Saturday, July 21, 2012

Retro Review of The Jameson Satellite (1931) by Neil R. Jones

"Retro Review of
The Jameson Satellite (1931)
by Neil R. Jones"

(c) 2008, 2012

Jordan S. Bassior


This short story was published in 1931 and was the first of a series later collected by Ace Books in multiple short volumes.  It is notably available in Isaac Asimov's 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age, and is also on Project Gutenberg here.


In 1958 (27 years in the future), Professor Jameson (no first name given) decides that he wants to be preserved forever upon his death. So he works hard on the problem and designs a rocketship which will put his body into orbit. He equips it with a radium power source to keep it running for millions of years, and radium "repulsion rays" to preserve it from meteors. His nephew (and heir; Jameson apparently has no children) agrees to ensure that he is so launched, and keep the nature of the satellite a secret. Jameson dies and is launched into orbit 80,000 miles from the Earth, presumably sometime in the late 20th century.

40 million years later, a starship of the Zoromes comes into the Solar System and discovers Jameson's satellite, still circling the Earth, though its orbit has now decayed to 20,000 miles. The Earth has also fallen closer to the Sun, and the Moon to the Earth. The Sun is now red and the Earth is tide-locked to it. Mercury and Venus are close to being swallowed by the swelling giant that used to be a main sequence star.

The Zoromes were once a biological race but turned themselves into cyborgs ("metal men"), placing their organic brains into tough rectilinear metal bodies equipped with cameras, telepathy and six metal tentacles. In this form they are virtually immortal, though they can still be killed by the destruction of their robot heads (in which repose their brains). They have given up sex and are incapable of reproduction; they replace their numbers by very occasional recruitment of other sapients they encounter.

They repair Jameson's brain and place it in a spare robot body, so that they may hear of his origins. Jameson tells them the history of the Earth, which takes four days (and he fails to notice how long it takes because he is not yet used to the tirelessness of a Zorome robot body).

Jameson and the Zoromes then explore the dead planet below. Volcanic action has ceased and the atmosphere is almost gone. Jameson falls into a deep sinkhole and wrecks his body though not his head; he faces the horrible prospect of immortality alone in the dark, but the Zoromes rescue him and put his undamaged head on another robot body.

Jameson is depressed and considers exile on the dead Earth, or suicide. Instead he decides to join the Zoromes and explore the Universe, choosing life and the wonder of intellectual exploration over the finality of death.

SettingRather sparse, and mostly told rather than shown, in third-person omniscient narration. The dead Earth in particular could have used more exploration; did nothing interesting leave traces on the planet over 40 million years? Later stories in the series would cover some fairly interesting places.

StyleVery dry overall, though it does ascend to some poetry when describing the dead future world. To some extent its very matter-of-factness helps establish verisimilitude, so it can't be called a complete failure. There is sufficient emotional affect when something wondrous, depressing or frightening occurs.

CharacterizationAlmost nonexistent, even by the standards of early-1930's pulp science fiction. Professor Jameson is a Mark I standard Brilliant Scientist, with no real personality beyond curiosity and the odd obsession with keeping his corpse preserved (without which there would have been no story). One might say that Jameson does realize the futility of obsession with death, when he conquers his suicidal desire at the end of the story; it's an important decision because without it there would have been no series. Of course, without his obsession with preserving his body, there would have been no series either.

The Zoromes have practically no personalities either, which I judge one of the great failures of the work. These are, after all, alien cyborgs, each of whom has had literally millions of years (they come from a star "millions of light-years" from our own, presumably in another Galaxy) to develop whatever odd quirks they wish, in a huge super-powerful spaceship. Yet they don't even have unusual ways of, say, painting their bodies. All they have are their fields of scientific or technological interest.

Heck, they don't even have names -- they go instead by letter-number designations. Now, I realize that they no longer speak by means of atmospheric vibrations and their original language wouldn't have been anything remotely like English anyway, but -- phoneticizations? Translations? Nicknames? (The letter parts of the letter-number designations would have to be translations anyway, since I doubt they used the Roman alaphabet on their homeworld). The lack of names is a serious flaw because it makes it harder to remember which one is which.

