Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Richness of Our Solar System

"The Richness of Our Solar System"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Most people, including most people who are in favor of human expansion beyond the Earth, don't realize just how rich is the Solar System.  They tend to look only at the major terrestrial planets and assume that the only place into which we can expand without interstellar travel is Mars, because there are only three such planets in our Solar System aside from our own Terra, and Mars is the only one of these major terrestrial planet not to be  far too hot (Mercury and Venus) for convenient colonization.

But even if we only limit ourselves to non gas-giant worlds large enough to be forced into globular objects under their own gravity, and have some internal differentiation (for ease of access to ores), there are many others just in our Solar System:  not only Mercury, Venus and Mars, but also Luna, Ceres, Vesta, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Titan, Triton, Pluto, Charon and Eris.  That's fifteen other terrestrial worlds in our Solar System, and I'm deliberately setting a high standard for "terrestrial world" -- I could set the bar a bit lower and add several other asteroids, moons and Kuiper Belt Objects.

The habitability of these objects of course varies (from Mars all the way down to Venus) and certain of these worlds have significant environmental challenges (radiation on the three inmost Galilean moons of Jupiter, cold on the three outmost Galilean moons of Jupiter and all the worlds farther out from the Sun, heat on Mercury and Venus).  But none are beyond the capabilities of our current physical science to colonize, and all are large enough worlds that there are certain to be valuable lodes of various minerals to attract our greed, and many mysteries to excite our minds.

The future is bright, for those who care to open their eyes and look beyond the current mess on Earth.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Worlds For Man - Part 0 - Introduction and The Sun

"Worlds For Man - Sol"

(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


This is an overview of the colonization and economic potential of the Solar System. In general when I talk about "Near Term" possibilities I am referring to throroughly known engineering; "Middle Term" assumes the possibility of considerable engineering progress and some scientific progress; and "Long Term" of vast engineering progress and major scientific progress. Obviously, the longer the term, the greater the speculation involved.

I considered doing it in terms of the rough time frames, but realized that I have no good way to predict the speed of scientific and technological progress. If you believe the most fervent advocates of The Singularity, we might get to "Long Term" levels of progress by 2050 or so; otherwise, I would imagine it would take many centuries.

I'm doing the system from the inside out.

The Sun

We normally don't think of the Sun when we think of space colonization, but it does contain some 99% of all the mass in the Solar System. Of course, it's hardly an inviting environment: at its surface the temperature is 5500 K, high enough to vaporize any substance we know how to make. This temperature climbs to 13.6 million degrees Kelvin in the core, enough to fuse hydrogen, which is exactly what happens, and what produces most of the Sun's energy (the rest being produced by gravitational pressure).

The Near Term exploitation of the Sun, therefore, centers not around colonization but around energy extraction. The vast majority of the Sun's energy, of course, is wasted from our point of view, because it is merely emitted into space without striking the Earth or any other worlds in our system. So the first thing we might do would be to intercept that energy and convert it into a usable form.

A solar panel in orbit at 1 AU (the Earth's orbital distance) from the Sun will receive 1.366 kilowatts per square meter of energy. If it were at orbit at 0.5 AU it would thus receive 1.866 kilowatts per square meter; at 0.25 AU almost 3.5 kilowatts per square meter, and so on (following the Inverse Square law for radiation).

Therefore, it follows that if we had a mature interplanetary transport capability, it would make sense to station our solar energy panels as close to the Sun as possible. There are, of course, tradeoffs: the closer the panel is placed to the Sun,  the greater the drift imparted by radiation pressure and the more heat it must dissipate.  These are both serious issues, as the former complicates the task of beaming power to the receiving-stations, and the latter risks loss of one's collectors.

Getting the energy back to the Earth or other inhabited places is in principle easy: one would connect the solar panels to a maser emitter, and beam the energy as microwaves to a receiver near where the energy was to be employed. The details of such systems have been long explored in both science and science fiction:  basically, one uses the reflection from the transmission to keep the beam on track and safely shut the beam off should it wander off-target.

Such an endeavor, once begun, would be highly-profitable, making it a practical project for any civilization which has reached the point of routinely sending at least robotic devices to the vicinity of Mercury, the planet most logical as a source of mass for the project.  Obviously, placing a crewed station on Mercury itself would be the easiest way to manage the mining operations.  More on this in the next installment.

In the Middle Term, our engineering and our materials science might advance, enabling the solar panels to be placed closer and closer to the Sun. If we developed a really good energy absorption and retransmission system, this might work as a cooling device for a spacecraft, enabling manned exploration of the corona and unmanned exploration of the deep photosphere.

One exciting idea would be the remote manipulation of Solar substance by means of powerful electromagnetic fields. Such fields might be externally generated, or might be used as catalysts to reshape the exceedingly powerful electromagnetic fields which the Sun generates naturally. This might enable the direct mining of the Sun for matter (mostly hydrogen and helium, but truly vast quantities of both, and even the heavy elements become significant when you filter enough Solar matter). Another application might be the generation of extremely powerful energy beams ("Doc" Smith's "sunbeams"), for military or engineering purposes.

In the Long Term, we might develop materials science (possibly employing generated force fields, or exotic matters) to the point where we could maintain organized structures at the immense pressures and temperatures inside the Sun. This would enable actual colonization of the Sun itself, though probably not by organic life forms: such writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter, and John C. Wright have imagined these sorts of operations.  Among the purposes might be colonization (by greatly-modified or uploaded humans in the form of exotic-mater machines) or the formation and extraction of exotic forms of matter creatable only under the extreme conditions prevailing within a star.  Another aim might be the direct  management of the Solar power cycle, to a variety of possible ends.

Next: Mercury

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lone Adventurers versus Leaders, in Space Opera

"Lone Adventurers versus Leaders in Space Opera"

(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

The greatest space opera epic in the history of science fiction, by most accounts, is E. E. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" saga (1). What sets this seris apart from many is that it is the chronology of a cosmic war, overtly between two civilizations -- "Civilization," descended in part from the civilization of Tellus (Earth), and "Boskone," essentially an anti-Civilization; covertly (2) between two ancient super-races, the benevolent, curious Arisians and the malevolent, power-hungry Eddorians. across two Galaxies and aeons of time (3).

Now, like most stories, it centers on one main character -- Kimball Kinnison (4).  However, it really is the saga of a whole war, and so in many crucial scenes he is an influence on, or even merely a witness to much larger events, such as massive interstellar naval campaigns.

One thing that sets this apart from a lot of later space opera -- though the idea was common at the time (5) -- is that Kimball Kinnison is not some sort of renegade or lone adventurer. He is a representative of and agent of Civilization, and much of what happens would not be possible if he did not have the forces of Civilization on which to call, lead, or persuade.

This avoided the major credibility problem of much space opera, which is the question of how and why one character is in a position of such importance to influence cosmic events. In the "Lensman" series the answer is that he has been appointed to this position: it is no more astounding that Kimball Kinnison should play an important role in a major space battle than that General Eisenhower should direct the Western Allied European Theatre in World War II.

Now, of course, the "lone adventurer" (or "band of adventurers") type of space opera, which is more popular today, has a venerable history. It goes all the way back to Edgar Rice Burroughs (though John Carter and the other Barsoomian adventurers, in particular, often acted as leaders or agents of Helium); notable Thirties and Golden Age adventurers included C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark, and of course, going back to the Twenties, "Doc" Smith's Dick Seaton of the "Skylark" series (6).

There is much merit to the "lone adventurer" story. Even grand space opera must focus on individuals, and hence there will be "lone adventurer" stories within the grand epic (there are literally dozens of sub-stories within the "Lensman" series, for instance).

But lone adventurers can only accomplish so much, unless they are given tremendous auctorial assistance (as was Seaton in the "Skylark" novels). An insistence on only doing "lone adventurer" stories limits the stories that one is able to tell (7).

Why, then, has grand space opera fallen out of fashion? The reason, I believe, has to do with cultural changes to the popular concept of heroism. Increasingly, since the Vietnam War, the character who is acting as an agent of a higher governmental authority has been rejected as hero in favor of the character who is either acting solely on the dictates of his own conscience, or who starts out acting as an agent of a higher governmental authority but becomes a renegade because of the dictates of his own conscience (8).

It is my belief that this idea came about because many writers feel that "the Establishment" of any Western or Western-like society has been discredited by America's (much-exaggerated) atrocities in Vietnam and that, therefore, the only real heroes possible are Bold Rebels Against the Establishment. In other words, nobody who is fighting for the Powers That Be can possibly be a hero.

Among my problems with this notion is that it is suicidal. We are products of our society, and to wish to tear down or fail to preserve our society means to change it into something that we would not find as hospitable. If we are dealing with themes of Man against Infinite Space and Time, surely preserving what we ourselves value, which (like it or not) is what our Establishments spring from (9), is all the more important?

Interestingly, a more mature, "Doc" Smith like attiude is often found today in planetary science fiction, particularly in the two major "Sea of Time" sagas (S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time, which features a villain in part inspired by Smith's DuQuesne from the "Skylark" Stories, and Eric Flint's 1632 universe. On an interstellar scale, the grand epic is now being done mostly by David Weber, in a series of stories that began about Honor Harrington, a heroine acting as part of a larger organization, and have moved far beyond merely her own experiences.

In modern space opera, the limits of light speed are often used to grant the character "lone actor" status. This is of course reasonable, especially over really great spacetime gaps -- who, after all, is going to review the orders of someone 30 thousand light years from home in an STL travel universe? On the other hand, it is less reasonable across short interstellar distances (the captain of a ship on a 20-year round trip to Alpha Centauri does intend to go home someday), and it is a poor excuse in universes which do have FTL travel.

Stories about leaders are, admittedly, harder to do than stories about lone adventurers.  Any leader has to work with his organization.  If he has superiors, and they give him what he considers mistaken orders, he must either follow them, work around them, or persuade them to change their minds.  He must work with his colleagues, which may mean playing organizational politics in order to get to do what he wants to do.  And he must persuade his subordinates to go along with his plan -- even if they are under his unconditional authority, he has to worry about sparking a rebellion or simply being ignored if his orders are too unpopular.

This does not, of course, mean that the character must be some sort of "cover his ass" bureaucrat who is unwilling to make any independent decisions. One wouldn't want to assign crucial interstellar missions to persons matching that description, and such would make poor "heroes," anyway. But even someone far from home can show loyalty to his own culture, society and government (10).

Nor does it mean that every space opera must be about Agents of Authority. There is a good and honored place for Lone Adventurers, and many thrilling tales to tell about them.

It's just that some stories are too big for a Lone Adventurer to handle. 

If we want to control our future, we have to take responsiblity for our past, and if we want to speculate about our destiny on the largest of scales, it can't all be about a single and independent hero.


(1) The novels, not the idiotic anime.

(2) Very covertly, as the Eddorians never catch on to the existence of the Arisians.

(3) Obvious comparisons in terms of scope can be drawn with Benford's "Galactic Center" and Baxter's "Xeelee" space opera sagas.

(4) Though there are two prequels (Triplanetary and First Lensman) which take place before his birth; and in Children of the Lens he shares the stage with his offspring.

(5) Edmond Hamilton originated and Jack Williamson also notably used this idea, often generalized as the "Space Patrol" setting. Its most visible modern manifestation is "Starfleet" in the Star Trek series.

(6) Leigh Brackett kept writing Stark stories to the end of her career, but they always had a Thirties to Forties feel to them.

(7) - To those which can plausibly be witnessed and affected by an at least semi-independent individual, or small group of individuals, which prevents one from telling large-scale stories.  Either the heroes have to be given ridiculous levels of influence, whether due to innate abilities or being At The Right Place At The Right Time, or the story must be merely a small slice of the event:  "What I Saw At The Grand Galactic War."

