Monthly Archives: May 2016

158. The Cost of Starflight

Whatever his faults, Saloman Curran, from the novel Cyan,  is no coward, as he shows at a news conference called when the USNA government tries to shut down the colonization of Cyan because of the high casualty rate associated with cold sleep.

“Chairman Curran,” the reporter asked, “how can you advocate cold sleep, even plan an entire colonization project around it, when it will result in a ten percent mortality rate. That seems more than a little inhumane.”

“A bit cold?” Curran asked. A grudging chuckle greeted his gallows humor. “Your facts are not quite right,” he continued. “That figure of ten percent is inaccurate.”

“You aren’t going to tell us that it is lower. We have that figure from NASA research.”

“Ten percent was the estimated loss for a five year cold sleep. We will be sleeping our people twenty years. We expect a mortality of 19.7 per cent.”

That silenced the room for a moment. Curran went on, “What you are missing is a lesson history has to teach. When the Irish were driven to America by the famine of the mid-nineteenth century, reliable historians estimate that more than twenty percent of them died of disease, starvation, or shipwreck on the way across the Atlantic. When your ancestors crossed the American prairie by covered wagon, they died by the thousands. Indians killed some, but mostly they died as they always had, of cold, hunger, infection from wounds received in their everyday work, and from disease. Influenza, tuberculosis, and a dozen other diseases that no longer exist sapped their strength and killed them wholesale. 

“Settlement of a new land has never been easy. It has never been for the timid. It has been for those whose faith in the future led them to defy the odds.

“And there is more. The Irish who did not leave Ireland, died in even greater numbers. The Americans who did not cross the prairie, faced the same wounds and overwork and diseases, and faced poverty and hunger besides. For all the dangers, the toil, and the hardships faced by the ones who went on ahead, there were as great dangers and greater hardships behind them. They went forth to find a future, but also to leave behind an unacceptable present.

“Look around the USNA. What do you see? Hunger, crowding, and death. What other motivation does a brave man or woman need to risk death, with the odds four to one in his favor?

“No one is being coerced. Every colonist will be a volunteer and we expect a hundred volunteers for every colonist we can take. Maybe a thousand for every one we can take. You may not have that kind of courage. Your viewers may not. If not, they should not apply. But the colonists who go out to settle Cyan will have that kind of courage.

“Will I find enough to accompany me? I will find a million who will cry bitterly that they were not chosen.”

Curran paused to adjust his jacket, with the look of a man overcoming an emotional outburst.

“To come back to your original question,” he continued; “Is cold sleep safe? No, it is not! But I will go to Cyan in cold sleep, and if I die en route, my life will have been well spent.”

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Jandrax 42

Among leers, the female is the more deadly and they almost always run in pairs. One always shoots the female and leaves the male.

Jean relaxed his forefinger and waited, sighting past the bayonet fitted at the end of his rifle. The male dipped his head, then tipped it back to drink. Long minutes passed, but a hunter must be patient above all things. The male moved back into the bushes and Jean wondered if he had erred and thrown away his chance. Time passed.

Jean’s caution was rewarded as the female strutted forth, her pink feathers iridescent in the noon sun. She was cautious. After carefully scrutinizing the area she dipped her head, then tipped it back. When her eyes were skyward, Jean shifted his aim slightly to cover the spot where she had drunk. When she dipped her head again, he fired.

The leer collapsed as the shot echoed across the pool. There was agitation in the bushes and the male burst forth.

For a space of four heartbeats Jean watched as he charged. Time seemed to hang suspended. Jean heard the insects buzzing nearby, thought of Chloe, of the warmth of the sun, and of the fabled toothless birds of other planets. He did not think. of his weapons any more than he would think of his foot or his arm. They were simply there, a part of him.

The leer darted his head forward, teeth aimed at Jean’s neck. A little sidestep, just as old Renou taught; the shock of contact as the teeth met on the hard leather shield at his shoulder; the shock of the bayonet going home; the shock of Jeans back striking the sodden ground as hunter and prey fell in a tangle of limbs. Then up, thrusting and parrying against that sinuous, deadly head. Finding the rifle torn from his grip. The sudden fear; the warm comfort of a blade hilt. The sudden overhand slash that ended it all.

