Editor, John Campbell
Mission of Gravity (Part 1 of 4) • serial by Hal Clement ♥♥♥+
Settle to One • novelette by Charles Dye and April Smith
Allegory • short story by William T. Powers ♥
The Ant and the Eye • novelette by Chad Oliver ♥♥
Family Resemblance • short story by Alan E. Nourse ♥
Cover • by H. R. Van Dongen
Interior artwork • by H. R. Van Dongen, Pawelka
The Fallacy of Null-A • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Nature Didn’t Make It • science essay
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory: January 1953
The Reference Library: Science Fiction and Fictitious Science • book reviews by P. Schuyler Miller
Brass Tacks • letters
Although I picked up a copy of Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement decades ago it was a novel that I never got around to reading—probably because of an aversion I developed at the time for really hard SF.1 I decided that it was time I got around to reading it, and figured an added benefit would be a snapshot four-issue look at what Astounding was like in the early 1950s, a period when both Galaxy and F&SF were really hitting their stride.2
Clement’s novel takes place on the alien planet Mesklin. This planet is unique in that, due to its mass, shape, and rapid rotation rate, it has a gravity of around three G at the equator, where the story starts, and several hundred G at the poles. The South Pole is where an Earth expedition has lost a data-gathering rocket. Enter Barlennan, a centipede/caterpillar-like Mesklinite a few inches high, who is an adventurer, explorer and trader that captains a raft and crew that sail the liquid methane that forms the seas of this world. Barlennan has learned to communicate with a human called Lackland, who is stationed at the equator, and who is working with the Mesklinites to undertake a rescue mission to recover the probe: the natives can survive at the poles of Mesklin, unlike humans, and are the only chance of recovering the data.
This first installment is generally scene setting for the journey to come and covers quite a lot of background information as well as some incident: when Lackland’s tank breaks down the Meskinlites rescue him by dragging him back to his camp by using a raft made of sheet metal. This gives them the idea for Lackland to use a back-up tank to tow the Bree, their ship/raft, over land to a point where they can refloat on a river that will take them to the South Pole and the probe.
Another scene—the best in this installment— involves Barlennan being placed on top of the tank by Lackland and establishes the visceral fear that these aliens have for heights: this is because a fall from a few inches at the poles is terminal because of the massive gravity there:
The man’s armored hand swept out and picked up the tiny body of the Mesklinite. For one soul-shaking instant Barlennan felt and saw himself suspended long feet away from the ground; then he was deposited on the flat top of the tank. His pincers scraped desperately and vainly at the smooth metal to supplement the instinctive grips which his dozens of suckerlike feet had taken on the plates; his eyes glared in undiluted horror at the emptiness around the edge of the roof, only a few body lengths away in every direction. For long seconds—perhaps a full minute—he could not find his voice; and when he did speak, he could no longer be heard. He was too far away from the pickup on the platform for intelligible words to carry—he knew that from earlier experience; and even at this extremity of terror he remembered that the sirenlike howl of agonized fear that he wanted to emit would have been heard with equal clarity by everyone on the Bree, since there was another radio there.
[. . .]
And yet he did not go mad. At least, he did not go mad in the accepted sense; he continued to reason as well as ever, and none of his friends could have detected a change in his personality. For just a little while, perhaps, an Earthman more familiar with Mesklinites than Lackland had yet become might have suspected that the commander was a little drunk; but even that passed.
And the fear passed with it. Nearly six body lengths above the ground, he found himself crouched almost calmly. He was holding tightly, of course; he even remembered, later, reflecting how lucky it was that the wind had continued to drop, even though the smooth metal offered an unusually good grip for his sucker-feet. It was amazing, the viewpoint that could be enjoyed—yes, he enjoyed it—from such a position until sunset shut it off. Looking down on things really helped; you could get a remarkably complete picture of so much ground at once. It was like a map; and Barlennan had never before regarded a map as a picture of country seen from above. It was simply a graphic means of setting down surveying results so that they made sense when compared with each other.
