Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review - "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," by Kelly Link (2005)

Introduction:  There is a sort of story which pretends to be about one thing but is actually about something else entirely.  This can be done well -- in which case it's a continuation of the intellectual conversation in the field, making a much-needed connection between subgenres in a genre or even between genres.  An example of doing it well is H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories, which posit that ancient myths of gods and devils might actually derive from a poorly-understood history of contact with ultraterrestrial, extraterrestrial and interdimensional alien beings -- and this could be even more glorious and horrible than the way that pre-scientific humans perceived them.
     An example of doing it poorly is -- well, this story.

Massive SPOILERS for Everything In the Story

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review of "Weep For Day" by Indrapramit Das (2012)

Introduction:  Being well aware that this story was probably put at the head of the Best New SF 26 anthology to highlight some sort of committment to "diversity" (because the author was obviously Indian and was one of whom I had never previously heard), I approached it with some trepidation as to the likely quality.  I feared that the quality would be marginal and the entire story a thinly disguised anti-Western rant.

What did I find?  Well, that's the whole point of this article.

On to the review.

Major SPOILERS for "Weep For Day"

Setting:  "Weep for Day" takes place on what is very obviously to the reader a lost colony, but one which has obviously forgotten its own interstellar origins.  The world is tide-locked:  its dayside mostly uninhabitable to humans due to its extreme  heat, and its nightside mostly unihabitable due to its extreme cold.

A human civilization has emerged here, which regards the planet as simply the "world," and  its star as  simply the "Sun."  They displaced and  apparently exterminated a race of dragons, the "sunwyrms," who dominated the day-side part of the twilight region, and drove the Sunwyrms toward the Night, and further displacing a sapient humanoid race which they term the Nightmares, who were adapted  to the night-side region of the twilight zone.

The humans conquered and settled the twilight belt, founding a planet-girdling conurbation they call The City of Long Shadows, under a semi-theocratic, semi-feudal society which they call the Monarchy. The Monarchy seems in some ways to be rather like the late 18th to early 20th century British, and in some ways like traditional India, which is to say, its flavor is somewhat "Anglo-Indian."

The humans have fought a generations-long genocidal war against the humanoid Nightmares.  As this has gone on, human technology has advanced, to the point of an Industrial Revolution (the "Industrialization") which has led to much larger populations, steam power, railroads and high-quality armor and weapons, including rifles.  With these new capabilities, the humans have driven the Shadows to the brink of extinction, and -- with primitive spacesuits and electrical lighting -- are finally advancing into the coldest regions in which the Shadows survive, wiping out the last remnanets of the species.

I was very impressed by this scenario.  It's very Stapledonian, in its image of a planet on which two very different sapient races are struggling for survival.  The normal Stapledonian outcome would be the extermination of the lower-tech species by the higher-tech ones, and this is what seems to be happening.

The quality of the imagination and writing, coupled with the writer's Anglospheric origins, makes me suspect that Indrapramit Das may have actually been inspired by Olaf Stapledon, in particular Last and First Men and Star-Maker.  If anyone, especially Mr. Das himself, knows if this is true, I would appreciate commentary on this.

Plot:  The first-person protagonist, Valyzia ("Val") is a young woman growing up in the last decades of the long war against the Nightmares.  Her father is a former hero of that war:  a knight who ventured into the Night to fight them with the more primitive armor and weapons of the last generation.  Her parents love her, and she essentially has a happy childhood, save for her rivalry with her elder brother Velag, who when young is a bit of a coward and crybaby.

One day when she is eight, Val and Vel are taken by their parents on a trip to a town established on the fringe of the Night, where a local notable shows them a captive Nightmare.  Vel is terrified of the creature, but Val is struck by its essential commonality with humans, and pities it.

Vel is so embarrassed by his fear of the Nightmare that he later violently assaults his sister, threatening to strangle her to death if she makes fun of him.  This to some extent poisons their sibling relationship.

