the sunport vista:

May 2017

Thought for the day...

2017 May 31st:   


You know I make efforts to include Planet Earth as a worthy object of wonder alongside the other worlds explored on this site.  Never take Planet Three for granted!

David I Masson's Mouth of Hell (New Worlds, January 1966) is a remarkable tale in the sub-genre which one might call "geographical horror".  Pre-dating Gibson's vertiginous trilogy by almost half a century, Masson's account explores a terrifyingly huge hole, thirty miles deep, in our Earth's crust.  This is not the same as giving us an entire globe with uni-directional gravity, which the volumes of Kroth allow us to range over (and under).  Still, the two authors' achievements overlap emotionally.  Here's where Masson's narrative begin to arouse that peculiar thrill:

..."Have you noticed the ground?" said Mehhtuum in Kettass's ear some hours later. 

"The slope?  Yes."  And the chief halted the convoy.  It was just as though someone had tilted the world slightly.  They were pointing down a gentle slope, nearly uniform, which spread east and west as far as eye could see.  Behind to north, the same slope.  The change had been too gradual to notice before.  Kettass had the troop deploy into a broad arrow with his vehicle in the lead and centre.

In the next two hours the tilt became more and more pronounced... 

The account becomes magnificently vivid with its hard and physical detail accompanying the weight of wonder at what is happening.  And the story does not end too soon; it is not a mere horrific mood-piece, for the author generously provides a kind of epilogue, or you could call them two epilogues, dealing more serenely with the aftermath of the first expedition. 

By the time you've finished the mere eleven pages of this story, you'll have been granted an unforgettably broad view of the triumphs and tragedies, the successes and failures of the expeditions to the "Mouth of Hell". 

2017 May 30th:   


Having been awarded the Kalinga prize for science-popularization, Arthur C Clarke in his acceptance speech in New Delhi on 27th September 1962 made the following remarks:

...It is obvious that science-fiction should be technically accurate, and there is no excuse for erroneous information when the true facts are available.

Got that?  No excuse!  So - bye-bye Valeddom, bye-bye The Sky People, bye-bye all the current rebirth of the OSS in its NOSS reincarnation.  No excuse!!

Except that he went on immediately to say:

Yet accuracy should not be too much of a fetish, for it is often the spirit rather than the letter that counts.  Thus Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth are still enjoyable, not only because Verne was a first-rate story-teller, but because he was imbued with the excitement of science and could communicate this to his readers.  That many of his 'facts' and most of his theories are now known to be incorrect is not a fatal flaw, for his books still arouse the sense of wonder.

So there you are.  You've got to get the science as right as possible, but if the facts aren't yet known you're allowed to get them wrong and write wonderful tales according to those erroneous ideas.  But woe betide you if you delay just a bit too long!  If you write the wonder just a year too late or even only a month too late, after science has disproved the premise of the tale, then you're being naughty, and you have no excuse. The words in the book may be identical in both cases, but the publication date makes all the difference to its worth...

This kind of silliness is what Clarke's stance leads to if you develop it logically.  It's an example of how he goes astray whenever he tries to say something deep.  He is deep - but only in his imagination, in his imagery, and in his stupendous ability to convey facts in a beguiling manner.  He makes science live.  But as for Clarkean philosophy, even the philosophy of science - forget it.

2017 May 29th:  


I've had a kind of unique moment which can only come to an sf fan.

It happened when I was re-reading Arthur C Clarke's Trouble with Time (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1960, as "Crime on Mars").

Because of Clarke's gift at inducing the reader to settle in, I was relaxing into the view of his imagined-in-1960 version of Mars, and therefore, just then, I the reader was, in attitude, likewise in 1960.

This sort of thing usually happens.  For instance when I read a Victorian novel, or (to go further back) a Walter Scott novel, I read in the spirit of the reading public of the time the work was published.  It's natural.  But with sf the consequences can be startling...

Clarke's story concerns the attempted theft of a Martian archaeological treasure.  The narrator is waiting at Phobos Spaceport to embark on his homeward ship:

...The Spaceport P.A. system apologized for a further slight delay owing to final fuel checks, and asked a number of passengers to report to Information.  While we were waiting for the announcement to finish, I recalled what little I knew about the Siren Goddess.  Though I'd never seen the original, like most other departing tourists I had a replica in my baggage.  It bore the certificate of the Mars Bureau of Antiquities, guaranteeing that "this full-scale reproduction is an exact copy of the so-called Siren Goddess, discovered in the Mare Sirenum by the Third Expedition, A.D. 2012..."

That's when it happened.  Or if you prefer, that's when something amazingly omitted to happen.  For the point is, I did not, at that moment, say to myself, "Cute!  I'm reading this in 2017 and so 2012 is five years ago now, and so, just think how much time has gone; what seemed so safely far ahead to Clarke, writing in 1960, is now gone by..."

Yes - at that moment I DIDN'T think that.  Instead, astoundingly, I accepted 2012 as the future.  I viewed it as the author viewed it.  2012, in that moment, recovered its lustre of future mystery.

It was only later - minutes later or maybe only a few heartbeats later, I can't quite remember - that I thought to myself, hey, wait a moment, we've already had 2012.  What am I doing, according it this futuristic aura?

Yes, what was I doing?

Answer: I was, temporarily, ensorcelled - the late Arthur C Clarke being the sorcerer.

2017 May 28th:  


Going on as I often do about the characters of worlds, mostly by means of inductive overlap - accumulating evidence from various stories - I thought it time to approach the question from the other end.  Why does the evidence accumulate in this way?

Could there "be something in it"?

Let me suggest that at any rate we might have rooms set aside in our minds or souls for certain archetypes of worlds, or places.  They happened to get attached in literature to certain bodies in the sky, and this is fun for readers, but as to the reality of it, it doesn't depend upon that sort of truth but upon something about the inner needs of our imaginations.

That's why no amount of disillusion about the real nature of our neighbouring worlds will dampen the OSS.

I thought I'd quote from chapter 2 of Valeddom here, because it seems to touch upon the truth I am getting at, not explicitly, but indirectly.

The hero has not yet accepted that his mind has been transplanted to Mercury - he thinks he's dreaming.  But in tackling what to do about dreams, he delves into what can really move us.

...At the moment things weren't too bad...  It wasn't a nightmare - yet.  However, it had the suggestiveness that can turn out to be the overture to horror.  It's a very good idea to nip that sort of thing in the bud.  Disturbing motions, I often find, can form the start of the trouble.  I wasn't too keen on some twisting columns of steam rising from the nearer mountain slopes, and the quivering speed of certain scudding clouds...

...that sense of meaning, that you get in dreams, was all around me.  Surely that was proof enough.  Surely if I really had, in truth, been put into another body on another world, I would be more confused than this.  I wouldn't know a single thing.  Whereas in actual fact dumb knowledge was sloshing around inside me like water in the bilges of a leaky boat.  The more I reflected, the more I discovered typical urgent dream stuff: convictions which I had no logical right to have.  For instance I felt the certainty not only of being on a strange and dangerous world but of being in a particularly dangerous part of that world.  The landscape itself was frowning a message at me...

Thus he tries to argue with himself, to convince himself that the suggestiveness proves the dream - whereas in fact, as it turns out, it proves the reality...

Hugh Dent doesn't yet get it - but he soon will.

Gibson takes care in Valeddom to give us this sense of meaning, of dreamlike reality.  And it wouldn't work - wouldn't work on a literary level, says I - if there weren't "something in it".

Just as - to make a far-fetched comparison - horror tales of vampires wouldn't work on a literary level, if there weren't something real behind the idea that there is more to issues of good and evil than liberal rationality will allow.

Deep stuff exists, and comes to the surface in fun tales, quite as often as in philosophical tomes.

2017 May 27th:  


The Reporter by Chad Oliver (Fantastic Story Magazine, Fall 1951) is a polished little story with a surprise ending - a kind of story which is open to the criticism that it only gets read once, because, after you've got the point, there's no more need to back to it, than there is to hear a joke told twice.  (Like Russell's Sole Solution or Heinlein's Columbus Was A Dope.)

