Their style is very different, but in each case the reader is invited to partake of the historian's reflections and his route to his conclusions, in a way which is specially natural to studies of ancient or obscure periods.  Each possible clue is squeezed for all its worth... and we readers share in the squeezing, if I may put it in that crude way.  To tease out the truth behind scanty and sometimes contradictory sources is a fascinating game.

Now for the relevance to the OSS:

Solemn fun can also be had with the fragmentary and contradictory sources for imaginary worlds.  Their histories are waiting to be written!  Authors almost never do this work themselves; the only example I can think of, of one who has done it, is Robert Gibson in Uranian Gleams.  (And Tolkien, of course, in the fantasy genre.)  So by and large it is left for us critics and fans to perform the delightful task.

Barsoom, and the Brackett Mars, are obvious potential subjects of such imaginary-historical studies.  To some extent, no doubt, it has already been done.  But I suspect that major works remain to be written, especially for the Brackett Mars.  The coherence of that series is so loose, that plenty of scope remains for ingenious efforts at a synthesis of its world's history.  Of particular interest for me would be a study of the rise and fall of the "real" Martians - the intelligent non-human races depicted, for example, in People of the Talisman, The Sword of Rhiannon and The Last Days of Shandakor.

But first, to whet your appetite stylistically, I suggest you read The King in the North....

2017 April 24th:  


Greta the hostess, whose job it is to entertain the soldiers of the Time-War, sees that an ancient Lunarian has been injured.

...I looked and saw - Hey, Zeus! - that one of Ilhilihis' six tentacles was lopped off half way. 

That was for me, and, going to him, I fast briefed myself: "Remember, he only weighs fifty pounds for all he's seven feet high; he doesn't like low sounds or to be grabbed; the two legs aren't tentacles and don't act the same; uses them for long walks, tentacles for leaps; uses tentacles for close vision too..."

I want to like Fritz Leiber's The Big Time (1961), but so far I don't, because I don't "click" with its tone, though its plot may be all right - I've never got far enough into it to be sure.  If I want to read a time-war tale I go for Simak's Time and Again, Anderson's The Corridors of Time and above all (if I want the concepts to be tackled convincingly) Barrington Bayley's stunning masterpiece  The Fall of Chronopolis.  That's enough to satisfy - so why be wistful about the Leiber book?

One answer: because of the OSS connection.  A rare one: we readers don't often get glimpses of the ancient natives of the Moon.

Another possible reason: I may be missing something great about the book from the Time War point of view.  Whereas Poul Anderson tends to view our main line of history as prevailing, Leiber has us drift away from it in its spine-chilling, vertiginous Changes.  If one can take it, here is a new form of horror. 

Meanwhile, I wish there was more about Ilhilihis and his Lunarian civilization a billion years in the past. 

2018 April 23rd:   Apologiies for the lack of Diary yesterday and today.  I am not at home this weekend; and, away from my Solar System Library and from my desktop computer, my chances aren't good.

2017 April 21st:  


A not particularly brilliant Jack Williamson story has prompted me to reflect upon opportunities for tales as yet unwritten, set in the outermost reaches of the Solar System.

Operation Gravity (Science Fiction Plus, October 1953) gives us an unexpected trans-Plutonian planet, with a mass greater than that of all the other planets combined. 

How could this have remained so far undiscovered?  Answer: it's because of the extreme eccentricity of this body's orbit.  It's ages since it last approached perihelion - no wonder no one knew about it, no wonder it had not noticeably perturbed the orbits of other worlds during recorded history.

This seems to me to be a reasonable excuse.  But we needn't stop there.  If we move away from the hard end of the sf spectrum, and towards its dreaming end, we can use the Science of Excuses (excusology) to develop the idea by means of excuses which no longer have to be reasonable - they just have to put in an appearance.

Burroughs' Skeleton Men of Jupiter shows how this is done.  The author uses the fast rotation period of the giant planet to get round the problem of its surface gravity.  Thus: to the question, how can John Carter walk and jump around on Jupiter? we get the answer: easy! It's the centrifugal force of the rotation that counteracts the gravity!

ERB clearly doesn't bother to work out the figures; it's enough that, qualitatively, one force can be used as an excuse against another.  The numbers don't matter; this is more topology than arithmetic.

Well, we can do the same with trans-Plutonian planets that travel in eccentric orbits.  For instance:

You could have a kind of super-Sedna which goes out to maybe a quarter of a light-year and then comes back every million years or so, and when it does, it - AWAKES.

It thaws out and its dormant civilization stirs and come back to life!

Ignore the figures which tell you that even at perihelion it would be too cold.  (It must be far out even at perihelion, else every million years the orbits of the other planets would be messed about, and this would be too much even for OSS excusology.)  As I say, ignore the coldness of a 100-AU perihelion: it would be warm enough for them


2017 April 20th:   


English scene in the year 802,701:

..."So far as I could see, all the world displayed the same exuberant richness as the Thames valley.  From every hill I climbed I saw the same abundance of splendid buildings, endlessly varied in material and style, the same clustering thickets of evergreens, the same blossom-laden trees and tree-ferns.  Here and there water shone like silver, and beyond, the land rose into blue undulating hills, and so faded into the serenity of the sky.  A peculiar feature, which presently attracted my attention, was the presence of certain circular wells, several, as it seemed to me, of a very great depth.  One lay by the path up the hill, which I had followed during my first walk.  Like the others, it was rimmed with bronze, curiously wrought, and protected by a little cupola from the rain.  Sitting by the side of these wells, and peering down into the shafted darkness, I could see no gleam of water, nor could I start any reflection with a lighted match.  But in all of them I heard a certain sound: a thud - thud - thud, like the beating of some big engine...

Well, we all know what lurks beneath the landscape in H G Wells' The Time Machine.  But the surface landscape is beautiful.  A park, but not too "manicured" - just pleasant.

Now let's look at a future that's not quite so far.  Mere thousands, instead of hundreds of thousands, of years ahead.  Here's the Wisconsin of A.D. 7990:

"Nice evening," the stranger said.

Adams chuckled.  "The evenings are always nice.  The Weather boys don't let it rain until later on, when everyone's asleep."

In a thicket down the hill a thrush struck up its evensong and the liquid notes ran like a quieting hand across a drowsing world.  Along the creek a frog or two were trying out their throats.  Far away, in some dim other-world a whippoorwill began his chugging question.  Across the meadow and up the climbing hills, the lights came on in houses here and there.