Jean swayed on his feet, bleeding from a score of insignificant lacerations; his shoulder was bruised and painful. But the leers were dead, both of them, and he had been alone.

***

Anton jammed a section of leer haunch onto the stick he had sharpened, then held it to the flame. He had not made a kill during the day and he communicated his irritation through curt movements at the fire.

Jean leaned against a backrest woven from a living greenhorn and fought back a scowl. The hearts of his leers hung over the fire, but Anton had given no word of approval. Still, Anton was his friend, so he ventured, “Tomorrow your luck will change.”

“You seem to have it all. Besides, I don’t need luck.”

Jean clamped his jaws shut and started forward, then relaxed. Anton was ready for him to make a move. Anton had always belittled him, but never before had he actually goaded him. “What’s wrong with you, Anton. You act more like an enemy than a friend.”

Anton sat back and something seemed to go loose inside him. He smiled with no humor. “Maybe I’m just surprised that your luck carried you through so easily.”

“Like you said, luck had nothing to do with it.” Anton motioned toward the steaming hearts. “Two leers, one rifle. I call it luck.”

“What’s wrong with you?” .

He shrugged. “Nothing. I was just surprised.”

“Why? When have I ever shirked any task? Why should you expect me to fail as a hunter?”

“Oh, shut up and eat. You’re just strung out from the hunt.”

*****

This Anton is the patriarch’s grandson. The patriarch’s son, also Anton, now leads the community. Ugh, too many people, too few names. more tomorrow

157. Heinlein and Harriman

As a science fiction writer, I have many debts to Robert Heinlein. One of those is for his character D. D. Harriman, who is both the inspiration and antithesis of my character Saloman Curran.

D. D. Harriman first appeared in a short story Requiem published in 1940 and then in its prequel The Man Who Sold the Moon which was published in 1951and won a retro Hugo in 2001. There are two collections of short stories called The Man Who Sold the Moon, each containing both its title novella and Requiem.

The Man Who Sold the Moon

At a point in future history when government sponsored spaceflight has temporarily failed, D. D. Harriman decides to send a rocket to the moon. His motivation is not profit, but the sheer love of exploration. The technical challenges are immense,  but the political and economic difficulties are worse. He overcomes all obstacles, first by entrepreneurial brilliance, and when the odds become overwhelming, by chicanery. There is a cost, beyond money. D. D. Harriman himself can’t take the flight. There is only room for one jockey-sized pilot.

Having proved his ideas by the successful flight, D. D. Harriman expands his business to send fleets of ships and begin a lunar colony. But now his co-owners of his enterprise deem him too valuable to the company, and again he is cheated out of his chance to go to the moon.

Much later, Heinlein retold the story from another perspective in his 1987 novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Requiem

Decades have passed. Spaceflight is well established when an old man befriends a pair of down-and-out spacemen who are selling rocket rides in a decrepit, surplus spacecraft. He talks them into taking him to the moon, without letting the authorities know, and they agree. The flight ends in a crash, and the old man – who is , of course, D. D. Harriman – dies there, happy to have finally achieved his life’s ambition.

*****

The Man Who Sold the Moon is a romp and Requiem is a tear-jerker. The two halves of the story are stronger read together.  Heinlein had an ability to bring sentimentality into his story that was rarely seen in science fiction. It was either brilliant or sappy, depending on the reader’s individual taste. For my taste, it was brilliant.

*****

As I said at the top, Harriman was both inspiration for and antithesis of Saloman Curran in my novel Cyan. 1978, the year Harriman “sold the moon” is not 2106, the year Curran set the Cyan colonization in motion. Writing in the 1940s, Heinlein had confidence in the future. Writing through the last third of the last century, I was less optimistic.

Heinlein never paid much attention to overpopulation. When he talked about it, he showed that he understood its dangers, but he usually ignored it. To me, overpopulation is the central problem of the next century – which may well be our last century, if we don’t solve it.

So Curran is no Harriman, because 2016/2106 is not 1940-51/1978. Harriman was a lovable scalawag who would lie, cheat, and steal to get to the moon. Curran is capable of mass murder on the road to the stars. No one would write a Requiem for Curran.