In my view the criticism need not apply if the tale is pleasantly written, as this one is.  I have no problem with it as a reader.  But as a critic, it does present a huge difficulty.  What can one say about such a tale, without giving away the point?

Chad Oliver draws the character of George Hartley, disappointed reporter, who is fed up with Mars because "nothing ever happens there".  He's envious of his colleagues on Venus, where the natives aren't extinct and where there's plenty of action and opportunities to uncover a good story.  He grumbles about all this to someone who introduces himself as Henry Adams, a fellow reporter.  And then the grumbling shades into yarning...

For although he doesn't believe a word of it, Hartley has heard tell of someone who found some living Martians.  And here the dramatic irony begins.  Hartley relates the tale of "Headline Fogarty", who was supposed to have encountered the surviving Martians somewhere around the planet's North Pole...  and "Adams" listens sympathetically while Hartley comments on how civilized they must have been.

Can you guess?

..."Anyhow, these Martians were so kind and merciful after countless generations of advanced evolution that they simply couldn't bring themselves to dispose of Headline Fogarty, even though he endangered their secret.  What do you think of that?"

"The Martians must have been too fine a people to live on their own planet after the barbaric Earthmen took it over," Henry Adams said.  "Not that we Earthmen aren't the wonders of the Solar System, of course - I read the papers."

"You bet we are, pal, and that's a fact.  Just look at me - George Hartley, end product of millions of years of selective breeding..."

It's not a bitter story, though.  Quite cheerful, actually.  For although people aren't always what they seem, the being called "Henry Adams" truly is a reporter...

2017 May 26th:   


Not the Harold Lloyd movie of that name, but some thoughts on the difference between the fictional old space program and the somewhat bogged-down reality.

Of course, it's not just safety questions that cause delay - it's the lack of sufficiently attractive destinations.  Who can doubt that we'd have reached Mars by now if it were habitable? 

Still, let's for a moment concentrate on safety as an issue by itself.

Here's one space pioneer - a Martian seeking Earth, not an Earthman seeking Mars - who really "went for broke":

..the blackness of oblivion was closing in.  He struggled valiantly to master himself and to fight through the gathering gloom that was misting his vision...  There was too much at stake...  The craft was wobbling, and it must not wobble.  A trifling adjustment of delicate stabilizers would fix that, if he could only somehow make the adjustment.

A dribble of sticky, oozy fluid welled from a wound in Number 774's side.  His limbs, some of them broken, fumbled awkwardly and inefficiently with the complicated controls.  He was gasping, and all the while his glazing eyes remained fixed grimly on the form of the comet, toward which he and the strange craft he had built were hurtling.  Could he reach it?  He must!...

Thus the tentacular protagonist of Gallun's classic, Old Faithful (1934), pursues his mad plan of reaching Earth by "hitching" part of the journey on a comet.

He had to leave Mars in secret because his fellow Martians, sticklers for rules, would never have permitted such an attempt.  Number 774 was a bit of a maverick, as well as being under sentence of death and therefore having nothing to lose...

I've no doubt that I myself, not being an engineer, vastly underestimate the technical difficulties of space travel.  Still, just suppose our space agencies got turned over to maverick headstrong types...

We'd certainly get out of the current loop of failsafe systems >> greater expense >> greater risk to the investment >> more concern with safety to protect it >> greater emphasis on failsafe systems in order to provide the protection of the expensive investment in all the failsafe systems...

I know, I know, it's not the whole story, maybe not even a large part of the story.  And I know astronauts are all brave or they wouldn't be in that line of work.  And many have died on the job anyway.

I just wonder, for example, if it might be possible to build smaller rockets to take just one person to the Moon.  Could it be done?  Less payload; maybe no need then for lunar orbital rendezvous - just go straight there and straight back?  I wonder.

2017 May 25th:  


If a "History of Excitement" is ever written, I suggest a chapter on the year 1905.  Until today, I suppose that date would most likely have reminded me most of the kingdom of Norway's resumption of independence after a 508-year gap.  That still seems to me the best political and cultural event of 1905.  But then I got browsing again in Michael J Crowe's The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900 - shifting my attention this time to Mars' putative canals...

Last November I had a phase of adorning my Diary with quotes from that marvellous compendium.  I can't resist going back to it now and quoting some more.  For it seems that there were some real moments when the general public could reasonably believe that the canals had actually been proved to exist - that they had been photographed.  Imagine what that must have been like to hear!  This is what the book says (page 527-8):

...From Flagstaff in mid-1905 flowed reports of such conclusive evidence that the new B.A.A. president, A C D Crommelin, took it as decisive proof of the canals, and an American author stated that the "hot controversy [over the reality of the canal observations] may now be considered definitely settled..."

This dramatic development was Lowell's announcement that on May 11, 1905, one of his staff. Carl Otto Lampland (1873-1951), had succeeded in photographing canals on Mars.  While Lowell circulated this news in numerous papers and personally carried it to Europe in late summer of 1905, an excited Schiaparelli wrote him "I should never have believed it possible," and Mark Wicks publicly predicted that the illusion theory of the canals "will doubtless now be relegated to obscurity." 

If I had been alive then, I doubtless would have thought, that's it, we're definitely not alone, Mars is inhabited by intelligent beings...

Of course the effect must have been different in those days, insofar as after a discovery of that sort you wouldn't expect further information to come flooding in as fast as you'd expect it nowadays.  Nowadays it's a matter of sending a better space-probe than the last one, whereas back then it was a matter of building a bigger observatory than the last one.  And even when the observatory got built, there was a limit to what you could expect to see from it.  No adaptive optics existed then, to circumvent atmospheric turbulence.  Bigger mirrors could gather more light, but couldn't steady it.  So in 1905 a sudden conviction that there were intelligent beings on Mars might well co-exist with an equally strong conviction that centuries might pass before we could learn significantly more about them.

What happened next?  Nothing clear-cut.  No abrupt refutation.  Strangely, it just sort of peters out:

...In Lowell's late 1906 Mars and its Canals, he reported that in various photographs "thirty-eight canals were counted... and one double..."  Anxious for even better images from the 1907 opposition, Lowell funded an expedition to the Andes led by the Amherst astronomer David Todd (1855-1939), accompanied by Earl C Slipher of Lowell's staff.  Slipher's three months at this Chilean observatory netted 13,000 new images, while Lampland and Lowell, photographing from Flagstaff, secured 3,000.  In these, Lampland, Lowell, and Slipher sighted numerous canals.  Todd, however, at first saw none, but by late 1907 he announced "Almost all the photographs exhibit Martian canals, so called...," and in 1908 he claimed "our plates ought to silence forever the optical-illusion theoriests."  Lampland's Martian photographs, although awarded a medal by the Royal Photographic Society, neither silenced the illusion theorists nor fully satisfied most Mars experts.  Less than one-fourth inch in diameter, these photographs would not stand reproduction without loss of their fine detail, promoting a practice of authors publishing them along with drawings showing the unreproducible detail they claimed to see in the originals.  In at least one case, a journal labeled the drawings photographs, causing further confusion.  Moreover, when experts examined the negatives, many saw no canals or only diffuse markings or different figures in photos of the same region.  In short, the old problems had reappeared...

So there you are: a sort of fade-out of the excitement.  Scope here for a tale of dimension-shift?  Slipping gradually out of OSS-reality-mode as the malign forces of cosmic boringification take hold...

2017 May 24th:  


Is it conceivable that a culture might invent space travel without any form of telemetry or remote sensing?  Might we have developed a sufficiently non-expensive and adaptable form of space vehicle, that enabled us to explore without sending probes out first?

I am intrigued by this question; I really don't know the answer.  Certainly it's not the way our culture does things; I've grumbled often enough before, of how our probes spoil the suprises.  Fortunately, the folk in the OSS, bless their hearts, tend to favour the more direct approach.