"This is the best part of the day," said Adams.

He dropped his hand into his pocket, brought out tobacco pouch and pipe.

"Smoke?" he asked.

The stranger shook his head.

"As a matter of fact, I am here on business."

Adams' voice turned crisp.  "See me in the morning, then.  I don't do business after hours."

The stranger said softly, "It's about Asher Sutton."

Adams' body tensed and his fingers shok so that he fumbled as he filled his pipe.  He was glad that it was dark so the stranger could not see.

"Sutton will be coming back," the stranger said.

This is a different kind of menace altogether, nothing like the distorted, sinister Morlocks of The Time Machine.  In Simak's Time and Again we have the disturbing influence of a man with a mission to promote the equality of all forms of life.  No mere one-off explorer in time like Wells', but on the contrary, a man who starts a time-war. 

Still, the sense of a serene, far-future, park-like Earth haunts both novels.  And in each case we have a variety in the park.  Simak's includes marsh and swamp - the setting for an irruption from the time-war:

...The headlights caught, momentarily, the grey-black massive lines of a house that huddled on a hillside and then there was another curve.  A night bird, black and ghostly, fluttered across the road and the shadow of its flight danced down the cone of light.

Adams was the one, said Sutton, talking to himself.  He was the one who was waiting for me.  He knew, somehow, that I was coming, and he was all primed and cocked.  He had me tagged and ticketed before I hit the ground and he gave me a going over before I know what was going on.

And undoubtedly he found a whole lot more than he bargained for.

Sutton chuckled drily.  And the chuckle was a scream that came slanting down the hill slope in a blaze of streaming fire... a stream of fire that ended in the marsh, that died down momentarily, then licked out in blue and red.

Brakes hissed and tires screeched on the pavement as Sutton slewed the car around to bring it to a stop.  Even before the machine came to a halt, he was out the door and running down the slope toward the strange, black craft that flickered in the swamp...

A swamp in a park?  It still fits.  The "atmosphere" of the book envelops and absorbs all its constituent episodes, after which process we are left with a magnificent, maturely beautiful Earth, basically like the one in The Time Machine.  An Earth which is the stage for conflicts and destinies which are far beyond the preoccupations of A.D.2017, though the principles are already in place.

And it's quite cute, by the way, that brakes still hiss and tyres screech in A.D. 7990... 

And pipes are still smoked.

2017 April 19th:  


After a brisk Easter Monday outing to watch the egg-rolling in Avenham Park, Preston, I wanted to flop with a book.  Which one?  I then had the brainwave, that I could spend a pleasant few hours in the evening re-reading van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher for the umpteenth time.

It turned out to be just the right choice.

Isher is one of his classics, and as it's rather short for a novel (123 pages) it's easy to get through it in an evening.  As usual with van Vogt, though, I find my enjoyment is mingled with reflection, as to how he achieves his effects.

Doubtless with any author a relaxed reader is likely to be left with a clearer impression of the book's scenes, than of the way they are put together.  But still, with van Vogt, this imbalance is unusually stark.  His superb dramatic images are strung together like bright beads on a dim forgettable string. 

I'm not saying that the general background of The Weapon Shops of Isher is forgettable; far from it.  It's a great idea, but the mechanics of the plot are pretty obscure.

His secret is that somehow this doesn't matter.  A special case of GAWI, without a doubt.  So how would a critic set about tackling the phenomenon of van Vogt's success?

Answer: by studying the transitions

For such an episodic structure to work, there must be enough kick in each episode to propel the reader along the next bit of "string" to the next episode. 

Now for a change of metaphor: forget about beads and string.  Instead, imagine the book as a peculiar railway system, in which the trains have no engines but instead derive their power from episodes at the stations, at each of which there is a connection to a power source, from which the carriages get a shove which is enough to propel them by sheer momentum to the next station. 

That's a van Vogt novel.  And to reproduce the feat, one would have to know just how much shove to give the train, per mile of intervening track.

An instinct worth having...

2017 April 18th:  


These can come in different strengths.

Surely no tyranny could be worse than that of a planetary mind, immanent throughout the globe, haunting all its inhabitants with a continual threat of inescapable power.

The fairly unobtrusive "World-Spirit" of Ooranye, on the other hand, seems to be no trouble:

...What happened was that for five hours the conference, and to a lesser extent the whole world, was gripped by a transcendent experience.  In a sense we really know nothing about it, but in another sense we know enough.  The planet Ooranye harbours something analogous to a world-spirit, a living thing, or an entity which can be likened to a living thing.  Very occasionally it intervenes in history.  It does so for reasons we can only guess at; this was one of those occasions...

We gain the impression, from the "brief history" of the seventh planet given in Uranian Gleams, that interventions by the World Spirit are as rare as miracles.  The Uranians can't depend on them.  Neither do they worry about them.

It is a different kind of set-up altogether in Susan Cooper's Mandrake (1964), where the Intelligence is latent in Earth.  Instead of the splendour of the Uranian scene, we have a sinister sense of mounting horror.

As the situation gets desperate, Dr Quested, who alone has guessed the truth, tries to explain to his sceptical lady friend the danger they are in.  First he has to re-define "intelligence":

"...The universe is full of suns and novae and solidified matter, and they are all of them energy, and so it's a kind of community of intelligences.  Only man's scale of values doesn't include this...  He can't see the laws of the universe as a kind of cosmic intelligence."

The girl lay on her back, her face tightened with listening.  "But it isn't.  I mean, there's nothing intelligent about a set of rules.  Intelligence is choosing what you do - free will."

"Is it?"  He spread his hand in the air, and took hold of one finger.  "If I bend that back far enough, it snaps.  I don't choose whether it does...  You're doing what we always do, thinking in our own terms...  When we wonder if there's life on another planet, we choose Mars, or one with conditions most like our own.  When we scrape around for traces of life in meteorites, it's organic life we're looking for.  Or we wonder if there's some great mind somewhere, like our own only much bigger, outside all these manifestations of energy and governing them all.  It never occurs to us to think that perhaps the physicists might be the theologians.  That energy itself, the common denominator in all things, is the basic life and mind and intelligence...  We talk about the cruel sea, and the merciless sun.  It's a cover for something we daren't think about."   

