Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Retro Review, Jack Williamson, "The Cosmic Express" (1930, 1931)


In the year 2432 (1), popular author and newlywed Eric Stokes-Harding is dissatisfied with the safe and artificial nature of life in the civilization of his day.  His wife, Nada (2) is in agreement with this sentiment, so they decide to travel to an untamed wilderness to experience a more natural life in the manner of the "thrilling action romances" which Stokes-Harding wrigtes.  Unfortunately, there are no untamed wildernesses left on Earth.  Where can they go?

Recently, the astronomer Kinsley has used "a new infra-red telescope" to penetrate the Venusian clouds and has discovered that Venus is covered by rainforests.  And, just a few weeks ago, Ludwig Von der Valls, a German physicist, has developed a teleportation system, which he calls the Cosmic Express. 

The conclusion is obvious -- Eric and Nada must away to Venus, to live the natural life!

With the help of Eric's rather foolish friend Charley, easily bribable with a flask of liquor (3), Eric and Nada  are zapped off to Venus, which indeed turns out to be a tropical rainforest similar to Mesozoic Earth (4).

Materializing on Venus without any supplies or tools, not even a good knife and some matches, Eric and Nada prove utterly incapable of even building a fire, let alone knapping the flint or mining the native copper of whose location they have absolutely no idea.  They are wet, cold and miserable, and become more miserable when the dinosaurs start roaring and the foliage starts shaking to the combat of gigantic monsters ...

Fortunately, at that moment they are teleported back to New York by an official of the Cosmic Express company, who apologizes to them for they actions of the (now) drunk Charley.  After making sure that Charley won't be punished for what happened, Eric and Nada return home, sadder but wiser.

And, after spending twelve hours in bed recuperating from his ordeal, Eric writes another novel for his publishers, based on his adventure but casting himself as a bold and resourceful hero.  And the book is "a huge success."


General - This story is of course a parody of the "marooned in a lost world" tale, in which the hero inevitably manages to conquer Nature and enjoy a rather comfortable if perilous existence, often winning the heart of a fair maiden in the process.  You know the kind of story I mean -- you've seen it repeated in endless incarnations.

His hero was likely to be an ape-man roaring through the jungle, with a bloody rock in one hand and a beautiful girl in the other. Or a cowboy, "hard-riding, hard-shooting," the vanishing hero of the ancient ranches. Or a man marooned with a lovely woman on a desert South Sea island. His heroes were invariably strong, fearless, resourceful fellows, who could handle a club on equal terms with a cave-man, or call science to aid them in defending a beautiful mate from the terrors of a desolate wilderness.

("The Cosmic Express," Jack Williamson)

Based on this description, and the time of writing, I'd say that the intended target of the parody was Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Everyone knows about Tarzan (source of the "ape-man" reference):  less people are today aware that Burroughs wrote a lot of other and more general pulp adventure stories, including Westerns.  At the time of writing, these stories were wildly popular, and generally available in various magazines.

Jack Williamson, of course, had been raised in a rural setting and was well-aware of just why it's difficult to survive in the wild without the proper skills, supplies and tools.  So he clearly decided to do a quick illustration of this in story form.  This is a breezy, fun little story, and the kicker of course is that at the end the protagonist, even though he knows better, decides to write to the standard form.

SettingEric's  future New York City is standard for the 1920's and 1930's -- much the same as it is today both in society and economics, just richer and with a more advanced technology.  This is actually not that unreasonable -- human cities have been much of a muchness since ancient Mesopotamia -- though of course there really would be more differences than Jack Williamson chooses to portray.

The Venus of the tale is also standard for the pre radio-astronomy and space probe era.  The dominant planetological theories assumed that planetary systems were made of material drawn out of their stars by close passages with other stars, which then cooled roughly from the outer edge of the system in.  Thus, Mars would be older than Earth, and Earth older than Venus.

The dominant evolutionary theories assumed that evolution followed a somewhat predestined path in which life forms would evolve from the simpler to the more complex -- "lowest" to "highest," and they wouldn't have put quotes on the terms at the time.  Therefore, since Venus would be younger than Earth, it would be more evolutionarily primitive, which meant dinosaurs.  Lots and lots of dinosaurs in steamy swamps and jungles.