How's this for a leap in the dark -

Before the first ship from Earth made a landing on Venus, there was much speculation about what might be found beneath the cloud layers obscuring that planet's surface from the eyes of all observers.

One school of thought maintained that the surface of Venus was a jungle, rank with hot-house moisture, crawling with writhing fauna and man-eating flowers.  Another group contended hotly that Venus was an arid desert of wind-carved sandstone, dry and cruel, whipping dust into clouds that sunlight could never penetrate.  Others prognosticated an ocean planet with little or no solid ground at all, populated by enormous serpents waiting to greet the first Earthlings with jaws agape.

But nobody knew, of course.  Venus was the planet of mystery.

When the first Earth ship landed there, all they found was...

 - Alan E Nourse, The Native Soil (1957)

Well, never mind what the first explorers found; the point was, they had to go and look.

Cloudy planets, and jungle planets, and cloudy jungle planets, are good for stories because their secrets remain hidden from a ship in orbit.  Even radar can only reveal so much. 

Unfortunately, in real life we don't have any jungle worlds, and the only cloudy ones are uninhabitable.  And the airless rocky worlds are too easy to reconnoitre from orbit. 

Still, we can hope for gullies and caverns...

2017 May 23rd:  


Silly of me not to mention one of the best Moments of Amaze - especially as I'd quoted it in a recent entry (4th May).  I refer to the moment in Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, when Matt Carse sees the Martian ocean and realizes he has fallen through Time.

It's especially good in that it hits the reader at the same time as it hits the hero (provided that the reader has somehow managed to escape having read the blurb on the back of the book, which gives the game away).


We're used to the idea that Man went to the Moon in a blaze of publicity.  Doubtless it would have been impossible, in a democratic regime, to keep so gigantic and expensive a project hidden.

The fictional old space program, also, was often carried out openly, for example in Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, Clarke's Prelude to Space and Walters' Operation Columbus.  The first of these was carried out by private-enterprise; the others were government projects; but all three were known to all the world as they progressed towards completion.

However, interestingly, we do also get some hush-hush projects.  It's not surprising that the reclusive Cavor should shun publicity for his private voyage in The First Men in the Moon.  But more gigantic state-sponsored efforts can also be done on the quiet.  The first trip to Venus, which leads to such disastrous consequences in Eric Frank Russell's terrific Three To Conquer, is shrouded in such secrecy that it takes a telepath to alert the authorities to the fact that the ship has returned with its crew possessed by aliens.  And in Charles Eric Maine's Countdown (1959) takes place on an out-of-the-way island - where a revolutionary drive is being tested, a drive which may give mankind the freedom of space.  The project's isolation renders it vulnerable to its enemy - a force from the future, which is trying to prevent its success. 

Charles Eric Maine is good at assembling a cast of characters and showing how they react under pressure.  The intensifying crisis on the island makes the book a memorable read.  Like Three to Conquer, it's great Fifties paranoia.  Recommended.

2017 May 22nd:   


In tales of stunning discovery, there's naturally a high point for the reader at the stage when the astounding truth is revealed to the protagonist.  It may or may not be the case that the reader is ahead of the protagonist, having been forewarned, via dramatic irony, what is in store.  But be that as it may, it is important for the moment of amaze to be well handled.  It is well done in Out of the Silent Planet, when the kidnapped Dr Ransom has to face the idea that he is in a space-ship.  It is well done in Burroughs' Pirates of Venus, when Carson Napier finds he can live, after all, on the planet.  It is very well done in No Man Friday by Rex Gordon, when the crashlanding astronaut, to his own astonishment, realizes he is thinking seriously of being able to survive.

On the other hand it need not alway be well done.  In another Burroughs work, A Princess of Mars, John Carter is amazingly unamazed that he has suddenly been transported to Mars.  He adjusts to the situation almost instantaneously, and accepts it.  How this works, I don't know.  It's a feat of sheer authorial chutzpah.  But perhaps it's part of the magic: we accept what the protagonist accepts, as if we were both in the power of dream.  In which case, this dream-power is a prop which successfully shores up the plot.

Now let's consider another case, one in which the "moment of amaze" is - strictly speaking - omitted, or at any rate skimped, yet without fatal damage to the story.  It must be the case that the props on either side of the missing moment are sufficientlys strong to hold up the edifice of the narrative, and prevent us from saying to ourselves, "hang on, just a minute - why are these people not more surprised?"

I refer to the 1952 young-adult adventure, The Perilous Descent, by Bruce Carter.  I read it as a boy, and then half-forgot about it for decades, till with great pleasure I found it again and re-read it in later life.

It's an inner-Earth adventure: not a hollow-Earth adventure where one walks on the inner surface of a sphere, but a giant-cavern adventure like Land Under England.  Both kinds of underground epic are equally exciting in that they effectively enlarge the scope of our world, mixing into it the glamour of unknown worlds.

In The Perilous Descent two British airmen who have had to bale out find themselves sinking into sand and then into a hole which they can only get out of by going deeper, by stages, until eventually their supplies have run out and they are facing death.  But they still have their parachutes, and when they come to a colossal underground cliff-edge, with weird red light coming up from below, they decide they have nothing to lose - they might as well jump.  But what do they hope to achieve?  What can they expect to find down there, that will help them?  Water, maybe, that will at least save them from dying of thirst?  Maybe, but they don't say so.  Perhaps the phosphoresence hints to them of life - but again, they don't say so.  I suppose the lack of any blast of heat has told them that at least they need not fear landing in boiling lave - but this isn't put into words either.  The men are evidently fatalistic by this time.

...It had been easy enough to think of the jump.  And even as we knew that we had to do it, we stood hesitating a foot or two from the rim, looking down again into space, staring at the slow, twisting spirals and clouds of reddish tinted mist below.  Somewhere there had to be an end to the pit; maybe distance was deceptive in that atmosphere and the clouds were only a short way beneath us, with firm land just below them... or maybe it was as deep as the earth itself.  The imagination could not grasp a situation so strange.

All we knew was that we had to jump...

Two pages follow, filled with the fear and excitement and technical problems of parachuting off a cliff, not having any idea of how long the fall will last.  And then -

...It took me some minutes to come through the cloud layer, and when we shot out Blackie was a hundred yards further away.

And then I looked down.  I forgot that I was dropping through space supported by only a few yards of fine silk.  I forgot that we were miles below the surface of the earth involved in an incredible adventure in a place never explored by man.  Hanging on to the lines for better support, I stared down in amazement and bewilderment.

Suddenly beneath the cloud the air had become crystal clear.  The red light was a hundred times more intense and revealed below us a great wide valley twenty or thirty miles across, perhaps fifty or sixty long, bounded on all sides by the sheer, inaccessible cliffs that towered up and disappeared into the clouds above.  The brilliant light shone out from the cliffs, not blindingly as a searchlight or with the hot glow of the embers of a fire, but brilliantly in a cold, uniform glow as though a giant had daubed them with red luminous paint.

Nearer to the ground the cliffs lost their luminosity, and for the last thousand feet or so fell more gently, in a series of irregular plateaux, and hills, and slopes.

So far so good; the author pays (as it were) his dues to amazement.

But then there's an interruption - half a page of shouted dialogue between Johnny Wild and Danny Black as they fall, sharing guesses as to their altitude - and this is enough to prevent the previous amazement from counting towards the dues for the next and culminating revelation, namely, the sight of cultivated fields and other evidence of habitation in this fantastic underground world.

I thus sense an omission.  After all, however fascinating the cavern may be, it's the habitability of the place which makes the difference between life and death.

I'm saying it's a fault in the story, that this is not made more explicit; just a sentence or two would have sufficed.  However, it's a minor fault in a good book.  The reader is not disappointed at what happens next: the civilization in the Red Cavern is all one could wish for - an original feat of the imagination.  And after all, Johhny Wild, the narrator, is exhausted.