(8) - Ridiculous extremes of this cliche are the spy who has to wind up hunted by his own agency and the cop who has to be suspended from the force before he can solve the case: both ritual applications of "Outsider" status required to gain the moral advantage needed to deserve success.   The ritual nature of this plot development is clearly shown when the lone spy or cop becomes absurdly more effective on his own than he ever was as the agent of the organization.

(9) - This, I think, is the real reason for the attractiveness of the "lone outsider" hero.  All that is bad or corrupt or ugly about his society can be externalized and blamed on "The Establishment" or "The Powers That Be," while the hero can be painted as being above such flaws.  Yes, even when he's a Gritty Anti-Hero -- being such usually means that he is brutal or sleeps around or swears a lot (all, notice, hallmarks of his Alpha Male untamed nature), not that he participates in or profits from the social vices the author really despises.  (Heroines, of course, get the female equivalents].

It's a dishonest practice.  In real life, the flaws of a society's Establishment almost always spring either from the values of the larger society, and hence will be mirrorred in the hero's and (if the society is similar to our own) the reader's own personality.  What tends to be externalized onto the "Establishment" is not so much vice but failure, as in "victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan."  The very same beliefs and policies that all will take pride in and credit for when they work well will be blamed on shadowy nefarious politicians, bureaucrats and business lobbies should they fail.

It's one of the uglier sides of human nature.

(10) - As opposed to betraying his service oaths or employment contracts the moment that he runs into the "dilemna" in which his organization is obviously in the moral Wrong and its enemies in the moral Right.  Which begs the question of just why the character signed onto that organization in the first place ...

Monday, March 21, 2011

How Superpowered People Would Change the World

"How Superpowered People Would Change the World"
(c) 1993, 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior)

Introduction:  I originally wrote this essay in 1993, in response to my growing awareness that most story universes with super-powers did not attempt to explore the strategic and other effects which metahumans would have on them (1).  I then revised and published it at various times, on Usenet and most recently on Livejournal.  Here is its latest incarnation.

Powerhouses: These are the ultimate combat monsters who can fly, shoot raybeams, bounce artillery shells off their bodies, and have supersenses and incredible speed. Examples are Superman, the Silver Surfer, Miracle Man, etc.

Not all super-universes will have even one such character, and the effect of such a character should be obvious: namely, there is not a single thing that all the armies of the world could do to stop him if he was at all smart (2). This is because real-world weapon systems fall into one of two categories: powerful weapons which are useless against flying targets (like a Tomahawk missile) and agile weapons with small warheads (like a Sparrow missile). The very few weapons with powerful warheads capable of hitting flying targets (basically, nuclear SAM's) (3) are so rare that anyone with supersenses, superspeed and energy beams could easily avoid them and/or shoot them down.

Furthermore, real world political, economic, and military systems are centered upon leaders who are directly guarded by men bearing nothing heavier than automatic rifles. A Powerhouse could fly right into an enemy capital, grab all their leaders, and fly out again, kiling or imprisoning said leaders at his whim, and there is nothing which the nation under attack could do to stop him (4). How long would the morale of the victim nation last under such circumstances?

The only force at all capable of standing against such a being would be another Powerhouse, a Mentalist, or a really good Gadgeteer who could produce special weapons to take advantage of the entity's weaknesses (if any).

The effect of such beings upon the world would be that they would become the primary constituent of military power. No nation could win a war against any nation possessing even one such entity, unless it possessess such entities itself. Modern ICBM's, being unmaneuverable and highly vulnerable in flight, would be especially useless against a Powerhouse-possessing country (5).

Unfortunately Powerhouses, unlike ICBM fields, are sentient individuals who may have their own agendas. What do you do if your Powerhouse decides that he can run the country better than you can? What if he only agrees to aid you if you pursue certain policies? What if he only agrees to aid in certain policies? Where do you draw the line between the Powerhouse following his conscience and the Powerhouse dictating national policy? (6)

All this assumes that the Powerhouse is an ethical being. If he is ruthless and amoral, of course, he simply takes over. There is nothing that you can do to stop him, unless you have other Powerhouses or really good gadgeteers.

Bricks: These are big strong invulnerable guys, such as the Hulk, the Thing, etc. Surprisingly enough, these would have the least effect on the world. Sure, they are strong, but so are tanks or construction machine. Packing it into a human frame is useful, but not earthshakingly so. Their military utility is also limited. Yes, the Hulk can use a tank cannon as a personal armament, but so can a tank. Yes, artillery shells bounce off the Thing, but they do the same off a bunker. A real army (unlike the usual comic-book excuse for one) could simply use heavy weapons to annihilate such an entity, because, unlike the Powerhouse, he cannot fly or use supersenses (7). Thus, once localized, nuclear weapons or really heavy conventional arms (like some of the larger Russian ASM's) could be used to stun or kill him. Basically, Bricks would find employment as bodyguards, enforcers, supersoldiers, or in heavy labor, but they would do little to alter the balance of power. They would of course be greatly respected (or feared) by normals and probably kept track of by governments (who really wants superpowered mafioso wandering around?).

Energy Projectors: These are people who can project blasts of energy. Often they can fly or defend themselves with this energy. These people have some effect on the balance of power, in sufficient numbers. Being only man-sized and able to fly and project artillery-scale blasts while easily dodging AAM's and SAM's puts one in a position similar to the Powerhouse, with the important difference that, should a shot connect, the super is probably done for. Thus, Energy Projectors would find a valued role in any nation's armed forces, and would be more effective than the Bricks. If the form of energy projected was really unusual, they might be useful in medical and/or scientific fields as well.

Assassins: These are people whose powers and/or skills make them highly effective at infiltrating through security systems. Commonly they have superhuman agility, enhanced reflexes, extensive combat training, and possibly powers such as invisibility, teleportation, desolidification, regeneration, etc.

Surprisingly (as they are a dime a dozen in comic books) Assassins are one of the most destabilizing types of supers. The reason is that (as I mentioned before) command and control systems are highly centralized. If you are good enough to get through a leader's security and kill or kidnap him, you can change history (who shot JFK, anyway?) (8). If you can do this to your enemy in the middle of a crisis, you can disrupt his decsion-making capacity and thus derive a tremendous advantage.

The worst part of Assassins is that, by their very nature, they would be hard to monitor or control. How do you know that your Asssassins are really loyal to you? What if they come to dislike you? Is your insurance paid up?

Furthermore (unlike Powerhouses), Assassins are most effective if used unethically. A nation possessing super Assassins would be tempted to dispose of its opposition in a highly direct manner. Do you distrust the CIA now? How would you feel if Bullseye worked for them? In the real world one of the most important limitations on covert agencies is that traceless murder is actually rather difficult to commit. But if people like Deathstroke or Elektra existed, it would become quite easy.

Assassins would thus have a destablizing effect on almost every form of government, from dictatorship to democracy.  Dictatorships would be vulnerable because the decision-makers would be few and easily-identified, hence vulnerable to threats of assassination (hence, they would have a strong need for metahuman bodyguards); democracies vulnerable because the decision-makers, though numerous, would have to remain relatively accessible to the people in order to remain politically-effective, complicating the guard task.

Historically, the real-life State closest to the government in a paranoid conspiracy thriller was the late-medieval to early-modern Most Serene Republic of Venice, which had a secret Council of Ten above the regular government.  The very membership of the Council of Ten was secret, and the Council could issue warrants to imprison or kill those whom it deemed enemies of the Republic.  It was above all other tribunals, so there was no appeal from its edicts.  Even the Doges feared the wrath of the Council.

In a world with metahuman assassins, all Powers might need to develop such secret, "Majestic 12" like tribunals in order to prevent such assassins from destablizing their regimes.  This leads to obvious problems, namely:  How can you trust the secret tribunals not to seize total power for themselves?  What happens if the assassins discover the membership of the tribunals and thus influence them against the interests of the Powers the tribunals are attempting to protect?  What happens if the assassins take over the tribunals?

The opportunities for Story here are numerous.  Actually living in a world where such insane paranoia became sober reality might not be half as much so fun (9).

Gadgeteers: These are the brilliant scientists who invent the comic-book technology. Examples are Reed Richards, Tom Thumb, and Doc Savage. These people are very destabilizing (as the non Western world found out to its cost after the Renaissance). This is because the discovery and application of knowledge is the essence of change and progress.

Gadgeteers would do much to alter both the balance of power and (perhaps more importantly) the nature of everyday life in the comic-book universe. After all, if Reed Richards invents aircars, how long before the car dealers have the latest models? If he can build faster-than-light starships, you won't see NASA using Space Shuttles much longer. And if the heroes start playing with fusion power packs, who really cares about all that black gunk on which the Arabs live over? (10)

The point is that (unlike in a comic book universe) in real life an invention is rarely taken to the point of practicality and then ignored, if it is truly useful at the time. For example, solar power was developed in the 1910's, but at that time was almost useless in comparison to fossil fuel technology. The airships of the 1930's were impractical without modern weather monitoring systems.  But solar power, with more advanced methods of manufacture and better photo-electric conversion systems, has become practical, and airships may become practical once more (and in any case saw some of their role taken over by bigger and longer-range airplanes).

The effect of having gadgeteers in a realistic comic book universe would be that the society would gradually change from what we consider "modern" to what we consider "futuristic". In many ways this is the most fundamental change possible, and the hardest to sell commercially in comic-book form (11).

Mentalists: These are the people with awesome mental powers, usually at least telepathy and often including mind blasts or mental control. Examples are Professor X or Mastermind.

Mentalists are insidiously destabilizing. Like the assassin, a mentalist can get through any real world security system and reach a leader. Unlike the assassin, however, killing or kidnapping a leader is far from the worst he can do. A mentalist can read or control minds.

Ultimately, any conflict is determined by strategy. If one can read the mind of the opposing commander, his plans are laid bare to your side. Worse still, if one can control his mind, he can be induced to pursue a losing strategy (12).

These are but the most straightforward and least harmful applications of mentalism. For example, a mentalist can also function as an even more indetectible assassin, by ordering a victim to kill himself. A mentalist could also uncover dissent, murder the dissenters, or (even worse) order them to sabotage their own cause.

In a totalitarian society, the application of such techniques would render dictatorships unshakeable (ah, but can the dictator trust his mentalists?). A Mentalist dictator would be a frightening concept (WILD CARDS' Puppetman tried to become such a ruler). Even in a free society, the temptation represented by Mentalists might prove irresistable to the government. (What do you really think Johnson or Nixon might of done about the antiwar protests if they could have given orders to the protest leaders?). Of all the types of supers, Mentalists might prove the likeliest to take over (13).


Political power is ultimately based upon force or the threat of force. Even in a democracy, the power of the people is (however implicitly) based upon the enlightened realization that the people, if ignored, may rebel.  The point of democracy is to channel rebellion into legitimate and non-violent political action, achieving the effect of a civil war (the bigger faction wins) while avoiding the destruction caused by a real civil war.

This works well, as long as people are more or less equal in intrinsic capabilities. You may not live as long or as well as a rich man, but the basic sorts of things you can do are the same. He can afford a bodyguard, but bullets don't bounce off his chest. He can afford a gun, but he can't spray laser beams from his fingers. He can buy better equipment than you, but it's at the same tech level as your own. He can investigate you, but he can't read your mind. He has more political power than you, but not more than a whole bunch of common people.

This basic human equality disappears in a super-powered world. In such a world, military (and thus political) strength is primarily based upon the loyalty of super-beings, rather upon the loyalty of the populace as a whole (14). Thus, it is no longer necessary to maintain the loyalty of the populace through democratic institutions to remain in power. (It may be more pleasant, but it is not necessary).

Superbeings would of necessity in any system of government evolve into a sort of aristocracy. (Even in the existing comic book universes, this condition exists de facto: note that superheroes rarely get in trouble with the law over what are generally vigilante tactics). In a democracy, they would be the respected guardians of law and order; in a dictatorship, the feared elite guardians of the Revolution. (This status would follow naturally from their extreme importance to society: consider how the real world regarded men like Churchill or Edison; imagine how we would regard Captain America or Reed Richards) (15).