Confirmation of this was seen in the cloud cover.  This was thought to consist of water vapor, and lots of water vapor meant lots of water.  Indeed, speculation was divided over whether Venus was an ocean world, with little or no land, or a swampy jungle, with little differentiation between water and land (as the pre-tectonics theories of paleo-geology often believed of Earth herself).

This is all, as we now know from direct observation, including spectotgraphy, orbits, radar maps, and even the occasional robotic landing, completely wrong.  Venus is the most hellish terrestrial planet in the system, hotter even than Mercury, with an acidic high-pressure atmosphere over an utterly-arid landscape glowing dull red.  More like Hell than the Mesozoic, really.

But in 1930, nobody knew this yet.

Technological -

The Cosmic Express - This is the centerpiece (and title) of the tale, and  it works by scanning the target with energy at a frequency higher than cosmic rays, thus breaking the object down into energy, and transporting and then reassembling this energy at a distance.  It can also work in reverse -- it can scan an object at a distance and then transport it to its own station or someplace else.  It does not require a receiver when sending, nor a transmitter when gathering.  To take Jack Williamson's explanation:

the method, in the new Cosmic Express, is simply to convert the matter to be carried into power, send it out as a radiant beam and focus the beam to convert it back into atoms at the destination ... The Express Ray is an electromagnetic vibration of frequency far higher than that of even the Cosmic Ray, and correspondingly more powerful and more penetrating. ... The beam is focused, just like the light that passes through a camera lens. The photographic lens, using light rays, picks up a picture and reproduces it again on the plate—just the same as the Express Ray picks up an object and sets it down on the other side of the world.

An analogy from television might help. You know that by means of the scanning disc, the picture is transformed into mere rapid fluctuations in the brightness of a beam of light. In a parallel manner, the focal plane of the Express Ray moves slowly through the object, progressively, dissolving layers of the thickness of a single atom, which are accurately reproduced at the other focus of the instrument—which might be in Venus!

But the analogy of the lens is the better of the two. For no receiving instrument is required, as in television. The object is built up of an infinite series of plane layers, at the focus of the ray, no matter where that may be. Such a thing would be impossible with radio apparatus because even with the best beam transmission, all but a tiny fraction of the power is lost, and power is required to rebuild the atoms.


Now, there are a number of severe problems with this.  The first is that super-cosmic rays -- which would be at energy-densities such that the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces would merge -- might indeed "break an object down to energy" -- thus creating a colossal mass-to-energy conversion explosion, capable of scorching a whole continent.  In fact, if you had the energy required to produce a powerful coherent beam of super-cosmic radiation, what you would have would not be so much a science-fictional teleporter as a science-fictional atomic disruptor, suitable main armament for a military starship.

The second is that the energy required to do this would be immense.  So too would the energy produced by the scanning effect, which would have to somehow be stored and then projected to the target.  Presumably some sort of lasing and hetrodyning effect is used to ensure that at the reception point the object is reformed.  The problem is that if anything went wrong with the process, either at transmission or reception point, the result would be the aforementioned colossal nuclear explosion, at either or both points.  This is not a technology I would want to see manually operated from the midst of a crowded city, to the midst of another crowded city by a drunken young man!

A third point, which may or may not be relevant in the peaceful world of the 25th century, is that using the super-cosmic ray as a disruptor beam weapon would actually be far easier than using it as a teleporter.  Most of the problems I've mentioned (save the power source, and for all we know they have antimatter, or given the writer, "seetee" matter) go away if one is trying to cause a colossal nuclear explosion at the other end of the beam!  It may be that such a thing would never occur to the ultra-civilized people of that far future time, but given human nature I wouldn't count upon it.

This is, of course, an early version of the concept that became the Star Trek teleporter.  It may be the first example of a matter transmitter in science fiction.  As such, it's interesting to note that it was invented by the author for the same reason (to avoid bogging down the story with descriptions of how his characters get to the alien planet) and it generates the same dramatic problem (assuming it works correctly, it provides a deus ex machina escape for any characters in trouble) as does the Star Trek teleporter --   As indeed it does for Eric and Nada.

