I was born in the 1950s. So I currently live in the future of my youth — and it is hardly what my younger self expected it to be. But it is fortunately a much better “place” than those we were able to imagine in 1973.
More than fifty years ago, science fiction author H Beam Piper penned Omnilingual, a novelette* about archeology and “forensic” linguistics on an alien world. I read it for the first time in an SF anthology in the late 1970s and it struck a chord deep in my heart, my being a language nerd. I would have loved to participate in that interplanetary expedition and test my wits against the enigmas of the distant past.
By chance I recently discovered a lightly edited version of the story being freely available on the Internet. It seems that the original story has entered public domain, at least in the United States (I am not sure how, because Piper died only about 50 years ago).
In Omnilingual, Piper combines the spirit of field work with the alien-ness of being elsewhere in cosmos. He expertly mixes some of the genres that I love: alternate history, legendary “Mars”, scientists in action (i.e. researching and analyzing while squabbling and practicing scholarly one-up-manship — yes, research funding disputes, college politics and “publish or perish” are all there).
*i.e. a long short-story.
In my recent blog post about Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars I mention how I found that book in a bargain bookshop in my hometown of Gothenburg around 1980. That bookshop — long since gone and I have forgotten its name, even though I remember its interiors quite well — carried for a while a large selection of classical SF titles from a cheap British paperback publisher (the shoddy proof-reading is ample evidence for its cheapness). I bought a score or more books there during a warm summer, mostly Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein works from the 1950s. Some still remain in my bookshelves, even though I am no longer the youngster for which they were intended. The nature of quality is sometimes hard to pin down, but stories you don’t want to get rid of 30 years later ought to possess it in some regard.
An introductory digression: “The Vietnam War” — when the contemporary reader hears that phrase, she will most likely think of the American intervention in Indochina 1965-73, portrayed in movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. But this was actually the second Vietnam War. The first Vietnam War was fought 1946-54 between the French, who had ruled Indochina as colonial overlords since the late 19th century, and Viet Minh, a communist movement supported by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was as dreadful a war as the following one and France eventually failed to impose its political will on Vietnam. (Unfortunately the United States did not learn much from the French defeat and therefore repeated many of its mistakes 15-20 years later.)
Back to the main subject: One of the books I picked up at that bookshop was Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets, first published in 1951. It is a fast-paced adventure, in which teenager Don Harvey gets unwillingly embroiled in an interplanetary conflict a century or so in the future. An oppressive global Earth government, “The Federation”, has established colonial domains on parts of a habitable Venus that is covered by jungles and swamps. These settlements supply raw materials in the traditional center-periphery colonial trade patterns and their inhabitants of course hate being exploited. There are several early references to censorship, regional unrest and police-state surveillance, so the reader quickly understands that the rulers are an unpleasant lot, even though the regime is never described in detail.
Due to interplanetary political developments, Don, a former Venus resident carrying a surreptitious object of high intelligence value, leaves Earth for Mars, but ends up on Venus because of the unpredictability of war (it makes sense in context). On the way, he befriends a “pseudo-dragon” (a non-human Venusian native) thanks to his knowledge of their whistle-language and then he starts a new life in the human rebels’ capital. Many complications ensue. Great fun to read when you are a teenager.
When I re-read the book after my university graduation in the mid-1980s, I saw two historical parallels. I do not claim to know what Heinlein thought when he wrote the story, but he plays a very obvious “1776″ historical card — spotted in phrases like “taxation without representation” — in the rhetoric of the human Venusian rebels. But their revolt does not resemble the actions of the Massachusetts minutemen of 1776.
The Viet Minh used 1776 rhetoric, too, when they declared independence from France at the collapse of the Japanese occupation in 1945. They appealed with some success to the US for assistance in their anti-colonial struggle. The French government disagreed and expelled the American agents in Hanoi; its ensuing attempts to reimpose colonial rule quickly ignited a long war.
In Between Planets the human Venusians ends up fighting a jungle guerrilla war against a military expeditionary force sent from Earth to “restore order”. They adopt a Mao-style strategy, moving among the civilian population “like fish in the water” while maintaining good relations with the amphibious pseudo-dragons, who are neutral in the war because they are too alien to be a part of it. Soon the conflict becomes a Vietnam-style quagmire. The soldiers from Earth fail to understand local customs and therefore they time and time again offend the pseudo-dragons, making them more and more sympathetic to the human rebels. And it is hard for a regular army to pin down guerrillas sneaking through jungle and fog.