Eventually, the tendency would be for supers to become the ruling class (16). How could a normal leader inspire the respect of super powerful individuals, in a society that more and more regarded super powers as a mark of aristocracy? This tendency would be reinforced by the dircect utility of certain types of supers (Powerhouses, Gadgeteers, and Mentalists) in the acquisition and maintence of authority.

In hindsight this would be seen as just another stage in the development of dominant classes. Just as the emergence of Bronze Age technology led to the heroic warrior elite, so would the emergence of super powers lead to the modern heroic warrior elite -- the superhero.

And the new world would be born ...



(1) - Indeed, most metahuman universes reserve all attempts at strategic and social change to the villains, and make it the major concern of the heroes to stop them.  This is a profoundly "conservative" assumption, in the most fundamental meaning of the term -- indeed, it is literally "reactionary," since all the heroes do is fight to stop attempted change.

Admittedly, most comic-book villains who "attempt change" are doing so by force and with a total unconcern for human rights, and hence should be fought and stopped.  The problem is that the heroes almost never attempt to make meaningful positive changes themselves, even when their powers or skills allow them to do so in sane and legitimate ways.  Successful changes are almost always confined to "What If?" stories, and almost always Go Horribly Wrong.

The moral suggested by this is that we should all be happy with what we have and never try to improve the world:  doing so would be at worst villainous and at best counterproductive.  Needless to say, if we'd taken that attitude in 1750, we'd mostly still be working in subsistence farming and bowing to the aristocracy, and I think this would have been a very bad thing.

I don't think that the comic book writers are really that reactionary -- I think it comes from the nature of trying to do a long-running serial story, especially multiple such stories in a shared universe.  If, say, Reed Richards introduced private civilian aircars, not only would society change, making it no longer "Superheroes in the modern world," but also every other series would have to take this into account.  Far safer to restrict aircars to a small techophilic elite (note that not even rich men in the Marvel Universe have aircars unless they are gadgeteers or directly fund gadgeteers).  That way, nothing much changes.

This works from the point of view of managing the story universe, but it makes it very poor science fiction.

(2) - "Smart" meaning that he realizes that he is being attacked by people who mean to kill him and will not necessarily limit these attempts to a one-on-one duel at close range, so he doesn't waste his time standing around pontificating in range of weapons capable of doing him serious harm.  In other words, he doesn't act like a typical four-color comic book hero.

(3) - Since 1993, we've added ABM's and various kinds of laser weapons to that list, but both are rare, and even as of 2011 our present-day strategic lasers aren't powerful enough to do much damage to a Powerhouse:  at best, they could dazzle one.

(4) - Unless, of course, the target was guarded by a super-powered bodyguard team, as suggested by one commenter on my earlier post on this topic.

(5) - Yes, any version of Superman from the late 1940's on (not counting the fake Supermen from the Death of Superman arc)  could have single-handedly taken down a full strategic nuclear strike by the Soviet Union.  The most powerful version could have gone back in time and pre-emptively destroyed the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal from the moment that he became aware that the Soviets were launching; at a more normal power level he could have simply flown around really fast and destroyed the missiles with his heat vision or by ramming them.  About the only damage the Soviets could have done would have been by using Powerhouses of their own, or through covertly-emplaced nuclear devices.

I would presume that the DC Universe got around this by having the Soviets stockpile Kryptonite, or havin (several weaker) powerhouses or magic-based metahumans in their super-military, or whatever.  They also had Superman be remarkably callous as regarded avoidable deaths in Third World conflicts, under the theory that he "couldn't interfere."  My point is that in real life, Powerhouses would be major strategic assets -- and nations would thus be willing to expend major efforts to obtain and keep their loyalties.

(6) - To return to the Superman example once more, Superman was willing to intervene in some wars (notably World War II) but not others (notably, the ones from Vietnam on, though I suppose he's willing to stop Terrorist attacks on American soil, which kind of shows what I mean about the powerful impact of the politics of the Powerhouse on strategic issues).  It is not reasonable to assume that all non-villainous Powerhouses -- even all non-villainous Powerhouses (unless we define "dissent" as "villainy") -- would share the prejudices of the American main-stream media.  Nor is real life (or the verisimiltudinous "real life" of a science fiction story) always scripted by writers who share these prejudices.

Forgetting for the moment about the terrifying implications of Powerhouses who shared the prejudices of, say, the radical left or radical right, there are a heck of a lot of Powerhouses who would simply be (in the West) strong Statists or Libertarians, or even just conservatives.  Each Powerhouse would be an individual, each would have his own scruples regarding for what he would or would not fight, and governments would be willing to offer them concessions to sign them onto wars or other interventions.  So they would have an effect on national and international politics, whether they wanted to or not.

(7) - Comic books, like most other popular speculative fiction other than techno-thrillers or military science fiction, tend to have only a limited understanding of how actual warfare works.  Because the part of warfare which is comprehensible to anyone is one guy hitting, stabbing or shooting another guy at close quarters, and because that's the easiest thing to draw, that's upon what they tend to focus.

Real warfare moved beyond that a century ago.  Most combat, even with small arms, occurs at ranges where the combatants have difficulty seeing one another (in part, because the combatants are quite sensibly spending most of their time ducking behind hard cover), and the most serious casualty-producing agent of war is artillery, in its various forms (understanding airstrikes to constitute "flying artillery").  Thus, typically, a soldier who is killed or injured by the enemy in battle, is killed or injured by a bullet or shell or sub-munition launched by an attacker who he never clearly sees.

The Powerhouse is too agile to be effectively targeted by these sorts of attacks, provided that he doesn't do something stupid.  Most Bricks, on the other hand, do not move fast enough that they would not have to worry about being hit by stray artillery rounds and the like.

This gets into another aspect of real warfare ignored by most comic book universes, which is that a lot of weapons target areas rather than individuals, and that much of the danger of being on the battlefield is that one may be hit by this sort of area fire. 

All but the toughest Bricks would be in danger from, for instance, artillery bombardments launched at their areas -- even if the Brick could move fast enough to dodge shells aimed at himself (which is actually possible against sub-sonic artillery even for non-powered humans -- what one does is to duck into cover when one hears the gun fire, and one can sometimes even see the shell in flight), he may not be able to move fast enough to clear the target zone of a whole battery or regiment of artillery.

So even Bricks, if they wanted to stay alive on a battlefield, would spend a lot of time crouching or lying in foxholes, trenches, or bunkers.  And even Bricks would sometimes fall victim to stray shells.  If they had no buddies around, even being knocked unconscious might be fatal, because if the enemy won or held the ground, the unconscious Brick could be killed or captured.  There's one good reason for Sidekicks!

(8) - Lee Harvey Oswald, in the real world.  But in a world with metahumans, there would be many ways for someone else to be the real culprit. Disguises, clones, mind control, robots, solid holograms ... you name it, some supervillain's done it.

(9) - An obvious, and highly unpleasant, possibility is that large States collapse, and we see a return to city-states and mercenary armies, because it becomes too difficult to trust in one's own chains of command and political authority.  If you suspect that the President is being secretly controlled by a Majestic 12 tribunal, or worse by an organized criminal conspiracy which has taken over such a tribunal, what motive is there for obedience other than fear of his power?  And what happens when whole groups of states or provinces thus stop following his orders.  It could be worse than the American Civil War, because the leaders of all the smaller Powers which emerged would be likewise vulnerable to the assassins, resulting in further fragmentation of authority.

(10) - By the same token, if a new technology  requires a rare resource, other countries may benefit by the chance of that resource being present under their soil.  For instance, if tellurium becomes vital to the new Solardyne 90% photo-electric cells which have revolutionized international power production and rendered coal plants obsolete, then not only America and Canada (which one thinks of as both wealthy and resource-rich countries)  but Peru (resource-rich but poor) and Japan (rich but resource-poor) will benefit and become more important on the world stage owing to the bonanzas of tellurium beneath their soil.

(11) - In part because of the secondary effects, both economic and social. 

For instance, if aircars become cheap and controllable enough that they can be as common as groundcars are today, this creates vast changes in society.  If the aircars can cruise at (say) 300 mph, as opposed to a groundcar's 60 mph, workers can now commute over distances about 5 times as great as they do today:  300 miles, as opposed to 60.  Greater metropolitan areas can now extend over several medium-sized states -- New York City's would now cover all New York State and divide New Jersey with Philadelphia's and Connecticut and Massachusetts with Boston.

Over such vast areas, it is no longer necessary for residential housing to cover any but a tiny amount of the land.  This means that large areas can be allowed to slip back into a natural state:  the workers can now live either in large apartments in very large residential developments (my "milespires"), or in very large private homes (essentially, small mansions), which become cheaper because of the immense expansion of acreage which is now functionally "suburban" or "exurban."  Private home ownership increases and extends down the income ladder, leading to further social and political change.

Widespread aircar ownership also changes the nature of border and offshore patrols.  The border patrol now needs, essentially, squadrons of fighters and gunships in order to prevent smugglers from simply flying over the borders in aircraft that are now incredibly cheap and flying near the borders in large numbers.  Police have an "eye in the sky" presence dwarfing that of modern police helicopter forces; by the same token, so do the criminal gangs they oppose.  As E. E. "Doc" Smith pointed out in his Lensman series, increased police and criminal mobility requires expansions of jurisdiction and the deployment of special inter-jurisdictional police forces, else the criminals can simply commit crimes in one state or country and flee to the next.  Interpol acquires arrest authorities, or is replaced by some more trustworthy Western-centered force with similar powers.

And so on, and so on.  Thinking about these sort of secondary consequences is what science-fiction writers do all the time:  it's what comic-book writers try not to do, because one soon winds up with a very different kind of society than that of contemporary Earth.  Which is why Status Quo is God is most comic books.

(12) - Take everything I said in note # 9 about metahuman assassins, and increase it by at least a full order of magnitude.  Mentalists are among the worst enemies one can possibly have, as a skilled-enough mentalist can destroy your perception of reality or, on a national or international scale, take over organizations from the top down.

(13) - And worse -- even more than in the case of the assassins, one might not ever realize that a Mentalist had taken over.  If he avoided the most obvious and distracting temptations, he might rule for decades without even his victims being aware of what was going on.  Unlike the case of the super-Assassin takeover, there wouldn't even have to be a trail of corpses.

(14) - This is the more true given the fewer the number and the greater the power per capita of the metahumans.

If metahumans are many but not too powerful individually, then they are unlikely to act in concert to cause political change, unless forced to by some sort of persecution campaign directed toward them by the normals.  What's more, as long as they are not cast out of society, metahumans if numerous will tend to politically sympathize with their groups of origin (white, black, Catholic, Protestant, male, female, etc.) or adoption (computer programmers, science fiction fans, businessmen, etc.) more than with metahumans as a community. 

But if metahumans are few but powerful, they will be socially-isolated even if admired, hence tend to seek other metahumans for companionship.  What's more, the decision of each metahuman will become more individually-important.  In an extreme case (just one metahuman, but at Superman power levels) it would be very difficult to prevent him from becoming de facto Ruler of the World, even if he cherished no such ambition!

(15) - I briefly discussed in my previous essay on metahumans why attempting to oppress metahumans as a class (the "Genosha Solution") would be a very bad idea, especially for a Power which was but one in an international system of many Powers.  In fact I don't think it would work even for a dominant Power -- if (say) the United States tried this in reality, they would merely be handing over world dominance to some more tolerant Power to which the American metahumans would then for obvious reasons emigrate.

(16) - For different values of "ruling class" in different societies.  The more free and open the society to begin with, and the more it originally accepted and attempted to work with rather than oppress the metahumans when they appeared, the greater the chance that "metahuman" would merely become seen as a socially-positive attribute, tending to make one rise in society; as opposed to a source of ascribed and legally-enforcable status.