Now, there are further implications of such a device, ones outlined in Larry Niven's "Theory and Practice of Teleportation"  In fact, this is an example of Mechanical Teleportation types 1 and 2, by his classification system, and leads to the following logical consequences (conclusion 3)

The Assumption: We don't need a transmitter. Our teleport receiver will bring anything to itself, from anywhere. Limitations may exist as to distance or mass of cargo.
The Result: Thieves capable of stealing anything from anyone in perfect safety. Such machinery was discovered by Seaton, and later by DuQuesne, in "The Skylark of Space". In practice, anyone who has such machinery is king of the world. If many men have transmitterless receivers, society falls apart. When society stops making parts for the machines, the machines fall apart, and everything starts over.

The Assumption: No receiver is needed. Our teleport transmitter will place its cargo anywhere we choose.
The Result: We can put a bomb anywhere. The idea was used at least once, in "The Person from Porlock". In practice, a government that owned one of these would--again--own the world. Two such governments would probably bomb each other back to a pre-teleport level of civilization. Presumably it could happen any number of times.

Given the assumptions in (1) and (2) you don't really get a society. You get a short war.
(Larry Niven, 1971)

While I'm somewhat more optimistic than Niven about the outcome, because it's possible that (in a sufficiently enlightened society) the percentage of people interested either in theft or mass murder would be low enough to be managable, it does imply that the government would have to carefully-monitor teleporation (to avoid problem # 1) and  be secretive about the location of its key facilities (to avoid problem #2).

Needless to say, Jack Williamson doesn't concern himself about any of these implications in his story:  he by implication assumes a fairly standard government whose methods would be easily recognizable by any inhabitant of 1920's or 1930's America.  And we can give him a pass on this -- this was the first story to feature a transporter beam, and it was a comedy to boot.

There's one other technical problem with the Cosmic Express as used in the story that may have represented a genuine error by Williamson.  He seems to have forgotten the speed of light.

The fact that the Express is able to beam back Eric and Nada implies that the company was able to watch them directly using the Kinsley telescope, and then lock onto them using the Cosmic Express beam.  This is the more unbelievable because our protagonists have no communication devices and are in a jungle, but leaving those issues out, Venus is never closer to Earth than 3 light-minutes

In other words, the telescope would see their position as it was at least 3 minutes ago; the Cosmic Express beam would then leap out to teleport them, and arrive at least 3 minutes after that, for a total time-lag before dematerialization of at least 6 minutes.  (They would then take at least 3 more minutes to arrive on Earth, but that's not important to the problem).

The problem is that Eric and Nada could move around quite a lot in 6 minutes, especially since they had not been signalled to await a pickup.  How could the beam be locked-in on them given this time lag?  I can postulate kinds of beams which could do this (through some sort of "resonance" with their stored signature patterns -- in fact a sufficiently-advanced Star Trek transporter could do it) -- but as far as we know, the Cosmic Express was not actually designed for interplanetary work (5).

Future New York

Below him was a wide, park-like space, green with emerald lawns, and bright with flowering plants. Two hundred yards across it rose an immense pyramidal building—an artistic structure, gleaming with white marble and bright metal, striped with the verdure of terraced roof-gardens, its slender peak rising to help support the gray, steel-ribbed glass roof above. Beyond, the park stretched away in illimitable vistas, broken with the graceful columned buildings that held up the great glass roof.

Above the glass, over this New York of 2432 A. D., a freezing blizzard was sweeping. But small concern was that to the lightly clad man at the window, who was inhaling deeply the fragrant air from the plants below—air kept, winter and summer, exactly at 20° C.

("The Cosmic Express," Jack Williamson)

The fully-domed, temperature-controlled city was a common feature of early 20th century science-fictional futures:  one of its earlier expressions is the future London of H. G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes (1910).  Williamson's city is lit

with the rich golden light that poured in from the suspended globes of the cold ato-light

which implies some sort of electric or plasma illuminating globes powered by an internal nuclear source:  this is not how we would do it today, but who knows how we'll do it by the real year 2432, over four centuries hence?  Jack Williamson did realize one important point, which was that the light sources would have to simulate natural sunlight in order to fully suit the inhabitants.

In fact Williamson was remarkably astute regarding the creation of artificial environments even as far back as the 1930's.  One of the high points of his "The Prince of Space" (1931, same year as "The Cosmic Express") is its description of the Prince's headquarters, a mile-long rotating cylinder "City in Space" which was essentially what we would now term an O'Neill Cylinder.

The Death of Nature

It is important to the story (because it's why the protagonists are so willing to embark on a solo exploration of Venus) that Civilization has pretty much wiped out all wildlife on Earth.  From the story:

Even though the whole world had grown up into a city, the birds were extinct, there were no wild flowers, and no one had time to bother about sunsets.
"There isn't anywhere to go. I write about the West, Africa, South Sea Islands. But they were all filled up two hundred years ago. Pleasure resorts, sanatoriums, cities, factories."

This is very little commented upon beyond this excerpt, but it's one aspect of that future which I (and I suspect many today) would find rather horrible.  The clear implication is that all natural ecosystems have been destroyed, and an immensely-swollen population occupies all the decent land on the planet, much of it formed into huge domed cities like the future New York.  We don't even know if any wildlife survives in zoos or nature preserves -- the statement "the birds were extinct" implies that they haven't.

This is clear Values Dissonance between 1931 and 2011:  in 1931, this sort of future would simply have been assumed to be the "cost of progress" -- today, we would find such "progress" horrible, and go far out of our way to ensure that something of Nature survived.  And it's only a matter of eight decades in our past.

Still, we shouldn't be too complacent.  The Sixth Mass Extinction proceeds apace, and while we've learned to regard it as a bad thing, we haven't yet gotten to the point of actually stopping it.  At best, we're merely starting to slow it down.

Plot - Man gets Really Bad Idea for use of new technology, drags Woman along with him, both nearly die because of his foolishness, but they are saved in the end by more competent offstage people in what is nearly a literal "deus ex machina."  A comedy, saved from being very dark, because of that ending.

Characters - Basic sketches and stereotypes, as befits a little comedy.  Eric is rash, overconfident and full of his own manliness.  Nada is the Sweet Sensitive Wife who is Loyal to Her Man, sticking with him through his really bad idea.  Charley is the Callow Young Fool whose foolishness is essential to advance the plot.  And that's pretty much it.

As I mentioned


This is a beautiful bubbly little story with some surprisingly deep ideas and very little exploration of their implications.  It's yet another example of early Jack Williamson -- flawed, but with a sharp style and hints of the greater writer into which he would evolve.

Oh, and Eric and Nada are pure examples of the kind of humans whom the Humanoids want to save from themselves.  I can't put it more clearly than that. :)

(1) Which, note, is almost exactly 500 years from the date of writing and even more so from the date at which it probably would have been published -- Williamson was here assuming it wouldn't be read until 1932.  This rounding tendency was even more common in the science fiction of the 1930's than it is today.

(2) Given that Jack Williamson was a native Arizonan and hence presumably aware of at least basic conversational Spanish, and that "nada" means "nothing" in Spanish, I suspect her name of being a pun -- she certainly does not seem to have much of a personality, or any common sense!

(3) Williamson is here implying that Prohibition remains in effect half a millennium in the future.  This horrible destiny was avoided soon after the story was published, with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5th, 1933.

(4) And with a breathable atmosphere, which tended to be taken for granted in 1930's science fiction, but is of course far from a safe assumption about an unknown world.  Kindly souls may choose to believe that Kinsley had already ascertained this with his IR telescope (as indeed he could have done so through spectrographic analysis).

(5) Though it might have been, perhaps unknown to Eric, Nada and Charley.  Perhaps Von der Valls was actually trying to build an interplanetary transport system, but went with an intercontinental transport service to fund his planned interplanetary travel program?  If Williamson's future is conservative about interplanetary flight, this might be a means of overcoming social resistance to the real plan.

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