But Curran is not without courage, as he will show in tomorrow’s post.

Jandrax 41

Thomas Anderson, whose views I often disagree with, but always respect, found the transition from Part I to Part II of Jandrax abrupt, irritating, and hard to follow. I told him that I like a tangled web, meaning that I like abrupt jumps followed by the information needed to fill in the blanks. I think his criticism and my response are both valid, but each has its drawbacks. If you tell too much and make the story too cohesive, a certain kind of reader will lose interest. If you jump around too much, another kind of reader will lose interest. It’s a judgement call.

It didn’t help that everybody’s names were too similar. That even confused me.

I could have written . . .

Two decades had passed. Children were born who knew no other life but the life that Harmony offered them. Andrax and the others passed out of everyday conversation, if not out of memory. The elders never talked about them, and the youngsters did not know their names.

A month after the others’ disappearance, Angi married Lucien Dubois, and six months later gave birth to a son she named Jean. Eventually, the patriarch died and his son took his place. Every other melt the herds returned, and everything in the colony came to revolve around their harvest.

It did not occur to me to write such a transition. In the seventies, stories were expected to proceed at a gallop. This is what I did write . . .

Part II
Standard Year 893 and of the colony,
Year 23

Chapter 9

Jean Dubois knelt near the icy pool and waited. Anton Dumezil was somewhere within shouting distance but likewise well hidden. The melt had been underway for a week back at the colony and they had trekked north to meet the oncoming herds; others might wait until the animals arrived nearer home but Jean and Anton were impatient in their youth. Anton was armed with one of the rifles brought in on the Lydia. Jean’s muzzleloader had been made on Harmony by old Levi-Stuer, the gunsmith. It was probably as accurate and powerful as Anton’s weapon, though slower to load, but the cartridge rifles carried an extra aura of prestige.

The wind stirred the lal bush with the soft movements of new growth. The melt is a glorious time, even as youth is a glorious time, for all the wiry, naked bushes take on flowers for a few weeks and then leaves. For a month the sun is warm (though the old ones who remembered Bordeaux complained bitterly of the cold even in high summer) and the world is green. Then the melt is gone and the vegetation with it, and the land is desert again for a season before the snows return.

The old ones complained that there were no rain and no clouds, but Jean found the idea of woolly things floating in the sky and liquid falling from it so absurd as to be unbelievable.

Across the pool the bushes stirred and Jean raised his rifle. It was a leer. They were not prized for their meat but for their skins, which were carefully removed with feathers intact. Anton had a jacket made of leerhide which he wore on ceremonial occasions. Very impressive. The leers were always the first to come with the melt, so Jean was unlikely to get a better target. As the creature worked its way out to the pool, Jean noted with some concern that it was a male. Among leers, the female is the more deadly and they almost always run in pairs. To kill a male with a single shot rifle was to lay oneself open to attack from the female. One always shoots the female and leaves the male. more tomorrow

156. A Prince of the Captivity

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott. He is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps, and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay. He also wrote A Prince of the Captivity which, for my money, is the apotheosis of the Hannay books.

Buchan was the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister. He had a traditional education, culminating is studying the Classics at Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for his poem The Pilgrim Fathers. His background suggests a man heavily influenced by conservative Scottish religion – which is about as conservative as religion gets.

His books bear out that suggestion, and none more so than this one.

A Prince of the Captivity

As the story begins, Adam Melfort is on trial for forgery. His friends, and there are many, do not believe his confession, and we quickly learn that they are right. His empty-headed wife has forged the check which he admits to. He goes to prison. She goes free, flittering on through her empty life, divorces Adam, and disappears out of the story.

Prison is barely described. A Prince of the Captivity is not a story about external events, but about what happens in Adam’s mind and soul.

In a typical novel, the previous sentence would be a reviewer’s signal to avoid it at all costs. Not here; the external events that forge Melfort’s soul are drawn from the toolbox of a skillful writer of thrillers. This story moves rapidly, with a few tedious exceptions, but when each part of the story comes to a close, the result, win or lose, means less than the changes it brings to Melfort.