The war quickly turns into a series of raids, search-and-destroy missions, etc, in a fluid combat zone without front lines. It is never made clear how the rebels organize themselves politically during this phase, because all events are seen through the eyes of Don Harvey, a simple soldier and human-dragon interpreter. But the story hints at the need for a sturdy organization if the rebels are to stand up to the invaders. And the Viet Minh pulled off that stunt during relentless French pounding in the late 1940s. The pseudo-dragons play partially the same role as China, e.g. by providing safe havens for the rebels in places where the Federal army will not go for political reasons.
The story has a non-Vietnam ending, though (it was written before the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu). A poor one, too: the classical “the conjurer pulls a white rabbit out of the hat”. Heinlein makes it too easy for the Venusian rebels. But this is a story for teenagers, so there is perhaps no reason to make matters complicated. The Vietnamese faced a far trickier situation in 1955 when the humiliated French departed. And the frequent atrocities by all participants in terrestrial anti-colonial wars after 1945 — e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, Angola, Portuguese Guinea — are not even hinted at.
The technology of the story is atomretro for a 21st-century reader: interplanetary spaceships in Hohmann orbits, nuclear weapons (used a few times during the Venusian rebellion, though not against civilians), pre-transistor electronics, ray guns, almost-Wild-West-tech pioneer cities on Venus (e.g. with electricity but without cars), primitive cellphones (one appears already on page 1 to set the tone of the story). So for you and me this is an alternate history, in which humanity’s development took a different course around 1946.
Mars appears peripherally in the story, described in the traditional deserts-and-ruins manner. I would have loved to see more of that world, but Heinlein never revisited this particular timeline.
I like Between Planets because of its vivid description of a retro-futuristic adventurous solar system that ought to exist. Heinlein portrays unfamiliar societies in crisp paragraphs that evoke the sounds, tastes and smells of, for instance, a rough swamp city under the eternal cloud cover of a tropical Venus. The aliens are credible, too: tough fellows with arcane customs and a century-long history of interacting with those quarrelsome newcomers from the third planet. Humans play carefully around pseudo-dragons, because everybody know that they “own the place”.
Fictional Mars, one of my favorite subjects in science fiction, is a place that has been presented in many guises over the years. This post is going to take a look at a “realistic” version of the Red Planet.
British-Lankese author Arthur C Clarke was one of the titans of science fiction when I was young in the 1970s, together with Americans Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. As I see it, Clarke was at his best from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, a period during which he for instance wrote the famous short-stories “The Sentinel” and “The Nine Billion Names of God”. Around 1950, he wrote The Sands of Mars, a sand-in-the-spacesuit novel about one man’s exploration of Mars and of himself, a story of growth and transformation, of becoming an adult and responsible individual.
Clarke possessed a talent I have come to like more and more with advancing age, the ability to write an interesting yarn without introducing violent conflicts or bad-guy characters. The Sands of Mars is a prime example: it deals with saving lives (futuristic medicine), making deserts bloom (well, sort of), and the constructive handling an old mess (no spoiler here). The main character, a science fiction author named Martin Gibson, grows in a credible manner from being immature and egocentric to assuming great responsibility.
I found the novel in a bargain bookshop in my hometown Gothenburg in the late 1970s and it has remained in my bookshelf ever since. I have read it so many times that I can summarize it “on the run”. At the time of the purchase, the novel was about 25 years old and its description of Mars had been rendered obsolete by the detailed photo-mapping of the Red Planet by Mariner 9 in 1972. But that did not matter much, because I liked it from the start.*
Clarke sends the reader to a worn-out Mars covered by rolling deserts without exciting topology. Its carbon-dioxide atmosphere is reasonably thick and its dunes are home only to hardy plants — not a Martian in sight. One of the main themes is the interaction between the colonists and the planet, how people’s mindsets get “martianized” while they are busy making the planet more human-friendly.
Another interesting matter that Clarke deals a lot with is the significance of administration and efficient use of scarce resources. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars is an expensive and time-consuming project and, in order to succeed, it must be managed in a professional and unheroic manner. Therefore production statistics and balance sheets get as important as back-breaking labor. Scientific progress — i.e. in physics, chemistry, and xenobiology — is the underlying key to success and Clarke uses this trope to create suspense: every now and then protagonist Martin Gibson asks himself “What the heck is really going on here?”
Does the novel have any weaknesses? The gender roles are antiquated and the story fails the Bechdel test. But that’s what Europe in 1950 looked like. And it is hard to criticize Clarke here, because he does show how working women participate in the colonization of Mars even though they get almost no speaking parts in Martin Gibson’s adventures. From literary standpoint, the prose suffers from occasional Clarke-isms (quasi-philosophical expressions like “the stream of time”, not-so-funny humor, etc) that disrupt its otherwise smooth flow.