ThemeHere is where the story succeeds, and why it survived in Asimov's memory to be reprinted and hence available.

The story is about Mind and Science mastering Time and Death. Jameson should by rights be 40 million years dead, yet because he built his rocketship and the Zoromes, who should also be millions of years dead, came along, he can now expect to explore the Galaxy and learn new and fascinating things. The Zoromes, too, would have been unable to master the gulfs of time separating them from other star systems were it not for their achievement of incarnating themselves in imperishable robot forms.

This is a grand concept. Indeed, it is an early example of transhumanism, and as such makes "The Jameson Satellite" an important and intellectually breathtaking story. This sort of cosmic scope was exactly why early science fiction, despite its lack of characterization and defects of style, often succeeded in both enlightening and entertaining.

CritiqueWhat is very notable is that Mind and Science master Time and Death, but Life does not. Professor Jameson does not seem to have had much of a life on Earth beyond wealth (implicit in his ability to fund the rocket) and science. All we know of his personal life is that he had a nephew, and that only because it is necessary to explain who launched him into orbit.

This is very typical of the intellectual culture of the early 20th century. It was generally assumed that scientists were strange people who were only peripherally connected to love, marriage, or even good humor; they spent all their time meditating upon esoteric topics and had little attention to spare for the ordinary things of life.

This was also very typical of the likely readership of the pulps, at least in their own minds. These, remember, would have been largely teenage boys and young men, probably unmarried and probably rather uncertain when dealing with scary topics such as women, sexuality and whether or not they would ever have children. It was tempting to regard this awkwardness as "superiority" and hence identify with the ultra-rarefied "scientists" who for the most parts were products purely of science-fictional imagination (real scientists quite often married and had children, etc.).

Such an attitude is sad, or endearing, depending how one looks at it (it would be sad, but we know that most of these fans grew up, married, had children and fairly successful careers, since they were after all members of the Greatest Generation). What's less endearing is the attitude also taken, implicitly, toward sexuality, and toward women.

Professor Jameson either never loved or never regretted a lost love. The Zoromes have utterly abandoned sexuality and reproduction, even though this is not logically necessary (though Jones assumes it to be). As organic beings they presumably had genders, but they do not have them now (calling them "machine men" says nothing in this regard, as the early 20th-century collective male noun also included females). No Zorome is ever referred to as "he" or "she" -- or, for that matter, "it." (*)

The assumption is that women have nothing to do with the Mind, and that Life gets in the way of the Mind and Science, and is better-off put aside. This is a literally sterile and ultimately nihilistic attitude, but one unfortunately all too common in the early 20th century, especially after the Great War.

It was in part derived from the horrid blood-letting of the war itself, and in part from logical positivism and the fact that game theory had not yet been developed. An emotionally-depressed and relatively young scientific philosophy had decided that nothing not immediately provable was worthy of consideration, and had not yet grasped that emotions -- especially Love -- are in fact of strong survival advantage.

Stories like this were one of the more benign consequences of such an attitude.

IdeasThe concept of an artificial satellite itself was relatively new when this story was written -- I believe that Tsiolovsky himself had only formulated it a few decades ago, and it was not yet part of the popular or even popular science-fictional awareness. It is notable that the Zoromes themselves, experienced space-travellers that they are, find it strange that Jameson's ship is just circling the dead world.

The central concept of the story -- transcending the limitations of the flesh by becoming immortal cyborgs --  is a version of what we now call "Transhumanism."   It was then a very new idea.  This was certainly one of the first, and may possibly have been the first science-fictional use of the idea. It is almost certainly the first in which the concept was treated sympathetically (as opposed to the sort of thing that some monstrous mad scientist might do).