Nine years later, when Val is seventeen, her brother Vel graduates from the military academy and prepares to be shipped off to the  front.  Val can tell that Vel is nervous about this, and she tries to persuade him to resign from the military, but fails.

Within the year, her brother is dead, slain in battle by the Nightmares.  Val mourns him, for she loved Vel and had long forgiven him for laying hands on her.

Some years later, Val is an adult participating in a scientific expedition to the Night.  She has become a lesbian, which is forbidden in her culture, but she will not forswear her beloved, the biologist Ilydrin, who is also a member of the expedition.

Her expedition has discovered abandoned caves which reveal something of the culture and history of the Nightmares.  They show that the Nightmares were a civilized race, rather than the monstrous horrors the humans imagined them.  As the story ends, the expedition is about to attempt to discover if there remain any survivors of the Nightmares, and try to make peaceful contact with them if possible -- a plan with which Val agrees whole-heartedly, though she is well aware that they may well wind up being slaughtered by the (understandably) suspicious Nightmares.

Characters:  Val is a classic hero -- both physically and morally brave -- who is doing a classically-heroic thing.  She is putting her life and reputation at risk in order to explore the unknown and end an ancient war-of-mistake.  Val is notably intelligent and willing to stand up for what she considers to be right.

The only unusual thing about her in this regard is that she is a lesbian -- which may be obscurely foreshadowed by her rivalry with Vel.  In the classic-heroic mold, she seems to regard her love affair with Ilydrin in romantically-idealistic terms.

Her father is an admirable character who has courage and loves his family, but who represents both the good and bad aspects of the past.  In his youth he clearly saw fighting the Nightmares as a good thing, but he also obviously feels bad after Vel's death for having urged him into a military career.  This is shown by his putting away the Nightmare head after Vel falls in battle.

Val's mother is also loving and caring, but gets less characterization.  In part this is because the story is only ~8,000 words long, but in part this may represent that she has somewhat subsumed her own identity in favor of her family's.  This may also have helped influenced Val to avoid romantic relationships with men.

Vel is a complex character who clearly does not really want to go into the Night and fight the Nightmares, but believes that he must in order to live up to his father's example.  This is made obvious by his fear of the captive Nightmare and his violence toward Val in their childhood.  His fate is all the more tragic, because he never knows that the war has become pointless; the  Nightmares are no longer a threat to human domination of the twilight zone.

Sir Tylvur, the man who owns the captive Nightmare, comes across as cruel and bigoted.  He represents the strong strain in the Monarchy that is entirely uncritical of the long genocidal war:  he can't see that the Nightmare is a fellow-sapient deserving of compassion, even with it right before him.  Or, possibly, he must not see this, because it would damage his own self-esteem.

Ilydrin doesn't get much characterization, aside from "brave" and "smart," both pre-requisites for her role in the expedition.  One hopes that she is well worthy of Val's love.

Theme:  The importance of tolerance and understanding; the extent to which hatred springs from fear  and may lead to terrible consequences.

To elaborate ...

It is very clear to me that something went wrong with the human colonization of this  planet.  The humans originally "came out of" the lakes common in the Day-bordering parts of the Shadow zone.  It is possible that their ancestors landed there by accident or mistake, in an area which turned out to not be habitable in the long term.

Their  early history consisted of fighting  the Sunwyrms, who may or may not have been sapient, but certainly were formidable  enough to threaten both the Humans and the Nightmares. The Humans drove the Sunwyrms deeper into the Shadow zone, where they displaced the Nightmares.  Only then did the Humans meet the Nightmares.

The Humans had already lost most of their culture and technology, regressing to (probably) Iron Age barbarians.  They were primed to consider other natives of the planet hostile, as they had fought the Sunwyrms.  The Nightmares saw the Humans as terrifying invaders, and had an even lower technology (somewhere in the Neolithic to Bronze Age).  It was inevitable that the two races met in genocidal conflict.

