Thursday, April 7, 2011

Retro Review - "The Eternal Wall" (Raymond Z. Gallun, 1942)

"Retro Reviews - Raymond Z. Gallun, "The Eternal Wall"

(c) 2010, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


Raymond Z. Gallun is one of the often-forgotten pioneers of high-concept science fiction, and he was distinguished by his acceptance of alien diversity at a time when many writers simply treated alien beings as "monsters." This is very apparent in his most famous story, "Old Faithful" (1934), in which a Martian is at once shown to be very alien and yet a sympathetic character. He was not the first in this regard -- E. E. "Doc" Smith, Stanley G. Weinbaum, and (the later) H. P. Lovecraft also explored aliens as civilized beings rather than merely scary creatures -- but he did come early, and he did it well.

Unfortunately, his total output was relatively small, given his long career as a science fiction writer. That's why I was happy to discover this work, which I'd never seen anthologized, online on Project Gutenberg (

It's a tale of a man from our time, who lives to meet a race after Man on the Earth of the far future.

I. Plot

Ned Vince, a young man of around 18, has hopes of going with his girlfriend Betty to college, but his hopes are dashed when he runs off the road into a deep and cold alkali lake. Ned drowns in his wrecked roadster, but his corpse is preserved through the mixture of low temperature and high pH of the water, being fossilized as a perfect mummy (1)

Hundreds of thousands of years pass. Man rises to great heights, becomes a race of "Gods," expands outward to the stars, and finally abandons the Earth. A new sapient race evolves on Earth, descended from prairie dogs (2), and ultimately surpasses the technology of 20th century humnanity, building great cities and mastering advanced machinery.

They discover the mummified Ned in the rusted remains of his roadster, and take him to their city of Kar-Rah, where Loy Chuk, one of their scientists, decides to attempt an actual re-vivication of the corpse -- possible only because of its good condition and the rodent race's super-science.

Ned Vince is restored and brought back to life. Loy Chuk has learned his language telepathically, and communicates with him by vocoder. Ned is devastated to learn that he has slept for hundreds of millennia, and is now the last human being alive on Earth; possibly the last old-style human in existence anywhere in the Universe. He misses the rest of humanity; in particular he misses Betty.

Overcome with despair, he runs out into the wasteland, half-hoping to die on this inhospitable Earth. He falls unconscious, but before he can die of exposure is rescued by Loy Chuk and his assistants.

Later, Ned Vince begs Loy Chuk to send him back to the 20th century. Loy, aware that Ned is suicidal, agrees. He puts Ned Vince into a machine and zaps him back in time -- Ned is delighted to find himself back in his old machine shop, in the company of his beloved Betty ...

But Loy Chuk couldn't really send him back: not even the Gods themselves were ever able to build a time machine. So, instead, what really did was to build a replica of Ned's machine shop and an android replica of Betty, and -- keeping a credulity ray on Ned to suppress his suspicions.

Ned will live out his life, happily, in this illusion of 20th-century Earth, while Loy Chuk continues to study him ...

II. Characters

Only two, really, but they are strongly drawn as they need to be for the story.

Ned Vince is a nice young man, reasonably bright, but perhaps a bit too rash and emotional, which is how he crashed his car and died; and also how he wound up in his zoo enclosure. A calmer man would not have run off the road; a calmer man would not have fled into the wasteland from the obviously friendly Lok Choy, and a calmer man would have made damned sure that the people of Kar-Rah actually could build time machines, rather than insisting that they must be able to simply because 20th-century science fiction mentioned it as a possibility. An unkind observer (not Lok Choy, who at least means well) might imagine that Lok Choy need not push that credulity ray beyond its lowest setting, in order to trick Ned.

Loy Chuk is a good scientist and a kindly being. As Gallun puts it

Little Loy Chuk was in a black, discouraged mood, himself. He could understand the utter, sick dejection of this giant from the past, lost from his own kind. Probably insanity looming. In far less extreme circumstances than this, death from homesickness had come.

Loy Chuk was a scientist. In common with all real scientists, regardless of the species from which they spring, he loved the subjects of his researches. He wanted this ancient man to live and to be happy. Or this creature would be of scant value for study.

Now, this is remarkable for two reasons. The first is that Loy, an alien, is portrayed as being empathetic enough to understand the despair of Ned Vince. The second is that Gallun is aware that scientists, far from being passionless machines beyond mere emotionality (the stereotype of 1930's-1940's pulp SF) actually love their work.