The use of the element radium for atomic power was a common idea in 1930's science-fiction, and justifiable that at that time radium was about the only radioactive substance whose nuclear properties (in particular, luminescence) was being exploited by Man. Radium is actually not a very good choice for an atomic battery, but this was far from obvious from the point of view of a man writing in 1930-31; many of the key experiments had not yet been done.

Jones uses convenient "radium repulsion rays" as a throwaway invention to justify the Jameson Satellite's non-destruction by meteors. The notion that there was a nigh-infinite variety of "rays" just awaiting exploitation by cunning technologists was common in the early 20th century, and was sparked by the actual discovery of X-rays, gamma rays, cosmic rays, and various particulate "rays" in the science of the day. Of course, none of these really let you do anything other than detect, range and destroy objects, but that wasn't yet known.

Also typical of the era is that the hazard of meteors is considered sufficient to require the "repulsion rays". In fact, even in 40 million years, the chances are that the Jameson Satellite wouldn't encounter a meteor sufficient to destroy it (or the corpse); the main countermeasure required would be a tough hull to resist the penetration of micrometeorites.

One strange thing, from our POV, is that nobody messed with the satellite until the Zoromes came along. Earth in the late 20th century was obviously advanced enough that one quirky (albiet rich) scientist could launch his corpse into high orbit, yet Jones seems to be assuming that nobody else was ever rich or curious enough to check out the satellite. Of course, Jones doesn't anticipate radar, and something as small as the Jameson Satellite, that high up, would not be readily visible to telescopes.

This may be plausibly retconned as future humans being well aware of the satellite, but preserving it in its orbit as a gesture of respect both to Professor Jameson and as a historical monument. Why not? We've done similar things with graves (though I wonder if Professor Jameson didn't spend some time in a museum on display before being replaced in his satellite and orbit by a later culture).

Jones also, more seriously, didn't anticipate the degree to which lots of satellites would be launched, and the resultant space junk which might be a longer-term hazard to the Jameson Satellite. OTOH, Jameson is in a high orbit where, today, there would be very little if any "space junk."

One omission of the work -- and a curious omission at that -- is that neither Professor Jameson nor the Zoromes seem particularly curious about the fate of Man or the story of the Earth after Jameson's first death. Jameson makes a throwaway comment about a friend of his having said that all human works would be effaced in "fifty thousand years," but that's not strictly true. While buildings etc. would of course have fallen down over centuries to millennia, and been either eroded or covered by geological processes over tens to hundreds of millennia, there would be clear archaeological and paleontological records of the existence of a global technological civilization even over tens of millions of years. These records would be highly-informative with prolonged and detailed research, and some might be greatly informative. Some time-capsules, for example (like the Jameson Satellite itself!) would probably survive more or less intact.

This lacuna may be seen as a further manifestation of Jones' assumption that Science and the Mind are not really part of the sphere of Life. While this doesn't make logical sense (surely archaeology and paleontology are activities of "Science and the Mind"), it makes emotional sense if you imagine Earthly human civilization to be part of Life and Professor Jameson, the Zoromes, and alien civilizations to be part of "Science and the Mind" Parochialism of this sort is sadly not unknown even today, even in science fiction (see the "Mundane Science Fiction Manifesto" for an abomination of this sort).

Jameson, as part of his rejection of death at the end of the story, is also rejecting the past of his planet. Hence, a detailed examination of what happened on Earth between Jameson's first death and his second life would jar with the story's basic theme.

We should also recognize the difference between modern and early 20th century conceptions of the scale of "deep time." From the POV of the paleontology of the 1920's, the Earth was maybe a billion years old and the Mesozoic ended 10-20 million years ago. Jameson, 40 million years in our future, was by that science more what we'd think of as 100 million years or more in our future.

Still, some things would have survived. The Jameson Satellite itself did, after all.

From a modern scientific point of view, the changes in the Earth and Solar System are far greater than one would expect across a mere 40 million years. The Sun would not really swell into a giant over tens of millions of years, nor would the Earth tidelock. As for planetary orbits, we now know that both the Earth and Luna are gradually moving away from the Sun and Earth respectively.

