Birthday Reviews: Campbell, Haldeman, Laumer, Wilhelm

This week’s birthday stories introduce us to a giant spaceship, a giant tank, and two far futures. All come from the same magazine (under two names). One is by John W. Campbell and published by Campbell’s editorial predecessor (F. Orlin Tremaine), the Keith Laumer and Kate Wilhelm stories were published by Campbell, himself, and the one by Joe Haldeman was published by Campbell’s successor (Ben Bova). [1]

John W. Campbell (1910-06-08–1971-07-11)

“Forgetfulness” (Astounding, June 1937)

The people of Pareeth have created mighty ships and have crossed the interstellar void to arrive at a new world, but it turns out to be an old world, inhabited by people who long ago basically gave the people of Pareeth the gift of fire. But now these people see the inhabitants as sadly degenerate, being unable to remember how the great technology of their predecessors, called “the city builders,” worked. Still, there’s something strange about them… When the rising civilization makes plans to colonize the world of the degenerates, reversals and revelations are in store.

This story is initially short on action and, like many “Don A. Stuart” stories (the pseudonym Campbell used for the second phase of his writing career), it’s long on mood, description, and concepts. Still, it’s an effective mood, with fascinating descriptions (including a mention of “mile-long ships”), and wild concepts, such as the generator used by the city builders called a “sorgan mechanism” which nearly causes one witness to lose his mind as he sees that it is hooked into another dimension which has a moebius-like relation to eternity. When the crisis comes, the mood, descriptiveness, and conceptual power are retained while the action rises. The conclusion is clever and satisfying.

Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09)

“Anniversary Project” (Analog, October 1975)

Reprinted unchanged from a 2019-12-11 post.

One million years after the invention of the written word, Three-phasing has been created to remaster the art of reading so that he may enjoy the cache of books that has been rediscovered after being left for posterity in 2012. Meanwhile, Nine-hover has been playing around with a time machine (which no longer exists, but that certainly doesn’t end a time machine’s usefulness) and, using the books as associative talismans of a sort, she captures Bob and Sarah Graham. They’ve been recently married and were enjoying their last days of Bob’s leave before he ships off to the Korean War. You see, even in a far far far future world of amazing abilities (and telepathy) it’s hard to recapture the mentality of such primitive people and really understand what reading was like for them. By Sarah’s efforts, the future people get to experience her mind as she reads and she gets to spend more time with Bob. Then the story drives on to its smashing conclusion, fusing tragedy and comedy.

The opening of the tale is interesting and sometimes amusing but the far future, while not specifically derivative of anything, seems very familiar. However, once the 1951 characters appear on the scene, the humor and interest ratchet up several degrees. It’s the painful and hilarious conclusion that really makes the tale remarkable, though. Some might be upset by a possible perception of anticlimax, but it strikes me the other way, as a poetic crescendo which encapsulates “one of those things” in a way that touches on something deep. As I say, if this were just a “far future society” tale, it would be adequate, but the whole thing is firmly recommended.

Keith Laumer (1925-06-09–1993-01-23)

“The Last Command” (Analog, January 1967)

Unit LNE is a Bolo Mark XXVIII and a member of the Dinochrome Brigade, which is to say a tank that’s forty-five feet from top to bottom. And those forty-five feet are buried in a special “ten foot shell of reinforced armocrete” which is all under more than 200 meters of rock where it was buried after a war which didn’t defeat it but did make it radioactive. But when some engineers are blasting in the area for a Mayor’s pet project, a circuit trips in “Lenny,” he awakens, assesses the situation, calls on the memory of his comrades and the last vestiges of emergency power, and begins smashing his way out of his confinement. There follows a thrilling scene of his gradual angled rise over and up while panicked and mystified engineers follow along and try to figure out what they could have done, with various workers theorizing about earthquakes or accusing the others of continuing to set off charges. Finally, Lenny breaks through and believes he’s still at war and that the busy suburban mall ahead is an enemy fortress, a notion which is confirmed when the Mayor calls aircraft out to attack Lenny. With mass death imminent, one old vet is prepared to serve one more time and attempt to stop the unstoppable.

Lenny is quite a character, the massive AI battle tank is quite a concept, the situation is exciting, and the story has something to say about humanity, both good and bad, particularly regarding the things veterans often do and how they’re sometimes treated. There are several stories in the great Bolo series and this is one of the best.

Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08–2018-03-08)

“The Mile-Long Spaceship” (Astounding, April 1957)

A man wakes up in the hospital with memories of being on a mile-long spaceship and is informed he’s survived a bad accident but his wife is okay. Gradually, his condition improves, but he still “dreams” of the spaceship. Similarly, it becomes clearer that there actually is a spaceship and it does not bode well for any species found by it. The telepath and other crewmembers aboard try to determine the location of the mentality that keeps visiting them but their task is made difficult by both a vice and a virtue of the mentality, but they keep trying. It ends in a surprising manner.

I feel like I’m missing something with this one but, even so, the ambiguity of the opening, the very, very remote, ethereal, calm conflict, and the irony make this a compelling read.


[1] And from the Department of Statistical Improbabilities: With seven days available, all four birthdays fall on one of two days and each pair (whose first initials are pairs of J&K) is separated by exactly eighteen years.