Melfort is on a mission. His time in prison has pulled him out of normal society, and he now feels that whatever remains for him to do must be done from the shadows. He was an officer in the British Army, with a brilliant career before him. That is gone now. He passes World War I posing as a simple-minded peasant on a Dutch farm where the occupying German troops laugh at him, play cruel tricks on him, and otherwise ignore him. They do not know that he is running a ring of spies, made up of others as unprepossessing as he.

After the war, Melfort must find his life’s mission on his own. He leads an expedition to Greenland to find and save a missing explorer, then sets out to find leaders of quality to whom he can lend support. All those he chooses fail him, but he only moves on and continues his quest.

All this sounds vague and tedious, but it isn’t. This is still the Buchan of the Hannay books. The external events that make up the book are sharp, dangerous, decisive, and exciting. You could ignore the sub-text and read it as a thriller. The cover blurb on my copy calls it, “A thunderingly good read,” and it is. But it is also much more than that.

The Hannay books begin with England in danger, move to England at war, and end with England after the war, supposedly at peace, but not at peace with herself. World War I tore English society apart, and shook her certainty. The depression which followed made things worse.

A Prince of the Captivity, published in 1933, moves beyond the Hannay books. It reeks of discontent and hidden in the background is the sound of boots marching and armies mobilizing. Adam Melfort sacrificed his future to save his wife, and now he has to sacrifice anew. England sacrificed to win the Great War, and now it will have to sacrifice again.

Most critics were not kind to A Prince of the Captivity. I’m not surprised. Melding a thriller, an apotheosis of a personal moral code, and a vague prophesy of coming disaster is not easy. Perhaps it is not possible. Buchan didn’t do a perfect job of it, but he did write a fine novel. A Prince of the Captivity is my favorite of the dozen or so Buchan’s I have read.

Jandrax 40

Jan left the others in the valley and went out to hunt alone. He waded through the snow, at a disadvantage because he had not taken the time to make skis or snowshoes. There was much he did not know about the animals of the mountain forests. The trouble was that the planet had never been properly scouted. He himself had been acting as a colonist’s advisor, something a Scout often did if he lived long enough to retire. There had been no time for exploration. Every waking minute had been aimed toward survival, toward making a viable community. Now he would have to start all over.

Before, the task of survival had been difficult; to build a community of five men and two women would be impossible. They needed more people, yet none were to be had. Even Marie seemed half ready to desert. Only her loyalty to Henri and the rough treatment Helene had received kept her from it.

Early the next morning, Jan returned with the carcass of a longneck. He had eaten longneck meat before in his initial experimentation, but the colonists had refused it, even when they killed longnecks while defending their other kills. This was a scrawny specimen with huge paws, one born for the deep snow – clearly a different variety from the herd-following longnecks.

While the steaks were broiling, Jan gathered the group together to take stock. Marie wanted to return and said so. Henri said that they could not, now that blood had been shed, and Valikili corrected that there had never been any choice since Dumezil’s sermon. Marie was unconvinced until Helene told her what Dumezil had boasted were his intentions toward the rebels.

Valikili’s temper had worsened with his recovery. He was ready to wage unholy war on the colonists.

Jan remained silent at the edge of the discussion until they had exhausted both bile and ideas, then told them the story of Hallam’s World. He gave it to them straight, in full and gruesome detail, holding back nothing of his and Sabine’s parts in the slaughter. They sat in silence through it until he finished. “So you see what will happen if we return and what will happen if we try to make war on the colonists. It would be far better if we were all to die than for that to happen.”

“Then what should we do?”

“If we cannot rejoin them and we cannot raid their supplies, then we simply have to make a way for ourselves. Other rivers flow further to the south. We can settle there.”

“But we have nothing with which to make a settlement.”

“True.”

Sabine stirred the coals with a stick and looked sidelong at Jan. “You have something up your sleeve. Out with it.”

Jan stared from one face to another, wondering how his radical solution would be accepted. “Actually, I have two things up my sleeve. One – I think we went about colonizing the planet all wrong. We thought only of stable, permanent settlements with strong houses and proper fields. We harvest the melt but only in a most unaesthetic manner. We were too civilized to consider becoming nomads – following the melt.”

“Impossible! We would have to walk thousands of kilometers every year.”