And yet it was tragic.  The Humans were better adapted to the Day; the Humans to the Night.  Thus the Humans could have ranged out further into the Day and the Nightmares to the Night, extracting and trading resources.  Instead of a centuries-long genocide, there  could have been a peaceful mutual exploitation of the planet, and a peaceful mutual climb up to an advanced technological civilization.

Had the Humans and Nightmares, from the beginning, realized what Val has realized, much tragedy on both sides might have been avoided.

But this realization would have required moral courage.  Which can, as here demonstrated, be even more important than physical courage.

And Val, very obviously, has both.

Analysis:  There is a clear analogy here being made to both the Aryan and the British conquests of India.  Both these conquests were unnecessarily brutal, and both ended not in the annihilation but rather the merging of the two cultures.

The Aryan example will be less familiar to many Westerners, but, basically, in the mid-2nd millennium BCE, an Eastern Indo-European people -- the same as the ones who conquered and founded Persia/Iran -- entered the Indian subcontinent and overran its pre-Aryan inhabitants, consisting of whoever it was who comprised the Indus Valley civilization (modern Pakistan) and the Dravidians of the main part of the subcontinent.

Originally, the Aryans set themselves up as a master race, distinguished both by more classically Indo-European customs and by having lighter skins (the caste system derives from "varna" which literally means  "color," it coming from the same roots word as our "varnish").  But in time, despite caste rules the populations interbred and the cultures intermingled, producing what we now think of as traditionally "Indian" culture.

The British conquest is more familiar.  India had been conquered by the Muslim Mughals.  As the Mughal Empire broke up, the British expanded from coastal trading enclaves to pick up the pieces, subjugating one after another native principality.  The British became quite racist toward the Indians, rendering them second-class subjects in their own lands.

At the same time, the British brought many advances to India, most notably the Industrial and (to some extent) Information Revolutions.  These advances were and are highly-valued, and consequently when the Indians finally regained their indpendence after World War II, they retained major aspects of British culture.  Most notably, English is in India one of the major languages (the other two being Hindi and Urdu), and the most prominent one of science and scholarship.

Thus India has a love-hate relationship with Britain.  On the one hand, Britain humiliated India for two centuries.  On the other hand, Britain brought a more advanced science and technology, from which India continues to benefit today.

This leads to a strange combination of defiant nationalism and glorification of Ancient India, with a strong conformity to 19th-20th century British culture -- especially in the Indian upper classes, and especially among scientists and scholars.

"Weep for Day" somewhat shows this, in that the Monarchy is very reminiscent of the late 19th to early 20th century British Empire (Val even speaks of her generation fashionably mocking the old morals, whch is rather Edwardian or even Interwar British, she just stops short of referring to "Bright Young Things").  On the other hand, Val's family strikes me as very Indian in their basic dynamics, and the names are suspiciously Eastern Indo-European in tone.

The Nightmares are regarded less as the British regarded the Indians (the British never attempted to wipe out the Indians), nor even as the Aryans treated the Dravidians.  Instead, they are seen by the Monarchy as more like the demons of Hindu mythology -- merciless and vicious dark-dwellers who must be destroyed root and branch by avenging demigod-like heroes.

Of course, this concept of the Nightmares turns out to be largely wrong, as Val discovers by the story's end.

Tone:  This is very much a classic science-fiction story, complete with strange alien world, heroic adventurers, and wondrous discoveries.  Yes, it deliberately subverts some of the cliches -- the hero is a lesbian woman, and the monsters turn out to be less monstrous than everyone previously assumed -- but then again so did the Interwar and Golden Age pulp stories, more than many 21st-century stories realize.

Conclusion:  I was mostly very pleasantly surprised.  I expected some sort of dreary "check all the Diversity Boxes" production, but instead I found a masterfully-written tale of intellectual and geographical exploration.  To the extent that the author being non-Western mattered, it actually helped in that he came out of a different and interesting intellectual tradition, and applied it intelligently to his fictional world.