...The crude parachute harness was cutting uncomfortably into my body, and I was desperately weak from lack of food, but dropping quickly into this new, unknown land, I was seized with the excitement of the explorer sighting a strange, uncharted shore.  And I wondered what sort of people we could expect to find, for this lost world was certainly inhabited.

Dominating the whole valley, we could now see a great city...

He should have known as soon as he glimpsed the cultivated fields.  But like I said, he was exhausted, brain-fogged...  I recommend The Perilous Descent to all young-at-heart readers.

[Note added next day: see the Diary for 23rd May for the great Moment of Amaze which I stupidly forgot to mention on the 22nd.]

2017 May 21st:   


Addicted as I am to far-fetched analogies, allow me to inflict on you the following whimsy:

Just as, in mathematics, the 1-dimensional real-number line can be expanded into a 2-dimensional Argand diagram by the addition of complex numbers, so the time-line of "real dates" could be expanded into two dimensions by the addition of fictional dates.

We then have a time-graph where the real dates are along the x-axis, with y co-ordinates all zero, and the imaginary dates are above and below.


Arthur C Clarke writes Prelude to Space in 1947.  That date of publication is a real date in the real world.  Its co-ordinate on the time-graph is therefore (1947, 0). 

The novel is about the first trip to the Moon, set in the year 1978.  Its action therefore can be plotted on the graph at the co-ordinates (1947, 1978).  You see, the x co-ordinate gives when the tale was written, the y co-ordinate the year in which it is set.

Likewise the setting of Wells' The Time Machine would be plotted on the point with co-ordinates (1895, 802701).

Of course some stories straddle many fictional years.  Continuous narratives of this sort might be plotted as lines rather than as points.  More episodic tales might be better represented as clusters of points.  H P Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time would have points scattered far and wide!

One further stretch of the idea:

We could expand the system into three dimensions!

In which case, you may ask, what will be the purpose of the z co-ordinate?

Here's what I'm thinking:

While the x value gives the real date when the story appears, and the y value gives the fictional date of the action in the story, the z value might give a date predicted or conceived or imagined by a character in the story.

So, for instance: Now, in 2017, you write a tale set in the year 2345.  One of your characters speculates on what the world might be like after another thousand years have passed.  His imaginings would therefore have the co-ordinates (2017, 2345, 3345).

Hmm... is this getting a bit tenuous?  I suggest we stop here; three dimensions ought to be enough for now, and it's been a long day.

2017 May 20th:   


Here's an idea for a tale:

Treating the OSS as an actual dimension of reality rather than a mere literary genre, one might then link that dimension with ours, via certain disturbances which have been known to occur. 

By this I mean, that we could interpret the occasional observed real-time changes in our NSS as some kind of twitchy transferred effects, a sort of metaphorical translation of events in the OSS dimension.

Consider the impact of Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 upon Jupiter in 1994.  There might, in AD 1994 in the OSS dimension, have been an epic space-war around Jupiter way, in which projectiles were fired at the giant planet, while in our NSS dimension these events are represented by a comet-crash.

Then again one might, in this kind of parallel scenario, make something of the observations by Kozyrev in 1958 of the transient white patch in the lunar crater Alphonsus.  And of the occasional landslips recorded on Mars by orbiter surveys.

The most violent explosion witnessed by Man in the Solar System, so far as I know, was that seen by the naked eye on 18th June 1178, when according to the chronicler Gervase of Canterbury a huge flash was seen on the Moon.  This is now thought to be the impact which formed the crater called Giordano Bruno.  At least, that's the theory.  I have heard doubts cast upon the idea - doubts based on the calculation that an impact of such magnitude would also have caused ejecta to rain upon Earth, causing havoc which surely ought to have been mentioned by the writers of that time.  Anyhow, be that as it may, it could be roped in to the story.  War on the Moon?  A mad scientist's experiment gone wrong?

Note that I am not suggesting way-out causes for these events in our dimension - only that they might show a parallelism with events elsewhere.

The dimensions might, as it were, rhyme with one another.  Well, it's an idea.

2017 May 19th:  



Only kidding!  Naughty of me to take the great man's name in vain.  But, hey, what a title for a paper in a high-brow literary journal...

Anyhow, let me define "localised gravity" as I use the phrase.

I mean the kind of gravity that can lead to super-heavy planetoids in the OSS - planetoids which in reality would have disturbed the orbits of neighbouring planets out of recognition, and could certainly not have gone undetected, but which in OSS tales, to the surprise of reader and protagonist, can be "discovered".

Heavy planetoids can have enough gravity to keep an atmosphere and evolve life.

Such as the environment which produces the deadly butterflies of Thor...

...The surface of the planetoid was surprisingly flat, as if the great weight of each particle of ground had furthered the process of leveling off.  Like Phobos and Deimos, satellites of Mars, Thor had a curvature so great that the eye could easily detect it.  With no clouds to hamper them, they could see the  horizon, less than a mile away in each direction.  Numerous small gray bushes were the only break in the monotony of the reddish landscape.

A hundred yards or so away from them, a tiny object sprang into the air, and settled rapidly down again.

"Animal life," remarked the gloomy, white-faced pseudo-android.

Several others of the tiny objects leaped up closer at hand.

"They're butterflies!" exclaimed Loring.

"I've seen their kind on Jupiter," observed the Jovian.

Blackbeard was staring at the insect-like creatures uneasily.

"I wasn't expecting this," he said.  "We'd better return to the ship."

The pretended robot looked at him with puzzled eyes.  "Why?  They're no more than a couple of inches long.  They can't be dangerous!"

"They have wings, but despite the presence of an atmosphere, they can't fly.  That means that they're too heavy to be supported by matter of any ordinary kind.  And if their bodies are of heavy matter, we don't want to tangle with them..."

Thor is partly composed of super-massive, degenerate matter, which gives it its (localised) gravity.  This is just one example of the Asteroid Belt's fertility for story-ideas.  Lots and lots of room in the Belt for just about anything to be found and to happen!

To adapt Greeley's phrase, one could say to any aspiring fictional character looking for a tale to star in, "Go Beltwards, young man" (or woman, as the case may be).

The above extract is from chapter XVI of The Tenth Planet by Brett Sterling, who, I'm told, was actually Edmond Hamilton.  The "Tenth Planet" of the title is not trans-Plutonian; nor is it the heavy asteroid Thor; instead, it is an artificial planet, created to orbit within the inner Solar System, in order to relieve population pressure.

It was during the second week out from Mars that they sighted the new world that science was creating.

The first glimpse of it was simple enough.  A string of space-freighters was dumping metal ore upon an asteroid that had been towed in from some place between Earth and Mars.  The asteroid was a way station.  Beyond it, no more than a pinpoint in space, was another, and beyond that still another.  More than a thousand asteroids, Blackbeard learned, were being utilized.

This was the outer shell, a sort of scaffolding of the new planet.  A hundred or so miles beyond was a second ring of asteroids.  Upon these had been built the matter-creating machines constructed by the World Government...

Isn't it marvellous what Twenty-First Century technology can do?

2017 May 17th:  


A pioneering star-drive, insufficiently test-run, is used too soon for an emergency getaway from nuclear catastrophe on Earth.  The starship returns to find that three billion years have passed. 

Epilogue (Analog, March 1962) is one of Anderson's terrific stories, giving the reader a breathtakingly original view of a far-future Earth in which Man's demise in atomic war has triggered unplanned machine evolution.  He doesn't just state it vaguely but shows us how natural selection might, in those circumstances, apply to machines, and lead to a machine ecology.

However, I won't offer a proper critique of the tale here.  It is almost entirely about Earth, whereas I wish to focus on the little glimpse we get of the Moon, near the beginning of the story:

...Still the boat spiralled inward.  Now the moon drifted across his view.  In those eons since the Traveler left home, Luna had retreated from Earth: not as far as might have been predicted...but nonetheless, now it was only a tarnished farthing.  Through the ship's telescopes it had looked like itself.  Some new mountains, craters, and maria, some thermal erosion of old features, but Thurshaw could identify much of what he once knew.  It was grotesque that the moon should endure when everything else had changed...