“True, but not so many every day. It could be done.”

They wrangled the idea for an hour before dropping it. Jan knew that it had taken root; he would let it simmer in their minds in the weeks to come. He had turned toward his sleeping robes when Sabines voice stopped him. “You said that you had two things up your sleeve. You only mentioned one.”

Jan looked closely at Sabine, saw the same old carelessness that had driven him on in the face of enemy fire, and was thankful for its presence. Sabine was already convinced that Jan had the only answer.

“Sabine, we cannot survive unless we augment our numbers. No group as small as ours is viable.”

Sabine shrugged, “What can we do? We will find no converts among the colonists.”

“Converts, no, but children . . . ”

*****

This is where part one ends. Tomorrow’s post takes place two decades later.

155. Three Hostages and Island of Sheep

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott. He is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps (presented Monday), and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay. The last two of those sequels are presented here

The Three Hostages

Now the war is over and Hannay and Mary have settled in to a life of peace with their son Peter John. It is not to last. Three hostages have been taken from three of England’s leaders, and the ransom is their support of a program destructive to England. Hannay, against his inclinations, enters the search for the hostages. Much of the story is a series of chases, following various clues, during which Hannay is once again forced to work against the ordinary police to maintain his secrecy. Even when he finds some of the hostages, they cannot be rescued immediately. Unless all three can be retrieved at once, those missed will perish.

Much of the book is a satisfying look at Hannay at work, but there are also long, dull, dreary passages. Hannay first falls under the spell of the mystic hypnotist who is behind the kidnappings, then breaks the spell through deep personal stubbornness. His enemy is not aware that Hannay has recovered, so Hannay plays the role of sycophant, waiting for the chance to rescue the victims. It is a time of misery for Hannay; unfortunately, it is also a time of misery for the reader.

The story largely redeems itself in the last two chapters, which form a kind of long epilog during which Hannay and his nemesis come physically to grips in a Highland deer park.

The Three Hostages is the weakest of the Hannay stories, but still worth reading. Just don’t start with it.

The Island of Sheep

Twelve years after The Three Hostages we once again meet Hannay and his now-teenage son Peter John. Hannay is in a middle-age slump, no longer feeling that he is doing his part to pay rent on his piece of the planet. In that mood, he falls into company with Lombard, a man he recognizes as a old friend from his youth. He remembers an adventure they shared in South Africa, and the vow that came out of it.

Shortly thereafter, he and his son fall in briefly with a Norlander (Norlands is Buchan’s name for the Faroe Islands) who is on the run from some unknown terror. Then Sandy Arbutnot arrives with tablet of jade and a complicated story about the end of an old adventurer known to them both.

All these things come together as if ordained by fate. There is a lot of fate in this book, but don’t worry; fate gets our heroes into trouble, but they have to get out of trouble on their own. It turns out that Haraldsen, the old adventurer who scratched his last testament on the back of the jade tablet, is the same man whom Hannay and Lombard defended against an enemy during their youth, and is also the father of the frightened Norlander. The vow which Haraldsen (senior) extracted from Hannay and Lombard requires them to come to the aid of his son.

The son of the old enemy of Haraldsen (senior) has sworn vengeance on his son, the Norlander, and has claimed the tablet which he thinks is the key to the treasure the old man searched for all his life.

Hannay and Lombard, each for his own reasons, decide to help the son. The bulk of the book sees that carried out through many adventures.

More than any book in the series, this is less about happenings than about the motivations and emotions behind the action. Haraldsen (the younger) is vastly and vacillatingly emotional, shifting from despair, to resignation, to berserk rage. This is his national character. Of course, the Nazis have since made national character a questionable concept, but this was published in 1936. The modern reader can just think of these characteristics as Haraldsen’s personality, and read on without guilt.

The Island of Sheep is not the best of the series, nevertheless, it is one of my favorites. It has that “northern thing” that drove Tolkien’s work. Fate stirs the pot in the beginning and personalities carry the rest of the story relentlessly on.

*****

This is the last Hannay novel, although he also appears as a minor character in The Courts of Morning. Tomorrow, A Prince of the Captivity, which “reads like an apotheosis of the Hannay books . . .”