The story is imaginative and well-written, and Indrapramit Das clearly a highly-skilled writer.  There is a strong theme of anti-imperialism, but it makes perfect sense in the story's context, and is more anti-situational than anti-Western.  So Mr. Das, well-done, and I'll likely be seeking out and enjoying more of your work.

Also, this is a fascinating world, and I want to read more of  it.

You all should, too.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Retro Review of Men Like Gods, by H. G. Wells (1923)


Having gotten into science fiction in the first place by reading some of the classics, including of course several of the novels of H. G. Wells (specifically, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man), and having previously owned Wells anthologies including short novel anthologies, I was surprised to discover a Wells science-fiction novel which I had never read.  What's more, this is one of the most obscure of his science-fiction novels, and has as far as I know never received a movie adaptation.

I expected it to be not very good.  I knew something of Wells' writing history, namely that he had written almost all of his great science fiction during the 1890's and 1900's, and after that period had fallen into writing "important" mainstream social novels, mostly advocating Fabian Socialism (1), and most of them terribly forgettable.

I mean, I expected it to be technically good.  Wells was a master writer, and probably couldn't pick up a pen or set to a typewriter without producing work of some merit.

I was surprised to read what is probably the best utopian novel of the 1920's -- and one which introduced some new concepts into science fiction, some of which I didn't even realize Wells had invented.

I. Story

In the year 1921, Mr. Barnstaple, a leftist intellectual helping to edit a news magazine, is bored and decides to take a motoring holiday.  He sets forth on the road through London, probably headed either to East Anglia or Kent (I'm not familiar enough with the British road system to be able to tell exactly where he was headed), when he suddenly finds himself (and his car) on a road in another world.

He and eleven other people (the occupants of two other cars on the small stretch of road) have just accidentally fallen into a time-space portal.  It's never made entirely clear just what the planet they wind up calling "Utopia" (it's not actually the planet's name) happens to be -- whether another planet in our Universe, or what we would today call a parallel Earth -- but it's a lot like our own world, except that around 3000 years ago, the Utopians passed through their "Last Age of Confusion" -- roughly equivalent to the 19th-20th centuries -- and evolved a new social order.

They swiftly discover a burning house with two dead bodies, a man and a woman, inside.  Barnstaple later discovers that these were a mated pair of scientists who had been working on an interdimensional portal, and whose experiment both succeeded and failed tragically.  It was this portal, which was supposed to open up on deep space, which instead opened up on the Earth and brought the twelve Earthlings (Wells uses that exact term) there.

The Utopians contact their visitors and bring them (by means of advanced airplanes) to a sort of lakefront lodge at which they house the Earthlings.  They're apologetic about accidentally drawing them into Utopia, and promise to try to send them back home, and in the meantime treat them as guests.

The Utopians are healthy, naked and very obviously close to a post-scarcity civilization by early 20th century standards.  They have a sort of quasi-socialist anarcho-syndical culture, which has gone beyond religion and war.  Barnstaple finds himself rather quickly admiring them.

One of the other eleven Earthlings, Rupert Catskill (a clear Expy from his biography of none other than Winston Churchill) (2) is a warmongering adventurer who sees weakness here and starts thinking of exploiting it.  He is the closest thing this story has to a Villain of the piece:  most of the bad things that happen are due to his baneful charisma and ruthless opportunism.

Another one, Father Amerton (who may well be a Chesterton Expy) is horrified at the fact that the Utopians had a Jesus Christ like figure about 5000 years ago, worshipped him for a couple thousand years, and then ultimately decided that he was an admirable mortal philospher rather than the literal Son of God.  He also considers the Utopians shameless for their nudity and (relative) promiscuity (they don't have an institution of marriage, but it's reasonably common for them to find life-mates).

It turns out that the Earthlings are carrying contagious diseases, some of which are fatal to the Utopians.  This is because the Utopians eliminated all contagious diseases among their kind around 1500 years ago, and hence have very little natural resistance.  There is a danger of plague.