In the 1950s, the readers must have seen The Sands of Mars as a plausible description of what interplanetary colonization could be like. Today, six decades later, the story’s technology is partially outdated (e.g. Martin Gibson uses a typewriter and carbon-copies; radios have tubes instead of transistors) and partially futuristic (e.g. the well-described nuclear-powered passenger ship by which Gibson travels to Mars). But despite its age, the novel remains a piece of solid craftsmanship because it deals with an issue that always is with us: how to build a better world for our children, be it on Mars or on Earth.
*The novel also helped me in my German studies in my last year in school in 1977-78. During that spring semester we got a standard assignment: write a long essay about a journey. Being inspired by Clarke’s novel, I wrote several pages about a Gibson-style trip to Mars. For that particular teacher, the genre was a novelty and he therefore raised my final mark one step as a reward for originality and quality.
When I was a boy around 1970, UFOs were a frequent subject in newspapers and magazines. Observations, abductions and speculations, most of them with little credibility. The UFO fad started just after World War Two and provided good income for many charlatans. Perhaps it was fueled by Cold War fears, what do I know, with the extraterrestials sometimes serving as “enlightened saviors” and sometimes as “vivisectionist bogeymen”.
Anyhow, now the fad is fortunately fading away, killed by the combination of space exploration and modern recording technology. When everyone has a camera in the pocket, it is hard to explain away the absence of good pictorial evidence of a UFO sighting. The skeptic agent Scully was right.
Read more in this newspaper article >>>>
Swedish painter Fredrik Alfredsson depicts the little-known Rosvalla UFO incident in 1961. Two J29F fighters intercept an alien spacecraft over southern Sweden. (You will view a much better version at Mr Alfredsson’s site if you click on the picture.)
The aircraft belong to the 3rd squadron of the F10 air wing in Ängelholm, a unit charged with guarding the airspace of southern-most Sweden.
Around 1970 several Tintin stories were published for the first time as proper albums in Swedish. Before that, they had only appeared in magazines. I found the albums in the school library and immediately fell in love with Objectif Lune and On a marché sur la Lune. The exciting adventures, the bulky pre-transistor technology, the mixture of drama and slapstick — what more could an 11-year’s old sf-fan ask for?
Forty years have passed and I still like the Tintin adventures a lot, particularly the thrills and joys of the protagonists’ traveling to remote places. Hergé was a stickler for technical details and I can see how he honed his skills with each album. The merchant ships in L’Étoile mystérieuse were not really up to the mark, but in Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge a few years later the depictions of sea travels had improved notably.
The passing of time has made the content turn from “contemporary” to “retro”; the heroes’ comfortable journey to the moon is a piece of lovely 1950s tech-nostalgia. (The Apollo astronauts went to the moon inside a command module the size of small car and they drove a skeletal dune buggy on the lunar surface.)
I have subconsciously picked up one or two pieces of literary tactics from Hergé and put into to use in my own stories. The protagonists travel into the unknown aboard well-rendered vehicles/craft that are distinct “localities” by themselves. When the heroes set out on a daring adventure, it is never clear what they really are going to face. Unpredictability and danger — and clever solutions to escape the hazards. (Even though I nowadays find the denouement of Le Temple du Soleil a bit too contrived.) When I wrote about Johnny’s and Linda’s first encounter in the cloudship Cassiopeia in Iskriget or Fox’s river journeys in Spiran och staven, the spirit of Hergé’s way of telling stories was present.
When I write my novels and shortstories, it is usually so that the main character appears and wants me to put her or his story into printed words. I write what they have experienced, even when it gets peculiar. Because “that’s the way it was”.
Ursula LeGuin writes in Always Coming Home (one of her more philosophical books) about telling a story “like it was” or “as it was”. Different approaches to the closeness of reality and the nature of truth. I write only fiction about imaginary worlds because that opens the gates to the realms of “like it was”. However, I always wonder how the readers will react to the tales I convey from the citizens of those never-never lands. Their life-stories fascinate me, otherwise they would not be able to keep my attention for all those months it takes to type a manuscript.
So far, I have gotten quite nice reviews from people in the sf/fantasy subculture, which is great because they are discerning readers well versed in the in’s and out’s of the genres. But the major book publishers have been reluctant, making me one of many self-published authors in the current PoD-revolution. One of the more interesting rejection slips I have received stated that my novel Spiran och Staven is written for hard-core fantasy readers, which are not a part of that company’s target audience. Well, that’s an honourable verdict indeed.