A country such as America or Canada, for instance, might manage to maintain a reasonable degree of liberty and status for normals after the social transition.  Countries such as Argentina or Romania would do less well, with either specially high social status for metahumans, immunities from prosecution for some crimes and the like; or specially low social status for metahumans, and consequently a tendency to be pushed around by countries better able to attract metahumans.

Naked dictatorships such as those in most of the Mideast and Africa would probably wind up either persecuting local metahumans (and getting the crap kicked out of them on a regular basis by countries which didn't persecute metahumans) or directly ruled by the metahumans as an aristocracy.  Possibly with fluctuations between the two conditions, taking the form of horrendously-violent rebellions, revolutions and civil wars.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Metahumans as Ultimate Weapons

"Metahumans as Ultimate Weapons,"
(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

I was recently considering the way in which comic book universes handle the issue of metahumans and warfare, or more precisely fail to handle this issue. Specifically, the case was World War II, and Superman's inability to win the war for the Allies. The excuse in that continuity was that Hitler had the Spear of Destiny (the blade that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross), while the Japanese had the Holy Grail: each of these mystical artifacts somehow neutralized Superman's power (because he is vulnerable to magic).

Which doesn't really make sense. Sure, either of these might be dangerous to Superman were he physically in their presence. But it's difficult to see how the mages of either the Nazis or the Shinto priests could be so incredibly powerful as to be able to protect all Axis forces, all over the planet against the Big S -- and yet not powerful enough to do anything significant against the Allies offensively with their Arcane Powers. This was clearly a hasty attempt at papering over a major gaping hole in their universe's logic.

But of course this is a more specific case of a more general problem in comic books. In universes where there are metahumans at the power levels of even Spiderman, let alone Superman, there is no logical reason why they would not be the primary instruments of state power, the most valued members of any national armed forces, indeed, why they would not become a new "warrior aristocracy" whose battles, rather than those of ordinary humans, decided the fates of empires. And in the long run, becoming an aristocracy in other ways, for instance enjoying special legal privileges and exemptions.

I have heard explanations of how this could be avoided. None of them hold water. For instance, while it's true that a particular nation might decide to avoid using them in this role, or choose a means of recruiting them so ham-handed that most metahumans powerful enough to make a difference refused to join and could make their refusals stick, the problem is that all it would take would be for one Great Power to discover a competent means of recruiting and employing metahumans, and other Great Powers would be forced to either follow suit or be reduced to Minor Power status. It's like the issue of gunpowder in the Late Middle Ages -- the nobles and knights would have been happier had it never been discovered, but once it was a reality, any state which eschewed its usage was quickly reduced to irrelevance. Historically, gentleman's agreements to avoid using truly effective weapons and tactics are not Evolutionarily Stable Solutions.

I've also heard it argued that metahumans aren't really powerful enough to make a difference. While it's true that the typical metahuman, or even team of metahumans, is not powerful enough to defeat the entire military establishment of a Great Power in pitched battle, this is of course not how one would employ them -- the objection is about as irrelevant as pointing out that siege bombards are useless as light cavalry. Metahuman teams would be used as extremely powerful special forces, offering the hitting force of a whole airborne division transportable like a normal infantry squad. They would be tasked against enemy strategic targets (such as nuclear weapons production facilities), chokepoints (key tunnels and bridges, supply depots) and commanders (such as the President of the enemy state). Most of the armed forces of the targeted Great Power would watch helplessly as the highly mobile superteams went in, wrought amazingly precise destruction to vital facilities, and went out. Think of it as airmobility on steroids.

And besides, in the case of the Marvel or DC Universe, there are superteams powerful enough to take on, in pitched combat, the entire armed forces of lesser Great Powers, such as Britain or India, assuming that these armed forces lacked metahuman support. The Justice League, of course, is the prime example. (Indeed, there are single metahumans in both the Marvel and DC Universe capable of casually destroying the whole human race, but they rarely intervene in human affairs -- Galactus or Morpheus are not available for hire as a mercenaries!)

Indeed, normal metahuman teams could be used in pitched battle, if used carefully. The metahumans would be used to reinforce a striking spearhead or threatened salient, and would be extensively supported by friendly normal-human forces. The friendly forces would make sure that the enemy couldn't sneak up on the flanks of the metahumans while the metahumans would make sure that any heavy weapons support (tanks, heavy artillery, airplanes) which the enemy tried to use would be swiftly neutralized. This is precisely how main battle tanks are used in real-world combat, except that some metahumans are much tougher even in a slugfest than any main battle tank ever really constructed.

The final argument often used is that all Powers would recruit metahumans in rough proportion to their non-metahuman strength, so the world order would not be markedly different. While the first part might well be true, what this misses is that the social structure of the Powers which did this would be changed by the compromises -- either with the metahumans or with their own political cultures -- which they would have to make to do this. Either the metahumans would have to be bribed with perks and at least tacit privileges, in which case they would be on their way to evolving into an aristocracy (are you really going to lose the power of Megadeathbeam Man because you want to put him in prison for non-fatally beating up innocent Joe Average?), or they would have to be forcibly pressed into service (how safe is innocent Joe Average from being enslaved by his own government if they create an impressment service capable of forcing Megadeathbeam Man to work for them against his will?). Think about how the switch from heavy infantry to heavy cavalry in the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Medieval Era affected society, and then reflect that the advantage possessed by (say) The Thing over ordinary troops is far greater than that possessed by pre-industrial heavy horse over heavy foot.

In short, metahumans would change the world, if they existed. And it's a shame that very little science fiction has seriously explored the implications, because most commercial comic books can't -- they NEED an "everything's normal" type world in order to hook the mundanes in to read them.  

This is an inherent weakness of the mass-produced long-running contemporary world fantastic fiction form:  you can see the same effect working in, say, Doc Savage or Tarzan, in which the wondrous inventions of Dr. Clark Savage Jr. or the amazing discoveries of Lord Greystoke have absolutely no effect on the world of the early to mid 20th century, outside their battles against villains.  This produces an (unintentionally) weird effect if one reads many of them in succession, because they don't even cause the changes one might expect because the protagonist was aiming to cause them (or his aims would obviously tend to produce them as a secondary effect).

For instance, "Doc" Savage supposedly fights habitual criminals, but there seems to be an unending supply of them:  organized criminal gangs are still able to operate in his city; he also does war research for the Allies, but none of his advanced weapons technology, such as his lightweight bulletproof vests or mercy bullets, are ever put into production and used on the battlefield.  Tarzan aids various explorers and scientists, but none of the lost cities or forgotten technologies they discover ever become public knowledge (ERB being a better writer than the collective "Lester Dent", Burroughs justified this by specific decisions on the parts of the characters involved).

This doesn't have to be a weakness of non-long-running serial written science fiction, however.  Science fiction writers could explore the possibilities of superpowered metahumans emerging in society.  It's even been done, though only with very limited sets of powers, such as in Anne McCaffrey's Pegasus series (about the emergence of the psionically-gifted in a near- to mid-term future world).  But it's not done very often, and rarely if ever with multiple metahumans of a typical comic-book hero power level range.  Usually, when that scenario is imagined, it's done ironically rather than seriously, with genre conventions in full effect.

It would be interesting to see it done seriously, and sans genre conventions, someday.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tyrannosaurus Regina

"Tyrannosaurus Regina"
(c) 2011 by Yael R. Dragwyla

Underneath the Moon she stands,
Upon a plain of silvered moss
And ink-black pools of rocky earth,
Gazing wistfully up at the Milky Way.
Two more females and a male of her kind
Lie sprawled upon the warm, weedy ground,
Dreaming strange dreams beneath the Summer Moon
Or twitching in a sentient sleep,
Working out strategies,
Preparing for the coming day,
Chasing and catching,
Clutching and killing,
Engaging in battles
Of rough-skinned display
And contests of dance
And bellowing song,
Exchanging current gossip
And catechized history,
Weaving sleep’s hot webs
Of vast, vital being.

The dawn will pick out
On her pebbled skin
Bars of maroon
On a background of jet,
And patches of pink
At throat, chest, and wrist:
Her nation’s flag
And her genealogy.
But now she is midnight
And pale gray cloud,
The Moon’s star-flecked mucus
Covering her
With a wet, shiny glow
Soft and damp as a pearl,
Mutely lustrous
As new-sown sperm.
She sighs softly skyward
And lifts her hands slightly,
A prayer to a God
And for what, she knows not;
Then slowly she sinks
To the Summer-warmed earth,
To dream in more knowledge
From professorial stars.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Milespires and the Rebirth of the Environment

"Milespires and the Rebirth of the Environment"
(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Here's the way I envision the residential patterns of about 100-200 years hence.

Most people live in very large structures -- what has been termed "arcologies" -- which are big enough to contain their own major utilities. The typical design of such an arcology would be a tower, perhaps a mile high (*) and a mile and a half deep: the reason being to minimize the footprint of the building on the land.

Each tower is powered by its own generator: depending on the era and technological assumptions either a fission or fusion reactor, which is built into the lower sub-basements. It may or may not be connected to the grid, depending on era, technological assumptions, and geography. It also contains its own waterworks, etc.

Because most everyday goods are by this time made by programmable fab-printers, and because a tower this large with that much energy can fairly easily synthesize its own food, there is not much need for bulk deliveries. Consequently, the tower doesn't need much in the way of cargo support: what's needed can generally be flown in.

Each resident of the arcology has a very large amount of space. Even if we assume that none of the subterranean part of the tower is fit for normal residential use, and that half of the above-ground part of the tower is reserved for structural systems (such as girders), support systems (such as elevators) and commerce, that leaves about 2500 feet of tower for residential purposes: at 20 feet per floor(allowing split-level apartments) if the mile-high tower is roughly a quarter-mile by a quarter mile, there will be 125 residential floors, each comprising about 1.5 million square feet, for a total of about 187 million square feet of living space (and this isn't a very efficient tower design, I'm making very conservative assumptions). If 10 thousand people live in the tower, that's 18,700 square feet of 20-foot vertical room per person, or the equivalent of a two-story house 187 by 100 feet, which I think most people would find quite ample! (**)

Now note: this is the equivalent of a small town, but its area footprint is only a quarter-mile on a side, which is more like the extent of a small town's business district. And it does not require an extensive road and rail network to support it, because physical commuting is done by aircar and most goods transport by airtruck. It recycles most of its gases and liquids, and its power source is clean. Its ecological impact (aside from its shadow, which moves as the day goes on) is far less than that of a modern-day 10,000-person town.

These milespires might be all over the place, but separated by miles of intervening distance, providing ample room both for air traffic andfor ecological purposes. Most of the ground between them, including abandoned old-style towns, might become a wilderness preserve -- in North America, much of it a vast forest or prairie, into which the Pleistocene megafauna would be allowed to return. In other places, other megafaunal populations could be brought back.

With far less geographical footprint and an economy based on relatively non-polluting energy sources, means of production and recycling of wastes, the Earth could heal from the birth-pains of the human Industrial Revolution.  As space elevators rose at the equator, and mining and heavy industry moved offworld, the Earth would once again become a garden, to be enjoyed by its human masters and lived in by many other species.

(*) Currently not structurally possible, but advances in the materials science of even the next 50 years, let alone the next 100-200, should make this relatively easy.

(**) This of course implies much vaster amounts of wealth per person, but unless something happens to check economic growth soon, that is exactly what's likely.

Retro Review: "Spawn of the Stars" (Charles Willard Diffin, 1930)


This is an alien invasion story, and an especially pure example of the genre.  Much of the science is dated, but the style is clear and the plot enjoyable.  Of additional interest, "Spawn of the Stars" appears to be a particularly seminal story, from which several alien invasion tropes famous from the movies of the 1950's and afterward, and even some which have entered the popular culture, seem to have originated.


