Review: The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell

The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell
Hardcover: Dennis Dobson, 13/6, 203pp, 1962 [1]

The prologue tells us that the result of Joahannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder’s fixation on levitating a coin was the accidental invention of a stardrive and the result of that was “the Great Explosion,” or the diaspora of every weirdo from Earth to the stars. The rest of the book tells us how Earth eventually recovered from the loss of these eccentrics and proceeded to attempt to bring them into an Imperial fold. In this book, we follow one particular (and particularly mine-is-bigger-than-yours) starship in one particular sector as it voyages to four planets.

After an elaborate and pompous departure we meet and mock the crew, troops, and bureaucrats. Especially the bureaucrats. The first world they come to, like the state of Georgia or the country of Australia, has been settled by people exiled for running afoul of the law. They develop a family/gang-centered social structure in which they distrust anyone outside the family and despise work, gullible people (and gnoits, ponks, and snelks). Their only contacts with outsiders (other than our would-be imperialists) come on the few days of the year that make up trading season. Mainly, women who don’t like any of the men in their “family” demand to be traded. As an example of some of the humor, after the native leaves, the Colonel says he thought he saw him on the far side of the river waving an official-issue knife and asks the Sergeant Major if that was possible. “Sergeant Major admitted that it could be possible. In fact, it gave him much pain to describe it as practically a certainty inasmuch as the presence of the knife over there had been found to coincide with the absence of one over here.” And, as an example of some of the sociological arguments, when the Ambassador points out that their society has “No comfort, no security, no progress, no morals,” the native adds “No taxes, no work, no regimentation.”

Unable to establish a beachhead on a paranoid planet of multiple groups, the ship moves on to Hygeia. There are no “friendly” worlds according to the regs, but there are hostile and non-hostile worlds. Having determined this one to be non-hostile, the bigwigs debark, followed by the lesser ranked, and then the lesser still. It is wryly observed that, had the planet been determined to be hostile, “the order of exit would have been reversed.” This world takes the notion of a “nudist colony” to a whole other level. It demonstrates the relativity of social mores as the native naked fitness freaks are repelled by the Earthers’ dirty bodies (exemplified by their boozing and smoking) and dirty minds (exemplified by their clothes fetish). Under the “when in Rome” theory, when the men go on leave, they are ordered to go nude but this only offends the natives differently as the Earth folk, um, expose their relative lack of fitness. Despite these problems, the Terrans are finally granted an island on which to establish their embassy under various onerous conditions, so the remainder depart for the third world, but not every colony manages some variety of success. The Terrans moves on to the fourth world without stopping after finding the third depopulated, perhaps from a plague.