The far future of the worlds of the OSS is surely one of the most arcane literary byways one could think of.  It's a matter of looking for scraps here and there.  I'm not even convinced I have one here, since Anderson's tale is really hard sf with a fairly modern date - March 1961 being just under three and half years after Sputnik One brought us into the Space Age.  (And one month before Gagarin's flight.)

Still, it does give a glimpse.  New maria, eh?  That suggests heavy impacts, to melt the lunar crust into lava that then flows and solidifies.  Maybe there would be time for that during three billion years.  The Solar System might brush close against some other stars now and then, disturbing the paths of comets in the Oort Cloud and sending them in to impact the worlds close to the Sun...  and (in Anderson's scenario) no humans around to do anything to head them off.

2017 May 16th:  


Shall we say, to speak metaphorically, that on the boundary between the Old and New Solar Systems, one can still get an OSS glow through an NSS filter?

I suggest three ways this can happen:

1 - if the story is written on the chronological cusp, so that some new space-probe knowledge coexists with some older ideas - e.g. in Clarke's Transit of Earth (1971), where OSS and NSS vie for influence in the mind of a realist writer, and Niven's portrayal of a mostly dry, modernistic-flavoured Mars which yet has intelligent Martians, in Eye of an Octopus and At the Bottom of a Hole (both 1966).  Clarke's The Sands of Mars (1951) and Earthlight (1955) also fit here, because of their allowance of lunar and Martian life, coupled with an awareness of these worlds' harsh conditions.

2 - if we consider a story's mood and tone, to be that of a hard science veneer over a romantic attitude; perhaps the colourful conflagration on Pluto described in Niven's World of Ptavvs (1966 again) is an instance of this.

3 - if we focus on the old space program, which means that the OSS world we are really focusing on is the better timeline of Old Earth.  Tales for which this criterion applies are too numerous to mention.  The worlds which they explore may be quite NSS in realism, but if the Earth that sends out the expeditions and establishes the colonies is the good old Earth of classic OSS fiction (in which governments adhere to the correct space-script which says that you must colonize the Moon and then colonize Mars, and do it fairly soon and with the recognizably human, respectable and lovable  non-weirdos that fill the pages of Heinlein, Walters and Clarke), then the tales are OSS in my book.  e.g. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust (1961) - which, unlike his Earthlight of six years before, contains no mention of native lunar plant-life; and Niven's Becalmed in Hell (1965).

Category 2 is the one I have found hardest to pin down.  Here's some of that Plutonian firestorm:

...Evanescent mountains of hydrogen snow, smooth and low, like a tray of differently sized snowballs dropped from a height.  They rose gently before the slowing ship, rank behind rank, showing the tremendous breadth of the range.  But they couldn't show its length.   Kzanol/Greenberg could see only that the mountains stretched half around the horizon; but he could imagine them marching from pole to pole around the curve of the world.  As they must.  As they did...

The science of it is beyond me.  But someone who knows his chemistry and physics may say how much of all this could happen, given the conditions.

...Pluto was on fire.  For billions of years a thick blanket of relatively inert nitrogen ice had protected the highly reactive layers below.  Meteors, as scarce out here as sperm whales in a goldfish bowl, inevitably buried themselves in the nitrogen layer.  There had been no combustion on Pluto since Kzanol's spaceship smashed down from the stars.  But now hydrogen vapor mixed with oxygen vapor, and they burned.  Other elements burned too.

The fire spread outward in a circle.  A strong, hot wind blew out and up into vacuum, fanning great sheets of flame over the boiling ices until raw oxygen was exposed.  Then the fire dug deeper.  There were raw metals below the sheet of water ide... Sodium and calcium veins; even iron burns furiously in the presence of enough oxygen and enough heat.  Or chlorine, or fluorine; both halogens were present, blowing off the top of Pluto's frozen atmosphere, some burning with hydrogen in the first sheets of flame.  Raise the temperature enough and even oxygen and nitrogen will unite...

Pluto was a black disc almost covering his scope screen, with a cold highlight near the sunward arm.  In that disc the broad ring of fire had almost become a great circle...

No, it's not OSS.  But it puts in a bid to inherit its colour and spectacle.

2017 May 15th:  


- so is the Asteroid Belt termed in Michael Martinez' Daedalus trilogy, in obvious analogy with the buccaneer-infested Spanish Main of old Earth.

That realm of cosmic rubble certainly lends itself to tales of piracy and lawlessness.  It's a gift to writers of gung-ho adventurous narrative.

Even the more cerebral Isaac Asimov can be influenced that way by the Belt, in his Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids.

...In a sense it was good.  The asteroids had formed steppingstones out toward the major planets.  In a sense it was bad.  Any criminal who could escape to the asteroids was safe from capture by all but the most improbable chance.  No police force could search every one of those flying mountains.

The smaller asteroids were no man's land.  There were well-manned astronomical observatories in the largest, notably on Ceres.  There were beryllium mines on Pallas, while Vesta and Juno were important fueling stations.  But that still left fifty thousand sizable asteroids over which the Terrestrial Empire had no control whatever.  A few were large enough to harbor fleets.  Some were too small for more than a single speed-cruiser with additional space, perhaps, for a six-month supply of fuel, food, water.

And it was impossible to map them...  asteroids were forever being "lost", then "found" again...

The asteroid belt is one of the major assets of the Old Solar System.  If ever you feel that the OSS' nine planets and thirty-odd moons don't provide enough scope for randomness and the unexpected, and that you feel like going interstellar instead, just pause and remember that the System does contain something which in plot terms is almost as open-ended as the Galaxy, though not so large: namely, the Belt of myriad worlds.

With the rules of the OSS, which state that provided you are true to the spirit of the place you can play fast and loose with science, these little worlds can be habitable.  Wyndham's Asperus and Brackett's Iskar are fine examples, both discussed on this site's Asteroids page.  And if not humanly habitable they can still be inhabited, as in Clark Ashton Smith's Phocea.

What hasn't yet been done, so far as I know, is to write about a multi-Asteroid native empire.  Jack Williamson's "Astrarchy" in his fine tale Hindsight is a pirate state peopled by humans.  We're still waiting for such a realm peopled by "asteroidians". 

I envisage something on the lines of a species that has evolved to take advantage of occasional close encounters between one planetoid and another, to somehow "jump across", maybe using the low escape velocity plus instinctive astrogation...

Those desert plants on Earth that flourish only after very rare showers of rain have learned to wait their chance.  Similarly the "asteroidians" might spend millions of years waiting for each new chance to spread from mini-world to mini-world.  One of the myriad unwritten tales of the OSS...

2017 May 14th:  


One of the much-perused volumes of my childhood - a book I have beside me as I write - is Our World In Space And Time (1959), published by Odhams Press; no author given.  It's a beautifully produced survey of history, natural history, geography and astronomy, written for young readers in a non-patronising tone.  I have included a picture here from page 179, "Saturn from its satellite Titan". 

Ah, those were the days when dramatic needle-peaks could be found all over the System.

It's a common theme in sf than inhabitants of heavy worlds will tend to be short and wide, while those of light worlds will tend to be tall and thin.  The idea makes sense; and to a brainy chap like C S Lewis it also made sense that the same theme would apply to the physical characteristics of worlds.  In particular, of low-gravity worlds.  Thus, his Mars in Out of the Silent Planet has a topographical theme of verticality: memorably he describes the tall, thin mountains lining the sides of his Martian canyons.

It seems that Lewis got it wrong.  His intelligent assumption seems not to be borne out in practice.  Admittedly, Mars has very high mountains, but their slopes are not particularly steep.  This could not have been known before space probes.

The near side of the Moon, on the other hand, was surveyed before the space age, and calculations from measurements of shadow could reveal the heights and hence the gradients of its mountains.  This didn't stop artists from exaggerating the slopes.  One might defiantly say, that the artists were wiser than the cartographers, in knowing what lunar landscapes ought to look like. 