However, what Jones wrote was quite consistent with the scientific understanding of his day. Before radio-isotopic dating enabled an understanding of the timescale of terrestrial planetary processes, and nuclear fusion enabled an understanding of the timescale of stellar processes, science was quite vague about such timescales. (Hence Lovecraft's assumption that Ctuhlhu might have been imprisoned, on Earth, for "vigntillions" of years). It was known that at some point the Sun would become a giant and that at some point the Earth might become tidelocked, since the day was known to have slowed over time. Much science fiction of the era had similar distant futures.

I've previously mentioned that I found the Zorome abandonment of sexuality and reproduction to be unreasonable, and dictated primarily by Jones' philosophy of the opposition between the Mind of Life. To elucidate: a civilization with the technology to take organic brains and preserve them alive and functional for millions of years would almost certainly have the technology to grow new bodies for them and place them in those bodies, if desired, or at least keep sex cells and grow new people (who might later be converted into "machine-men" as needed).

The Zoromes "discard" Jameson's body after the "all-important brain had been removed," which of course makes no sense. The Zoromes have never seen a human body; they are not necessarily aware of the details of the human brain's interaction with the human body, and logically one would keep the body for study, at least for a while. They don't even think of doing so, and I think that the "discarding" of the body is at least in part a symbolic rejection of Body, or Life, by Mind.

Jones presumes that the Zoromes would have no interest in sex once they no longer had bodies, a common assumption of the era (see the similar situation with "Doc" Smith's Entities of Pure Mind in the Skylark novels). I don't know about Zoromes (they may have had purely seasonal sexuality like most Earthly life), but this wouldn't be true for humans; our sexuality is as much mental as physical. The extent to which one would have an actual sex drive would, of course, be partially based on hormonal flows -- which would presumably be regulated by the machine-bodies.

One to-modern-eyes hilarious aspect of the Zoromes is that, though their cyborg bodies support a brain-body interface sophisticated enough to allow fine control of their tentacles, they do not seem to be able to incorporate what we would think of as fairly simple electronics. To wit, when the ship's mathematician calculates the length of time that Professor Jameson has been orbiting the Earth:

"The mathematician stepped forward. Upon one side of his cube were many buttons arranged in long columns and squares."

and he has to press the buttons with his tentacles to get the result.

Of course, Jones failed to anticipate solid-state electronics, but the image is still funny -- the super-cyborg having to use a hull-mounted push-button electromechanical calculator to do his math!

I don't currently have the book series, and I don't know if this applies to the later works.


Conclusion"The Jameson Satellite" fails deeply in characterization and its theme is flawed by a false opposition between Life and the Mind (with the author firmly on the side of the Mind), but the cosmic grandeur of its vision, and its early transhumanistic concept, make it memorable and worth reading even today. Its flaws are largely the flaws of the science fiction of its age, while its merits transcend its age.



  1. I remember the Zoromes and Professor Jameson being mentioned in passing in some anthology or another, many many moons ago (or perhaps it was in P. Schuyler Miller's review column in Analog, idk) and it was good to see that someone else remembered what may have been the first of the cyborg stories.

  2. I'm surprised the Jameson stories aren't more famous, as not only is it one of the first cyborg stories but is also one of the first in which cyborgs prove to be exceptionally useful for interstellar exploration. Additionally, they were published by Ace Books sometime in the mid-to-late 20th century, so you don't need to hunt down old magazines to find them.

  3. The idea of artificial satellites wasn't new. "The Brick Moon" by Hale.

  4. Yes, that's true. However, they weren't that common an idea in science fiction in 1931. Most writers generally assumed that everything of importance would happen either on planetary surfaces or on ships flying between them.

    Another early story featuring a satellite is Jack Williamson's The Prince of Space (also 1931), which I reviewed last year in

    Very little of the story actually takes place on the space hab, but its existence is important to the premise.