Monday, July 16, 2012

Retro Review: "Out Around Rigel" (1931) by Robert H. Wilson

"Retro Review of 'Out Around Rigel' (1931)
by Robert H. Wilson"

(c) 2006, 2012 by Jordan S. Bassior


On the ancient Moon, at a time when Luna was habitable and Terra a primordial cloud-shrouded planet (1), there is a high civilization. The narrator, Dunal, and his best friend Garth, dwell in "Nardos the Beautiful, the City Built on the Water," the water in question being that of the Oceanus Procellarum near the Grimaldi Plateau (2). They are both in love with Kelvar, who is Dunal's betrothed (3).

This is a rather Barsoomian sort of high culture: they have spaceships and can build a "ten mile long adamantine bridge" to connect Nardos to the mainland, but they fight honor duels with razor-sharp two-handed swords. We don't know much about Dunal and Garth's background, save that they were schoolboys together and that they are really good swordsmen; however they have "aristocratic" attitudes and are both well-educated and probably wealthy, so we may assume that they are from their society's upper classes.

Garth has been given command of the Comet, the most advanced spaceship ever built -- and apparently the first one to be capable of FTL travel. The Comet is built of "shining helio-beryllium", is a cylinder whose main element is 20' long by 15' wide, with 5' long pointed extensions bow and stern, and four fins that hold its main engines. Power is provided by the disintegration of mercury (4). The main drive is an electromagnetic warp system that is capable of flinging the ship at an estimated speed of 4000 C.

Garth wants Dunal along with him on the first flight of the Comet, a voyage to Rigel (5), which Garth figures should take about six months round trip. Dunal signs on. The two will be the ship's only crew.

The Comet flies to Rigel, where they discover a planet smaller and denser than Luna, with a flourine atmosphere. They land on the planet. Garth theorizes that any life forms would have to be silicon-based. They step out onto the surface of the planet, protected by the helio-beryllium paint on their spacesuits, and admire the weird alien beauty of the place.

Garth then reveals his real reason for bringing Dunal on this expedition. He will fight Dunal with the aforementioned Lunarian dueling swords. Even a slight cut will mean death, because of the ferociously poisonous atmosphere. The winner will survive to marry Kelvar.

They duel. Dunal cannot bring himself to slay his friend, and passes up many openings. But Garth is fighting to win. Suddenly, Dunal sees tentacles rise from the sand and slither towards Garth. Dunal tries to warn Garth, but his friend strikes Dunal across the faceplate, which does not break, but the force of the blow knocks Dunal to the ground (6).

A horde of alien beasts surface. The two men, once again allies, fight their way towards the Comet, shattering the glassy-bodied creatures with their dueling swords. Recovering his honor, Garth boosts Dunal into the ship and slams the hatch, remaining outside to fight until he is overwhelmed by the silicon beasts.

Saddened, Dunal returns home to the Solar System. But when he lands on Luna, he discovers to his horror that a thousand years have passed back home (7): there has apparently been a cataclysmic meteor shower and his homeworld's atmosphere and oceans have been flung into space. After a month of hopeless waiting, he writes an account of his adventures, seals it into a helio-beryllium box, and lies down to die, knowing that all he has loved, including his betrothed and his best friend, is now dust.

A footnote to the story explains that it is a translation of the account that Dunal sealed in the box, which was found by an expedition launched from the Earth to the Moon at some unspecified time.

General Critique

This is a reasonably exciting and well-written story; it's obvious why it has been anthologized. Dunal, Garth and Kelvar are sparsely characterized but do have distinct personalities, and the first time I read this story I was struck by the inherent tragedy: not only did Dunal and Garth unwittingly leave Kelvar behind forever, but their duel was completely pointless - 500 years had already passed back home at that point.

On the other hand, I do have to worry about the lack of common sense shown by their whole culture. It's explicitly stated that they are aware of the speed of light as a limiting factor; they simply assume that the electromagnetic warp drive gets around this limit. They have apparently never tested the drive!

Even if we assume that the Lunarian civilization has the same lack of automation as most 1930's SF-nal cultures, one would think that they would have taken the ship on a short hop and see what happened. The drive is explicitly stated to be capable of insystem use - Dunal and Garth use it in this manner in both the Solarian and Rigellian systems. This lapse is mystifying.

However, it doesn't kill the story for me. It's fairly obvious, as I mentioned, that the Lunarian culture is full of the same sort of aristocratic, honor-bound recklessness that characterizes ERB's Barsoom, so perhaps the Lunarians believe that a mere test-flight is unworthy of the pilot's courage, or something like that.

Slightly less understandable is why the first flight is to be a 1000-LY round trip, rather than one of only 10-20 LY (there are right now many interesting stars within 10 LY of the Sun). This I can also handwave away - perhaps there is something especially interesting about Rigel, and after all Garth thinks that the voyage will only be a half-year trip.

Of course, both these assumptions are necessary to make the tragedy work. If the Lunarians test the drive, the flaw becomes obvious. If Garth makes a short hop to a neighboring star, then only about a decade or two pass on Luna - given the idealistic nature of the Lunarians, maybe Kelvar even waits for Dunal. And then it's very unlikely that much would have changed back at home.

This may be an "idiot plot" - I'd call it more of an "idiot culture plot." But then the same is true for the Barsoom stories, and I love those.

