Monday, April 15, 2013

Terraforming in the Works of Raymond Z. Gallun


“Terraforming in the Works of Raymond Z. Gallun”

© 2013


Jordan S. Bassior

Raymond Z. Gallun is one of the underappreciated great writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, primarily famous for just two stories:  “Old Faithful” (1934) and “Seeds of the Dusk” (1938); though he wrote literally hundreds.  One seminal aspect of his corpus is that he was one of the earliest writers to describe terraforming – the alteration of worlds to make them more habitable for Man – doing so even before Jack Williamson.

The first Gallun story to discuss terraforming is none other than “Seeds of the Dusk” (1938), and the terraforming is both key to the resolution of that story and to the setting of another story in the same setting, “The Eternal Wall” (1942).  This aspect of the tale is often missed, because it’s part of the denounement, but the story ends with the Seeds, having annihilated the Itorloo with their biological weapons, planning to terraform the Earth through a long-term project of canal construction, using their own vegetable bodies to pump the remaining water from the shrunken seas up toward the continents, thus expanding the remaining habitable surface area of the planet.

The interesting thing about this is the Seeds do not so much “terraform” the Earth as “aresform” it (make it more Marslike), and the version of Mars they make it more like is the Golden Age Mars of thin but breathable air and arid conditions alleviated by the canal system envisioned by Percival Lowell around the 1890’s and 1900’s.  Gallun himself earlier showed this Mars in “Old Faithful” (1934); it was of course the Mars used by H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1895) and by most science fiction writers from the 1890’s until 1965, when Mariner 4 took the first close-range pictures of the planet and revealed the barren and lifeless surface that we know today.

The second interesting thing about this is that Gallun, in his very first try at writing about terraforming, hit upon one of the methods we are seriously studying today, namely biological methods.  The main power of the Seeds – and of real-life biological terraforming techniques – is that the self-replicating nature of life is used as a force multiplier.  The tailored life forms execute a chemical process, and though each individual organism is small and unable to do much processing, since the organisms can self-replicate, and keep on processing through many of their own generations, eventually the amount of chemicals that can be processed and transported may be immense.  This is, of course, exactly how Earth’s own ecosystem really works today.

Finally, as I mentioned, Gallun here anticipated Jack Williamson.  Williamson’s “Collison Orbit” wasn’t published until 1942.  I’m guessing that the idea of terraforming was being generally discussed in the science-fiction community from the late 1930’s to early 1940’s, but Gallun still may have provided the first plausible example.

We know that the project of the Seeds was successful, because half a million years later, by the time of the sapient prairie dog civilization depicted in “The Eternal Wall” (1942), the Earth is essentially as the Seeds intended it – though the environment has greatly degraded, a large-scale river system keeps the waters flowing from the seas to the higher regions.  The seas in “The Eternal Wall” are described as having “vanished,” which is probably because most of Earth’s water is now flowing through the canal network.  The Seeds themselves do not appear in “The Eternal Wall,” but this does not mean that they have vanished:  they would have had no problem with the prairie dog civilization if the Cynomys in turn refrain from trying to exterminate the Seeds (as had the Itorloo).

In “Big Pill” (1952), rebellious Titan colonists, frustrated with lethally-shoddy supplies and the cold and deadly environment of that Saturnian moon develop a special sort of hydrogen bomb, the titular “Big Pill,” which is able in one colossal detonation to transform by nuclear processes the elements on the Titanian surface into a chemical mix which will render Titan (in some years or decades, when the radiation dies down) shirt-sleeves human habitable.  This story is interesting not only because Gallun got the nature of the Titanian surface wrong (he saw it as rocky and with very little atmosphere) and in a way which was more accurate for the Jovian moons (which much Golden and Silver Age science fiction depicted as Earthlike), but also because the terraforming technique he described has never appeared to be practical, but was later used in Star Trek – namely, Gallun was the first writer to describe something like the “Genesis Device” used in The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Finally, in “Comet’s Burial” (1953), two rebellious Lunar colonists, frustrated with the bottleneck imposed on the development of the Moon by the shortage of water, which is described in the story as being in the Lunar rocks hundreds of miles down, deliberately crash a comet into the Moon to crack the crust and liberate the water and other volatiles.  This results in the Moon becoming more habitable and the colonists (who had been imprisoned for their actions) being released and hailed as heroes for their accomplishments.  The interesting thing here is that the method (cometary collision) has been (fairly recently) seriously discussed as a means of terraforming, but more to directly deliver volatiles than to release them through triggering vulcanism.  Another interesting thing is that both in “Big Pill” and “Comet’s Burial,” the actual authorities are opposed to the terraforming projects:  the heroes are rebels who are first fought by the forces of societies only too willing to accept a status quo unfavorable to the colonists.

In 1961, Carl Sagan – at the time just one of many young astronomers – would propose the terraforming of Venus, and the concept would become part of “serious” planetology.  But we should honor Raymond Z. Gallun, and others (including most famously Jack Williamson) for promoting the idea long before mainstream science accepted it.  And it’s quite likely that Sagan – who grew up a science fiction fan – may have been inspired by Gallun and Williamson.

Just another example of science fiction inspiring the development of real science.


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