Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Warped starlight.

 Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science-fiction.
Zoë: We live in a spaceship, dear.
Wash: So?  
Objects in Space, Firefly
I've just finished reading City at World's End, a 1951 short novel by Edmond Hamilton.  Hamilton is one of the lost treasures of science fiction - a contemporary of the better known E.E. "Doc" Smith, his prolific work from the first half of the 20th century helped to establish the "thundering planets" style that typifies the early science fiction of the pulp era.

Over time his writing developed a more humanistic, insightful approach, as demonstrated in short stories such as What's It Like Out There?, The Pro, and Requiem.  Other strongly recommended reading would be 1966's Doomstar and his Starwolf trilogy from the late 1960s  - The Weapon from Beyond, The Closed Worlds, and World of the Starwolves. These four books beautifully combine Hamilton's epic view of the future with a more personal, character-driven narrative.*

City at the World's End shows glimpses of Hamilton's mature style, although it's still strongly reminiscent of his early work. In this story, the detonation of an experimental superbomb hurls a small American town millions of years into the future, to an uninhabited - and uninhabitable - Earth.  Scientists from a research centre concealed in the town manage to activate a distress beacon in an abandoned city, attracting the attention of a ship from the galaxy-wide Federation**.

Upon their arrival, the Federation's representatives offer the townspeople a double-edged salvation - they can save the inhabitants of the town, but only by removing them from Earth and transferring them to a different world.

However, a dissident crew member offers another option - requesting a dangerous experimental process which might re-ignite the fires at the Earth's core, thereby providing enough warmth for the castaways from the past to continue to live on Earth.  One of the scientists is taken by starship to the Vega star system to plead the town's case before the galactic Board of Governors: 
He would not show fear. They expected him to do so, they were watching him with sidelong glances of interest and amused expectation. But Kenniston clenched his fists inside his jacket pockets, and resolved fiercely to disappoint them.
He was afraid, yes. It was one thing to read and talk and speculate on flying space. It was another and much more frightening thing to do it, to step off the solid Earth, to rush and plunge and fall through the worldless emptiness.
He stood there with Gorr Holl*** and Piers Eglin in the bridge of the Thanis, looking ahead through the curving view windows, and a cold sickness clutched at his vitals.
"It isn't the way I expected it to be," he said unsteadily. "Only those stars ahead--"
He fought against the impulse to clutch for support. He wouldn't do that, while the bronzed star-men behind him were curiously watching him. 
Directly ahead, Kenniston looked at a depthless black in which fierce stars flared like lamps. The blue-hot beacon of Vega centered that vista, and up from it blazed the stars of the time-distorted Lyre and Aquila, crossed on the upper left by the glittering sun-drift of the Milky Way.
Only that section of sky ahead was clear. The rest of the firmament, extending back from it, was an increasingly blurred vista of warped starlight whose rays seemed to twitch, jerk and dance. 
The last 50 years have provided the general population with an extensive education regarding life in the future: androids, starships, energy weapons, warp drives, a plethora of advanced technology.  Anyone who has seen a Star Wars movie, any one of the iterations of the Star Trek franchise, or one of a hundred other visual stories set in space would be completely familiar with the view that fills Kenniston with such dread (although I'm willing to admit that the actual experience might well be more daunting than watching it on a movie screen, even in IMAX 3D).  And at this point, who hasn't seen one of those examples? 

How ironic that, with all the things that science fiction has predicted for the future, it would fail to predict its own success and popularity.
- Sid

* And I have to add that they're fun.  Hamilton knows what he's doing - he paints his interstellar future with a big brush, but he also uses a lot of bright colours on a huge canvas, and the result is dramatic, tense, and entertaining.

** It's not the U.S.S. Enterprise, and it's not that Federation. I don't think Gene Roddenberry was guilty of plagiarizing this idea - let's face it, there are only so many words you can use to describe a democratic political organization.

*** A hint for new readers of vintage science fiction:  if there is a character with a name like Gorr Holl, there's a really good chance that the story you are reading was written before 1960, if not 1950.

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