A third reason might be possibly mentioned: that Loy Chuk is aware (as far too many real students of animal psychology today are clearly not) of the importance of keeping his subject sane for the validity of his results. What this shows is that Gallun had more common sense than did B. F. Skinner and his disciples!

We don't learn much of Loy Chuk's life in his own culture, or of that culture itself, aside from the fact that it is advanced, technological, and at least as and arguably more humane than our own. True, Loy Chuk sees no problem with keeping Ned in what amounts to a padded zoo for the rest of his life, but then we treat experimental animals (even probably sapient ones) far worse than that: at least Loy Chuk intends kindness (albiet from somewhat selfish motives).

III. Setting

The Earth of around a million years in the future is briefly but hauntingly sketched. As with many Gallun stories, it leaves one wanting more: I really wish that he'd developed it further in a series. I discuss this in greater detail in the "Science and Technology" section, but suffice it to say that Earth, Moon and possibly Sun have all apparently suffered some damage, possibly due to the activities of the Gods in times past. As far as I can tell, the Solar System is being left fallow by the Gods, who have decided for reasons of their own not to interfere further in the affairs of Earth's other children.

Kar-Rah is a beautiful but claustrophobic place, as one would expect given that the cynomys sapiens (my term for them) are both subterranean in origin and considerably smaller than humans. I got the impression that cynomys sapiens is a friendly and cooperative species, and that their city is comfortable and lovely to them.

IV. Science and Technology

Atom-Blast Excavator

The bell-like muzzle of a strange excavator-apparatus, which seemed to depend on a blast of atoms to clear away rock and soil.

Essentially, a highly-controlled plasma drill. This is quite possible; because plasma is hot but tenuous, it can if controlled properly vaporize one section of a solid while only barely heating adjacent sections. This was usually called an "atom-blast" in 1930's and 1940's science fiction, with the terminological focus being on the (implicitly-nuclear) power-source rather than the precise type of beam produced.

It was generally assumed at the time that nuclear energy would require particle accelerators, and that the same effect could be channeled off from the reactor to produce a destructive beam. This is sort of correct, but for slightly different reasons: you could indeed funnel some hot plasma from a fusion reactor and use it as a torch.

The State of the Earth

She's seen better days:

The spreading continental plateau of North America seemed to crawl backward, beneath. A tremendous sand desert, marked with low, washed-down mountains, and the vague, angular, geometric mounds of human cities that were gone forever.

Beyond the eastern rim of the continent, the plain dipped downward steeply. The white of dried salt was on the hills, but there was a little green growth here, too. The dead sea-bottom of the vanished Atlantic was not as dead as the highlands.

... Besides, in this latter day, the nights were very cold, the shelter of subterranean passages and rooms was welcome.

This is a remarkable amount of geological change for a mere half-million to million years. Some of it might be explainable by shorter assumed timescales before the invention of radio-isotope dating (generally, in the 1930's and 1940's, the Earth was assumed to be only 2-3 billion years old) and some by a lack of understanding of how seas opened and closed before the general acceptance of the theory of continental drift, but this still seems a bit much for such a short geological stretch of time. It is certainly possible that the Gods did something which severely damaged the Earth's surface.

One thing that is obvious is that the Earth has lost a lot of water. There are numerous possibilities as to "why" -- my guess would be a combination of extensive export of water offworld (possibly as fusion fuel and reaction mass for starflight) and very heavy bombardment of the Earth by charged particles (possibly war damage). It may be relevant here that the ancestors of Loy Chuk's people were medium-sized tunnel dwellers -- perhaps most large surface animals went extinct?

The Earth might be cold as well as dry for various reasons. Back in the 1930's-40's, most popular science assumed that the Sun would "burn out" rather than increase solar output (see Vance's "Dying Earth" stories, for example). This might actually be possible if the Gods engaged in some sort of stellar engineering at some point, and left the Sun in less-than-ideal condition for their successors. Another possibility is that there has been at least one major episode of carbon sequestration between the present and this future, which perhaps went a little too far.

A little later it is mentioned that the air is thinner, and in terrain which would today be a few hundred feet below sea level, which strongly implies that something has stripped off some of the Earth's atmosphere. Intense solar flares is one possibility: perhaps the Gods induced small nova flares at some point as part of a stellar engineering project, and it got a bit out of control.