And it has become a live issue because, after umpteen atom-bomb tests, the Earth is getting resentful about the damage done to it.  It strikes back in gruesome fashion, not only by physical means (quakes, etc) but by gaining a strange hold upon people's minds.  Mandrake, the apparently all-powerful Minister of Planning, is a puppet of the Intelligence, and the communitarian political ideology that grips the land is not what it seems.

The World Spirit in Uranian Gleams is colourful background.  The Intelligence in Mandrake is a dark force that underlies the entire plot.

The Uranian version fits better with ideas of the character of worlds in the main OSS sub-genre.  I suppose the Uranian Intelligence is a fairly well-intentioned supporter of the status quo, like the Institute in Jack Vance's Demon Princes series.  Such an entity will be more or less a mirror of the characteristics of the world it haunts. 

Go for Mandrake on the other hand if you want your spine chilled.

2017 April 17th:  


"...There's something about Europa - it's so old and cruel and somehow patient..."

This is Joan Randall of the Planet Police speaking, in Edmond Hamilton's Captain Future adventure tale, Moon of the Unforgotten (Startling Stories, January 1951).

Captain Future himself agrees.

This was not his first visit to Europa.  And he was surprised to find that Joan had put into words exactly what he had always felt about the silent moon, the old old moon that was scarred so deep by time.

Here, on one side, were the modern glare and thunder of the spaceport, busy with freighters and one or two sleek liners.  Beyond the spaceport was Europolis, a glow of light behind a barren ridge.  But on the other side, before him and behind him, was a sadness of ancient rock and distant hills, of brooding forest hung with shadow, of great plains empty in the red glow of Jupiter, dusty wastes where no herds had grazed and no armies fought for a hundred thousand years...

Now, to those who, like me, are dyed-in-the-wool Hamilton fans, who will willingly settle down to read any tales by that author, even the disappointing ones, I would say, go ahead and read Moon of the Unforgotten.  It's actually quite a good read.  But if you're looking for dream-fulfilment about a real Europan civilization, let me warn you, a nemesis of your dream is on its way, in the second paragraph after the last one quoted.

...The woods and plains were scattered with the time-gnawed bones of cities, dead and forsaken even before the last descendants of their builders had sunk into final barbarism.  A thin old wind wandered aimlessly among the ruins, whimpering as though it remembered other days and wept.

Newton could not suppress a slight shiver.  The death of any great culture is a mournful thing and the culture that had built the shining cities of Europa was the greatest ever known - the proud Old Empire that once had held two galaxies.  To Curt Newton, who had followed the shadow of that glory far back towards its source, the very stones of those ruins spoke of cosmic tragedy, of the agelong night that succeeded the blazing highest noon of human splendor.

Well, there we are, COMOLD has reared its head again and undermined the identity of a promising OSS scene.

At this point my practice is to take an inventory and see what can be salvaged. 

The actual theme of the tale has interesting parallels with Gallun's The Lotus Engine, set on Io.  So a student of OSS themes, seeking those thematic overlaps which build the characters of worlds, might use these parallels to chart a possible general link between the Galilean Satellites and the theme of declining cultures which enervate themselves by trying to escape into a mental recording of the past.

So, Moon of the Unforgotten has value for that kind of study.  Also, it has some impressions of Europa that aren't too compromised by COMOLD.  For example, the landscapes of that moon, bathed in red Jupiter light.  And the yellow-combed mounts ridden by the Europans:

...They were huddled together, drowsing in the Jupiter-light - serpentine scaly creatures with powerful legs and tails like wire lashes.  Their narrow heads were crowned with fleshy yellow combs.  They blinked and peered at the men with shining wicked eyes as red as coals...

And why am I taking this trouble?  Why try so hard to squeeze the last drop of OSS authenticity from a COMOLD tale?  Because, I suppose, a story is more than it is.  It's part of a great river of literary imagination, in which genres part-mingle, and one can back the influence one wants, because each reader's own imagination has a say, a vote, in the total effect...

And what do I mean by "backing the influence one wants"?

Well, Captain Future himself muses early on in the story:

"...Jupiter and its moons retained the civilization and science of the Old Empire long after the other planets had relapsed into barbarism.  To this day odd scraps of that ancient wisdom keep rising to plague us..."

You see, one could strike out on one's own, asking the pertinent question, "Why should this be?" - and getting the answer: maybe COMOLD is not the whole story, maybe something far earlier, from way before the Galactics, caused the extra potency of the Jovian system...

That's my vote.

2017 April 16th:  


If a small and dim or dark companion star - close to us in stellar terms - orbits our Sun in a gravitationally bound relationship, then I say that the planets of that "bound" star, if any, could count (just barely) as being in our solar system, at least at one remove.  Fiction set on those worlds would be more solar-systemic than interstellar. 

Until today the only kind of story in this category that I knew of was Asimov's novel Nemesis.  It's a long-winded, slow read, but I like it a lot, and I recommend it for its characterisation and its world-building excellence.

Today, browsing in holiday mood (happy Easter to you all, by the way), I came across a novelette in one of my crumbling old issues of Startling Stories - March 1939 - which treats of the dark-companion-star theme.  It's The Impossible World, by Eando Binder - whose Anton York Immortal, I was coincidentally quoting yesterday.

Skimming through the tale, I can tell that it's nowhere near as good as Nemesis, but still, there's quite a lot in it.  I spotted a good Mercurian cluff, and something to quote for fictional dates

You may tell from this that I haven't set down to read the tale properly.  I admit this is naughty of me.  Skimming on first acquaintance is disrespectful to a work of literature.  One ought to read properly or not at all.  That is what I have usually done, all my life.  But in the evening of my days I am getting somewhat slack, and rather lacking in faith that sufficient likelihood exists of being properly repaid by patient reading.  Still, I usually behave better than this.

Well, I am on holiday, after all.

2017 April 15th:  


I hope the authorities will slap an OPO on the asteroid Ceres in time to stop the action described in Anton York, Immortal by Eando Binder (fix-up published 1965, component stories 1937-40).

...On the way back from Pluto to Earth, York became very thoughtful.  "Vera," he said suddenly, "how do you suppose the colonists on Venus would like to have a moon in their skies?"

"What a crazy question! said Vera, laughing.  "Are you serious?"

"I was never more serious in my life..."

This is unfortunately true.  As we read on, we find that there's no stopping the Immortal.

...The grant was given.  The parts for the great ship were manufactured at various centers of industry on Earth and shipped to the assembly ground York had been granted, near Sol City, the capital of the Solarian Empire.  Under his watchful eye, it grew as a zeppelin-shaped craft a mile in length...  Five years later it was launched, manned by a thousand picked spacemen and technicians.  It rose into the sky like a mammoth cigar and lumbered off into space...

Now we see the need to establish a Solar System Trust in order to lay down some solid ground rules about the preservation of orbits.  Otherwise...

...Finally, the Cometoid, as it was named, hove to before Ceres...  A small colony of miners had already been safely taken away by another ship, leaving it deserted of human life...

...A thousand men jumped to their duties.  The ship's stern lined itself with Ceres.  An invisible bond sprang from ship to asteroid.  The ship moved, towing the miniature world with it.  The space-tug pointed for Venus and gathered speed.

Ceres, carted those 250,000,000 miles, was installed in an orbit close enough to Venus to allow its brilliant reflection to shine through the misty atmosphere.  Thus Venus was given a moon to the delight of its warmth-loving inhabitants.  The success of the macro-cosmic engineering feat gave York the same sublime feeling he had had a thousand years before, when he had first realized he was immortal.  It was the beginning of a revamping of the Solar System...

Oh boy, it sure is.  Mercury is given rotation, for starters.  You can imagine how that puts me off.  One expects to lose the Twilight Belt in the NSS - but not in the OSS!

Some of the changes are perhaps justifiable. 

...Jupiter's poisonous atmosphere was swept clean of its venomous gases by a series of enormous suction machines, like vacuum cleaners, which converted the obnoxious molecules into solid precipitates that fell to the ground.  Because the Jovian planet was such a huge one and its atmosphere so extensive, this cleansing took ten years.  But for future ages, people would be able to wander freely over its tremendous surface in their levitation shoes.

Hmm, I think I'll call it a day for this entry.  For some reason I'm starting to feel stressed.

2017 April 14th:  


In some respect the New Solar System reality hasn't performed too badly when it comes to the Ninth Planet. 

Its surface features, revealed by New Horizons, are fascinating enough to make nonsense out of that world's demotion to "dwarf planet", and the names of its satellites have been well chosen, confirming, in two cases out of five - Styx and Cerberus - the predictions in the Captain Future stories by Edmond Hamilton.

I though I'd take the trouble now to issue the following instruction to the scientific community: it's time you discovered another Plutonian satellite (dredge it from the New Horizons imagery, if you like) and name it Dis.

"Dis", the hardened-sinners' city in Dante's Inferno, is a word that cries out for representation in that dark region of the System.  But also, it needs to be discovered because it's mentioned in the Captain Future story, Pardon My Iron Nerves (Startling Stories, November 1950).

...The fourth moon of Pluto, which is so small compared to the other three that sometimes it isn't even counted, is completely uninhabitable to ordinary humans.  Its atmosphere contains a poison so virulent that the tiniest opening in a protective suit means instant death.

That is why, when rich deposits of actinium were discovered there, no attempt was made to mine them in the ordinary way.  Instead, automatic machines, adapted from ordinary machines, were designed that could do the work without need of intelligent direction...

Grag, the robot on Captain Future's team, suffers from an inferiority complex - but he finds a kind of solution on Dis...  One of the more amusing C.F. tales.

That's by the way.  Now don't forget, astronomers.  Dis awaits.

2017 April 13th:  


It's sad that so many narrative threads end up with the Moon people cast as losing antagonists.  It means we hardly get a glimpse of their civilization before it is wrecked in a conflict with Earth.

The Selenites in The First Men in the Moon perhaps were right to take the measures they did, to prevent Cavor from communicating his means of space travel.

Still, even in the more disappointing tales, it is interesting that we do get both sides of the story, for instance in The Lunar Pit by Myer Krulfeld (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1940).

...A glimmer of anger came into Lu Tzo's eyes.  "We are forced to conquer the Earth in self-protection, Corliss.  Very annoying.  It will be both dangerous and tiresome."

"Self-protection," the Earthman said ironically, "is a pretty poor excuse for attacking a world which does not know you even exist."

"Nevertheless, it is self-protection which is forcing us on.  For over two thousand years now my people have watched yours.  We know your rapacity, your brutality, the greed and the lust for power which burns so strongly in most of you.  Until about five hundred years ago it was no more than a rather disgusting spectable for our entertainment and instruction.  We were safe. 

"Then came your age of science..."

And later, the Moonman makes a concession.

It comes when the Earthman makes an admission:

..."our ships may be crude toys beside yours.  Even though I must die, I would like to see what a real space ship can be like."

Amazingly, something like the ghost of a friendly smile puckered Lu Tzo's wizened slit of a mouth.  He nodded.

"You are a real scientist, Corliss...  You are almost inconceivably barbaric in most things, you men of Earth, but among you there are those who serve truth, like my people.  Come..."

Ah, what might have been. 

There's no work of fiction, that I know of, depicting the Earth-Moon system as a prosperous double planet, each with its own successful native culture, and exchanging visits as do, for example, Mars and Earth in Leigh Brackett's stories (where the Martian princeling Kynon of Shun, for example, studied on Earth - see The Secret of Sinharat).

Well, there's a task for a NOSS writer.

One minor point I just thought of: if there were a native civilization on the Moon, we wouldn't have the ambiguity about the term "years" that you get on all the other extraterrestrial worlds.  A year on the Moon is the same as a year on Earth.  You wouldn't have to wonder, as for example you do in the tales of Barsoom, whether the author, in speaking of years, means theirs or ours.

2017 April 12th:  


It's 56 years today since Gagarin's flight.  (I counted it wrong and wrote "66" at first, a few hours ago, though I'm supposed to be numerate.)  Anyhow, let's consider: how have the decades since then cracked up to be, in comparison with our dreams?  Not brilliant, eh? - except for the first dozen years.

Wishful thinking - supposing we could practise it powerfully, like the paranormal dreamers in Alfred Bester's Disappearing Act and Oddy and Id - would bring different realities into being.

Ah, but which ones?  Which particular Old Solar System grabs me the most?  Take Mars, for instance.  I'm not too clear myself, which Mars I should most prefer to live on.

Out of the Silent Planet perhaps gives the best one, except that if that scene were true, I wouldn't be allowed to visit it - Oyarsa has said, there must be no more comings and goings between Earth and Mars.  Darn!

Barsoom is obviously a great attraction - but I doubt my ability to wield a sword; I think my career on that version of Mars would be short.  Besides, I'm in my sixties, and Barsoom is not a planet for oldies, not in the physical sense anyway.  Ras Thavas was an exception, but he could solve the problem by somewhat drastic brain-transplant surgery.  I'm not sure whether I'd want to continue in another person's body.  Being a bit of a softie, I might have ethical qualms.  Barsoom, I think, is a place I'd rather read about than live on, though I'd love to spend the occasional vacation in one of the palaces of Helium.

Brackett's Mars likewise might be too strenuous for me, and also I'd perhaps annoy the Martians by my nit-picking objections to their frequently Celtic names, or my aspersions on their ancestors when I accused them of COMOLD and of not being real Martians at all (except for unpopular non-humans such as the Shandakorians and the giants north of Kushat).  No, I don't think I'd survive there long.

Bradbury's Mars is too sad for me.  I couldn't stand the sense of loss, and the Terran-Martians of The Million Year Picnic seem an inadequate substitute for the vanished natives.  Though I suppose that I might do a reality-change-withing-a-reality-change and re-write Bradbury's own scene to make the Martians survive - but no, that sounds too complicated, and I'm doubtful as to whether such take-overs would be allowed.

Rex Gordon's Martians are more robust than Bradbury's - one can't imagine them dying of imported Terran diseases, and they can manipulate space in such a way as to repel unwanted colonists or invaders.  But for that reason, they might not take kindly to my visit.  Also, even if I were to establish a modus vivendi, the Terran military might succeed after all in breaking down Martian resistance - such a development being hinted at in No Man Friday.  In which case, the Martians would succumb and it would be the loss-filled Bradbury scene all over again, and I'd be left in mourning on a sad planet. 

I like the quiet Mars of Time to Rest more.  The Terrans are mostly gone, only a few survive, and those few are not threat.  I could just putter around making friends with the peaceful Martians and trying to learn the great secrets of their mysterious history.  But the price for such peace is the loss of Earth, and that's too much for me to accept.

The next two Marses on my list to consider are those of Clark Ashton Smith's Vulthoom, and of Heinlein's best OSS tale, Red Planet.  Here we have a balanced combination of definitely non-human Martian natives and of Earth colonists and visitors who don't make too much trouble.  The Martians have an ancient, profound culture which shows no sign of being lost.  It's just too big to absorb, and that's fine by me - I just want it to be there, and to allow me, maybe, to learn some little fraction of it.  I think I might plump for one of these - were it not for another scenario which I would like even better.

It's hard to express why, except to say that my final choice is a Mars which touches me because of its closeness to what might really have been.  It's like a bridge of wonder, bringing the OSS almost into contact with our drabber reality.

Yes, my choice of reality would bring me to partake of the efforts of the colonists in Port Lowell or Port Schiaparelli in The Sands of Mars.  A sense of immense purpose would inspire me to work out my days there while Project Dawn takes hold, so that I could watch the planet warm gradually, with human help, from WOM to BREM, but not too fast, and not damaging the native plants and fauna - rather, helping them to spread.

2017 April 11th:  


Here's a bit of dialogue from Heinlein's Between Planets:

"What sort of a world would you like it to be?"

"Uh?  Well, I don't know."  Don pondered.  "I guess I'm not what you call 'politically minded'.  I don't much care how they run it - except, well, there ought to be a sort of looseness about it.  You know - a man ought to be able to do what he wants to do, if he can, and not be pushed around."

Phipps nodded.  "You and I have more in common than you may have thought.  I'm not a purist in political theory myself.  Any government that gets to be too big and too successful gets to be a nuisance..."

Now, I can see the question-begging limitations of Heinlein's right-wing anarchism in the political field.  I quite like it, but I can see what might go wrong with it.  But as literature, I think it scores higher than it does as politics. 

There's a glorious richness in the looseness of the great visions of the Old Solar System.  A colourful variety, ramshackle and messy - the untidy nursery of our imaginations, with bright toys strewn all over the floor.

Weinbaum, Brackett and Hamilton exemplify this.  Their OSS is a mighty mess, a perfect backdrop for adventure.  Burroughs achieves the same result though his adventures - with the partial exception of Swords of Mars - are planet-bound; he's not into regular interplanetary traffic.  But all four authors' scenarios provide with limitless opportunities for bad guys and good guys to horse around (or, on Barsoom, thoat around).

Even in the "angelocracy" of C S Lewis it turns out that there's plenty of "looseness".  He goes to some trouble in Perelandra to show that Venus has zones of life - aquatic and subterranean - other than that which the narrator is most concerned with.  And the additional notes to Out of the Silent Planet give intriguing hints - for instance regarding the "great crested hross" and the "soroborn".  Still, it remains true that the thrills Lewis provides are those of special identity suffused with numinous intensity, rather than the messy "looseness" of the classically ramshackle OSS.

Heinlein is somewhere in between the non-messy Lewis and the messy Brackett/Hamilton/Weinbaum. 

I'd pick The Green Hills of Earth as the closest he gets to the classic mess.  Most of the time, he's just a bit too realistic and practical to ignore the economics of space travel and colonisation, in the way they have to be ignored in order to serve up a mess that's piping hot.  The thrill of Heinlein is closer to borderline reality.

2017 April 10th:  


Another way to approach the question I tried to tackle yesterday, is to use an analogy with amateur astronomy.

The skilled amateur astronomer may have a set of filters to allow selectivity in the wavelengths of light which reach his eyeball.  The idea is, to exclude some data so as to highlight others.

Likewise an author may downplay some aspect of his writing in order to stress another. 

But if her or she is good at the job, the author, in downplaying one option, will enable it to reappear under the aegis of another.

Thus: you might skimp on sensuous description in order to stress the tension and drama of a situation.  This is how Laumer plays it in the passage I quoted yesterday.  But if you do this successfully, you will, in succeeding, give your readers the sensuousness at one remove.

Clark Ashton Smith doesn't have to do it this way in The Immeasurable Horror, for that is a tale involving pure discovery, not deception.  It is a travelogue in which the peril comes from a mindless monster.  The immediacy of the tale relies solely upon its mastery of description.  Smith filters out any psychological dimension, any inter-human clashes.  On the other hand you're left with an admission by the narrator that there are limits to human endurance; and that is a psychological point after all.

Both the Laumer and the Smith tales - it is interesting to note - involve encounters with monsters of the squelchy kind - viscid nightmares-made-flesh.  The one is intelligent and malevolent, the other (one assumes) blindly instinctive and mindless.  Both are depicted superbly, but their different mental natures cause the techniques chosen in the stories to branch away from each other.