The Utopians put the Earthlings in quarantine on top of an old castle which they have preserved and sometimes use as a chemical laboratory, but which is currently vacant.  They promise to work out cures for the diseases, purge the Earthlings of them, and then restore them to freedom.

Rupert Catskill sees the clear parallel with Pizarro and the Incas, and decides that he should lead the dozen Earthlings to conquer Utopia.  This is an entirely insane objective, as I'll discuss later on, but the thing to remember is that it hinges on the Utopians being soft, peaceful and helpless before superior Earthling aggressiveness, and on being weakened by the plagues.  Step One of his plan is to take a couple of hostages.  Barnstaple is utterly horrified by and openly objects to this plan. They override him, and get together a handful of revolvers to achieve this end.

When Catskill tries to take two leading Utopians hostage, Barnstaple warns them. The Utopians try to escape, and show surprising strength and agility in the process.  Catskill's followers wind up shooting both of them to death.

Barnstaple is treated as a traitor by the other Earthlings, who attempt to kill him.  Barnstaple manages to flee the castle, but has to make his way down a dangerous cliff.  He is trapped midway down and prepares to die of starvation.

When three Utopians show up with a ladder, and towing a very thick power cable, Barnstaple waits until they are past and then climbs down the ladder to safety.  He is fleeing from the cliff when he notices that the Utopians have set up a curious line of rings, fed by the thick cable, and pointed straight at the castle. The rings glow -- and the castle disappears in what looks like an immense explosion.

Barnstaple wakes up being tended to by the Utopians.  They have found cures for and purged him of his diseases.  He is now free to venture among the Utopians and learn of their culture, which he does, in a manner fairly standard to utopian novels, with the help of some friendly native guides.

One thing he learns is that the glowing-ring thing he saw wasn't precisely a weapon, but rather a portal gun (3) -- a bigger version of the device that brought them into this world.  He learns that the castle was rotated through higher dimensions and then set down somewhere the Utopians could subdue the other Earthlings; some fell off during the trip and died, but the ones which remained on or in the castle lived.

Barnstaple loves the Utopian society he sees but comes to realize he has no true place in it.  He's in the position of an Early Bronze Age barbarian brought into a modern Western European kingdom, unable to contribute meaningfully to this culture.  The Utopians are willing to keep him in luxury for the rest of his life if he wants to stay; however, they are also willing to send him home.

He learns that Utopia itself has recently made immense physical discoveries which could open the rest of the Universe to their colonization.  The portal that brought him here was one of their experiments in opening space-time gateways:  they were surprised to find a parallel world, because what they were trying to do was learn how to open gates to other planets and star systems (4).  The Utopians do not want to make long-term contact with Earth as it is today -- they fear that war would ensue, and they might be then forced to exterminate Mankind -- but perhaps in some future time, Earth's culture will have advanced far enough to allow peaceful intercourse between the two civilizations.

Barnstaple is energized by this awesome vision of a possible future, and returns home, determined to work to help his own world begin to transform into a civilization as enlightened as that of Utopia.

II.  The Utopians

As I've said, their culture could best be described as quasi-socialist anarcho-syndicalism.  They've gone beyond private competition and ownership of the means of production; there is no government (but there is a highly-effective system of large-scale voluntary cooperation, mediated by a global communication system (5).  They still use money (in the form of an electronic credit and debit system) but only for goods of medium value (ordinary sustenance is free, and major capital goods are social rather than private property).

They have been eugenically altering (and possibly genetically engineering) themselves for centuries.  They started out almost identical to our humanity, but have become a lot stronger, faster, healthier and smarter by now.  Barnstaple, intellectually-gifted by Earthly standards, is a bit below the average Utopian.

Somewhere along the line they developed telepathy.  Barnstaple is able to talk with them from the beginning, but he can never be sure if he's understanding them correctly, because something he almost understands will be rendered by some close English equivalent, and something he doesn't understand at all will come through as gibberish or silence.  And he never learns to read their language.