Currently I am handling Adèle von Rosen’s account for her dangerous attempt to reach the rugged interior of the arid Altimundo plateau in 1940 in the midst of the Republican Rebellion. Being a spy and a progressive republican, she is hunted by both the Imperial secret police (for what she knows about rebel activities) and a local aristocrat (whose anger she triggered by provocatively defying a gynophobic custom).
Four days later I stepped off a motor coach in Degauer Satna, soaked in sweat and with a rucksack on my back and trekker’s boots on my feet. Before leaving the Garða-rām I had also exchanged the old cap for a khaki slouch hat more suitable for a desert climate. To most native passengers I must have looked like a wealthy Erþayn youngster out to see the strange corners of the world. Some had tried to chat with me during boring hours on the road, but I knew none of the local languages and their knowledge of Mariþi had been too limited for meaningful conversations. The warm and stuffy nights that I had spent at roadside inns had been plagued by nightmares about strafing aircraft and pursuing dark-suited lithe men wielding gleaming knives.
I had now come to the end of the Road: it runs for almost seven hundred leagues up from Port Veronica at the coast and arrives here at one of its two inland termini, the other being next to Ariana more than a hundred leagues away. Degauer Satna is also at the edge of our world: east of the town the Central Escarpment rises steeply for thousands of feet. That dark mountain wall runs north and south as far as the eye can see. And up there, beyond a craggy rim that is half obscured by haze and dust, lies the Altimundo.
This link (link >>>) goes to a set of photos of concept cars. Plenty of game design inspiration for futures that never were. I particularly recommend pics #2 (atompunk retro-futurism) and #6 (dieselpunk retro-futurism).
I commute between home and office by subway, the only decent way of traveling in the downtown of the city in which I live. Half an hour each way with a book as company. Every now and then I choose some classic title for re-reading and currently I am into Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage.
It’s the Cold War, though the antagonists are called only Us and Them. A defecting top-notch scientist suffers a skull injury during the extraction and the only way of saving him is by micro-miniaturizing a research submarine, crewed by a brain surgeon and a few other specialists, injecting it into the scientist’s blood vessels and open a congested brain artery from the inside.
Asimov wrote the story as a novelization of a film manuscript. It was in the early 1960s, before the good doctor’s style deteriorated into meandering verbosity, and the composition is a combination of period action-adventure and whodunnit penned in an economical prose. The protagonist, the fairly hard-boiled spy Grant, is the expedition commander and has to deal with dangers inside the human body and the suspicions of sabotage on-board. The crew has 60 minutes to do the job and get out of the body, after which the miniaturization process will reverse itself automatically for reasons dealing with [insert scientific double-speak here].
The story is still a good read, unlike many other of Asimov’s tales that have gone stale with age. Yes, the gender roles are outdated: the brain surgeon’s competent specialist nurse gets an unfair treatment at several occasions, but Asimov also makes sure to show how unfair this behavior is. If one compares it to other stories from those years, by e.g. Poul Anderson, Asimov’s stance is progressive.The authorial research appears to be meticulous (it’s Asimov after all) and the reader gets a lot of state-of-the-art (for circa 1964 that is) information on human physiology.
Anyhow, the micronauts’ initial plan falls apart and they are is forced to improvise a lot. But these are quick-thinking competent people and I like reading about ingenuity. A hawk-eyed reader might be able to solve the whodunnit mystery by spotting several clues in the text, but that requires a certain amount of thinking outside the box. I read the story for the first time in Swedish translation when I was 14 years old and I failed. It should be easier for an adult who has read crime stories before.
This a good adventure yarn in an original setting. Keep in mind that it is 50 years old and then some of its idiosyncrasies become easier to handle. Yes, there was a certain tunnel vision in all societies during the Cold War and it is obvious here. Even though ideology like democracy or communism is never discussed, the story’s us-or-them morality is antiquated in the post-Vietnam War era.
The set-up can be transformed into an unusual role-playing adventure, though that would require quite a lot of pre-game map-making by the gamemaster, because she cannot know what routes the players will choose when things go bad (therefore the expression flow chart acquires at least one extra layer of meaning). Dr Asimov only had to account for one of them.
By the way, many years later Asimov wrote a similar story called Destination Brain. Don’t bother with it. It is chatty with some lousy attempts at in-depth characterizations. It is unfortunately one of the good doctor’s inferior late-in-life stories.