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The Rim of Space on Audio

Blackstone Audio have release The Rim of Space on Audio as part of A Galaxy Trilogy VOL. 4






















Philosophical Gas

Starboard Watch

A. Bertram Chandler

STARBOARD WATCH

JOHN W. CAMPBELL: AN AUSTRALIAN TRIBUTE - published by Ronald E. Graham & John Bangsund - distributed by Space Age Books, GPO Box 1267 L, Melbourne 3001 (A$2.00)
BILLION YEAR SPREE: THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION - by Brian W. Aldiss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. E3.75. A$10.10)
THE BEST OF STANLEY G. WEINBAUM (Ballantine Books)
THE LEGEND OF MIAREE - by Zach Hughes (Ballantine Books)

WE HAVE waited a long, long time for the Tribute to John W. Campbell. It was worth waiting for. Oddly enough I feel impelled to take to task only one of the contributors, John Foyster. Oh, I did disagree with quite a few of them, but on matters of opinion only. Redd Boggs, for example, although he was both entertaining and thought-provoking.(I have suggested before that he should be asked to contribute a column to Philosophical Gas called 'Port Watch' as an antidote to this column.) Redd has a Campbellian way with words and ideas. But as I said, it's the Foyster piece that has evoked the whinge.

Turn to page 57. Read the second paragraph. I quote: 'It is worth pointing out that in 1941 Campbell had reached the ripe old age of 30. and while his authors went off to fight the fierce Japanese attackers in such remote places as Los Angeles and Los Alamos, he stayed bravely at home, fighting the good fight at Street & Smith.'

All right, all right, John Campbell himself never came under fire in the literal sense of the words, but the work that he was doing was vitally important to the war effort. Good officers were six a penny. Good writers of manuals on sophisticated weaponry were as scarce as hens' teeth. And as for Campbell's authors being well back from the firing line - that's a load of hogwash. A few, I admit, were lucky in that respect, but most of us contrived to live through a long succession of near misses. (L. Ron Hubbard, of course, collected a direct hit, and went on from there to make a fortune by founding his own freak religion.)

Brian Aldiss. in BILLION YEAR SPREE, devotes a lot of space and time to Campbell. He has a chapter all to himself - as is his due. The book is extremely well researched - but not well enough. On receiving my copy I turned - as any writer would turn - to the index. The name of Chandler was conspicuous by its absence, notwithstanding the fact that stories by myself have been included in two or three Aldiss-edited anthologies. Bryning. Broderick, Harding, Wodhams - I looked for them in vain. (Actually Lee is briefly mentioned, but not in the index.) Insofar as I myself am concerned,I did find one brief mention. According to Mr Aldiss, 'ASTOUNDING, after the war, was a very black magazine. Its writers and readers -to say nothing of its editor: - were digesting the implications behind the nuclear bomb, its unlimited powers for greatness or destruction... Titles of late 'forties and early 'fifties stories in ASTOUNDING reinforce the point: TOMORROW AND TOMORROW (Kuttner). THE END IS NOT YET (Hubbard), THERE IS NO DEFENSE (Sturgeon), DAWN OF NOTHING (Chandler)...'

Oddly enough I can recall this title but not the story. In those days I'd open my copy of old Omar's masterwork (or FitzGerald's masterwork?) at random, find a title and then build a story around it. The two that do stick in my memory are TOWER OF DARKNESS and DISTANT DRUM, although the latter was retitled. by some editor who Knew Best. FIREBRAND. DISTANT DRUM - mentioned in a recent book on the Venus of the sciencefictioneers, FAREWELL, FANTASTIC VENUS -was all about a revolution on that allegedly watery world. For some reason I had in those long past days a thing about four-inch guns. Why, Ghod knows, as artillery of that particular calibre I'd never had the opportunity to play with during World War II. Six-inch, 4.7-inch. twelve-pounders, heavy and light machine guns from 20mm down to .30, a wide assortment of rocket weapons - I knew, well. and loved them all. But if I had to use any cannon in my fiction they were always four-inchers. In DISTANT DRUM everybody was shooting at everybody else with four-inch guns...