There is a long tradition of Utopias in science fiction, dating back to Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and including some of the cultures encounterd in Gulliver's Travels (1726).  This one is interesting for a few reasons:

(A) -  The Utopians are treated as real characters, including the possession of character flaws.  This is particularly true of Lychnis, one of his closest friends, who is suffering from rather severe long-term depression.

(B) - The Utopian society as a whole is not flawless:  it makes mistakes, in particular failing to anticipate Earthling diseases and violence.  It is also aware of its own flaws:  for instance, that it might be driven to abuse Earth if there was long-term contact.

(C) - Finally, and related to these, Utopia is not a static, finished society.  It is aware that it still knows very little about the Universe, and is looking toward the possiblity of interplanetary and interstellar exploration and expansion.  The Utopians have not given up on their ambitions, only on greed and wrath.

III.  Catskill's Crazy Plan

Catskill believes the the combination of Earthling aggressiveness, Utopian pacifism and Utopian vulnerability to Earth diseases will enable him to play Pizarro conquering the Incan Empire.  Let me elucidated why Catskill's plan is not only evil, but also crazy.

A.  Lack of Intelligence: At the point Catskill makes this plan, all they have seen of Utopia is a countryside, a lakefront lodge, the castle, and some terrain they flew over getting to these places.  He knows almost nothing about the civilization he means to conquer save that they are relatively pacifistic and promiscuous.

Admittedly, Pizarro didn't know that much, either.  But also he suffers from

B.  Poor Numerical Odds:  There are twelve Earthlings (two of them women and one of them unsympathetic to his goals), so call it nine potential combatants.  There are ...

... 250 million Utopians.

These are worse numerical odds than Pizarro faced.  Even if the plagues are incredibly effective and kill 90% of the Utopian population, that would be over 2 million to 1 against him.

Admittedly, Pizzaro had only a few hundred against a few million, which was around 10 thousand to 1 against him,  However, Catskill also has

C.  Inferior Technology:  While Pizarro had steel weapons and armor opposed to Neolithic weapons and armor, Catskill has a dozen or so revolvers opposed to ...  we never find out what, exactly.  The Utopians take his band out with the portal gun, then overcome the survivors while they're confused.  But we have no reason to assume that the Utopians couldn't have worked their centuries-to-millennia-superior civilian technology into superior military weapons, if they'd had to do so.

He also has the problem of

D.  Inferior Troops:  There are clues to this earlier in the book.  Most notably, there's a scene at the lakefront lodge where one of the chauffeurs attempts to accost a young woman who has come to clean his room.  Note:  this is a full-grown man versus a girl in her mid to late teens.

She casually slaps him aside, knocking him down and leaving a bruise. Then goes on about her business.

The Utopians are simply stronger, pound for pound, than the Earthlings. This is the product of the aforementioned eugenics and possibly genetic engineering.

This means that the Earthlings don't have the advantage in close combat, either.


E. The Plagues Aren't That Bad:  The American Indians suffered roughly 90% die-offs from the European plagues of the 16th and 17th centuries.  This is the effect on which Catskill is counting to weaken the Utopians.

But the Incans were a Neolithic society with almost no medical capabilities.  When they started falling to plagues, they could do nothing save pray to their gods and try to tend the sick.

In contrast, the Utopians have low disease resistance because they have an awesome bio-technology, and have eradicated all serious diseases on their planet.  After a few Utopians die, their doctors quarantine the ill and rapidly develop cures.

So they aren't -- as a culture -- weakened by the plagues at all.


F.  Good Is Not Soft:  Far from being a decadent culture, past its height and close to collapse, the Utopian society is ambitious, creative, scientifically progressive, and close to launching interplanetary colonization ventures.  They are about as threatened by Catskill as we would be by, say, a small band of Bedouin from the 3rd millennium BC.

The Utopians don't like to kill, and they try non-lethal or at least survivable tactics.  But it's made very obvious, both by their actions then and later, that they will fight to protect themselves if attacked, and they are quite capable of killing if they see no better choice.