Good Science

For a story written around 1930 to get relativistic physics even remotely right was good science. I do not know if this is the first story ever written in which time dilation played a key role, but it is certainly one of the first stories about which this can be said. Given popular conceptions of the Universe c. 1930, it may not be surprising that the Lunarians weren't certain what would happen - especially given the warp drive.

Wilson also gets gravity right - he's aware that it is essentially a bending of the fabric of spacetime. This is a very good understanding of the nature of the Universe by c. 1930 sf-nal standards, indeed!

Flourine-breathing silicon-based life is actually possible, though improbable. Wilson may have been one of the first science fiction writers to grasp the connection between flourine breathing and silicon as a basis for life chemistry (fluorocarbon biochemistry is less probable than flourosilicon biochemistry, though neither is particularly likely).

It does seem likely that Luna passed through an early stage in which it had a significant atmosphere and probably hydrosphere as well. It is not likely that Luna developed complex life (though prokaryotic life can't be ruled out), let alone sapient life, in the few hundred million years before said atmosphere dissipated, but it is of course possible. Jack Williamson used the same premise even more famously in "The Moon Era."

"Meteors" and storms of "meteors," including those powerful enough to devastate whole worlds, were indeed more common in the early history of the Solar System than they are today. We now know that Luna itself was created by a Mars-sized impactor striking the Earth; it is possible (though unlikely) that Luna later might have lost its atmosphere rapidly as the result of a major impact.

Weird Science

Mercury is not a natural fissionable. As I mentioned, this is probably not something that Wilson could have known around 1930. I would handwave this away by proposing that the Lunarians knew something we don't about nuclear physics, but it is rather odd that they would have discovered this but not whether time dilation applied to their warp drive.

It is rather obviously impossible to make "helio-beryllium alloy," at least using any chemical processes we know. Helium is a noble gas; it doesn't bond with anything. Now, some noble gases have been forced into combination with flourine, so maybe the Lunarians also knew something about chemistry that we haven't discovered yet. Maybe.

Actually, this alloy was rather interesting, it was the "light inactive alloy of a metal and a gas," and if it were real there would be all sorts of good aerospace and industrial applications for it. Given some sort of bizarre femtotech, it might even become possible. But that's science at a level "indistinguishable from magic," of course.

Seminal Weird Science

Did you notice that the Comet had a warp drive? Actually Wilson doesn't call it a "warp drive," he says simply that it "bends space," but essentially that's what a modern sf-nal warp drive does. We don't yet know whether warp drives are in general good science, but he's got the basic idea, and very early on. Though, of course, the whole point of his story is that his warp drive is STL.

Warp drives were well in advance of c. 1930's understanding of physics, though we now know that they may be possible. Wilson gets a point from me for using the concept.

Bad Science

Wilson makes the assumption that Rigel is roughly where it is today. But the story is set a long time ago - at least half a billion years by my guess, and certainly many millions of years by even a 1930's guess. Over mere tens of millions of years, the set of "near stars" drastically changes. The story would have made more sense if Wilson had simply picked a random, made-up star star name!


This was an interesting, exciting story by the standards of its day, and it had considerable influence on later science fiction. The fictional alien culture itself was partially inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, which is not surprising as ERB was one of the field's most highly regarded authors around 1930. (8) The level of scientific plausibility was actually very high for its era.


(1) The exact time is never stated. By early 1930's planetology, we would guess at least half a billion years ago; by modern planetology, we would guess more like four billion years ago.

(2) Wilson uses the modern selenological terminology. Presumably Dunal's race had their own terms for these features. If Luna had Earthlike relative quantities water, the Oceanus Procellarum would indeed be a sea.

(3) Neither the name for the plastic "kevlar," nor Tolkien's Elvish word for "animal" had yet been coined.

(4) This of course is impossible. I don't think that Wilson had any way of knowing this, however, given the primitive state of nuclear physics c. 1930.

(5) "Estimated" is the correct word for it. As story events show, no Lunarians have yet actually traveled or projected any object at FTL speeds. It says something about both the courage and the recklessness of Dunal's civilization that they plan to make their first test of this drive with a 1000-LY interstellar voyage conducted by a manned spacecraft!

(6) Note that Dunal has not only behaved nobly all through this fight, but has actually demonstrated superior prowess at every point. This sort of overkill of heroism was standard for stories of this era, and this is why I described the fight in detail.

(7) Because the Comet's drive isn't really FTL, it's only NAFAL, and due to time-dilation what seemed like six months from the POV of Dunal was actually a thousand years from the POV of Luna. Wilson gets some of the relativistic reasoning slightly wrong, but he comes to the right conclusion.

(8) Am I the only one to wonder if Naoko Takeuchi (the creator of Sailor Moon) ever read this story? Consider the location, the aristocratic honor-based culture, and the strong romantic theme ...


  1. I observe that the noble gases that have been forced into compound have higher orbitals, which are not all filled. It's unlikely that the lower noble gases -- helium and neon -- could have been.

    Maybe it was a translation error.

  2. Nah, I'm just reaching to justify the "helio-beryllium." Though I can sort of see two ways to make such a substance, one of them (confinement of the helium in a beryllium lattice) wouldn't actually be an alloy (and it's difficult to see what the point of including the helium would be, unless it provided some sort of extra shielding: it certainly wouldn't make the beryllium any stronger); the other (femtotech creation of exotic particles capable of substituting for electrons and bonding the atoms) would be beyond the Lunar technology as depicted in the story, is really close to technobabble, and -- again -- seems pointless.

    So you're right :)