Talking of naval artillery, a very surprising omission from BILLION YEAR SPREE was Max Pemberton's THE IRON PIRATE. It is also surprising how many people I know have read that book, although some of them are very junior to myself agewise. I read it in my early teens. From the engineering viewpoint, at least, it was good science fiction. The central character was an ex-tramp skipper who, early in his career, had become imbued with a great dislike for the human race in general and shipowners in particular. Somehow he had come into possession of a very large sum of money. I could be wrong, but as I remember it, he won a lottery in some South American city, bought his own small tramp steamer, armed her with a couple or three secondhand machine guns and indulged in small time piracy. In pre- radio days this would have been far from impossible. Then. his ill-gotten gains having accrued sufficiently, he had a super warship built to his own specifications in an Italian yard. This vessel had a hull not of steel but of phosphor bronze - which meant, of course, that she would not have to be dry-docked at regular intervals to have the accretion of marine growths scraped off her bottom. She was driven by gas turbines - and the fuel for these was hydrogen: She was the fastest thing afloat. She had a shore base, of sorts, in Greenland, where a coal mine supplied the raw material for her fuel. She pounced upon hapless trans-Atlantic liners carrying large shipments of bullion, diamonds and the like. Needless to say, the world's navies were out to get her. Somehow the location of her rendezvous with a chartered tanker - from which she was to renew her supplies of lubricating oil - was discovered. and before the hoses could be run. squadrons of battleships and cruisers closed in on her. She ran for it. and would have escaped if the gas turbines, with their by then bone-dry bearings. hadn't seized up... It was a bloody good story, and the use of hydrogen-fueled gas turbines at the date when it was written certainly made it science fiction.

Another omission was a book called A MARVELLOUS CONQUEST: A STORY OF THE BAYOUDA. The author was French. I think, a contemporary of Jules Verne. I know of only two other people who have read it: one was the late Willy Ley. the other William F. Temple. I read it years and years ago, in my very early teens. when staying at the home of my paternal grandparents. In the attic were boxes and boxes of books that had belonged to my father. who was one of the early British casualties in World War I. There was practically all of Rider Haggard in paperback. There were stacks and stacks of back numbers of THE BOY'S OWN PAPER, which used to specialize in science fiction serials. A MARVELLOUS CONQUEST was one of these serials.

Even as a kid I could see the utter absurdity of the plot - and even now I feel the utmost admiration for the audacity of the concept. There were the usual slightly mad scientists -three of them, as I recall. They wanted to get to the Moon, but had decided that all the conventional methods wouldn't work. (A slighting reference was made to M. Verne's moon cannon.) So what did they do? They went out to the Sudan where, very conveniently. there was a sizeable mountain of almost pure soft iron. They set up parabolic mirrors for the harnessing of solar energy and melted the and around the mountain so that the magma percolated through horizontal fissures, insulating the mass of iron from the rest of the Earth. This simple feat accomplished, they then wound miles and miles of copper wire around the mountain. Solar power was used again for the generation of electricity through steam-driven dynamos and the current fed into the enormous solenoid. And the Moon, slowly but surely, was dragged by magnetic attraction down to the surface of the Earth.

And nobody noticed:

Very conveniently, there was overcast weather over the entire world - except of course, for a few square miles around the iron mountains; the supply of solar power had to be maintained, and nobody. apart from the scientists. saw our satellite looming larger and ever larger in the sky. There were. the author admits. a few abnormally high tides. but even they weren't sufficiently abnormal to cause any large-scale loss of life or property. The Moon hit. and the impact stopped the generators. cutting off power to the solenoid. It then bounced back into its original orbit. and like the comet in Verne's HECTOR SERVADAC, scooped up a hunk of Terran real estate - in this case the iron mountain -and all the equipment. some human beings, and enough atmosphere to sustain them. The scientists did some exploring around their mountain, discovering the relics of a long-dead, giant, but otherwise human race. Then, finding it rather hard to breathe and to keep warm during the Lunar night. they thought it was time they were getting back. They repaired their generators and constructed a Montgolfier balloon. When the Moon had dragged itself down to the outer limits of the Earth's atmosphere the balloon was aloft, tethered to the mountain by a mooring line of copper wire that was an integral part of the solenoid circuit. At the exact moment, this line was cut with an axe, breaking the circuit. The Moon again bounced back into its orbit and the explorers floated down to Earth. And once again, there had been overcast weather all over the world. so that nobody noticed anything untoward happening in the heavens. The worst of all this was that nobody believed the heroes of the story when they told their tale...

I'd like to get a chance to read that yarn again - but in all probability, if I did, I'd find it quite unreadable. I still remember the business of QUEEN SHEBA'S RING, by Rider Haggard, (Did the author realize what. he had done when he put his name under-that title That's a story that sticks in the memory.