Astronomical Developments

The Moon was a gigantic, pock-marked bulk. The constellations were unrecognizable.

Luna seems to have come closer and acquired more craters; possibly the result of Godly mega-engineering projects or wars. After a million or so years, the constellations would indeed be "unrecognizable;" many large bright stars would have novaed, while stars visible due to proximity would have changed apparent positions quite noticably.

Cynomys Sapiens City

Far out in a deep valley, Kar-Rah, the city of the rodents, came into view—a crystalline maze of low, bubble-like structures, glinting in the red sunshine. But this was only its surface aspect. Loy Chuk's people had built their homes mostly underground, since the beginning of their foggy evolution.


The rodent city was a glowing expanse of shallow, crystalline domes, set among odd, scrub trees and bushes. The crags loomed on all sides, all their jaggedness lost after a million years of erosion under an ocean that was gone.

The sapient prairie dogs would obviously no longer need to hide from predators, but the legacy of their vulnerable racial childhood would affect them just as the legacy of ours has affected us. We like to live in grassy plains at forest edges, and so configure our cities and parks; they would feel comfortable dwelling mostly underground.

Note that Kar-Rah is obviously delved into what was once a submerged canyon, possibly the oceanic extension of what is today a river. One likely candidate is the Hudson River Submarine Valley, which today extends a hundred miles beyond the mouth of New York Harbor. Others are of course possible. Water might still flow past Kar-Rah; obviously, some supply of fresh water would be essential for a mammalian conurbation.

Reviving the Remains

The mummy was taken to Loy Chuk's laboratory, a short distance below the surface. Here at once, the scientist began his work. The body of the ancient man was put in a large vat. Fluids submerged it, slowly soaking from that hardened flesh the alkali that had preserved it for so long. The fluid was changed often, until woody muscles and other tissues became pliable once more.

This part of it is exactly what we might do, if we wanted to restore some ancient mummified flesh to greater flexibility. We generally don't, of course, because wetting a mummy resumes the processes of cellular deterioration. But the super-prairie-dog scientist does more:

Then the more delicate processes began. Still submerged in liquid, the corpse was submitted to a flow of restorative energy, passing between complicated electrodes. The cells of antique flesh and brain gradually took on a chemical composition nearer to that of the life that they had once known.

Pure Golden Age pulp science, there. But believable, if you grant that the chemical baths contain restorative enzymes or nanomachines which require energy inputs to work, which would be the point of the "complicated electrodes."

The final step is "vital energy" right out of the 1931 Frankenstein movie.

With a cold, rosy flare, energy blazed around that moveless form.

And Ned Vince is wakey-wakey!

The Black Box

Loy Chuk put an odd, metal-fabric helmet on its head, and a second, much smaller helmet on his own. Connected with this arrangement, was a black box of many uses. For hours he worked with his apparatus, studying, and guiding the recording instruments. The time passed swiftly.

This device, applied to Ned before re-awakening, scanned his language centers, and transferred Ned's knowledge of English to Loy Chuk. Its functioning is left mysterious in the story, but it obviously includes a powerful computer and translator unit. I can see why it would take at least "hours" to seek out the stored linguistic memories of another species and transfer them into the user's own mind!


Loy Chuk had only to press certain buttons to make the instrument express his thoughts in common, long-dead English. Loy, whose vocal organs were not human, would have had great difficulty speaking English words, anyway.

Ironically, if we ever learn the real-world prairie dog language, we'll need to use something like this to speak and understand it, since prarie-dog chirps and chitters are in part above both our hearing and our vocal range. Loy Chuk is probably a bit bigger than a real prarire dog, but he probably needs to step-up Ned's (to Loy) infra-bass utterances to hear them, too.

The Gods

... and a second man-skeleton that was not quite human. Its neck-vertebrae were very thick and solid, its shoulders were wide, and its skull was gigantic.

Gallun here grasps something that not all writers of his day understood, which is that a super-intelligent humanoid (with an appropriately bigger head) would have a powerful neck and shoulders to carry that head. Many other writers of the 1930's and 1940's just assumed that the supermen would simply make do with vulnerable, easily-broken necks, but that would be silly (the more so if they got smarter through genetic engineering rather than ordinary evolution)). Gallun doesn't specify, but I would imagine either that they were born through caesarians, or else their females had rather exotic pelvic anatomy.