Arthur C Clarke however went for the literal truth.  In A Fall of Moondust (1961) we get a typical insistence on realism: was an unfortunate fact that the majority of lunar peaks were a severe disappointment.  The huge craters which looked so impressive on photographs taken from Earth turned out upon close inspection to be gently rolling hills, their relief grossly exaggerated by the shadows they cast at dawn and sunset.  There was not a single lunar crater whose ramparts soared as abruptly as the streets of San Francisco, and there were very few that could provide a serious obstacle to a determined cyclist.  No one would have guessed this, however, from the publications of the Tourist Commission, which featured only the most spectacular cliffs and canyons, photographed from carefully-chosen vantage-points.

Clarke gets away with this artistically because in his very avoidance of exaggeration he brings us closer to a feeling of being solidly there, on the Moon.  His disclaimers function as wakeners.  And once we are wakened, once we are there with him on the Moon, the reality of it swamps us with its own bracing magic.  Clarke was exceptional in this ability to assemble novels with "plain" truths which yet form into an ensemble that glows with as much wonder as any science-fantasy.

And of course there's the wonder of an old space program that grew as it ought to have grown, into lunar colonies in what is now our own century.

Anyhow, it all goes to show how the OSS is win-win.  You get great lack of realism, mingled with great realism.  Eat your cake and have it - vertical or horizontal.

2017 May 13th:   


"To cathect" is "to invest something with an emotional charge".  If we "cry for the moon", we have somehow cathected the moon so as to yearn for it.  It has become, for us, more than a dead lump of rock.

But is it just "for us" that it is more than it seems, or is it more than it seems really?

The question can be asked not only of the objects in space but of the immensity and grandeur of space itself, and of any vista.  C S Lewis took two different lines on this.  As far as mere magnitudes are concerned, he poured scorn on the "clownish amazement" of those who regard them as intrinsically impressive or important.  (He has some effective words on this topic in Perelandra.)  On the other hand, in his pamphlet The Abolition of Man, he took pains to make the point that when we express strong feelings of admiration for something, when we are aware of the sublimity of a great landscape for instance, it is not just our inner emotions we are describing; we intend to make a real point about the nature or essence of what we are seeing.

So, which is it?

..."Why do you want to go to the moon so badly, Mr Harriman?"

"Captain, it's the one thing I've really wanted to do all my life - ever since I was a young boy.  I don't know whether I can explain it to you or not.  You young fellows have grown up to rocket travel the way I grew up to aviation.  I'm a great deal older than you are, at least fifty years older.  When I was a kid practically nobody believed that men would ever reach the moon.  You've seen rockets all your lives, and the first to reach the moon got there before you were a young boy.  When I was a boy they laughed at the idea.  But I believed - I believed.  I read Verne, and Wells, and Smith, and I believed that we could do it - that we would do it.  I set my heart on being one of the men to walk the surface of the moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the earth hanging in the sky.  I used to go without my lunches to pay my dues in the American Rocket Society, because I wanted to believe that I was helping to bring the day nearer when we would reach the moon.  I was already an old man when that day arrived.  I've lived longer than I should, but I would not let myself die... I will not! - until I have set foot on the moon."

Thus Heinlein in Requiem (Astounding, January 1940) is better at asking the question than at answering it, though the "answer" given by old D D Harriman is descriptively moving.

So what's my answer?  Is it something in the Moon itself, drawing Mr Harriman to yearn for it during his entire life, or is it a peculiarity of himself? 

I am tempted to say, it is the creation of a bond between man and Moon.  It - the cathexis - obviously cannot take place without either of them.  So to argue whether it's "in" the Moon or "in" the mind of the beholder, is to miss the point.  It's analogous to a sort of "exchange particle", like those which physicists talk about.

Or maybe this is wrong.  Maybe the answer is simpler and more awesome.  Maybe there is something about the Moon, and some folk can tell, and some can't.

Every thing is a unique thing.  Our arrangement of stuff into sets and categories and classes is mainly for our convenience.  It's never as real as we think it is.  But we work away at it anyway.  Except that with our world's satellite - until telescopic times, when we saw analogues to it circling other worlds - there was no "class" to put it into.  Our species grew up with the sense that there was absolutely nothing like the Moon, and in our bones we still sense that that is so.

2017 May 12th:  


For some unknown reason as I was browsing in my magazine collection today, I stumbled across far more CLUFFs than usual.  Here's one of them:

"Here's the breakdown of figures," Thomas went on calmly.  "Half our steel, as well as the billion tons we sell to Mars, is mined with great difficulty on Jupiter.  We couldn't operate those mines in case of war because the mines are hopelessly vulnerable to attack..."

And that's that - no more detail in van Vogt's Repetition about how steel is mined on Jupiter, whether it's done by remote control or by actual miners working on the giant planet...  Just a CLUFF, a Cute Little Unfulfilled Fragment of Fascination.

Here's another one - again concerning the Jovian system.  This time the CLUFF is even briefer.

...Captain Creed had neglected to hire replacements.  Thus, the only other man aboard beside Captain Creed, Blaine and Holderlin, was Farjoram, the half-mad Callistonian cook.

Jack Vance's Planet of the Black Dust (Startling Stories, Summer 1946) is an interstellar tale, but a Callistonian cook, half-mad or otherwise, deserves a mention on my site. 

Then we have no less than a treble CLUFF in A Visit to Venus by Festus Pragnell (Fantastic Story Quarterly, Spring 1950).

...The landscape of a strange planet!  In the sky is a sun of the wrong size and either red or blue according to the density and extent of the air.  Perhaps, as on Jupiter, the air is full of flying things without wings.  Perhaps, as on Mars, the very shrubs make noises, weird and shrilling.  Perhaps, as on Ganymede, protective mimicry has been developed to such an extent that one never knows when any plant or stone may suddenly spring away upo one's approach...

Er - all this is getting a bit much to integrate.  Let me think.  Put the half-made Callistan cook in charge of the Jovian steel-mining, in case he develops creative insights, while using the wingless flying things as a shield against attack...  That should take care of it all.  Makes unified sense now.  Phew.

2017 May 11th:  


Before I begin properly, here's another apology.  I have missed 2 consecutive days of the Diary - can't remember ever missing that big a chunk of time before.  If I had organized myself better I could have continued my contributions from the hospital bed, at least to some extent.  Anyway, the good news is that the site has thrived in my absence - a record number of pages viewed in one day on the 9th of May (1,153, no less).

And now for today's topic.

We read adventure stories to enlarge our experience, vicariously to place ourselves in the situation of the hero, and thus to live more than we would otherwise; but this procedure can be further extended if the hero, whose soul we are sharing, is himself likewise flexible.  A good writer will therefore be able to do a "yes, but" operation on the consciousness of his protagonist.

...Then, as his hunger ebbed, the sense of his situation returned with dismaying force.  The huge, seal-like creature seated beside him became unbearably ominous.  It seemed friendly; but it was very big, very black, and he knew nothing at all about it...

The castaway on Mars, in C S Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, is a man of immense integrity, but he cannot help his instinctive fears.  Nevertheless he discovers how to cope with them.

...It was only many days later that Ransom discovered how to deal with these sudden losses of confidence.  They arose when the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man.  Then it became abominable - a man seven feet high, with a snaky body, covered, face and all, with thick black animal hair, and whiskered like a cat.  But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have - glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth - and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason.  Nothing could be more disgusting than the one impression; nothing more delightful than the other...

So there's an adventurer who adventures not only in another planet but in the byways of his own spirit. 