Haggard

The usual Haggard white adventurers are in Darkest Africa, looking fora city allegedly founded by a descendant of King Solomon's girlfriend, Balkis. They find it and are well received by the Queen - a sort of Ayesha but without that lady's supernatural powers. She welcomes the strangers, hoping that they, with their relatively sophisticated weaponry. will prop up her rather unstable throne. As I recall it - I could be wrong - the wicked High Priest was aiming to depose the Reigning Monarch so that he could impose his own brand of dictatorship.

The city was called Mur. Outside the city walls was a huge stone sphinx, called Harmak. And there was an old, old prophecy to the effect that when Harmak came to Mur all sorts of horrible things would happen. including the downfall of Sheba's dynasty. The explorers decided to help the Queen by making nonsense of the prophecy. If Harmak were destroyed. they reasoned, then Harmak could never come to Mur.

(They were real twits. weren't they. Bert:
(Yes, John.
(Never read Macbeth in their lives, eh?
(No. John.
(You aren't making all this up, are you, Bert?
(No, I'm not: Get out of my article:)

Like most characters in adventure stories of that period (and like most of the rather unpleasant little animals in today's animated cartoons), they had with them ample dynamite. After all, you never knew when a stick or two might come in handy. The body of Harmak was already honeycombed with tunnels and passages. They made their way inside, planted a hefty demolition charge, lit the fuse and retired to a safe distance.

However...

When the dynamite went off. one of the main tunnels inside Harmak's body functioned as the bore of an enormous cannon. and the head of the sphinx as the projectile. And inside the city there was a low. oblong hill. shaped rather like a sphinx's body. Harmak's head, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, landed neatly on its new neck... So Harmak came to Mur, and the dynasty was overthrown, and the white explorers and their royal popsy managed to escape and make their way back to civilization with enough gold and precious stones to enable them to live happily ever afterwards.

Well, I'd been giving the everloving a lecture on Rider Haggard, telling her what a good writer he was and how he never dates, &c &c, and she, never having read anything by him, took my word for it. Then in our local library I found a copy of QUEEN SHEBA'S RING. I seized it, bore it home and thrust it into her hands. She got as far as page 6 and said 'I can't read this.' 'But it's good:' I told her. 'Can you read it?' she countered. Frankly. I couldn't. The foregoing story of my inability to re-read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid brings me (at last) to Ballantine's THE BEST OF STANLEY G. WEINBAUM. (I'd have thought he'd be mentioned in BILLION YEAR SPREE, but he wasn't.) I have tried to read it - with about as much success as I had trying to re-read Haggard. Some of the stories I dimly recall having read years ago, but only one. A MARTIAN ODYSSEY, had stuck, in a very half-hearted manner, to the memory.

I'm sorry, but I have to say that it dates, dreadfully. Furthermore. all the stories are what I class as stories by, for and about boy scouts. (The same can be said about Doc Smith's sagas, but he painted on such a wide canvas in such strong colours that he got away with it.)

The other Ballantine book - THE LEGEND OF MIAREE - is an altogether different kettle of fish. It most emphatically does not come into the boy-scout category. The author not only makes it plain that he has heard there is such a thing as s*x, but employs s*x as an essential ingredient of his plot. The writing is consistently good. Best of all. from the sf reader's viewpoint. the Sense of Wonder is maintained all the way through, from beginning to end.

Nonetheless it is a hard book to review. Great restraint must be exercised lest too many beans be spilled and those reading it thereby robbed of their pleasure. The exact nature of the Artonuee, with their complex life cycle, is revealed piece by integral piece as the story progresses. They area people humanoid to outward appearance who have colonized all five worlds of their planetary system, using both rockets burning chemical fuels and sailing slugs of Space. The Delanians, with whom they come into contact, seem to be human rather than merely humanoid, and are capable of interstellar flight. The two races join resources in an attempt to escape the doom that, inexorably, will incinerate every habitable world in their sector of the galaxy.

Zach Hughes, with his close attention to every detail, makes it all so convincing, and by implication, paints a saddening picture of a race, the beings from Delan, that could well be our own. Oh, the Artonuee have their faults. too, but although so very unlike us, they are far more likable than their guests and allies.

This is the first novel - and it is a novel - by Zach Hughes that I have read. I hope that it is not the last.
Originally Published in Philosophical Gas No: 29 - Feb 1975