The Ned Vince Show

He did not know anything about the invisible radiations beating down upon him, soothing and dimming his brain, so that it would never question or doubt, or observe too closely the incongruous circumstances that must often appear. The lack of traffic in the street without, for instance — and the lack of people besides himself and Betty.

He didn't know that this machine-shop was built from his own memories of the original. He didn't know that this Betty was of the same origin — a miraculous fabrication of metal and energy-units and soft plastic. The trees outside were only lantern-slide illusions.

It was all built inside a great, opaque dome. But there were hidden television systems, too. Thus Loy Chuk's kind could study this ancient man — this Kaalleee. Thus, their motives were mostly selfish.

The credulity ray is a nice touch. In fact (as was not known in the 1940's) there is a characteristic EEG pattern associated with belief, and the ability to induce belief would be a relatively trivial application of the technology that produced the telepathic translator.

The life-like artificial habtitat is just a more sophisticated version of the sort of thing that we build today for smart animals, to enrich their zoo habitats and keep them happy. This has to be a very life-like habitat, of course, since Vince isn't much stupider (if at all) than the cynomys sapiens who constructed it, though the credulity ray helps.

The Betty-droid is a remarkable achievement, considering that it has to fool a man who knew Betty intimately in life. It's not obvious whether or not it is independently sapient, or "merely" an remotely operated "avatar." (Furry fans may speculate about the psychology and attitudes of the avatar's operator toward Vince: real prairie dogs have complex emotions and social interactions, so romantic feelings are not impossible).

The "lantern slide show" is probably done by laser-generated hologram. We could almost do that, now, and the prarie-dogs obviously have a technology equivalent to that we may develop by 2050-2100, from a modern POV.

V. Theme

"You can't go home again, and you should be careful wishing for it," I'd guess. It's a dark story by the standards of the 1940's: Ned Vince, who one might suspect from his description at the start was going to do some great deeds in the future, in fact totally failed to find a place, utterly spurning the opportunity to learn the super-science of the cynomys. Because of his suicidal reaction, instead he must now live -- perhaps forever -- in the hollow illusion of having returned to his own time. He may be happy, but it is not a fate I would wish upon myself.

VI. Analysis

The story bears obvious comparison with L. Sprague de Camp's and P. Schuyler Miller's Genus Homo (1941), a short novel about a busload of humans who find themselves in a similarly posthuman future. Because of the dates of publication and the small size of the early-1940's science fiction world, I wonder if Genus Homo inspired Gallun? On the other hand, Gallun's own "Seeds of the Dusk" (1936) was about a semi post-human future (the "humans" of that story aren't exactly our own species) with sympathetic nonhuman sapients, and may have inspired De Camp.

Genus Homo goes into its posthuman Earth in considerably greater detail; there are numerous species and a long and involved story. Gallun couldn't do this here, since he was writing a shorter story and making an entirely different point: that a solitary time-castaway might be so alienated from the posthuman future that he literally could not face its reality. This theme bears comparison to Poul Anderson's related point in "The Man Who Came Early" (1956), in which a solitary man cast into medieval Iceland fails to fit in or change history, and winds up dying without accomplishing anything. The cumulative point, especially when comparing with stories like Eric Flint's Grantville universe or S. M. Stirling's Nantucket novels, is that you need friends if you're going to be castaway in an alien time -- and stay sane.


(1) This would mostly work. Cold water retards decomposition, and a sufficiently alkaline lake might dessicate a corpse while preserving its internal structure. Our own science would not be able to revive a victim preserved in this manner, but some more advanced science might be up to the task. The technology of the city of Kar-Rah does it through a "zap, you're healed" energy beam; in reality it would probably be much harder.

(2) Gallun was fascinated by the concept of animal sapience, and was a good judge of the intelligence of real animals. In "Seeds of the Dusk" (1938) he had sapient ravens just one of many intelligent races on a far-future Earth. Interestingly, subsequent research has shown that ravens are tool-users, and prairie dogs have an apparently-syntactical language, making both good candidates for ultimate evolution to advanced technological capabilities.


"The Eternal Wall" is a short but remarkably beautiful and effective story: strange, dark and cold; alienating while featuring a race of very friendly aliens by the standards of early 1940's science fiction. The story is packed full of creativeness, sense of wonder and strange invention. The situation is credible, but much is left unexplained, and one is left speculating about this fascinating far future Earth.

Definitely worth reading at least once.

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