Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Retro Review - "The Death's Head Meteor" (1930) by Neil R. Jones


Neil R. Jones (1909-1988) was a pioneering science-fiction writer who, among other things, was among the first to write stories about cyborgs and robots as characters, and to set his stories in coherent future histories (anticipating the concept of John W. Campbell and the later efforts of Robert A. Heinlein and Cordwainer Smith).  His first story, "The Death's Head Meteor," was published in Air Wonder Stories in 1930, and has just been reprinted here in Fantastic Worlds.  As is common for first efforts, it's a little rough.


Sometime in the 26th century, around six hundred years in the future from a 1930 POV, Mankind has developed an interplanetary civilization which has colonized other worlds of the Solar System and which mines meteors.  A swarm of meteors is detected near Mars, and a young man, Jan Trenton, is dispatched from Earth in a one-man atomic-powered "space car" to intercept and assay the swarm.

When he makes the intercept, he is shaken to see that one of the meteors happens to resemble a gigantic human skull.  Mastering his fears, he closes in to begin examining the meteor, but he accidentally closes too fast and crashes against the meteor.  His array of waldoes becomes wedged in a crevasse.

What is worse, the impact has altered the meteor's trajectory so that it will now crash into Mars, with Trenton helplessly stuck to its surface.  Trenton frantically fires his jets and works his drills, but cannot break free.  The meteor hits the atmosphere, the heat rises within the space car, and Trenton blacks out.

He comes to in deep space, hurtling away from Mars.  By luck his car broke free at the last moment and he happened to be shoved onto a survivable course.  Trenton lands on Mars, shaken but unhurt.

The Good

Jones imagined a multi-planet, atomic-powered civilization with routine interplanetary travel in the 26th century, and did so at a time when in reality nobody had yet split the atom or successfully launched a rocket beyond our atmosphere.  In 1930, unlike in the later Golden Age, it was far from obvious to most lay people, or even to many scientists and engineers, that we would develop atomic energy and spaceflight.  He had the idea of meteor mining, though Garrett P. Serviss anticipated him here by over 30 years in Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898):  still, it was not yet a staple of science-fiction.  Jones also here invented the word "astronaut" to refer to a spaceman:  this one would stick.

Jan Trenton's space-car is one of the first examples of what is by implication a fusion torchship in science fiction.  It is explicitly atomic-powered and (given that it can take off from Earth's gravity well and reach Mars in under a day) capable of several gravities maximum and around a gravity's continuous thrust.  Jones doesn't go into the details, but then in 1930 even nuclear physicists didn't understand that much about nuclear physics, so he gets a pass on this.

Some modern readers may consider it a flaw that Jan Trenton just jumps into his car and takes off, without any elaborate ground-crew or check-list.  I actually consider this a virtue:  aside from the fact that there implicitly is some sort of space traffic control authority (note the huge radio in the beginning) and we do not know that Jan does not have a takeoff check-list, what Jones here implies is that spacecraft are by this point a fairly mature technology.  Mature technologies tend to be simpler to operate than their earlier forms, because inherent complexities become automated or desgined around with improvements:  the fact that we need to go through a lot of rigamarole to launch a spaceship today shows that we're still in an early stage of the art.

It's true that the space-car is in some ways -- particularly its life-support system -- poorly designed from a modern POV.  This just goes to show how difficult it is for one creative mind to anticipate the technological progress developed by many creative minds over centuries, or even decades.  This is a fundamental obstacle not merely to science-fiction but also to serious futurological prediction.

The space-car's waldoes (not called such because the "waldo" wouldn't be named until Robert A. Heinlein's eponymous tale of 1942 are a neat idea, the more so because real machines of this sort did not yet exist (and indeed the invention of such would be inspired partially by Heinlein's story).  I do not know if Heinlein ever read "The Death's Head Meteor" and was similiarly inspired by Jones.  This is the same sort of thing that the Zoromes would attach to their robot bodies in  Jones' Professor Jameson series, so Jones was obviously fascinated by the possibilities of mechanical manipulators.

The Bad

I said that first stories are generally rough, and "The Death's Head Meteor" is no exception. 

There is only one real character, Jan Trenton, and he is almost totally flat.  We see him playing "a game" with his friends (we never find out what they're playing, who's winning or how they feel about it).  He's young, brave and competent -- well, who else would you want to send out on a mission like that?  He doesn't want to die -- who does?  And that's pretty much it for Jan Trenton.  Jones had not yet realized that you need to give a character a personality to make the reader care what happens to him:  in this story, we only care about Trenton because we're putting ourselves in his (rather sticky) situation.

This flatness of character, while common to a lot of pre-Golden Age pulp science-fiction, seems to also be a specific weakness of Jones' style.  If you read the stories of, say, Edmond Hamilton or Jack Williamson from this era, you'll find stereotyped but reasonably strong characterization, enough that the reader is aware of the personalities of all major chracters.  In Jones' stories, characters tended to merely fill their roles without much variation -- very noticable in the case of his later Zoromes -- and this is very much the case in this first of his efforts.

When Jan Trenton goes unconscious, the first thing he does upon waking is turn on his air recycling system, because it's getting "hot and stuffy" in the cockpit.  An air recycling system is not something you want to have on manual control, as anoxia could easily rob a pilot of judgement or consciousness, causing him to die because he would be unable to turn on the oxygen.  What's more, the mechanism required to render its operation automatic wouldn't be too difficult even for 1920's technology, and this story is set 600 years in the future of the 1920's.

Part of the plot hinges on the impossiblity of Trenton either getting out of his space-car or freeing his waldoes.  This means that he is not wearing a space-suit, nor is his waldo array ejectable by means of explosive bolts or some equivalent mechanism.  While both are possible, the first strikes me as more than a little dangerous for all space operations, especially since by the 2500's one would imagine that space-suits would be advanced and reasonably comfortable garments, and real-world exploratory craft often have emergency releases for protruding arrays for just this reason.  This is a good example of how the primitive aeronautical technology of the early 20th century, projected into a spacefaring era, would have made the astronautical arts far more dangerous than they are in reality today.


"The Death's Head Meteor" is a solid but somewhat wooden story, which imaginatively explores the possibilities of a spacefaring civilization, with some technical flaws which may be traced to the primitive state of actual aerospace engineering c. 1930.  As a first effort, and for its time, it was nothing of which Jones should have been ashamed, and it is still readable today, especially as an example of its era.

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