Linking subject and style - that is the endless fascination of criticism, compounded, in OSS realms, with the added factor of the characters of worlds.  Smith gives us the ultimate version of the fecund Venus; Laumer treats us to the horror of the dark outermost reaches of the Solar System, where lurks the trans-Plutonian planet of the Gool.

The style's a perfect fit, in each case.

2017 April 9th:  


At the moment I can't do it - I haven't developed the critical skill or the critical vocabulary - but if I could, this is one of the things I'd like to be able to do:

Construct a set of verbal tools that would act as a kind of vernier or style dial that could be twiddled to show:

How the emphasis in stories can vary from descriptive colour to dramatic force.

Of course you can have both, but it's rare and hard to excel in both at once.  And some writers are better at one than the other.

Both descriptive power and dramatic force are routes to attain the OSS archetypes - and each way, when successfully used, includes some of the other, but still, it makes a difference, which is used as the main conduit.

To compare two extremes:

Clark Ashton Smith is a master of descriptive colour; Keith Laumer, of dramatic force.

Smith conveys the power of the Venusian protoplasmic mass, The Immeasurable Horror, by showing us its fatal power upon some creatures:

...Two flying monsters, large as pterodactyls, were now circling above the mass not far below us.  It seemed as if they, like the vessel, were struggling against a powerful downward attraction.  Through the air-tight sound-valves we could hear the thunderous beating of their immense wings as they strove to rise and were drawn gradually toward the pink surface.  As they neared it, the mass rose up in a mighty wave, and in the deep mouth-like hollow that formed at the wave's bottom a colorless fluid began to exude and collect in a pool.  Then the waved curved over, caught the struggling monsters, and lapsed again to a level, slowly palpitating surface above its prey.

Visual drama.  Equally dramatic, but through a different route, is the perilous homecoming of Laumer's End as a Hero.

I finished talking and flopped back, waiting for Kayle's reply.  On the screen, his flickering image based back impatiently, looking as hostile as a swing-shift ward-nurse.  It would be half an hour before I would get his reaction to my report.  I dozed off - and awoke with a start.  Kayle was talking.

" - your report.  I won't mince words.  They're wondering at your role in the disaster.  How does it happen that you alone survived?"

"How the hell do I know?" I yelled - or croaked.  But Kayle's voice was droning on:

" Psychodynamics people have been telling me the Gool may have some kind of long-range telehypnotic ability that might make it possible for them to subvert a loyal man without his knowledge.  You've told me yourself that you blacked out during the attack - and came to on the lifeboat, with no recollection of how you got there.

"This is war, Grantham.  War against a vicious enemy who strike without warning and without mercy.  You were sent out to investigate the possibility of - what's that term you use? - hypercortical invasion.  You know better than most the risk I'd be running if you were allowed to pass the patrol line.

"I'm sorry, Grantham.  I can't let you land on Earth.  I can't accept the risk."

"What do I do now?" I stormed.  "Go into orbit and eat pills and hope you think of something?  I need a doctor!"

Presently Kayle replied.  "Yes," he said.  "You'll have to enter a parking orbit.  Perhaps there will be developments soon which will make it possible to... ah... remedy the situation."  He didn't meet my eyes...

Now of course you can demolish my argument easily, by using the examples I have chosen.  Plenty of visual stuff, after all, in the Laumer extract; plenty of drama in Smith's. 

Well, I did say I hadn't managed to work out the right vocabulary for this approach!

I still maintain I'm on to something; that there is a spectrum of styles ranging from Smith at one end to Laumer at the other.  When the critical system has been got to work, if it ever is, it'll be fun trying to place various authors at stages along it. 

The Force of Physicality (Smith) versus the Physicality of Force (Laumer).

Hmm...  Foph versus Phof doesn't sound so good.  Help!!  I could do with some ideas here.

2017 April 8th:  


In a story which is definitely non-OSS, you nevertheless sometimes get the great glimpse that the old ideas aren't quite dead - that it just might be -

Take for instance Niven and Pournelle's Footfall, which appeared in 1985, well past the demise of Old Solar System fiction, and well before the recent NOSS revival.  The plot concerns an alien invasion.  After the huge interstellar spacecraft has been spotted approaching, the President and his advisers assume, naturally and (as it turns out) correctly, that it must be from another star system.  But first there is a small degree of fascinating doubt:

"...If we had any idea of where they came from, we might be able to figure something out - "

"Saturn," Jenny said.  "Dr Mouton had a computer program."  Alice Mouton had wanted to lecture, and Jenny had listened carefully.  "We don't know how fast they came, and Saturn must have moved since they left, but if you give them almost any decent velocity, they started in a patch of sky that had Saturn in it."

"Saturn," Aylesworth said.  "Saturnians?"

"I doubt it," Ed Gillespie said.  "Saturn just doesn't get enough sunlight energy for a complex organism to evolve there.  Much less a civilization."

"Sure about that?" the President asked.

"No, sir."

And neither am I sure, that the reasoning is sound.  Saturn may not get much sunlight energy, but it must have plenty of its own energy, to cause the known turbulence in its atmosphere - and this line of argument is even more true of Jupiter.  Huge reserves of gravitational energy must exist in these giant planets.  Scientists may assume that it's in too crude a form to lead to life, but how can we know?  And if there is life, who's to set bounds to its development?  Life reacts on life, life competes with life...  like ivy or convulvulus twisting and struggling to overcome its rival growths.

The Old Solar System tales might turn out to be a metaphor for the truth.

2017 April 7th:  


I have filched the above title from one of the chapter-headings in Arthur C Clarke's superb non-fictional work, Profiles of the Future.  Some of his "future" is now past, as he wrote the book in the early 1960s.  It remains, however, just as fascinating now as when it was first published, though some of the nature of the fascination has changed.

In the chapter to which I am alluding, he argues that space travel will improve our culture, giving it a shot of healthy outward-looking creativity and optimism.  I don't have my copy to hand, else I would quote his exact words.  (I'll save them for a later Diary.)

Next, my train of thought links these comments to a work of fiction: one of Robert Gibson's books (I won't give its title - I hate being a spoiler) which climaxes with the revelation that the premises in H P Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness are actually true.

Again, we have a dramatic stimulus which improves the cultural atmosphere.  In the Gibson novel the moral boost comes from a dire threat.  It's plain that humanity - when faced with the prospect of real shoggoths - can no longer afford decadence.  In short, society knows it has to pull its socks up in order to survive.