Viewpoint:  Third person, limited to Cyrus Thurston.  The only exception is that we hear of some scenes in montage, but they are very obviously being described by Thurston based on news he is getting from others.  We do not know anything that Thurston did not know himself.  This works well because Thurston is at some of the key points of the war, and is well enough educated that he understands a lot both of the military and of the engineering matters.

Style:  Direct, smooth and rapid, relatively unadorned with adjectives.  The only exception is in some of the descriptions of the aliens themselves, where detailed description is necessary in order both to convey information and mood.  This was not uncommon in the pulps, which were influenced both by Hemingway and by an overall journalistic technique.  Diffin was a clear communicator and a skilled writer, and the style helps carry rather than impending the tale.

Setting:  A contemporary or near-future Earth, c. 1930.  The aliens invade the entire world but we are limited to the main character's POV, and hence only see them attack parts of the United States of America, especially New York City and various West Coast cities.  Some detail is given of battles over Germany (Berlin is wiped out) and of alien activity over China.

Theme:  We live in a dangerous Universe, and the Spawn of the Stars may at any time descend and attack us:  fortunately, through courage and intellect, Man may triumph.  This is a common theme in alien invasion stories, and it is handled well here through use of characters to personify them:  Thurston is the viewpoint with whom we identify; Riley is raw Courage; MacGregor cool Intellect.  This is a "Power Trio", similar in structure to that of Kirk, McCoy and Spock from Star Trek: TOS.


Cyrus R. ThurstonA young man, presumably in his 20's.  He's a "millionaire sportsman," which means that he's a rich man who decides to excel in sports, not that he has become a millionaire through playing sports.  He appears to be too young to have served in the Great War,  Cyrus is an air enthusiast and owns and operates at least one private airplane.  Cyrus is well-educated, socially-prominent, brave and passionate.

"Slim" Riley:   Thornton's pilot, a veteran of air combat in the Great War, and thus presumably in his 30's.  Slim is "Irish" (which in context probably means "Irish-American"), brave, intelligent, highly-skilled and a bit fatalistic (in part due to seeing so many of his comrades fall in the Great War).  Though Slim is technically Thurston's employee, the two are clearly good friends.  His heroic sacrifice wins the war for Mankind.

The Secretary of War:  Never named, if the story takes place in 1930 then he would be Patrick Jay Hurley, President Herbert Hoover's second Secretary of War, a proud, honorable and well-educated man who served in the Great War and was a diplomat and mining magnate in peacetime.  However, Diffin probably wrote the story in 1929, and hence he might have been thinking of James William Good, President Hoover's first Secretary of War, who died suddenly of a ruptured appendix on November 18th, 1929.

The Secretary of War shown in the story is a brave, active man who is at first willing to believe that the aliens may be friendly:  an enlightened opinion for 1930.  When he finds out that the aliens are hostile, he is willing to hazard his own life to scout out the situation.  This description fits Hurley better than it does Good.  Hurley would have been only 47 at the time of the alien attack, and thus physically able to participate in the adventure.  He is slightly injured in the Battle of San Diego, but survives the story.

General LozierAn intelligent and forward-thinking military officer, knowledgable in scientific and engineering matters.  He leads the fact-finding mission to and gets caught up and killed in the Battle of San Diego -- unfortunately, since he was clearly a very competent leader.

Doctor Mac GregorA brilliant and fearless scientist from the US Bureau of Standards.  He is sent to San Diego, observes the alien attack, and leads the recovery of the wrecked alien flyer.  Dr. Mac Gregor figures out how the alien engines and bombs work, discovers their key vulnerability, and develops it into a weapon.  He dies testing out his weapon on an alien bomb.

President Not Appearing in this Story:  Interestingly, one person we do not see in this story is the President of the United States of America, who in this period would be Herbert Hoover.  Historically, Hoover was a dynamic, progressive leader with a background in engineering, whose misfortune it was to be overwhelmed by a Depression of unprecedented magnitude, and it is improbable that he would have sat supinely and merely watched a crisis of this magnitude.  His absence in the story is probably due to the trope of the Invisible President, which was if anything much stronger in the 1920's and early 1930's than it is today:  in part because, before FDR's Fireside Chats, most people did not get to hear the President speak on anything like a regular basis.  We may logically assume that much of what was happening above Cyrus Thurston's level of involvement was being coordinated by President Hoover.

Plot:  Millionaire sportsman Cyrus R. Thurston is flying west across the United States on a whim, with his pilot and friend Slim Riley.  They are forced down by engine trouble (which may or may not be a coincidence, though the aliens at no other point demonstrate the ability to cause engines to misfire) and happen to land near an alien spaceship (1).  They see an alien on the ground.  The alien ship takes off, and they discover a cow which the alien has partially consumed (2).

Reaching Los Angeles, they are sitting in their hotel room wondering whether what they saw was real or a mere nightmare, when they read the newspapers and discover that the skyspheres have been sighted all over the world.  Now certain that what he saw was real, Thurston decides to go to the government with his eyewitness experience of the aliens.

Thurston and Riley fly to Washington, DC, where Thurston's social prominence gets him an interview with the Secretary of War.  The Secretary believes Thurston, and asks Thurston and Riley to accompany him and General Lozier and MacGregor, a scientist from the Bureau of Standards, to the West Coast, where the ships have just destroyed Vancouver in a series of  tremendous fiery explosions from their main drives, and are working their way southward.  The men fly west.

The Spawn scout out Seattle and San Francisco, but do not attack again as our heroes race west and US forces get into position to bring them to battle.  The aliens and the Secretary's party reach San Diego around the same time.  The Spawn destroy San Diego with a single tiny bomb that yields a kilotons-range explosion, and the battle is on.

The Secretary's plane is badly damaged in that tremendous explosion:  General Lozier and the Government pilot are slain.  Slim Riley lands the cripple as US forces go into action.  The US Army Air Force, reinforced by two US Navy aircraft carriers, and supported by anti-aircraft artillery, launches an attack.

The American attack is wholly ineffectual.  The alien weapons smash the carriers to burning hulks, swat the airplanes out of the sky.  The anti-aircraft guns appear unable to hit the fast, agile alien flyers.  At the end of the day San Diego lies in ruins and American airpower has been greatly reduced.

That night our heroes are resting in a ruined building when the word comes:  one of the five skyspheres is coming back!  They wait in fear and then spot the thing -- but its flight is clumsy. It's been badly damaged.  They follow the flyer in a car as it crash-lands nearby! (3)

Piling out, they see the monstrous alien pilot ooze from the ship.  Thurston, moved by wrath at the murder of San Diego and xenophobic hatred of the inhuman Spawn, attacks it with a handgun -- to no avail, as the amorphous alien is not harmed by the small slugs.  Dr. MacGregor realizes that the alien may be vulnerable to light, and drives it back with a flashlight.  Before the alien can get back to its sphere, the sun rises, destroying the monster.

Thurston and MacGregor investigate the crashed skysphere and discover that the Spawn technology seems to be based on ultra-compressed hydrogen and its chemical reactions.  They manage to salvage one of the bombs, and scientists investigate the wrecked skysphere.

The Spawn, in their four remaining skyspheres, strike Germany and destroy Berlin.  They are now massing against New York.  Slim Riley recovers from the wounds he suffered in the air crash, and Dr. MacGregor develops a ray which he believes will be able to penetrate the skysphere hulls and slay the Spawn by means of the same vulnerability they showed to sunlight.  Unfortunately, the scatter of (gamma?) rays from the projector will doom any human using the ray to a slow and horrible death (presumably either by radiation sickness or cancer). (4)

MacGregor tests his ray to see if it will detonate an alien bomb.  Unfortunately he miscalculates and is smothered in the sudden release of hydrogen (5).  Fortunately, he leaves his notes and plans for building a MacGregor Ray projector, and the US Army rapidly installs such a projector on a fighter plane.  Slim Riley, torn by survivor's guilt over both the Great War and San Diego, volunteers to fly it, despite the likelihood of a horrible death from the radiation.

The Spawn attack New York City.  Their bombs begin blasting the great metropolis, as Slim Riley rises to meet it in his ray-armed fighter.  The aliens at first do not realize the threat, until Riley launches his attack, in swift succession irradiating three of the four skyspheres.  The last one, now alerted to the peril, tries to escape, but Riley attacks it from below, hitting its bombs with the death ray (6).  Riley and the last skysphere are both destroyed in the resultant colossal explosion

On the ground, Thurston sobs in mingled relief and sorrow.  He, the city, and the Earth have been saved, but at the cost of the life of his friend.  But at least, as Thurston realizes, Riley died well:

Cyrus Thurston, millionaire sportsman, sank slowly, numbly to the roof of the Equitable Building that still stood. And New York was still there ... and the whole world....

He sobbed weakly, brokenly. Through his dazed brain flashed a sudden, mind-saving thought. He laughed foolishly through his sobs.

"And you said he'd die horribly, Mac, a horrible death." His head dropped upon his arms, unconscious—and safe—with the rest of humanity.

ending the tale.


The Aliens:  These are amorphous horrors,

Its blinding whiteness made the more loathsome the sickening yellow of the flabby flowing thing that writhed frantically in the glare. It was formless, shapeless, a heaving mound of nauseous matter. Yet even in its agonized writhing distortions they sensed the beating pulsations that marked it a living thing.

There were unending ripplings crossing and recrossing through the convolutions. To Thurston there was suddenly a sickening likeness: the thing was a brain from a gigantic skull—it was naked—was suffering....

The thing poured itself across the sand. Before the staring gaze of the speechless men an excrescence appeared—a thick bulb on the mass—that protruded itself into a tentacle. At the end there grew instantly a hooked hand. It reached for the black opening in the great shell, found it, and the whole loathsome shapelessness poured itself up and through the hole.

Only at the last was it still. In the dark opening the last slippery mass held quiet for endless seconds. It formed, as they watched, to a head—frightful—menacing. Eyes appeared in the head; eyes flat and round and black save for a cross slit in each; eyes that stared horribly and unchangingly into theirs. Below them a gaping mouth opened and closed.... The head melted—was gone....

with the power, as detailed above, to form and reabsorb temporary organs.  The similarity to one of H. P. Lovecraft's shoggoths is clear, and indeed so clear that I immediately wondered if Lovecraft got the idea for his shoggoths from Diffin's invaders.

As most of you probably know, the first detailed description of a shoggoth comes from Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness, written in 1930-31 and published in 1936.  In other words, written right after Diffin's story was published, at a time when Lovecraft, a voracious reader, would still have had the tale fresh in his mind.  However, shoggoths were also mentioned in "Night-Gaunts," sonnnet XX from Lovecraft's  Fungi from Yuggoth, written 1929-30 and published as individual sonnets in various fantastic fiction magazines, especially Weird Tales.  They were not, however, described in detail in the poem, and I now believe that Lovecraft may have been inspired by Diffin's creation.

Of course, the concept of an amorphous horror ultimately derives from a unicellular protozoan animal, the amoeba, which famously feeds by forming temporary "arms" (pseudopods) "mouth" and "stomach" (vacuole) to grab, engulf and digest its tiny prey.  However, amoebae do not form complex temporary organs, nor are they particularly intelligent.  The concept of a race of sapient giant amoeboids seems to derive from Lovecraft by way of Diffin, with Diffin's aliens coming chronologically first, but Lovecraft's being far more influential due to the greater popularity of At the Mountains of Madness.

E. E. "Doc" Smith's Eddorians can basically be described as super-intelligent, super-scientific and super-psionic shoggoths:  they are truly nightmarish creatures, and their first appearance in the original version of the "Lensman" series was in 1947, which was a decade after the publication of At the Mountains of Madness.  Smith probably had them in mind from the beginning of his series, however, the first part (Galactic Patrol) of which was published in 1937-1938 (7).

We never really learn all that much about the Spawn of the Stars.  We know that they are bigger and stronger than humans; they may also be smarter, or at least better at multi-tasking, because the invasion consists of five ships, each operated by one alien -- in other words, the whole human race is being attacked by the equivalent of a single flight of aircraft.  This is, and is meant to be, humbling.  One of the points of the story is the importance of superior technology in warfare, and the superior technology of the aliens allows a mere five of them to level Mankind's cities and swat our air forces out of the skies with terrible ease.

The aliens definitely have a more flexible biology than ours:  their natural atmosphere appears to be hydrogen-rich, yet they breathe ours without difficulty, and the fact that they eat Earthly cattle implies that their basic biology is not that dissimilar to our own (8).  Their brains appear to be dispersed through their whole bodies, and they can form and reabsorb their temporary organs with considerable speed.  Despite their size, they can move rapidly.  They have one great weakness:  strong light, in the optical and higher frequencies, rapidly disrupts their life processes and decomposes their tissues:  even a flashlight is "like the touch of hot iron to human flesh," a Very flare causes them to flee in terror, and, as for direct sunlight:

Incredible in the concealment of night, the vast protoplasmic pod was doubly so in the glare of day. But it was there before them, not a hundred feet distant. And it boiled in vast tortured convulsions. The clean sunshine struck it, and the mass heaved itself into the air in a nauseous eruption, then fell limply to the earth.

The yellow membrane turned paler. Once more the staring black eyes formed to turn hopelessly toward the sheltering globe. Then the bulk flattened out on the sand. It was a jellylike mound, through which trembled endless quivering palpitations.

The sun struck hot, and before the eyes of the watching, speechless men was a sickening, horrible sight—a festering mass of corruption.

The sickening yellow was liquid. It seethed and bubbled with liberated gases; it decomposed to purplish fluid streams. A breath of wind blew in their direction. The stench from the hideous pool was overpowering, unbearable. Their heads swam in the evil breath....

Armed with this evidence, plus the fact that their energy and explosives technology seems to be based on a supercompressed form of metallic hydrogen, it seems obvious from an early 21st-century point of view that the Spawn originate from the atmosphere of a large gas giant, such as Jupiter or Saturn.  They evolved below the visible cloud cover and above the metallic hydrogen ocean:  at home they would probably spread out into vast balloon or airfoil shape ("puffed shoggoths" indeed) and float or fly through their skies, forming temporary tentacles to secure prey.

It's a beautiful concept, and part of the beauty of this concept is that, though it makes perfect sense, it wouldn't have occurred to Diffin.  He wasn't stupid or ignorant -- it's just that in the 1920's, astronomers (there were as yet no "planetologists") assumed that the gas giants were pretty much terrestrial planets writ large, complete with abrupt transititons between "air" and "land," and with "oceans" properly confined to "seabeds," thank you very much.  Our current view of their atmospheres as slowly thickening into metallic-hydrogen slush and then hydrospheres, which in turn slowly thicken into increasingly-silaceous "mud" and then lithospheres, would astonish them.  But it is perfectly consistent with the physical nature of the Spawn as shown in the story.

We know absolutely nothing about the aliens' culture or motives for attacking Mankind, which is what makes this such a "pure" alien invasion story:  there are aliens, and they invade the Earth, period.  Thurston considers them evil, but then as a human under unprovoked attack, this is reasonable.  What's less reasonable is that he considers them evil the moment he sees them, based apparently on the alienness of their shape alone, before they've done anything hostile, to his knowledge, beyond eating cattle.  This could be marked down to third-person limited narration (all we see of the story world is what Thurston sees, all the opinions we get are what he either thinks or hears), except that Diffin obviously means Thurston's opinion of the aliens to be perfectly reasonable, and of course Thurston is right:  the aliens attack humanity without any discernable provocation or claim of need.

What one needs to remember was that, in the world of 1930, this sort of shape-based xenophobia was assumed to be normal, rational and sane.  Part of the reason was that the very concept of "alien life" was still new, and it was generally believed that most alien life (at least, alien life "like ourselves") would be very humanoid in shape.  This was more than just sentiment:  the evolutionary theory of the day imagined that the human form constituted something like perfection for a sapient being, so any very non-humanoid alien would have to be either "imperfect" or a very different kind of "sapience." 

One should add to this the assumption that different species would "necessarily" have to engage in a violent struggle for habitat:  the evolutionary biology of the 1920's barely acknowledged symbiosis or commensalism of any sort.  There were predators and prey, parasites and hosts, and that was pretty much that, especially in the popular-science variety of evolution.  So, if Spawn from the Stars suddenly appeared, it would logically follow that they wanted our habitat and, being super-scientific and hence unsentimental about such things (unlike we weak religious-morality-influenced men of the 20th century) would proceed to our extermination, forthwith.  This was also, note, the underlying concept of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

This was about to change.  In none other than Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (mentioned before), the hero was to feel sympathy for the (very) physically-alien Elder Things, even while retaining his horror at the Shoggoths.  Stanley G. Weinbaum would introduce us to friendly (though still semi-humanoid) aliens in "A Martian Odyssey" and "Valley of Dreams" (both 1934).  And most significantly, E. E. "Doc" Smith depicted a peaceful, multi-racial interstellar Civilization in his Lensman stories, starting with Galactic Patrol, some of whose members were very non-humanoid indeed (9).

Skyspheres and Other Possible Spawn Spacecraft

The alien technology includes metallurgy, which allows them to build large, light but strong spherical skyships, which may also be spaceships or at least landers (10):

It was of metal, some forty feet across, its framework a maze of latticed struts. The central part was clear. Here in a wide, shallow pan the monster had rested. Below this was tubing, intricate coils, massive, heavy and strong. 

There was a surprising simplicity, an absence of complicated mechanism.

If the aliens are Jovians or Saturnians (as seems very possible), then they may have launched a (well-shielded) interplanetary cruiser from Callisto or Titan, which carried the five sky-spheres as auxiliary craft, and went into a fairly close orbit of the Earth.  From this orbit the ship could launch and retrieve the sky-spheres without their occupants suffering undue radiation exposure.  Some of the odder maneuvers of the sky-spheres would be perfectly explicable if we assume that their own descents and ascents had to be coordinated with the orbit of their mother cruiser.  Within Earth's Van Allen Belt magnetosphere (whose existence unknown to Diffin in 1930), the skyspheres and mothership alike would both be protected from Solar flares.

This would explain why the crippled skysphere stayed behind at San Diego, and why none of the other skyspheres rescued its pilot.  The skysphere may have been damaged to a point where it was unable to launch into orbit and rendezvous with the mothership:  this may not have been discovered for certain until the whole flight of skyspheres attempted return to orbit.  Once the other skyspheres had launched, a return to Earth would have been impossible until the mothership fell into an appropriate position on her next orbit.  Before this could  be arranged, Cyrus Thornton and MacGregor killed the pilot and captured his sphere, and the aliens decided not to throw more of their limited assets into a fight over their ruined auxiliary vessel.  The reason why the skysphere did not attempt to fly far from San Diego may have been that its fuel was close to exhaustion, and also that too great a geographical displacement would have rendered a rescue more difficult, or even impossible.

Supercompressed Hydrogen Technology

The alien engines and bombs both employ an interesting chemical technology which appears to concentrate energy at a level midway between what we think of chemical and nuclear reactions.  Essentially, the Spawn have developed a means of compressing hydrogen to and beyond the point of what we would term its liquid metallic phase.  The supercompressed hydrogen can then be released in a controlled fashion, expanding into ordinary diatomic hydrogen molecules, either to do work directly through its gas pressure (as used in the skyspheres' drives) or to mix with oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere and then be detonated as a thermobaric explosive (such as the US uses today in its fuel-air bombs).

The generator, with its tremendous braces to carry its thrust to the framework itself, filled most of the space.

As a main drive, the system is demonstrably efficient enough to enable a Spawn skysphere to hover and maneuver in the Earth's 1G field for hours at a time:  this compares favorably with the likely performance of a nuclear fusion "torch" drive, and the skysphere can do this running the drive "cold" (without igniting the hydrogen plume).  It should also be considered that the Spawn probably used a variant of their skysphere engines to reach escape velocity from their gas giant homeworld, which might have been from 0.886 G (if Uranus) to 2.528 G (if Jupiter).

 Some of the ribs were thicker, he noticed. Solid metal, as if they might carry great weights. Resting upon them were ranged numbers of objects. They were like eggs, slender, and inches in length. On some were . They worked through the shells on long slender rods. Each was threaded finely—an adjustable arm engaged the thread. Thurston called excitedly to the other.

"Here they are," he said. "Look! Here are the shells. Here's what blew us up!"

He pointed to the slim shafts with their little propellerlike fans. "Adjustable, see? Unwind in their fall ... set 'em for any length of travel ... fires the charge in the air. That's how they wiped out our air fleet."

There were others without the propellors; they had fins to hold them nose downward. On each nose was a small rounded cap.

"Detonators of some sort," said MacGregor. "We've got to have one. We must get it out quick; the tide's coming in."

As a thermobaric weapon, the detonation from a device small enough for a human to clasp his hands around the fuselage is enough to destroy the downtown of a moderate-sized city:  multiple bombs can devastate an entire moderate-sized city including the near suburbs.  This implies a yield in the single-kilotons range, and an efficiency considerably greater than that of an atomic fission weapon, though inferior to that of a fission-fusion or fission-fusion-fission explosive.  A Spawn thermobaric bomb is much more physically massive than one would imagine at a glance (the supercompressed hydrogen is denser than osmium), but the whole apparatus is far smaller and less massive, than, say, were the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.  The detonation of Spawn thermobaric bombs do not appear to produce radiation hazards:  the reaction is probably entirely chemical.

A side effect of both the skysphere drives and thermobaric bombs is the release of immense quantities of the supercompressed hydrogen, producing suffocation of entities (such as ourselves) unable to breathe the gas, and a freezing cold (due to the gas expansion taking up heat) equivalent to that of Earth's Arctic or Antarctic regions.  An interesting aspect of the supercompressed hydrogen is that it is initially far denser than air and thus falls rather than rises in Earth's atmosphere, until it has expanded sufficiently to become lighter than air (as is normal for diatomic hydrogen under Earthly conditions).  The result is the saturation of a large volume of Earthly atmosphere with the gas, and a very complete mixture with the oxygen, which is ideal both for suffocation and detonation purposes.

The aliens would be unable to contain the immense pressures needed to maintain the supercompressed hydrogen in that phase aganist the relative vacuum of either space or even Earth atmosphere at sea level, were it not that the supercompressed hydrogen is actually stable, and the design of the containment vessels destablizes it as it exits.  As MacGregor discovered:

"Hydrogen," the physicist was stating. "Hydrogen—there's our starting point. A generator, obviously, forming the gas—from what? They couldn't compress it! They couldn't carry it or make it, not the volume that they evolved. But they did it, they did it!"

Close to the coils a dim light was glowing. It was a pin-point of radiance in the half-darkness about them. The two men bent closer.

"See," directed MacGregor, "it strikes on this mirror—bright metal and parabolic. It disperses the light, doesn't concentrate it! Ah! Here is another, and another. This one is bent—broken. They are adjustable. Hm! Micrometer accuracy for reducing the light. The last one could reflect through this slot. It's light that does it, Thurston, it's light that does it!"

"Does what?" Thurston had followed the other's analysis of the diffusion process. "The light that would finally reach that slot would be hardly perceptible."

"It's the agent," said MacGregor, "the activator—the catalyst! What does it strike upon? I must know—I must!"


"What is it that explodes? Nobody knows. We have opened the shell, working in the absolute blackness of a room a hundred feet underground. We found in it a powder—two powders, to be exact.

"They are mixed. One is finely divided, the other rather granular. Their specific gravity is enormous, beyond anything known to physical science unless it would be the hypothetical neutron masses we think are in certain stars. But this is not matter as we know matter; it is something new.

"Our theory is this: the hydrogen atom has been split, resolved into components, not of electrons and the proton centers, but held at some halfway point of decomposition. Matter composed only of neutrons would be heavy beyond belief. This fits the theory in that respect. But the point is this: When these solids are formed—they are dense—they represent in a cubic centimeter possibly a cubic mile of hydrogen gas under normal pressure. That's a guess, but it will give you the idea.

