BORN OF THE SUN: Adventures in Our Solar System Edited by Mike Ashley
British Library, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
This series of retro-anthologies gives an excellent overview of the history of SF by looking at stories from the past. The introductions by Mike Ashley are always worth reading, tracing the development of the volume’s subject and suggesting novels and other stories that fit within the remit. In this particular volume, he has selected stories related to the planets in the solar system giving the reader a voyage from Mercury to Pluto with stops along the way. Each story is prefaced with the scientific information on the planet as it was known when the selected story was written and anything that has been discovered since. Each story is accompanied by an illustration from Surles Autre Monde by Lucien Rudaux (1937), mostly showing what the sun would look like from the planet in question.
Although a number of the stories have sentient life forms, they are not, generally of the bipedal cliché forms. In ‘Sunrise On Mercury’ by Robert Silverberg (1957), the expedition runs into trouble as the alien life form, which resembles a pool of molten zinc, can detect and help facilitate their mental wishes. The conflict arises when not everyone aboard the spaceship desires the same thing.
While the existence of Vulcan has been discounted at one time, it was believed to be real. In ‘The Hell Planet’ by Leslie F. Stone (1932), the planet is exploited for its mineral wealth, especially for a precious metal fount no-where else. There are humanoid inhabitants, immune to the local radiation, and the story could well be treated as an allegory for the way Europeans exploited Africa.
Moving out from the sun, Venus has been colonised, mainly by miners. The background in ‘Foundling On Venus’ by John And Dorothy De Courcy (1954) is well thought out, but the story of a waitress finding an apparently abandoned child in the street could have taken place anywhere.
As a near neighbour and possibly reachable, there have been many stories set on Mars. ‘The Lonely Path’ by John Ashcroft (1961) has an expedition landing on the planet to explore a huge tower. This appears to once have been buried in the rock, but millennia of erosion have exposed about half of it. To gain access, the explorers have to solve puzzles. Sanderson gets the mechanism working and goes back in time to see how the planet has changed since the original inhabitants built the tower.
As Poul Anderson’s ‘Garden In The Void’ (1952) testifies, the asteroids have not been neglected. A couple of prospectors find an unusual green asteroid and, on an investigation, find it covered with a form of plant life that is adapted to live in a vacuum. A ‘Robinson Crusoe’ figure, shipwrecked there twenty years before, adapted the plants to provide him with all he needed for survival.
Once reaching the outer planets, the problems with temperature and gravity are acknowledged. There have been suggestions that if a planet cannot be changed to suit human life, humans will have to adapt. In ‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak (1944), humans are converted to gaseous, Jovian life forms to explore the planet’s surface. When the first to be sent do not come back, the head of a survey team decides that he should be converted and see the problem first hand. He takes his dog with him.
Ashley was unable to find a quality story based on Saturn, so settled for James Blish’s
‘How Beautiful With Banners’ (1966). This is set on Titan with the rings of Saturn as the backdrop. Blish is excellent at creating aliens as well as extrapolating technology. Dr Ulla Hellstrøm is protected from the elements as she collects data by a thin, transparent ‘skin’ developed from a virus as a single micro-organism. It is this which attracts the attention of the alien ‘flying cloak’.
Diamonds are produced from carbon under high pressure. One theory was that there could be asteroids that were solid diamonds. In ‘Where No Man Walks’ by E.R. James (1952), seams of diamond have been found on the surface of Uranus. Derrick Crocker’s task is to open up a new seam before the head of the mining corporation arrives. This is best done on the surface, and as a limbless man, he is ideally suited to operate the blasting equipment.
It is well known that metabolism slows down with lower temperatures. This fact is employed in the collaboration between Clare Winger & Miles J. Breuer in ‘A Baby On Neptune’ (1929). Earth scientists have made contact with aliens on most of the planets, but it takes a while to realise that the signals from Neptune are also much slower. The scientists who go to visit also initially have problems finding the aliens who have sent the signals.
On the far reaches of the solar system, Pluto was still regarded as a full planet when Larry Niven wrote ‘Wait It Out’ (1968). It highlights the problems facing explorers if things go wrong and they are stranded on the surface. Rescue is a very long way away.
This is an excellent journey through the solar system. It also shows how our understanding of the planets has changed and the problems SF writers have in keeping ahead of new developments.