An almost intoxicating sense of triumph filled him as the crawler approached the rocket and stopped. The Mesklinite waved his pincers almost gayly at the emerging McLellan visible in the reflected glare of the tank’s lights, and was disproportionately pleased when the man waved back.
The tank immediately turned to the left and headed for the beach where the Bree lay; Mack, remembering that Barlennan was unprotected, thoughtfully waited until it was nearly a mile away before lifting his own machine into the air. The sight of it, drifting slowly upward apparently without support, threatened for just an instant to revive the old fear; but Barlennan fought the sensation grimly down and deliberately watched the rocket until it faded from view in the light of the lowering sun. p. 29-31
Generally, this is all pretty well done, and is much better than I had been expecting. There is some authorial info-dumping and telegraphing of future events that could have been better handled and/or omitted, and I didn’t find the description of the terrain/maps that clear. However, I can already see why this is regarded as a classic: you have intelligent and resourceful aliens, scientific problem-solving, and a journey set against the backdrop of this unique high-G planet.
Unfortunately, the other fiction isn’t even remotely close to the Clement serial in terms of quality: Settle to One by Charles Dye and April Smith is a particularly painful read. An alien ship arrives on Earth and when the occupant disembarks it turns out to be a woman called Melandra, who all the Earthmen are immediately attracted to.
The small alien paused a long moment after the colonel’s greeting, then shook her head. A series of meaningless, jumbled sounds issued from her lips in a low musical timbre. Kathryn watched desire struggling to show itself in the colonel’s stern eyes, and this time she knew she was not mistaken. Shifting her glance, she let it flicker over the faces of the men around her and those further back in the surrounding area. On not one face could she find the attitude of curious, dispassionate scientific interest in the alien that she herself was feeling. Instead of reacting to her as an alien, they were reacting to her as a woman!
Staring back at the tiny creature who seemed to be turning an assembly of sober scientific men into a group of adolescents, she saw with amazement the same enraptured look on the woman’s own face. She was staring back at the men thronged around her with eagerness, fascination, desire. Her lips were parted and she had a smile of delight on her face. p.65-66
She is assigned Kathryn as a liaison, and the colonel in charge of the reception party suggests that the visitor stays with her and her husband, as you would. We later find that Melandra has been sent instead of a man as there is a shortage of them on her planet due to a radiation from a new lighting system damaging their genes.
The rest of the story will satisfy any Mills & Boon readers who have stumbled upon this issue by mistake, as illustrated when Kathryn’s husband relates a near-encounter with Melandra:
His eyes stared into Kathryn’s, searching for some understanding.
“Look, you know I love you. I’ve always loved you and been proud of you. But there’s something about her—”
He shook his head, confused. “Kathryn, I . . . it was all right this time, but—I can’t promise for the future. I can’t. I don’t want anything to happen, but . . . I felt as though I had been waiting for those moments with her all my life . . . and for the moments that didn’t come. It was as though she were something I had dreamed in a dream long ago and forgotten, and longed for years without knowing it, as though she were a goddess, an unattainable goddess suddenly within reach of my arms. She seemed to fulfill all the wild, restless longing I’ve felt on still nights when the sky and the moon and the whispers of sound reached out and enveloped me in some nameless yearning. She’s what music is, she’s—”
He broke off for a moment, and stared unseeingly through the window. “It’s not that she’s so beautiful . . . it’s the way she moves, I think. And that soft voice blending in with her gestures. Something about the way she moved—it seemed to catch the rhythm of my blood and do strange things to it. I suddenly couldn’t think at all. I felt like a tree stripped of its leaves by a high wind. I’m turning into a poet, but no words are like what I felt. Compared to it, everything I’ve felt before—it’s like listening to amateur fiddling all your life and suddenly hearing Heifetz—”
He stopped short, as Kathryn made a low, strangled sob. “What an awful thing for me to say!” He looked at her in dismay and put his head in his hands. p.70-71
Methinks that Kathryn’s husband will be sleeping in the spare room for some considerable time . . .