"Not compressed, you understand, but all the elements present in other than elemental form for the reconstruction of the atom ... for a million billions of atoms.

"Then the light strikes it. These dense solids become instantly a gas—miles of it held in that small space.

"There you have it: the gas, the explosion, the entire absence of heat—which is to say, its terrific cold—when it expands."

MacGregor's explanation is partially nonsensical given what we know today, and there is no particular reason to belive the obseved effects possible given real-world science, but there is also no particular reason to believe it impossible -- we have never been able to experiment with hydrogen under the extreme conditions of pressure and temperature to be found within the hydrospheres, let alone lithospheres, of gas giants.  And there is an easy way that this could be possible -- photons of the right wavelength could knock loose electrons from atoms arranged in metallic lattice structure, causing it to break down.  Real-world photoelectricity (and photography) operates through a similar process, though with far less violent consequences.

Another obvious question is why, given so much hydrogen, and presumably understanding the laws of physics at least as well as did 20th-century humans, the Spawn do not use in the obvious manner as a nuclear fusion fuel or explosive.  I think that the answer is to be found in their extreme vulnerability to hard radiation.  A deuterium-tritium fusion reaction, which is the easiest controlled reaction to induce, produces free neutrons which are not only directly damaging, but also render the reactor vessel or its surroundings radioactive.  Even humans would need to shield a DT fusion reactor installed in any crewed craft; for the radiation-sensitive Spawn, the required shielding might be prohibitively massive.

I get the impression that the Spawn do not bother much with tools for ordinary mechanical or perhaps even electrical purposes, as they can simply form from their malleable bodies organs to serve as wrenches, screwdrivers, test probes and the like.  Likewise, their control systems are simple, since their own bodies can be control levers, knobs, dials and other readouts as required -- thus the "extraordinary simplicity" of their skyspheres. 

However, there is one obvious weakness to such a design philosophy -- it becomes very hard to handle anything that one's own body cannot endure.  They would thus would be particularly handicapped in any attempt to build nuclear devices of any sort, since waldoes would be difficult for a race not generally used to making manipulators.  And of course, their fear of any kind of nuclear accident would far exceed our own.

It's true that the deuterium-trihelium reaction (D + He3) produces no free neutrons, and the very limited electromagnetic radiation (mostly no worse than actnic) would be easy for even the Spawn to handle given the interposition of any sort of metal shield.  But the DHe3 reaction also runs ten times hotter than the DT, and it would be difficult to start a nuclear fusion power technology with trihelium if one had not first gained some experience with tritium-based reactions.  Given that the Spawn have a perfectly adequate drive and bomb technology with their supercompressed hydrogen, they have little incentive to invest in such a hazardous (to them) technological course as nuclear fusion.


The Spawn were of course overconfident, which is what doomed their invasion to failure.  They correctly realized that their skyspheres were invulnerable to the (small-caliber) guns carried by Earthly aircraft c. 1930, and that they were too fast for human ground-based artillery to target.  They however failed to grasp the "golden BB" theory, which is that an aircraft may be downed even by poorly-aimed fire in sufficient volume:  this is what did for the first skysphere Thurston and MacGregor then salvaged, and it gave humanity enough information to devise a weapon designed specifically to shoot down skyspheres.

Stop and consider the way in which the aliens would have had to achieve victory, given the tools at hand.  Obviously, they were aiming to destroy the human military and industrial capabilities through strategic bombardment, using what amounted to five fighter-bombers armed with racks of tactical kiloton-range bombs.  This would have necessitated first systematic probes against the human defenses, to locate the centers of human communication, defense, population and production; followed by the systematic bombing of these centers.

There is no way, unless they received significant reinforcement, that they would have been able to wipe out the human population, or even enough of it to render ground operations anything but very hazardous.  They were clearly aware of their own vulnerabilities to light and harder radiation, else they could not have crossed the dangerous environs of the Inner System to operate on Earth.  They could have seen from orbit that we had the technology to generate a lot of light (one of their objectives was probably to knock out our urban electrical generation capabilities, but they can't have been unaware that given our mastery of electricity we almost certainly also had portable batteries).  So they must have known that oozing about, even at night, in full view of any organized human resistance was close to suicidal.

Obviously, therefore, the aliens would have needed to first damage our industrial plant and heavy military assets (ships, artillery and vehicle parks, etc.) enough so that we lost the capability to rapidly intervene on the ground against a landing, then have a follow-up ground attack force secure an area in terrain enabling easy defense of a space-head against human counterattack.  We don't know enough about the aliens to be certain of their space-head requirements, but their large size, high metabolisms and vulnerability to light suggests that they would want to capture an island -- one large enough for herds of animals to victual them, and small enough that all humanity there could be slain.  Once they had sunk our navies and major merchant shipping, counterattack against an island would have been difficult for us, and the aliens as described could have functioned perfectly well in Earth's oceans (which might not have been that different from their gas giant atmospheric home), swimming through darkness to intercept amphibious attacks, or raiding the shoreline by night.

The aliens could probably wear survival suits (given their anatomy, probably elastic bags) designed to protect them from sunlight, using the same material they built their ships' viewports from as goggle-lenses through which their large, probably infra-red or microwave-radar sensitive eyes could peer at the inconceivably radiation-rich and hellishly solid environment in which the monstrously rigid "human" vermin pranced about just as if it were the cool and flowing skies of Home!  They might have fought human soldiers with their own superior strength, or more likely with super-scientific weapons, such as flamers or explosive grenades based off the same compressed metallic-hydrogen technology on which their engines and bombs operated.  The pilots of the skyspheres in the stories did not have such devices, but then the skyspheres were supposed to have been impossible for the humans to shoot down.

Of course, when the humans developed the radiation beam cannon, this would no longer have been a practical strategy:  their skyspheres and ground forces would now be vulnerable, and on the end of a long logistics tether.  The aliens aborted their invasion, returning home to think, plot and plan their inevitable return, to win the resources of the metal-rich planet obviously wasted on the hideous human creatures.  When will they strike again?

The Humans

One must start by recognizing the ways in which c. 1930 Earth was more primitive and less capable of defending from itself attack, especially from the air, than would be the Earth of today.  There were no nuclear missiles, or for that matter nuclear weapons or significant rocket weapons of any kind.  There was neither radar nor proximity fuses, which meant that anti-aircraft fire was incredibly inaccurate by modern standards.  A defender would be unaware of an enemy air attack until the enemy craft had been visually sighted.

Airbases had not yet developed any but the most limited methods of controlling the squadrons they launched:  radios were clumsy and unreliable, and had only recently been applied to anything as small as fighters.  Air combat doctrine was in its infancy -- squadron-based tactics were had only been invented within the last 15 years, and combat aircraft within the last 20.  The idea of controlling squadrons across a whole theater of operations from a central command room (the British "Fighter Command" system of World War II) would not appear for a decade in Our Time Line.

Aircraft carriers were rare, small by modern standards, and the capabilities of carrier-launched aircraft limited.  In particular, they had operational radii of no more than a few dozen to few hundred miles.  They would be of use primarily in a fight for a port city, as was the case in the Batle of San Diego.  Naval forces had even by World War II standards only very limited abilities to protect themselves against enemy air attack, as was discovered in that battle when the Spawn easily smashed two American carriers (and presumably sunk their escorts).

Combat aircraft were single-engined open-cockpit biplanes, limited to altitudes of a few miles and speeds of a couple of hundred of miles an hour, maximum.  They massed at most several tons, and were armed with .30 to .50-caliber machine guns or small iron bombs.  Built primarily of fabric over wooden or metal struts, they were very fragile.  Their fuel tanks had no self-sealing features, neither cockpit nor engines any armor, and almost any sort of damage could easily bring them down.

Gunsights were simple fixed crosshairs. which meant that one could not reliably hit a maneuvering target (such as a Spawn skysphere) at more than a few hundred yards.  The limited power of the .30 to .50-caliber bullets was, in the story, insufficient to penetrate the metal hulls of the skyspheres.  Aircraft cannon were technically possible, and heavy  (37mm+) aircraft cannon might even have penetrated the Spawn skyspheres, but such weapons had not yet actually been deployed.

Bombs were dropped by guesswork, which meant that they were incredibly inaccurate against anything smaller than a city or major building complex unless dropped from an altitude of a few hundred yards while flying straight and slow.  The chance of hitting a Spawn skysphere in midair with a ground attack bomb would have been very low (tetherered observaton balloons were successfully attacked with such weapons in the Great War, but those did not maneuver).  Air-to-air missiles would not be invented for a decade and a half.

This goes a long way toward explaining the Earthly vulnerability to the Spawn attacks.  Even the Earth of 1940, let alone 1945 or 1950, would have been able to defeat a mere five skyspheres fairly quickly, if they attacked any seriously-defended site.  Neither the Earth of 1930 nor 1950 would have been able to detect or engage an orbiting Spawn mothership, though we could do it today with anti-satellite weapons.  (Whether or not we could overcome its defenses is debatable, since the story mentions no such motherships, and I simply surmise them from the small size and limited facilities of the skyspheres).

We do develop one weapon which proves effective against the aliens, however:

The MacGregor Ray

"In Washington a plane is being prepared. I have given instructions through hours of phoning. They are working night and day. It will contain a huge generator for producing my ray. Nothing new! Just the product of our knowledge of radiant energy up to date. But the man who flies that plane will die—horribly. No time to experiment with protection. The rays will destroy him, though he may live a month.

In 1900, Paul Villard discovered and in 1903, Ernest Rutherford named gamma rays, which are electromagnetic radiation with frequences greater than 10 exahertz.  The first cyclotron was built by Ernest Lawrence at UC-Berkeley in 1932, which makes it perfectly plausible that a brilliant engineer might be able to rush one to a field application c. 1930.

It's not clear exactly what the MacGregor ray is or how it is produced, but the story implies that it is a high-frequency electromagnetic ray capable of penetrating the metal of the Spawn skyspheres.  The description would fit anything from high-frequency X-rays up.  Furthermore, the horrible death likely to be suffered by the operator due to the lack of time to experiment with protection implies that the radiation is being produced by some form of radioisotopes, possibly under compression (an anticipation of the method actually used to induce nuclear fission both in reactors and in bombs).  The shielding problem would stem from the need to install the weapon on a combat aircraft capable of catching the skyspheres:  obviously, thick lead would work, but as obviously would not be practical on a c. 1930 fighter plane.

An actual gamma-ray laser ("graser") or even x-ray laser would be highly unlikely given the technological limitations of 1930 (today we can just barely and in theory make a nuclear explosion-pumped x-ray laser).  It's more likely that we're talking about a sort of gamma-ray "flashlight," a weapon whose radiation at range would be far too puny to be a practical death-ray against humans (even the pilot, sitting right next to the ray, would only suffer radiation poisoning leading to eventual death), but is sufficient to slay the radiation-sensitive Spawn.

In time, Earthly engineers would be able to lick the blowback problem which caused radiation poisoning to the operator.  But the Earth didn't have the time.  Future Spawn invasions, however, will have to contend with the presence of MacGregor ray cannons in the hands of human defenders.  Perhaps this will be enough to deter them.  Perhaps ...

Musings and Speculations:

Alien Invasions

"Spawn of the Stars" is an utterly pure alien invasion tale.  We never learn where the aliens were from or what they want (other than to kill us).  They show up, they start killing us, and we must kill them first if humanity is to survive.  This is both a product of the racialist philosophies of the age, and a major virtue of the story -- nothing gets in the way of the threat and the need to solve the problem through the intelligent application of physical force.