A similar "stretch" occurs - though in far more sinister fashion - in one of the greatest of horror tales, a story which is borderline sf in logical terms, but deeply sf in its conceptual breakthrough.  To find out that one's ancestors have interbred with sea creatures, and that one's body is about to change and grow into one of them, may be a horrid shock, but the greater horror is when the prospect ceases to seem horrible.  For then the mood-swing shows that the great change must have begun:

...So far I have not shot myself as my uncle Douglas did.  I bought an automatic and almost took the step, but certain dreams deterred me.  The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-deeps instead of fearing them.  I hear and do strange things in sleep, and awake with a kind of exaltation instead of terror.  I do not believe I need to wait for the full change as most have waited.  If I did, my father would probably shut me up in a sanitarium as my poor little cousin is shut up.  Stupendous and unheard-of splendours await me below, and I shall seek them soon...

If I were to name the story this is from, I might be guilty of inflicting a spoiler - so if you don't know it, you'll just have to peruse the entire works of H P Lovecraft to find it.  Happy reading!

2017 May 8th:  


Had to go into hospital today - muscular spasms brought about by the strain of running the Solar System - and though I was discharged, it was too late to do the daily Diary.

Must think about appointing a Vice-Archon...

2017 May 7th:  


Clifford Simak is usually at his best on Earth, often spilling over into the alternate-Earths which are a speciality of his (see All Flesh is Grass, Ring Around the Sun, Awk House).

He did however make one dedicated foray onto the Moon, in The Trouble With Tycho (1961). The golden bucolic Simak atmosphere has no place there, of course, and I have tended not to rate the book highly in comparison with the few key Moon classics.  When Clarke writes of the Moon in Earthlight, he is on ground of which he is a master - his style can infuse a numinous fascination into the airless rockscape.  Simak isn't noted for this.  However, when I reread The Trouble With Tycho the other day (soon done - only 115 pages), I clicked with it more than before.    

...So I went bowling down that dust alley - dust that had never known a track before; dust all pitted by tiny one-inch craters pinged out by the whizzing bits of debris that come storming in from space; dust that had piled up for ages, chiseled off the walls by the endless hammering of the radiations, by the clicking bits of sand moving miles a second, by the slow patience of the heat and cold that spanned hundreds of degrees.

It's a mean life and a bitter one and hard, but there's a lot of glory and of beauty in the very harshness of the Moon.  She is waiting for a slip to kill you, she has no mercy in her, she simply doesn't give a damn; but there are times when she can cut your breath with the very wonder of her, when she can take your soul and lift it high into the black emptiness of space and give you peace and insight.  And there are other times when she simply strikes you numb.

That's the way she had me now, sitting stiff and rigid, with my throat bone-dry and the fine sweat standing out, whooping down that alley where a trap might wait for me and not a chance to dodge it.

I made it.  My number just didn't happen to be up that time...

The "trap" to which the narrator refers is a physical peril, that of the dust-depressions which can swallow a vehicle.  But later on he meets other, more psychic perils in the mysterious region of the "haunted" crater, Tycho.

The question of lunar life is raised in this book.  This issue is of great interest to me personally; I long for more stories about native lunar beings.  I have to say that this isn't really what Simak provides in his book.  And yet, he leaves us with a sense of the potential of the Moon; with a feeling that it is far from being a "dead" world; or that if it is, "deadness" is more alive than we tend to assume.

In short, I believe I underestimated The Trouble With Tycho.  If you're in the mood for a prospecting tale, in which a hick from Milville (I mean no disrespect) strikes it lucky, it's a fine read.

2017 May 6th:  


Supposing civilization falls, then rises again much later, but that our remote successors inherit a space-faring technology which has been made in some respects fool-proof.  Then they might find themselves using space-ships without understanding them; zooming around in a space of which the true dimensions they do not understand.  This of course is eerily conveyed in Heinlein's generation-starship tale Universe, but also in our sub-genre by van Vogt in Empire of the Atom.  Just consider this superb example of dramatic irony:

...Spaceships, like all instruments, weapons and engines of transport and war known since legendary times, had their limitations.  They were the fastest thing possessed by man, but just how fast, no one had ever been able to decide.  At the time of the invasion of Mars, the prevailing belief was that spaceships attained the tremendous speed of a thousand miles an hour in airless space.  Since the voyage to Mars required from forty to a hundred days - depending upon the respective positions of the two planets - the distance of Mars at its nearest was estimated at one million miles.

It was felt by thousands of intelligent people that this figure must be wrong.  Because, if it were correct, then some of the remoter stars would be hundreds of millions of miles away.  This was so obviously ridiculous that it was frankly stated by many that the uncertainty reflected on the ability and learning of the temple scientists...

In my opinion, this, or something of the sort, could happen! 

And a development of the theme occurs to me:

Suppose, just suppose, that mind works on space, in the long term.  Then we might have the old idea of "mind-over-matter" extending into "mind-over-space".  If billions of people believe a version of the cosmost to be true, over a sufficiently long span of time, it might affect what is true. 

Then, we might end up with the planets being much closer; or being much more habitable; merely because we think so...

It might be the result of a long-lived but largely Earth-bound culture of high intelligence, brooding over the topic of astronomy but inhited from actual space travel by the depletion of resources.  And when finally the resources are discovered to enable space-travel to be resumed, we find what we expect to find....  because we have incubated it in our racial unconscious.

It's a wacky notion, but a great writer could get away with it, just as Olaf Stapledon gets away with the idea that mind can influence gravity in Last And First Men, where the advanced level of future human culture causes perturbations in the orbits of the Moon and planets.  If you allow "mind over gravity", why not "mind over space"? 

Anyhow, I toss the idea into the pool...  come on, you budding writers.  It's wish-fulfilment time.  And there's room for horror in the theme, too.  Imagine that some culture or faction has irresponsibly incubated a fearsome hell-planet in its legends, e.g. a Yuggoth-like Pluto.  When people go out there and encounter it, it's payback time....

2017 May 5th:  


In most OSS tales there is a reasonable degree of cultural continuuity with the author's present day, but in an ineresting minority of backgrounds we are given to understand that the exploration of our neighbouring worlds has only resumed after a long lapse.  Such must be the case in van Vogt's Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn.  It is also the case in Barrington Bayley's Soul of a Robot (1974) - a novel almost entirely set on Earth, but with the added perspective of the Emperor Charrane's ambitious policy of Martian reconquest, attempting, like a latter-day Justinian, to restore an old sway.

...The lead story was splashed right across the front page in headlines two inches tall.


News reached Tansiann yesterday that the Mars Expeditionary Force has added interplanetary territories to the New Empire.  Landing on the Red Planet a month ago, the Emperor's crack space commandos have since been fighting a successful campaign to bring this strategically important world under the imperial writ.

It is now little over a year since explorers first discovered that human communities still exist on Mars despite having been cut off for eight centuries from the mother planet, basing their way of life on the deep fissures and rills in the Martian surface where they have learned how to maintain a breathable atmosphere.  On hearing of the Red Planet's continuing habitation the Emperor Charrane had immediately pronounced it a top priority to "recover the ancient Mars possessions".  The Emperor's early triumph will go a long way towards substantiating his boast that the Empire will eventually "rival the glory of Tergov"...

A nice touch is that this Emperor is undertaking his interplanetary aggrandisement without even having achieved hegemony on his home world; it appears he finds the conquest of Mars, despite its distance, an easier proapect than victory against his rivals on Earth.

This is all just background; the main interest in Soul of a Robot is the search for identity of the construct, Jasperodus.  But it's worth noting that this novel, published in 1974, on the OSS/NSS cusp, appropriately blends themes from old and new ideas of Mars.

2017 May 4th:  


More on planetary change.  I thought I had come to the end of my survey, but I must be slipping: how could I have omitted to mention a tale that encompasses one of the more dramatic long-term changes in the most visited of our neighbouring worlds?

The slab was thick.  He kept the trigger of his gun depressed for minutes.  Then, with a hollowly reverberating crash the fragments of the split slab fell back in toward him.

But beyond, instead of the open air, there lay a solid mass of dark red soil.

"The whole Tomb of Rhiannon - buried, now; Penkawr must have started a cave-in."

Carse didn't believe that.  He didn't believe it at all but he tried to make himself believe, for he was becoming more and more afraid.  And the thing of which he was afraid was impossible...