On quizzing Melandra about this episode, Kathryn finds that marriage is not exclusive on Melandra’s planet and that she wanted to take back some healthy germ plasm. Later, Kathryn finally has a meltdown at an official ball when she finds that her husband has volunteered to go the planet as part of the first expedition. She confronts Melandra about how he females of her race are going to steal away all the Earthmen, and ends with this plea:
“To a woman there’s very little of importance compared to love—I say this even though I am a scientist and fascinated by my profession. I know that if I lost Ron my work that I care about so much now and am so proud of would become empty and meaningless.” p. 79-80
Melandra (spoiler) does the right thing and leaves without telling the colonel the location of her planet. This is so bad it is almost worth reading.
Allegory by William T. Powers is about a future computer data processor dealing with correspondence from a man who claims that he has invented an anti-gravity device. Initially, this account of the inventor bouncing off inflexible rules and regulations is quite entertaining, but the computer-controlled bureaucracy ends up being too simplistic a target.
The Ant and the Eye by Chad Oliver concerns an operative in UNBAC (a United Nations quango) who is tasked to fix an election as there is a man who, if elected, will cause the end of free society.
The story unnecessarily starts off-world and has Quinton travelling back to Earth for his assignment but, for all that, this and the rest of the first half is told in a leisurely and quite engaging manner. However, the second half is non-specific about the science used to both identify this man as a potential problem, and to stymie his chances. It starts to drag because of this. Definitely a game of two halves.
Family Resemblance by Alan E. Nourse is a light-hearted piece about a lowly academic discovering that man is more closely related to pigs than apes. Unfortunately it just isn’t very good.
I initially thought the Cover for this issue (illustrating Clement’s serial) was by John Schoenherr, but I’m three years too early: it is by H. R. Van Dongen, who also contributes some nice internal artwork as well.3 The other artist contributing Interior artwork is Pawelka, and there is also some nice heading art by Ed Cartier for the book review and letters columns.4
The non-fiction content is the usual selection. The Fallacy of Null-A by John W. Campbell, Jr. is a short editorial about Aristotelean and Null-A logic and how, although we may think in the latter multi-valued way, our actions are always Aristotelean.
Nature Didn’t Make It is a short science piece—probably cobbled together by Campbell, I would have thought—about various man-made materials: nylon, Teflon, silcone coating, etc.
The Analytical Laboratory: January 1953 states that:
Beginning with the stories in this April issue, the stories which are voted tops by reader opinion will get Astounding’s one cent a word bonus; if an author does a top notch job, your applause will have the effect of doing him a real favor in return for the favor he’s done you by giving you some genuine pleasure. p. 147
I assume that this is the start of this long-running practice?
The Reference Library: Science Fiction and Fictitious Science by P. Schuyler Miller has a number of long reviews, starting with a similarly lengthy introduction about the intersection between SF and pseudoscience.
Brass Tacks is rather dull this issue, given over almost entirely to science discussions.
Finally, and not on the contents list, there is an advertisement for Peter Hamilton’s Glasgow-based UK SF magazine Nebula, available from the ‘sole US agent’ Frank A. Schimd (50¢ versus Astounding’s 35¢ for a single copy, 30/38¢ versus 25/28¢ per copy—various options—if you take a subscription).
A rather poor issue apart from Hal Clement’s serial.
- I am pretty sure something put me off Clement’s work back in the late seventies, hence my first read of this classic. I can’t remember if it was a novella of his that I read and didn’t like or some other hard SF stories—I didn’t care much for Niven’s Hugo-winner Neutron Star, nor some of the harder (and more tedious) SF stories found in the late 70s Analog.
- This four issue run doesn’t look that promising: apart from the Clement the only other likely prospects are stories from Algis Budrys (already read and OK), Sheckley (poor), Philip K. Dick (Imposter) and Poul Anderson. Galaxy looks more promising with three titles from Sheckley I recognise, and stories from Leiber, Dick, Simak, Shaara and others. F&SF has Ward Moore’s Lot, a couple from Dick (The Preserving Machine and Expendable), and stories by Sheckley, Porges and Bester.
- Some of the internal artwork by H. R. Van Dongen:
- Ed Cartier’s artwork for the columns: