the sunport vista:
zendexor's
oss
diary

2021

The would-be Samuel Pepys of the OSS...

2021 April 11th:   

LIVING WORLDS

The idea that worlds might be giant planet-sized creatures, actually alive, and that we are mere mites living on the skin of one of them, is on the borderline of what can be fitted into the sub-genre of the Old Solar System. 

Re-reading Arthur Conan Doyle's "Professor Challenger" stories recently, the short story When the World Screamed (1928) got me thinking: it's the only example of its kind I can think of in the literature, apart from Jack Williamson's Born of the Sun (Astounding, March 1934). 

To my way of thinking, the Williamson tale is too over-the-top to fit the genre.  It's an end-of-the-world tale, for if the world is an egg and it hatches, that's the end of it all as far as we're concerned.

The Doyle tale on the other hand is based on a premise which the OSS and its protagonists can live with.  Instead of being an egg about to hatch, the Earth (and its neighbouring planets) are spherical adult creatures, globular like sea-urchins, and just as the sea-urchins imbibe floating nutrients, the planets draw sustenance from the apparent void, as Challenger explains:

"...The earth browses upon a circular path in the fields of space, and as it moves the ether is continually pouring through it and providing its vitality.  Quite a flock of other little world-echini are doing the same thing, Venus, Mars, and the rest, each with its own field for grazing..."

These planetary creatures carry on existing peacefully unless they are disturbed; but Prof. Challenger unfortunately aims to disturb.  He investigates via a deep mine... hence the title of the tale.  The resultant havoc is considerable but civilization survives it.

Less physical "living-world" scenarios can be found in the writings of Olaf Stapledon, where the planetary intelligence is the emergent group mind of its inhabitants, and in my Uranian Throne, in which the "World Spirit" of the seventh planet is some kind of tutelary sentience, which I'm defining gradually as I go along. 

One of Stapledon's Last Men describes the planetary group-mind experience:

...The individual discovers himself to be embodied in all the bodies of the race.  He savours in a single intuition all bodily contacts, including the mutual embraces of all lovers.  Through the myriad feet of all men and women he enfolds his world in a single grasp.  He sees with all eyes, and comprehends in a single vision all visual fields.  Thus he perceives at once and as a continuous, variegated sphere, the whole surface of the planet...

Stapledon has his advanced human intelligences unwittingly affecting natural forces via the effect of their mind-power, and this distorts the pull of gravity, an alteration which, for the last Terrestrials, has a disastrous long-term effect on the Moon's orbit, and hastens the end of the world.  My non-human "World Spirit" is entirely harmless by comparison - its laudable aim is to prevent humans from taking too much control over the environment and thus wrecking the place.

To those of us who like ongoing series of tales, it's important to avoid any final catastrophe!

2021 April 9th:   

GAZING ACROSS THE CASSINI DIVISION

What would it be like actually to stand on a ring-particle on the edge of Saturn's A Ring and look across the gap to the B Ring, or vice versa? 

Here's a passage from a fairly run-of-the-mill sf adventure published in 1954, Donald Wollheim's The Secret of Saturn's Rings:

...before him, seeming but a step away, was another ring, a flat circular platform to his eye, darker than his ring, but still glowing silent and untenanted in the sky.  Between him and that other platform seemed but a short distance, a narrow gap over starry depths. 

Bruce knew that this was a dangerous illusion.  This was no narrow step, no close-lipped abyss.  This was a space that was not a few hundred feet or even a few miles wide.  It was a gap two thousand two hundred miles across!  It was like the distance from New York to Denver...

Why am I writing about this in a website dedicated to the Old rather than to the New Solar System?  Well...

Elsewhere in the novel we find the OSS idea that [spoiler alert] the Rings are the remains of an inhabited Saturnian moon, of which the extinct inhabitants left traces of colonies on Mimas before accidentally blowing up their own world.  Yet the view across the Cassini Division described above would in itself fit logically into a more realistic, NSS novel.

But - here's a thought:

The OSS could also be a matter of the spirit with which the reader is invited to approach the plot.  Perhaps a naively wondering gaze across the 2200-mile gap in the Rings could, in that spirit, count as fitting in with the corpus of old literature.

Here's another, similar instance where the attitude is what counts:

One particular world straddles the boundary between Old and New Solar System.  That world is our Moon, which may, within a few years, be re-visited by man.