Compare with War of the Worlds, in which the human race never does find a weapon against the Martians:  we are saved by pure dumb luck and the virulent diseases of our mother planet.  Or with Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1985), in its own way as much a classic of the alien invasion genre as WotW, in which humanity does launch a warship capable of defeating the invaders, but this proves possible as much due to the limitations of the Fithp imagination and personality as due to the pluck and wit of Mankind.

Both War of the Worlds and "Spawn of the Stars" are far more frightening than is Footfall, Turtledove's Worldwar, or other more recent alien invasion novels, and the reason is simple.  We get to see things from the viewpoint of the Fithp and the Race, and indeed to sympathize with them (to some extent) (11).  By contrast, Wells' Martians and Diffin's Spawn are mysterious, implacable, and superhuman forces of destruction.  Their motives and nature are unknown, and the unknown is always more terrifying than the known.

As mentioned, Thurston's extreme xenophobia at sight of the Spawn's amorphous anatomy, which extends to a conviction that they are evilly intelligent, seems to be justified in the light of their later behavior.  The assumption here, from what I could tell, was that the alien was to be presumed hostile, and the more so if it was hideous to human eyes.  This assumption is identical to that of the early Lovecraft, though not of the later Lovecraft, and especially not to that of the later E. E. "Doc" Smith, who had extremely nonhumanoid heroes such as Worsel, Tregonsee and Nadreck, in the Galactic Patrol.

At no point does Thurston become aware of any attempt by either side to communicate with the other, and the impression I got from the tale was that, if we tried, we were probably ignored.  The science of the day took the Darwinian "struggle for existence" quite literally, and the science fiction of the day depicted this struggle as being carried out with super-scientific weapons between sapiences of different forms.  The culmination of these beliefs was, of course, the carnage of World War II, and the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of the Nazis and Communists.

Today, we tend to make more peaceful assumptions about sapient alien:  influential in this regard has been the books of Carl Sagan, who argued that aliens adavanced enough to engage in interstellar travel would have either culturally evolved past wars of aggression, or destroyed themselves with weapons of mass destruction.  Others still believe differently, particularly Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, who in The Killing Star (1995) argued that alien civilizations would be inclined to mutual destruction owing to the fear that other (alien and hence unpredictable) beings would enter aggressive cultural phases and the desire to destroy such civilizations, before they could strike.

The true state of affairs is still unknown.  It may be closer to Sagan's vision, it may be closer to Pellegrino's.  Reason would argue in favor of some caution when dealing with alien sapience, and especially in regard to more advanced alien civilizations.

Air-Mindedness and Scientific Research

One thing that strikes me about the story is that it is remarkably air-minded for a tale penned in 1929.  Keep in mind that this was a time when the long-term military importance of airpower was far from established in the general culture.  The armies and navies of the world generally assumed that aircraft were at best scouts and light raiders, incapable of turning the tide of a battle save by providing intelligence or scoring lucky hits.

The military establishments of c. 1930 were far from committed to scientific research.  New weapons emerged pretty much at random from industry during peacetime, to be purchased or ignored by the armies and navies as the mood took them.  The concept of technological superiority being crucial to victory in wartime was not yet universally accepted.

The military component of "Spawn of the Stars" is almost entirely about airpower and military research.  The Spawn strike from the sky with bombs capable of sinking whole naval squadrons or demolishing whole cities.  Likewise, humanity must take to the skies to fight back.  The only warships worth mentioning are aircraft carriers; the only artillery are anti-aircraft guns.  The only land action shown is the salvage of a crashed skysphere (a scene that became standard to later science fiction) against the opposition of its pilot.  The strike that delivers final human victory is delivered by a modified fighter plane, and could not have been delivered at all from the ground.

This is very progressive for 1930.  It foreshadows in many respects the strategic air war of 1939-45, particularly the destruction of whole cities by incendiary and nuclear bombing in the last two years of the war.  It was of course in part inspired by the German air campaign against the British from 1914-18 (the brief mention of a zeppelin would have sounded sinister to a reader c. 1930, and the destruction of Berlin in the story could be seen as karmic payback by a contemporary reader), but takes place on a much grander scale and is far more crucial to the outcome of the war.

What Happened Next?

Observant readers may have noticed that the situation is far from resolved.  The five Spawn skyspheres which attacked the Earth have all been downed, but we have no idea from where the Spawn have come, whether this was merely the vanguard of their attack, or even if there are still more Spawn, either in orbit (12).  It is easily believable that the Spawn will strike again:  furthermore, one would imagine that humanity might be interested in exploiting the alien technology that they have captured and building spacecraft of their own.  Clearly, the awareness that we are not alone, and that our neighbors are hostile, will affect the future of the human world.

One wishes for a sequel.


This is a fun story, well worth reading and re-reading, and one seminal to the whole alien invasion genre.  I am now going to seek out more of Diffin's work, and wonder why he hasn't been more noticed by anthologists reprinting early science fiction.


(1) - Ah, sweet Coincidence, the Muse without which so many pulp sf plots would utterly unravel!  On the other hand, we may assume that there were plenty of people who did not see an alien on the ground this early in the invasion:  it is in fact this encounter that makes the protagonist the protagonist, so it's not too jarring a coincidence.  The next coincidence will be one too many, though.

(2) - This is noteworthy as what is perhaps the first example of alien cattle mutilation in science fiction:  this may be the stem from which the whole concept sprang.  In this story the aliens are doing this to eat the cattle, which actually makes sense (granting compatible biologies):  it's much safer and easier for the aliens to kill and eat cattle (who can't fight back effectively) than it is for them to kill and eat humans (who can).

(3) - This is the really major coincidence of the story, and the least believable.  Why did the alien flyer come back?  If it was damaged in the Battle of San Diego, why did it stick around near human-habited areas for hours, rather than setting down in the wilderness to the east?  And wasn't it convenient that it came down so close to the heroes that they could follow it in a CAR

This is annoying, because Diffin could have as easily chosen to have it come down a hundred miles away, and had the heroes receive the report of this:  he chose coincidence just because he wanted to let us see the flyer crash.  In my opinion, it damages verisimilitude.

Perhaps I'm more sensitive to this than the original audience because, as someone who grew up with World War II air campaigns as part of the background, I'm aware of just how much distance a damaged fast subsonic aircraft can cover before it goes down.  Diffin and his audience were only personally familiar with the slow subsonic aircraft of the Great War, which you could have trailed in a (fast) car had the plane been damaged.

(4) - Radiation sickness was actually known as early as 1896, when Nikola Tesla intentionally exposed his fingers to X-rays to see what would happen.  Marie Curie, the most famous early victim of long-term radiation tissue damage, did not die until 1934.  It was not until 1945 and the scientific study of the aftereffects of radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that people generally became aware of just how dangeorus can be hard radiation:  Diffin was being somewhat prophetic in realizing that the MacGregor Ray would be dangerous to humans as well as to the Spawn.

(5) - This death is biologically dubious (brief immersion in an unbreathable atmosphere wouldn't kill you any more than would brief immersion in water, and the supercompressed hydrogen would rapidly expand to ordinary diatomic hydrogen and rise into the air, restoring the oxygen to your environment).  It's also very obviously for the convenience of the plot, as otherwise MacGregor rather than Slim Riley would be flying the fighter plane at the end of the story.  And what's worse, it's unnecessary even for plot purposes:  had MacGregor instead set off a thermobaric explosion he might have quite plausibly been killed in the blast, and of course his messing-around with gamma radiation might well also have killed or at least crippled him.  It's one of the weakest elements of the story.

(6) - There is an obvious similarity here with the manner in which Russell Casse, also a traumatized war veteran fighter pilot, destroys one of the giant alien saucers in Independence Day.  I am not claiming that one was inspired by the other, because it's such an obvious plot element, but this may have been the first example of this particular kind of heroic sacrifice in science fiction.  For a different version of the same sort of thing, which may have inspired Diffin, consider the death ride of HMS Thunder Child in the novel War of the Worlds.

(7) - Triplanetary originally appeared in 1934, but the early version of this story covered only Gray Roger and the Nevian invasion:  it was not until the 1948 reprint that Triplanetary was retconned into the Lensman universe, with Gray Rogers being an incarnation of Gharlane of Eddore and the Triplanetary Patrol being the original form of the Galactic Patrol.

(8) - On the other hand, the fact that they eat whole HERDS of cattle may mean that they require certain nutrients which Earth life possesses only in very small quantities.  Though their shape-changing is probably metabolically-expensive, I would doubt that they would need to eat such vast quantities of their own kind of life.

(9) - Though it's interesting that all three named authors used amorphous aliens as villains.  Lovecraft never presents any even slightly sympathetic view of the Shoggoths, even though they were (by geologically-modern times) sapient slaves of the Elder Things  (for a sympathetic view of them, see Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom").  Weinbaum's "doughpots," from "Parasite Planet," are non-sapient and eternally hungry -- about all one can do with them is incinerate them with flame-pistols.  And the far-too-sapient Eddorians are the source of all evil in the Lensman universe.  Humans just don't like giant blobs -- it seems ingrained in us, for some reason that I can't wholly fathom (since we didn't evolve being preyed on by such creatures).

A thought -- maybe what we're really afraid of is not blobs, but bogs.  Virtually every fictional description I've read of being attacked by a giant blob emphasizes being smothered, even though logically in some cases, what one should be noticing is not so much "smothering" as being torn apart (by shoggoths) or burned by digestive acids.  Now, if one falls into quicksand, one is not torn apart or burned, but one is most definitely smothered.  And humans, as semi-aquatic apes, evolved in an environment containing far too many bogs ...

(10) - In the pre-dawn of the Space Age, aircraft, shuttles and spaceships all tended to be conflated, and we never learn whether the Spawn sky-spheres are operating from a secret base on Earth, a mothership in orbit, or are themselves capable of crossing interplanetary or even interstellar distances on their own.  The spheres as described might be capable of attaining and landing from Earth orbit; they seem a bit small and their engines a bit puny for flight across interstellar distances. 

One reason why they may not be capable of interstellar travel is that the aliens are vulnerable to, and the flyer hulls do not seem very resistant to, hard electromagnetic radiation.  Any alien interplanetary cruiser would have to be better shielded than those flyers, especially on a long flight.  Diffin would have been unaware of this problem, as human scientists did not in 1930 grasp the magnitude of hard radiation put out by the Sun, especially into the Inner Solar System.

(11) - The Fithp are indeed rather pathetic:  they're a race of domestic animals Uplifted to intelligence who have learned their advanced technology by rote from pillars left by their former masters.  They don't really understand the Universe or see the possibilities of technological innovation; the group of Fithp who invade the Earth do so from perceived necessity (they are refugees from the losing side of a war); and after the initial shock, humanity's superior intelligence and imagination enables us to quickly adapt to their weapons and tactics -- in the end, they wind up re-domesticated, by America.

The Race is not as pathetic but they are somewhat admirable:  they are convinced that their ancient, incredibly-conservative civilization, similar in some respects to a rather humane sort of Oriental despotism, is the only way for sapient races which they perceive as "barbarians" to live in peace and harmony.  They expect to find the Earth at an Iron-Age level of technology, and when they find us instead at a late-Industrial tech level are not really quite sure what to do next.  They unimaginatively proceed with their invasion as planned, and suffer horribly as we learn and adapt to their weapons and tactics, and in the end this leads to Earth developing a technology beyond that of, and probably dooming, their ancient empire.

Neither the Fithp nor the Race are as malevolent as the Martians or the Spawn.  The Fithp want to fight and then politically domiante us, while the Race wants to "civilize" us.  Neither wish to exterminate humanity nor even crush our civilization:  they want to rule rather than destroy.

(12) - The very notion of an orbital presence would not have occurred to most sf writers or readers of 1930, even though Tsiolovsky had come up with the notion of artificial satellites some 40 years earlier.  The very first stories to mention orbital space stations were being written around the same time as this, specifically Jack Williamson's "Prince of Space" (in which such a station is a plot element):  see my review of this tale.  But they could have been up there, and the rather sparse design of the skyspheres implies that they were.