Finally, they arrive at the last world and, in one of the funnier scenes of the book, have difficulty making contact with Zeke, a native who finally tells them “Myob!” [2] and even more difficulty making contact with “Ginger Whiskers,” the next native who’s on his way to meet with the first. In a large-scale Keystone Cops routine, a bunch of soldiers are initially unable to corral a man determinedly headed “Zekeward” and finally have to carry him to the ship as he simply refuses to do what they want. They have no better luck stopping a guy who has “a gold ring in his nose” and “a pigtail four feet long” who is riding a fan-driven ball-wheeled motorbike (it’s especially interesting to note that this part was first published (in John W. Campbell’s Astounding) in 1951). Much of the contact goes like this, without useful result, until Harrison, the bicyclist among the stars, rides into town and starts making the slightest of headway, learning about how the natives are Gands and the Terrans are antigand. Eventually, even Sergeant Gleed joins in and they get a better understanding of this libertarian/anarchist society (“That’s freedom, isn’t it?”) they’re supposed to conquer. Contrary to the Weapons Shops sort of freedom, though, these folks explain how they have a weapon that can defeat all comers and there’s nothing secret or violent about it. It’s encapsulated on a sign that says “F-I.W.” and the remainder of the book will show the power of ideas in a clash of worldviews.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I thought this had very funny moments and was generally amusing, while it was also definitely “about” something and full of interesting and debatable points. For instance, the Terrans frequently use the notion of alien conquest (when there is no evidence of alien intelligence anywhere) to try to frighten worlds into joining them, which speaks to any general politics of fear. While I personally believe in strong international alliances, other elements may be making the point that they could form a single point of failure and that conquering varied forces could be harder than herding cats. On the other hand, I certainly support the diversity of states and the individuality of people within a larger framework. This seems to echo that with its various social conditions on world to world and with the Gands themselves. For instance, when trying to explain the Gands’ negative reaction to the soldiers’ uniforms, Harrison says to the Ambassador, “They seem to take pleasure in expressing their individual personalities by wearing anything from pigtails to pink boots; oddity in attire is the norm among the Gands.” It can also get rather existential or echo Rousseau (whom I loathe but that’s beside the point). When Sergeant Gleed isn’t being the usual SOB and Harrison remarks on it, “‘I’m off duty,’ replied Gleed, as if that explained everything.” This points to Gleed’s adoption of a role in “bad faith” or to the notion that men are by nature good and only made bad by institutions. The economics (as is often the case with that aspect of libertarian/anarchist theory) was interesting but more ideal than real. I had a hard time seeing how an “ob” (or the obligation one puts on another for returning a good deed) was all that different from money (though it mercifully frees people from the larger machinations of finance) or how the “size” of an ob could be determined (that is, when it could reliably be canceled). Russell does try to seriously tackle some of this with a character’s story about “Idle Jack” in response to a Terran asking about people who just tried to take advantage of the system. The point is, whatever your philosophy (unless it’s to not have philosophy in your fiction), there is something in this comic thought-experiment worth considering while you’re being entertained and amused.


[1] Approximately the last two-fifths of this book is the novella “And Then There Were None.” I hadn’t read that in a while, so compared each every so often (in a casual way, so could be wrong), but the only changes I noticed were some soldering to join the old material to the new (including two bits of initial material scraped into earlier parts of the book) and some tweaks to words. On the question of preferred version, this is a fairly unusual case where they’re about the same. The novella is naturally more focused and is probably sufficient but the additions provide more philosophical elements to consider and more humorous parts to enjoy so it’s basically just a question of whether the reader would prefer a longer or shorter version.

BTW, I somehow got hold of and read the Panther edition (which is a fittingly UK book for a UK author) but it has perhaps the dumbest blurb in the history of man, so I’m going with the slightly less wrong Pyramid cover. (Both have decent, fun art.)

[2] After initial amusing confusion and guessing, the Terrans later come to find this abbreviates the wisdom of “Mind your own business!”

Review: The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl

The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl (Doubleday, 1962, hc, 248pp.) LCCN: 62-11295

“Introduction” by Frederik Pohl
“At the End of the Orbit” by Arthur C. Clarke [aka “Hate”]
“On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” by O. R. Frisch
“A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison (Joseph Samachson)
“The Heart on the Other Side” by George Gamow
“Lenny” by Isaac Asimov
“The Singers” by W. Grey Walter [excerpt]
“The Invasion” by Robert Willey (Willy Ley)
“To Explain Mrs. Thompson” by Philip Latham (R. S. Richardson)
“Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis [aka Chan Davis]
“The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle [excerpt]
“Chain Reaction” by Boyd Ellanby (Lyle and William C. Boyd)
“The Miracle of the Broom Closet” by W. Norbert (Norbert Wiener)
“Heavy Planet” by Lee Gregor (Milton A. Rothman)
“The Test Stand” by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine)
“Amateur in Chancery” by George O. Smith
“The Mark Gable Foundation” by Leo Szilard

Frederik Pohl’s introduction to this 1962 book begins by talking about how remote science has become from the layman’s perceptions and common sense, moves on to talking about how science fiction is aptly named because it is fiction infused with the sensibility of the scientific method, and concludes by talking about how yesterday’s science fiction reader has become today’s scientist and how that cycle will continue. Along the way, he cites Sturgeon’s law which indicates that 90% of SF is trash and has the corollary that that is unremarkable because 90% of everything is trash. Fortunately, though not everything in this book is gold, it defies any specific application of Sturgeon’s law. Of the fourteen stories in this collection (leaving aside the excerpts of novels by W. Grey Walter and Fred Hoyle) I recommend four and little of even the remaining 71% is trash.

Several of the 71%, especially early on, fall into a couple of classes and some of each of those classes share a common attribute. In the “more science fictional” class and having the attribute of reading well even if they don’t ultimately succeed, I’d place Arthur C. Clarke’s “At the End of the Orbit” and Boyd Ellanby’s “Chain Reaction.” The former deals with a spacecraft coming down in the ocean (a motif repeated in “Heavy Planet”) where a Hungarian diver with a hatred for Russians develops a plan to exact vengeance on the cosmonaut inside. While the narrative is intense and interesting, an element is clearly contrived and the whole thing plays on sentimentality. The latter involves a group of scientists visiting a colleague in an insane asylum. That man has been committed because he claimed to have calculated that the end of the world would be brought about by the experiment they are all involved in. That experiment has just taken place and they’ll all find out whether the “mad scientist” could have possibly been right any minute now. The scenario is compelling but I have to wonder if this is how the other scientists would spend what might be their last day on earth and there is a far more severe problem with the end which I can’t reveal without spoiling it.

Remaining at least somewhat science fictional but being less interesting from start to finish, George O. Smith is not represented here by any superb “Venus Equilateral” story but by “Amateur in Chancery” which is much like several recent SF stories I’ve read lately in that it depends on a scientific organization being indistinguishable from anarchy and involves a character who is almost literally “too stupid to live.” A sort of jump gate is established from Earth to Venus and a woman impulsively pilots a vehicle through it. Seeing a native Venusian, she assumes the atmosphere must be breathable but is rendered comatose when she exits the vehicle, doomed to die quickly but not so quickly that our scientists back on Earth can’t try to figure out how to explain to a primitive living under clouds the concepts of “left and right” so he can press the correct button to return her to Earth. All this is communicated via a telepathic human girl. There are some nice points about frames of reference and common assumptions but the story obviously constructed to make these points is deficient. The one story in the book I have a hard time finding anything good to say about is George Gamow’s “The Heart on the Other Side.” A man must win the hand of his girl by proving to her shoe-manufacturing father that his theories about there being Moebius regions on Earth is correct and, to do so, he takes a shipment of right-shoes to the Amazon to turn them into left-shoes which will help the father’s business because demolishing pre-existing methods of production and replacing them with trips to the Amazon will somehow be more economical. On his return, the suitor believes he has failed, so throws away all the shoes but discovers something on his return. This seemed more like a very old romance story with a wide streak of silliness than SF.

Speaking of things that don’t seem entirely like SF, the “more fantastic class” includes “A Feast of Demons” by William Morrison, which may be talking about entropy-reversing particles but refers to them as “demons” which contributes to the fantastic feeling. The tale of people aging backwards is strangely interesting until the end, which is probably intended to be humorous but is definitely anti-climactic. Similarly, Philip Latham’s “To Explain Mrs. Thompson,” which examines the difference between describing and explaining, also maintains interest as it takes the reverse approach and deals very matter-of-factly with the apparition of a man’s dead wife in telescopes pointed towards Andromeda with tension rising as the phenomenon comes closer to the Earth before the tale reaches its anti-climax. On the other hand, I never engaged with W. Norbert’s “The Miracle of the Broom Closet,” about a remarkable and devout janitor at a lab in Mexico contributing to an odd interplay between science and religion.

Moving to Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective. Leo Szilard’s “The Mark Gable Foundation” opens with the narrator perfecting his suspended animation technique and committing to travel 300 years into the future. He says, “I thought my views and sentiments were sufficiently advanced, and that I had no reason to fear I should be too much behind the times in a world that advanced a few hundred years beyond the present.” He changes his tune when he is awakened a mere 90 years into his journey to find a world in which having teeth is no longer socially acceptable but making a living as a sperm donor is. This 1961 story turns out to be a satire largely pointed at the moves in the late 1940s to establish a National Science Foundation. Its thesis is that making scientists become grant-chasing bureaucrats will lead to the stultification of science through safe and fashionable pursuits (and, as much as I support coherent public commitments to science, I have to admit the validity of his critiques). That aside, this would also make a timely read for today’s sufficiently advanced and morally perfect humans. While perhaps not a “satire,” O. R. Frisch’s “On the Feasibility of Coal-Driven Power Stations” is certainly satirical and an example of the sub-genre of “science fiction stories written as science fact articles.” As such, it’s lacking in fictional qualities but the notion of a future atomic-powered society discovering the radical notion of burning coal to supply power has its interest.

The last set is made up of stories which are both excellent and fully science-fictional (except one which is even further away from fantasy in being almost mainstream). Isaac Asimov’s “Lenny” is a Susan Calvin robot story in which a robot is “born” malformed through a fluke and doesn’t operate as designed but can learn. This story (not the greatest of the robot stories, but a good one) tackles several issues from the Heinleinian motif of “specialization is for insects” to methods of increasing interest in science to corner cases of the Three Laws but also focuses on Susan Calvin, herself. Asimov is not usually given credit for characterization (and didn’t take it, himself, arguing that ideas were more important in SF) but Susan Calvin is a significant and complex character creation, not least in gender terms. Created in the 1940s as a fiercely intelligent, independent, and scientific woman, she is sometimes portrayed as “unfeminine” while simultaneously having “intuition” and other supposedly feminine characteristics. Either way, this complexity is part of why she’s such a remarkable character and comes into play in this story.

Robert Willey’s “The Invasion” deals with a mysterious alien invasion in which a ship settles down and takes possession of a hydroelectric power plant. One man uses good old-fashioned engineering, sticktuitiveness, and professionalism to attempt to thwart their mysterious but deadly designs.

Similarly, Lee Correy’s “The Test Stand” involves a professional man in an era of safe rocketry narrating his experiences as a younger man when it was not safe. When a test firing failed, he and a co-worker were put into a situation which was akin to defusing a bomb, made all the more nerve-wracking by the fact that the man’s wife and child had come to see the experiment. The man learns something about himself and his job. In terms of dramatic plot and psychological effect this is reminiscent of Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” and is excellent and, being published in 1955, its subject of rockets certainly puts it into the category of very-near-future-SF but the story’s one flaw is that it could be written about literally having to defuse a bomb with much loss of science-fictional interest but little other change.

Finally, Lee Gregor’s “Heavy Planet” reads a bit like “Hal Clement meets Thunderball.” People are living on a planet with incredible gravity such that steel is almost like kleenex to them. However, they have enemies and need atomic weapons to deal with them so, when an atomic-powered spaceship goes down in the ocean, the protagonist and some of those enemies converge on the wreckage and tense combat ensues. This thrilling tale is simultaneously action- and idea-packed and I enjoyed it a lot. Considering each of the “science” and the “fiction,” “The Test Stand” is superior in the latter while this is superior in the former but both are highly recommended.

Review: Great Science Fiction by Scientists, ed. by Groff Conklin

Great Science Fiction by Scientists
edited by Groff Conklin

Date: 1962
Format: Mass-market paperback
ISBN: None (book number: AS 218)
Pages: 313
Price: $0.95
Publisher: Collier Books

Contents:

  • “What If…” by Isaac Asimov
  • “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (“John Taine”)
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.
  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “The Neutrino Bomb” by Ralph S. Cooper
  • “Last Year’s Grave Undug” by Chan Davis
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley
  • “A Martian Adventure” by Willy Ley
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver
  • “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce
  • “Kid Anderson” by Robert S. Richardson
  • “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” by Dr. Louis N. Ridenour
  • “Grand Central Terminal” by Leo Szilard
  • “The Brain” by Norbert Weiner

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Mike Brotherton’s anthology, Science Fiction by Scientists, for Tangent. This inspired me to read Groff Conklin’s Great Science Fiction by Scientists, which I’d had laying around for awhile. It’s a 1962 anthology from Collier which includes sixteen stories (mostly post-WWII, including two original stories, but going back to 1926) written by people ranging from those with scientific training to those who actually  practice science. The stories themselves are sometimes surprisingly unscientific, though most of them are science fiction and some are pretty typical hard SF. Conklin makes the odd editorial non-decision to present them alphabetically by author which leads to a rather random feel and some odd streaks (for instance, the first story is a fantasy and the last six are fairly weak). It does have several strong stories, though.

Only two primary clusters really struck me, though there are another two lesser clusters. One is of surprisingly melodramatic stories which are, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is probably the strongest of these, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining. Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” may offend modern sensibilities, though it’s actually somewhat ahead of the curve of its time of writing (1926). It’s set in darkest Africa and deals with a scientist manipulating the tribe that has captured him, initially for self-preservation and eventually for more grandiose reasons. A couple of Europeans happen upon this situation and get involved. “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (John Taine), is another jungle tale, this time in a South American dictator’s realm and is a sort of “Jungle of Doctor Moreau” tale which creaks and clunks a bit with its exotic horror trappings involving strange fungi but is fairly readable. Norbert Weiner’s “The Brain” is another mob tale involving a brain surgeon. It’s odd that scientists, being especially interested in causality and probability would write so many stories in which the plotting is markedly contrived or convenient but there are several such tales here and this is one of them.

The second group involves entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or other issues, sometimes with the “crackpot” with the “crazy theories” really being a misunderstood genius and the only one who’s even close to being correct. The best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem. On the other hand, Leo Szilard’s “Grand Central Terminal” just has some aliens, on earth after we’ve blown ourselves up, trying to figure out why metal disks were placed in excretion chambers and trying to save a crackpot’s reputation by shooting down its crazy theories. Finally, “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling) is a rather weak piece original to this book which uses more confirmation bias and linguistic ambiguity to poke some fun at John “C”ampbell and his love of “psi.”

While the last two of those touch on humans doing bad things with the atom or otherwise going extinct, handling that subject isn’t their primary objective. It is the primary objective of Ralph S. Cooper’s fiction article “The Neutrino Bomb,” Louis N. Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (a “playlet in one act”), and Chan Davis’ more conventionally narrated “after the bomb” story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug.” None of these are particularly successful as fiction though Davis’ is the best of them.

Other than the interior of a ship in “Learning Theory,” we only leave Earth twice and move to a supposedly alternate Earth once. That’s disappointing in itself but perhaps the most disappointing story in the book for me was “A Martian Adventure” (aka “At the Perihelion”) by Willy Ley (aka Robert Willey). I was excited because: it’s Willy Ley; it’s Mars; it’s a long novella. It does have some good discussions of orbital mechanics and such but, alas, to call its plot “picaresque” would be kind and even I, who usually ignore “social datedness” as irrelevant, was struck by the approach to (even low level) native life and the human woman. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of “man against the elements” with “Summertime on Icarus” was superb, being strongly plotted and making me feel like I was on Icarus myself. Both stories, oddly, deal with extreme heat in space. The alternate world story is Miles J. Breuer’s memorable “The Gostak and the Doshes,” which tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.

Of the remaining tales, Conklin bizarrely selects Isaac Asimov’s fantasy, “What If…” which involves a married couple seeing alternate paths presented to them by a weird guy with a hypnotism ball. Conklin defends the selection by saying it’s “completely charming” and that it’s “by Asimov.” Well, everything by Asimov is by Asimov and I don’t pick up Great Science Fiction by Scientists to read even completely charming fantasies. It is a fine story, of course, but not a great choice. Then there’s “Kid Anderson,” an android boxer tale from R(obert) S. Richardson which has another contrived plot and isn’t very good, and the sociological “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver which is okay, but not particularly compelling.

To recap, I particularly liked:

  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • and perhaps “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley

If you have a particular interest in the anthology’s subject, I mildly recommend the whole thing but, if not, hopefully you can find some of the recommended ones elsewhere because you probably wouldn’t care for the anthology itself.

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, added bibliographical information.