Not only in NSS but in much of OSS fiction the Moon is portrayed as uninhabited by any native form of life.  Yet that lack of an organic side doesn't debar it from being a place of enchantment and wonder.

Perhaps, then, in some areas, we as explorers (armchair or literal) can bring the OSS spirit with us wherever we go...

2021 April 2nd:   

ATOLLS IN THE LUNAR SEAS

Oliver Morton's Mapping Mars (2002) is a good read for the history of planetology and, hence, for the history of our beliefs about other worlds, especially Mars and the Moon.  And if we can't have neighbouring worlds which are habitable or even which were once habitable, the next best thing is to empathize with those who used to believe we could.

On page 78 of his book Morton (focusing on nineteenth-century speculation) writes:

...To make their case for the volcanic origin of the moon's craters, Nasmyth and Carpenter created a scale model of what Vesuvius and the bay of Naples must look like from above and compared it with similar models of the lunar surface.  Other lunar analogies on offer suggested that the dark expanses of the moon called 'seas' were in fact made of ice, or that they were the dried beds of seas now vanished.  Charles Babbage, the pioneer of mechanical computing, elaborated on this idea with the notion that craters in these dried seas were in fact coral atolls like those studied by Darwin...

Just think what it would feel like, actually to be able to believe that last idea.

If reality-engineering were possible, the next step would be, some creative mind-over-matter process, reminiscent of the Krell's "Night of the Monsters" in the movie Forbidden Planet.  Hmm... 

If ever this website should disappear, it may be because some Time Patrol censor has judged it to be too dangerous. 

2021 March 23rd:

DE-LUXE  SCIENCE-PATTER

Many times have I tried to make the point that the function of science in golden-age OSS sf is as an incantation rather than as a serious speculation.  The incantation is important, but it need only be perfunctory in order to suffice.  A good example is the excuse given in Skeleton Men of Jupiter for the way John Carter can jump lightly around on the giant planet.  The simple answer quickly satisfies him: that the centrifugal force of Jupiter's rapid rotation counteracts the enormous gravity.  No reader believes this could really be true, but the right incantation has been made.

Sometimes, though, it can be more than perfunctory.

Consider the very interesting speculation on the formation of lunar craters in Heinlein's Blowups Happen (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1940).  The speaker edges gradually towards a momentous conclusion which I aim to discuss at another time; here's his start: 

'Although we are in the habit of referring to the "craters" of the moon, we know they are not volcanic craters.  Superficially, they follow none of the rules of terrestrial volcanoes in appearance or distribution, but when Rutter came out in 1952 with his monograph on the dynamics of vulcanology, he proved rather conclusively that the lunar craters could not be caused by anything that we know as volcanic action.

'That left the bombardment theory as the simplest hypothesis.  It looks good, on the face of it, and a few minutes spent throwing pebbles in to a patch of mud will convince anyone that the lunar craters could have been formed by falling meteors.

'But there are difficulties.  If the moon was struck so repeatedly, why not the earth?  It hardly seems necessary to mention that the earth's atmosphere would be no protection against masses big enough to form craters like Endymion, or Plato.  And if they fell after the moon was a dead world while the earth was still young enough to change its face and erase the marks of bombardment, why did the meteors avoid so nearly completely the great dry basins we call the seas?

[Here's the first chink in the edifice of plausibility, for we now know that the lunar maria originated in an outflow of lava subsequent to the great bombardment; in other words, the lava covered the impacts there.  Still, the wonder of the tale is greatly enhanced by this mood of hard investigation.]

'I want to cut this short; you'll find the data and the mathematical investigations from the data here in my notes.  There is one other major objection to the meteor-bombardment theory: the great rays that spread from Tycho across almost the entire surface of the moon.  It makes the moon look like a crystal ball that has been struck with a hammer, and impact from outside seems evident, but there are difficulties.  The striking mass, our hypothetical meteor, must have been smaller than the present crater of Tycho, but it must have the mass and speed to crack an entire planet.

'Work it out for yourself - you must either postulate a chunk out of the core of a dwarf star, or speeds such as we have never observed within the system.  It's conceivable, but a far-fetched explanation.'

[As I understand it, this is another discrepancy between the problem as set out in the story and what we now know: the Tycho rays are not cracks, they are ejecta; that's to say, splashes from an impact.  But by this time the reader is ensorcelled... and ready for the soul-shaking conclusion...]

He turned to King.  'Doctor, does anything occur to you that might account for a phenomenon like Tycho?'

The Superintendent grasped the arms of his chair, then glanced at his palms.  He fumbled for a handkerchief, and wiped them.  'Go ahead,' he said, almost inaudibly.

[The next part will be dealt with anon, when I find the time.  I reckon it will need a page devoted to it.]

[Note, 4th May: now done - see The Implicizer Aimed at "Blowups Happen".]

2021 March 16th:   

IONIAN GRADATIONS

On the Io page I trace the theme of decline, cultural and environmental, on that tide-racked innermost Galilean satellite.  I cite visions ranging from the degenerate descendants of a lost civilization in Weinbaum's The Mad Moon, to the poignant but dangerous relic of an utterly extinct culture in Gallun's The Lotus Engine (in which "vision" is exactly the right word!).

And now as I read Harl Vincent's The Copper-Clad World (which first appeared in Astounding Stories, September 1931, or so says the paperback edition), I wish to find a place for it within the above fictional range.

As the title implies, the Ionians have given the entire place a metal roof.  It's their way of conserving the atmosphere and hence the life of their world.

...They were outside then, on the palace roof, and Pegrani motioned them to a railed-in runway that circled its edge.  High overhead was the shadowy blackness of the copper shell that enclosed the satellite.  Huge latticed columns, line upon line of them, stretched off into the distance as far as the eye could follow; enormous white metal supports that carried the immense weight of the covering which retained the dense and humid atmosphere.  Myriads of tiny blue-white suns there seemed to be, stretching off between the columns, carried on thick cables and radiating the artificial daylight of the interior.  Hot, damp odors wafted across the roof, the odors of decayed vegetation.

Most amazing of all, were the dwellings.  In orderly rows like the columns, they were flat topped cylindrical things that reminded Blaine of nuthing so much as the tanks of an oil refinery back home.  And the space between was overgrown with dense tropical vegetation, tangled and matted and shooting transparent tubular stems up to a height of a hundred feet or more where they sprouted great spherical growths that looked like enormous sponges.  Of a sickly, pale green hue, these growths overran everything; climbed the columns and were lost in the shadows above the multitude of lights.  The big sponge-like blossoms expanded and contracted rhythmically.  Breathing, they were like living things.  Specially cultivated plant life to assist in maintaining the oxygen supply balance by decomposition of carbon dioxide.  A marvelous artificial world!

(I'm not sure from the descriptions as to how high the roof is...  For another excerpt from this tale, see What to see on Io.)

The roofed-world theme reminds me of a somewhat similar arrangement for Earth, in Brian Stableford's Realms of Tartarus series - though in the latter, the aim is not to preserve the planet's atmosphere (which isn't under threat) but to create a new, clean upper tier of unpolluted land.  Stableford imagines the old surface abandoned to a nightmarish darkness, where forgotten men and other creatures still lurk...

2021 March 10th:   

THE ORIGINAL "SPACE SARGASSO"

I'm guessing - having just re-read Edmond Hamilton's The Sargasso of Space (Astounding Stories, September 1931) - that that tale was the first of its kind. 

I could be wrong - in which case please correct me, anyone who knows.

What's more interesting in my view is that it helps us to trace the development of an idea in that author's work, together with an improvement in his writing skill. 

I'd call the 1931 story a fairly good effort for the pulps of that time:

"The dead area," Crain told them, "is a region of space ninety thousand miles across within Neptune's orbit, in which the ordinary gravitational attractions of the solar system are dead.  This is because in that region the pulls of the sun and the outer planets exactly balance each other.  Because of that, anything in the dead area will stay in there till time ends, unless it has power of its own.  Many wrecked space-ships have drifted into it at one time or another, none ever emerging; and it's believed that there is a great mass of wrecks somewhere in the area, drawn and held together by mutual attraction."

Note that this fobs us off with an inanely implausible excuse for the existence of the "dead area".  With planets and moons orbiting and changing their mutual positions constantly, there'd be no chance of a gravitational stasis-zone in the terms given above, and any reader of the pulps in 1931 would have realized this after giving it a moment's thought.  Of course, you don't need plausibility in OSS pulp fiction, you just need to make a respectful nod in the direction of science, and that passage provides it.  However, it's possible to do the job more imaginatively, and nine years later, in Calling Captain Future (1940), Hamilton does so:

"...there are many strong ether-currents, strange running tides in the luminiferous ether itself, out in this part of the System.  They all flow into a central vortex, and anything that is carried into the vortex can't get out again, against the currents.  That central vortex is the Sargasso Sea of Space."