I can see eye to eye with these notions, though Clarke, Gibson and I will doubtless overlap only partially in our views of what "decadence" is.

But now let me play devil's advocate and offer the other side to the question.  It's possible to argue that affordable space transportation, plus a natively-inhabited Solar System, would have lowered our moral standards.  Think of the exploitation of native races by tycoons and colonial regimes in the tales of Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton. We on the other hand are safe from this kind of misbehaviour, only because there aren't any native races for us to exploit.

You might retort that we surely wouldn't turn out to be that bad - we have too firm a notion of human rights by now. 

Yes, but what if the natives of Mars and Venus and so on weren't fully human?  Or even if they were, they might be so much in the way, such nuisances to the Terran powers-that-be, as to become down-graded by definition, analogously to our own unwanted unborn children, with the help of self-serving question-begging slogans.  Thus the exploiters could call themselves "pro-choice" in their demand that they be allowed to deal in their own way with the "Terranophobic" aliens who "have a problem with adjustment"...  We know all the catchwords, don't we?

Even so, if I could wave a wand and have a colourful natively inhabited Old Solar System, I'd take the moral risk.

2017 April 6th:  


You know, the kind that existed long before mechanical computers - the kind that lived in an age when "computer" meant a human calculator.  Or better still, someone who could just steer his ship by eye, by his knowledge of the spaceways, and by his superb reflexes which he relied upon to dodge his way through meteor swarms, asteroid swarms and spatial Sargassos of whatever variety.

A more sophisticated  variation on this theme is provided by the plot of William F Temple's Shoot at the Moon (1967). For a discussion of its excellent lunar adventure, see the Moon page; but here I wish to allude to the space-pilotage theme.

This novel is furnished with an above-average collection of well-drawn, non-stereotypical characters.  The narrator is a short, hot-tempered, chip-on-the-shoulder guy who is afraid that his skills are about to be rendered superfluous by an automatic-pilot system, the HAPU (Harwell Atomic Propulsion Unit).  His antagonist is the inventor of HAPU, a tall, arrogant guy called...

He ejaculated something.  It sounded like a curse.

"I beg your pardon," I said coldly.

"My name is - " And he repeated the sound, deliberately.

I still didn't get it.  For that matter, I never really did get it.  It sounded like "Zignawitsch", and in this chronicle, anyhow, "Zignawitsch" he will have to be.

Here and now, I may as well admit to a long-standing fault of character which has generated trouble enough in my life.  I'm supersensitive about courtesy.  I can tolerate my own bad manners but not other people's.  I suffered much from snubs when young and - worse - had to watch my father suffer them.

The highhanded are my natural enemies in life...

But for all his self-confessed faults, the narrator, Captain Franz Brunel, wins through.  He survives a fantastic adventure on the Moon and proves the necessity of his profession.  The robotic HAPU system is outclassed by the human pilot.  A heart-warming outcome.

Now, it seems to me that there is a distinct parallel to this idea in the actual history of real-life space-exploration.  If you read in detail about the Apollo 11 mission, you will learn (if you don't know already) that Neil Armstrong had to override some automatic indicators which were going wrong during the crucial final moments of descent to the Moon's surface.  In short, it was his training and his nerve that brought the ship down safely.

Of course, that was almost a half-century ago, and the hardware must have improved since then - but still, if and when space transportation becomes a regular fact of life, I very much doubt whether the pilots will ever be made redundant by their machines.

And I wonder if maybe - when technology becomes really advanced - matters may not perhaps go full-circle and allow space pilots to throw away their computers.  After all, if we obtained a reactionless drive, perhaps something that sucked power from another universe and evaded Newton's Third Law, could it allow us to fly "by the seat of the pants" and by visual judgement?  Just point the ship at Mars or Mercury and let fly...

2017 April 5th:  


Following in the critical footsteps of Dylan (see In the Tombs of the Martian Kings) I thought I'd give you all another traditional Old Solar System space-western-style tavern scene, though this one is set on Uranus.  Otho the android is - as often happens - in disguise.

The Venusians called for the swamp-wine of their native world, and the Mercurians for rock-brandy.

"Good old Earth whisky for me," ordered the Earthman, and then turned to Otho.  "What's yours, Uranian?"

"Jovian fire-liquor," Otho ordered nonchalantly.

They stared at him.

"Say, that stuff's bottled lightning," protested the big Earthman.  "One ounce of it, and you think a meteor's hit you.  Two ounces, and you think you're a meteor yourself."

Otho nonchalantly took the glassite bottle of the colorless, most potent liquor in the System.  He tilted it to his lips and drank until the bottle was empty.

"It's kind of weak, but has a nice flavor," he said blandly.

They gaped, waiting for him to collapse.  Nobody had ever heard of a man drinking more than a few drops of the stuff without dropping.  But the android's synthetic body was designed to possess super-normally high metabolism.  He could drink almost anything without harmful results.  In fact, Otho preferred a diet of pure inorganic chemicals to ordinary food.

"You think that's weak?" gasped the Earthman.  "Name o' the Sun, what would you call a real drink?"

"Well," Otho answered judicially, "a glass of wine with a strong shot of radium chloride in it makes a nice beverage..."

Having quoted this passage, which occurs on page 86 of Edmond Hamilton's The Magician of Mars, I would like to round off the Diary entry with some sage philosophical comment.  Unfortunately I can't think of any.  Perhaps normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

2017 April 4th:  


This site is for Old Solar System and not for Interstellar tales.  Moreover, usually the two zones of fiction don't mix.  However, occasionally I come across a tale which does give some good OSS feel and yet also extends arms of awareness out into the Galaxy.

Such for example is The Ship from Infinity by Edmond Hamilton.  This is one of his spate of fine 1950s novellas, 50-60 pages long, that include World of Never Men and Thunder WorldThe Ship from Infinity appeared in the November 1957 issue of Imaginative Tales

You can guess the main plot from the title.  An interstellar alien ship is found adrift in the outer reaches of the Solar System.  Naturally, the existence of such a treasure arouses competing forces among good and bad guys, and gives scope for mysteries and a dramatic climax.  I have forgotten the details of the plot, but my lack of memory is no reflection on the vividness of the narrative.  The charm of the telling, as usual with Hamilton, is what makes it worth the read.