The scholarly looter Matt Carse, Earthman, has been investigating a Martian tomb, the mysterious site of "the doom of Rhiannon, dealt unto him forever by the Quiru who are lords of space and time".  He hadn't taken the "time" bit seriously enough...

...Panting, dripping, his mind a whirl of confused speculation, he dug outward through the soft soil till a small hole of brilliant daylight opened in front of him.

Daylight?  Then he'd been in the weird bubble of darkness longer than he had imagined.

The wind blew in through the little opening, upon his face.  And it was warm wind.  A warm wind and a damp wind, such as never blows on desert Mars.

Carse squeezed through and stood in the bright day looking outward.

There are times when a man has no emotion, no reaction.  Times when all the centers are numbed and the eyes see and the ears hear but nothing communicates itself to the brain, which is protected in this way from madness.

He tried finally to laugh at what he saw though he heard his own laughter as a dry choking cry.

"Mirage, of course," he whispered.  "A big mirage.  Big as all Mars."

The warm breeze lifted Carse's tawny hair, blew his cloak against him.  A cloud drifted over the sun and somewhere a bird screamed harshly.  He did not move.

He was looking at an ocean.

The time-jump in The Sword of Rhiannon must surely be one of the best set-pieces in the whole of Leigh Brackett's oeuvre; in fact I think I'd say it was the very best.  I really ought to have mentioned it in yesterday's survey of planetary change, and I ought to have coupled it with the opposite past-to-present jump of the unfortunate resuscitated Barsoomians in part one of Burroughs' Llana of Gathol.

Anyhow, taking yesterday's and today's contributions together, I've now mentioned long-term physical changes, including those observed by means of time-jumps, and the more abrupt and retrospective kind of transformation brought about by reality-engineering.

There remains one further type of reality-change from the pen of Robert Gibson, but not an abrupt and decisive piece of retrospective engineering as in the same author's Uranian Gleams; rather, an encroachment, gradual and remorseless, like that of an inexorable disease.  The idea behind the Mercury novel Valeddom is that our apparently boring, lifeless Solar System neighbourhood is an illusion, but one which a creeping evil is striving to confirm and harden, by reducing its colour and variety.  And the process is attacking Earth too, via the mentality of standardisation, cultural homogenization, metric dullness and so forth.  Mercury - the synchronously-rotating, Twilight Belt Mercury - is on the front line of this attack by the forces of boringification...

That, as I say, is the idea behind the book.  But it only becomes explicit at the end.  Most of the tale is an adventure story, where we can enjoy our trip to the traditional "disproved" Mercury.

It also gives us an amazement-scene, a discovery-trauma to match that of Matt Carse in the Brackett tale, when Valeddom's narrator, Hugh Dent, finds himself translated after a bus crash into the body of a Mercurian alter ego:

I stared in a calm, mindless daze.

My brain was knocked out of play, by an abrupt and total shift of scene which quite shut down my power of thought.  I could not understand, could not believe, could not absorb what I was seeing, and so, frozen in amazement, my mind left all the action to my senses...

What wouldn't anyone with an adventurous soul give for a shock like that - if the shock leads to the realization that the OSS is true?

2017 May 3rd:  


- Or, as I might term it, "planetary character development".  Many tales relate the change or maturation of their human protagonists.  But some stories go further, and narrate or imply fundamental changes in the planets themselves.

My favourite OSS scenarios are, mostly, those in which this does not happen - in which people change but their worlds do not, or not noticeably.  I love those sprawling series like those of Burroughs and Brackett in which various adventures take place amid the stable environment of the multifarious worlds.  Or the Hamilton OSS, much of which forms a quasi-series because many of its components are quite easy to link, though apart from Captain Future he did not seem concerned to write series in an explicit sense.

But the planetary-change tales are also important, and do include a small number of my favourites, as well as some which I read less often.

The War of the Worlds implies a gradual, inexorable change in Mars - an environmental decline that is the motive for the invasion of Earth.  A sharper change in the Red Planet is carried out deliberately at the end of Arthur C Clarke's top-notch colonization epic, The Sands of Mars.  I call it an epic because, although it's not an especially long book, it makes an epic impression on me.

But the majority of planetary-change tales involve Earth.  They are too numerous to list or even to summarize.  They range from the relatively obscure but still interesting - such as A E van Vogt's The Winged Man (in which Earth's lands have turned into mud by A D 24,999 and men have to live in the sky) - to famous classics such as Clarke's far-future saga, The City and the Stars.  Sometimes the change is the result of invasion, as in the drastic "Venusiforming" recounted in Clark Ashton Smith's The Metamorphosis of Earth.

Getting back to the other planets: a borderline case of planetary change is the Uranus depicted in Uranian Gleams.  I say "borderline" because, since the transformation that it implies is a retrospective "reality-change", in a sense it swallows itself up and no longer has happened.  This surely is how one must read Gibson's words:

...Everyone knows the bare outline of the events which ushered in our present era: how the Second Great Fleet did succeed in reaching Arclour and ... how that discovery retro-triggered our retro-Fostering of Ooranye, that is to say, the grafting of Ooranye's true history onto the history of our solar system.

So if the Fleet had not reached Arclour, the First Terran Contact eight Uranian years previously would not have happened either.  The future re-writes the past. 

Otherwise the world of Ooranye would be known to us still as the lifeless gas/ice giant Uranus, whereas now that tilt, and the lifelessness, never have been.  Shunted, grafted retrospectively onto this reality is the real Uranus, become fully itself...  That's what we accomplished, that was our half of the pincer which adjusted reality, the other half being the triumph of Sunnoad Iyen Noom 80525 and the Second Great Fleet.

Deep stuff; but reality-change is bound to be a rather special case.  Is there anything more 'normal' that I can mention?

Well, there are those stories which relate or involve the destruction of the asteroid progenitor planet.  And there are the rather sad stories of other planets and worlds being destroyed, including John Wyndham's wonderful Time to Rest, which post-dates the destruction of Earth.

I have now come to the end of my fairly short survey.  If anyone can add to it, feel free!

2017 May 2nd:  


Spent my free OSS-time today on the monthly Zones Cup.  Mars won, as it has for the past few months.  Mars and Earth are so far the only winners since the thing started last September.  And this, I dare say, is a fair (albeit rough-and-ready) indicator of the supremacy of those two locations as settings for our sub-genre's stories.

The Zones Cup is a more stable pointer than the Interplanetary Knock-Out.  The latter, however, has value in highlighting the short-lived dramatic fluctuations in reader interest.  We've had wild Pluto and Triton surges, for instance... and Saturnian fashions that gripped the System, but make little difference to the placing of the Zones.  Having said that, Mars is the current winner of both competitions.  Will the Red Planet establish a lasting hegemony?  I suspect that users of the site are too unpredictable for that...

Meanwhile the statistical donkey-work is finished for another month.  Normal literary articles will be resumed after today.

2017 May 1st:  


A month ago I reported that March had seen the record for the number of individual users smashed - from February's 1,090 up to 1,373.

Now, April has seen the record smashed again, from 1,373 up to 1,555.

End of gloat.  The number of visits fell slightly, from 4,427 to 4,296.

The number of page-views also fell, from 11,639 to 10,447.

Make of that what you will. 

What I like to think is that the new users, and for that matter the old users, may be making longer visits and gazing lingeringly on their favourite pages, so that the slight decline in some of the figures actually masks an increased use of the site.

Anyhow, what's important is that more people are joining the select family of users.  For a select niche, it's doing well - that's my guess. 

I had a fun time trying to spot trends among the planets and moons and authors and themes.  Let me pick just one to share with you.  As you'll see on page-view winners, if you compare April with March, Neptune, literature-wise the Cinderella of the planets, is creeping up the table.  Horray.  Beat the drum for the Neptunians.

Well, all right, it's an unusual way to spend a bank-holiday.  Better than DIY, though.

>> OSS Diary, April 2017.