Ether-currents!  Central vortex!  That's more like it!  Further from known science than the 1931 excuse, it is paradoxically more conducive to that suspension of disbelief which permits pseudo-science its literary effect.

"Running tides in the luminiferous ether" help give Captain Future's science its zing...

2021 January 18th:    

MEDITATION ON THE PAGE-VIEW WINNERS

Accentuating the positive, here are some heartening developments which distinguish the latest table of page-view winners from those of the previous year, and which may interest readers who are wondering where to browse next in this multi-hundred-page site.

Titles which have risen from relative obscurity to join the ranks of the "super-pages" (= viewed on average one or more times a day) include favourite authors of mine such as Keith Laumer, Raymond Z Gallun, James Blish and Charles L Harness.  The same surge has happened to pages devoted to one particular book - see Red Planet and Earthlight.  Still more dramatic has been the rise from less than 1 to more than 2 views a day: see Sailing the Seven Spaceways, My Favorite Anthology, Uranian Eras and World of Never-Men.

Now for the jumps spotted further up the scale:

Those promoted from "super" to "para" (2 or more views a day) include: Arabella of Mars, Characters of Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, James A Corey, Robert Gibson, Planet X, Silicon Life, S M Stirling, The Sky People, Edmond Hamilton, An Approach to World-Building, Time Travel and Reality Change, Far Future, The Many Solar Systems Interpretation, Valeddom, Moral Dimensions, COMOLD and In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.

Leaping from "para" to "meta" (from 2+ to 3+ views a day): The Asteroid Progenitor Planet, Saturn, Mercury, Pellucidar, About Us, Leigh Brackett and Names.

And from "meta" to "hyper" (3+ to 4+):  Interplanetary Knock-Out and Perelandra.

Finally, there were a few surgers who leapt up more than one rung.  These especially sprightly pages are:  Zones Cup (2+ to 4+), Barsoom (1+ to 3+), A Rose for Ecclesiastes (1+ to 3+), Kroth (1+ to 3+), and most athletic of all, Uranian Gleams (1+ to 4+).

(I've not mentioned the losers, those who went down the table or fell off it into the ranks of the non-super.  But in truth the risers outnumbered the fallers: 14 went off the list but 68 went on.  I will just specify one odd come-down, that of poor old Titan, which descended from 2+ to 1+ - and from 27th to 152rd place on the table.  Let's hope the Titanics enjoy a renaissance in 2021...)


2021 January 16th:   

STATE-OF-THE-SITE MESSAGE

Looking back over the Diaries of previous years it is easy to note that the entries have been getting fewer.

Why should this be so?  Three answers whisper in my mind:

1.  "You've covered most of the important ground; you're running out of the real classic material.  Don't expect to find any more masterpieces to write about.  You're scraping the bottom of the barrel now."

2.  "You've been too busy teaching and writing - especially writing.  It takes effort to keep up the old-style intensive Diary.  Besides, you're not getting any younger."

3.  "It's natural that, having covered past literature, your effort should be directed at the future - at NOSS tales, both those written by you and those written by others.  That's what should occupy your thoughts now."

These three points do have some validity but I'm not comfortable with them. 

With regard to the first point, all right, maybe the top masterpieces have been covered, but the second-rate stuff is still good (much better than the fifth-rate) and I certainly haven't got all of that yet.  Bear in mind that I only have two collections of the stories of Jack Williamson.  Most of his stuff I haven't seen.  And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there are some cracking Edmond Hamilton tales I haven't heard of yet.  The existence of Treasure on Thunder Moon, set on Oberon, came as a complete surprise.  And this very morning, Dylan Jeninga alerted me to an author I'd not known about, one David Wright O'Brien (1918-1944), killed in action in World War Two, who by the end of his short life had over fifty published pulp-magazine tales to his credit.

The second point, about being too busy and getting old, yes, that's valid.  I don't even understand how I found the time and the energy to write all the pages which I have written.  I must have been a lot more dynamic even five years ago.  Still, I remain reasonably crepit...

The third point, about looking to the future - yes, it's fair enough.  The anthology series Vintage Worlds looks set to continue to infinity, and who knows how many budding NOSS novelists may blossom in the years to come? 

With that heartening thought, I wish all you Diary-readers a belated Happy New Year.