And we get to re-visit the Hamilton standard-model Mars.

...Phobos went racing down the sky and only Deimos gave a stark pale glimmer to the ruins of Khartach, lying in a valley of the worn hills.  Once, you could imagine, there had been orchards and gardens, a river winding down to the plain, a spread of verdant fields.  Now there was rock and dust, and the bare, naked, scattered bones of a city.

Roofless towers and shattered walls, wide courts choked with fallen stones and broken statues, rooms full of drifted sand, black holes dropping to forgotten cellars where a man would die before he could even get out again.  And the wind, nudging the old stones and saying, "Remember?"

Farrel hated the place.  He watched and listened for a time from a place above the valley.  Then he set his eyes on a cluster of three marble towers about a quarter of a mile in from the edge of the city, and made for them along what had been at one time a broad avenue connecting with a road that came southward through the hills.  There was no more road, and the city gate was gone, and Farrel's boots sank deep in the quiet dust.  Behind him, the wind smoothed away his tracks almost as soon as he had made them.

He approached the towers.  There was not much left of them but three gaunt shells.  Their moon shadows stretched darkly across the wide open space around them that perhaps had been a public square, or perhaps had been crowded with buildings now completely vanished.  The wind riffled the dust, and the shadows wavered.

In the darkness under the walls something moved...

This sort of stuff almost writes itself, and if you're Hamilton you can get away with a minimum of actual invention.  Similarly if you're Bradbury - we're dealing with archetypes here.  A kind of lyric lament.

There might, ultimately, be some analogy between writing and engineering.  An engineer needs to know what stresses a material will stand.  An author needs to know what stresses - in the form of variation, of departure from an archetypal norm - an idea or theme will stand.

The top inventive geniuses will perhaps create their own archetypes.  Then there are the "following geniuses", whose special department is keeping to a certain track more purely than most.

I'd call Burroughs and C S Lewis, in their separate ways, "inventive geniuses" for Mars stories.  And Hamilton and Brackett and Bradbury "following geniuses" - Bradbury with something extra thrown in, a hallucinatory power which can live on almost no material sustenance.

2017 April 3rd:  


Things have turned out well for fans of the Old Solar System.  Not quite as well - admittedly - as if the whole thing had turned out to be true.  But matters might have been a heck of a lot worse, and therefore, although concerning the state of society I am usually a grouchy individual, I'm inclined to be positive on this issue.

Think how sad it must be to be born into totally the wrong time.  If for instance you like a good cup of tea, how dispiriting it must be to lift the pot and pour, only to find plain hot water coming out, because tea has not yet been discovered; or, if you're keen on science fiction, to rush to the local shop only to find that none has yet been written.  - Though, actually, I suppose that the first literature (from Gilgamish to Homer) more or less was the equivalent of science fiction.  For the so-called supernatural element might as well be sf.  The gods were not so much transcendent as mere super-powerful inhabitants of the universe.

Next, let us consider some more recent good fortune.

Classic OSS literature flourished in the transitional period of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, when our planetary neighbourhood had been examined telescopically but not by probes.  That meant, we knew just enough to have our imaginations whetted, whilst yet not knowing so much as to be inhibited by the realistic truth.

You might argue that this isn't luck, it's just inevitable that the faint and fuzzy telescopic data must precede the sharp space-age results.

Maybe.  On the other hand, I feel that this is far from certain.  It's natural for us to assume that the familiar outcome was the only possible one, and to argue that the space age could only have occurred when the technical base for it was established by World War Two and the subsequent Cold War.

Suppose, however, that some entirely new principle had been discovered, like H G Wells' "cavorite" or C S Lewis' "Weston Rays".  It's no use saying that science has left no room for such things.  Science never "leaves room" for the unexpected - that's why it's unexpected.

I always used to think that a real Cavorite would have been great fun.  Suddenly, in 1901 or so, we could have zoomed into space!  But hang on - think also of the disappointment at finding a barren Solar System!  As a consequence - no OSS literature.  All those great stories would never have been written.

True, you get neo-OSS stories written now, despite the truth being known.  But without the background of the classic genre works, there'd be no tradition to inspire the defiant modern versions.  No OSS would mean no NOSS.

Whereas - as things turned out - writers were given time to establish a sub-genre which has sufficiently acquired its own dynamic, to become a safe bet for immortality.

2017 April 2nd:  


Sorry again, not much time for the Diary today, my excuse on this occasion being that I have spent the afternoon on the latest Zones Cup.  The Martians have won hands down, as usual.  But I want to note something that has become apparent since last December.

This phenomenon is the emergence of a Big Three at the top of the table - namely, the Martians, the Terrestrials and the Lunarians.

Below them we have a middle group of five zones quite close to each other in popularity and influence: the Jovians, Venusians, Mercurians, Saturnians and Asteroidians.

Then about a hundred hits below them we have a fourth group, if you can call it a group, consisting of the Uranian and Outermost Zones only.

Then at the very bottom you get the really deprived areas of the Solar System.  These are the Plutonian, Solar and Neptunian Zones.  I strongly recommend authorial intervention, in the form of new stories or the discovery of old ones, leading to the creation of more site-pages, in order to bring some relief to these unfortunately underdeveloped zones.  In particular - I have probably said this before, but let me say it again - someone ought to do for the Neptunians what Robert Gibson has done for the Uranians.

2017 April 1st:  


February had been a record month; March's surges broke the records again:

A 26% increase in the number of individual visitors, from 1,090 to 1,373.

A 17% increase in visits, from 3,774 to 4,427.

A 17% increase in page views, from 9,919 to 11,639.

You can see more detail in page view winners, for which I have done some sub-division and re-design, as the old page was getting unwieldy.  (I have kept the old stuff, but am starting afresh with a new format.)

As ever, I find it intriguing to pore over the stats and wonder why, why, why certain worlds and themes perform better at some times than others.  It's pleasing to note, for example, that a couple of interesting planets - Neptune and Earth - have significantly upped their hits.  There must be a story in that somewhere.  And I like the way the Sun has brightened up its act too.  The big story of the past few months, I suppose, has been the fantastic surge in viewings of the Clark Ashton Smith page - most gratifying; but why hasn't it dramatically affected the viewing figures for the Immortals of Mercury page?  Ah, well.

Anyhow, the great news is, that although we're still a small select niche of OSS-inclined souls, the word is spreading - the inkling that there's more to reality than mere, er, reality...

>> OSS Diary March 2017