Catskill never had a chance.


This is a genuinely-excellent work of science fiction, which I recommend without hesitation to all modern readers.


(1) - In between seducing Sweet Supergenius Girls, of whom Rebecca West was merely the most famous.

(2) - One of the reasons why this novel probably isn't better-known today is its casting of a Winston Churchill expy as the Villain.  It seems surprising, but consider that in 1921, Churchill was known mainly for colonial adventuring, militarism, strikebreaking, and the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign.  And Wells, of course, was a pacifist socialist.

(3) - As far as I know, the first portal gun in science fiction.  And the first portal.

(4) - This is the first example as far as I know of an interstellar empire and a stargate system, even as a possibility, in science fiction, and it's at least as advanced a concept for the early 1920's as the notion of alien invasions or time machines were in the 1890's.  In context:  this story was published a few years before The Skylark of Space, and a decade before Olaf Stapledon's more famous works.

(5) - Close to a proto-Internet, though Wells didn't realize that communications and library functions could be merged.  The system as a whole appears to be either sapient or semi-sapient; it's an artificial intelligence of sorts.  Keep in mind however that Barnstaple is an illiterate when it comes to the Utopian language, and there's a lot he fails to understand about their culture, by his own admission.

Friday, May 13, 2016

"Warning From the Stars" (1959) by Ron Cocking

"Warning From the Stars"

© 1959

Ron Cocking

It was a beautifully machined container, shaped like a two pound chocolate candy box, the color and texture of lead. The cover fitted so accurately that it was difficult to see where it met the lip on the base.

Yet when Forster lifted the container from the desk in the security guards' office, he almost hit himself in the face with it, so light was it.

He read the words clumsily etched by hand into the top surface with some sharp instrument:


Dr. Richard Forster,
Assistant Director,
Air Force Special Research Center,
Petersport, Md.

CAUTION: Open not later than
24 hours after receipt.

DO NOT OPEN in atmosphere less
than equivalent of 65,000 feet
above M.S.L.
He turned the container over and over. It bore no other markings—no express label or stamps, no file or reference number, no return address.

It was superbly machined, he saw.

Tentatively he pulled at the container cover, it was as firm as if it had been welded on. But then, if the cover had been closed in the thin atmosphere of 65,000 feet, it would be held on by the terrific pressure of a column of air twelve miles high.

Forster looked up at the burly guard.

"Who left this here?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, sir." The man's voice was as close to insolence as the difference in status would allow, and Forster bristled.

"I just clocked in an hour ago. There was a thick fog came on all of a sudden, and there was a bit of confusion when we were changing over. They didn't say anything about the box when I relieved."

"Fog?" Forster queried. "How could fog form on a warm morning like this?"

"You're the scientist, sir. You tell me. Went as fast as it came."

"Well—it looks like very sloppy security. The contents of this thing must almost certainly be classified. Give me the book and I'll sign for it. I'll phone you the file number when I find the covering instructions."

Forster was a nervous, over-conscientious little man, and his day was already ruined, because any departure from strict administrative routine worried and upset him. Only in his field of aviation medicine did he feel competent, secure.

He knew that around the center they contemptuously called him "Lilliput." The younger researchers were constantly trying to think up new ways to play jokes on him, and annoy him.

Crawley Preston, the research center's director and his chief, had been summoned to Washington the night before. Forster wished fervently that he was around to deal with this matter. Now that relations between East and West had reached the snapping point, the slightest deviation from security regulations usually meant a full-scale inquiry.

He signed for the container, and carried it out to the car, still seething impotently over the guard's insolence.

He placed it beside him on the front seat of his car and drove up to the building which housed part of the labs and also his office.

He climbed out, then as he slammed the door he happened to glance into the car again.

The seat covers were made of plastic in a maroon and blue plaid pattern. But where the box had rested there was a dirty grey rectangular patch that hadn't been there before.

Forster stared, then opened the door again. He rubbed his fingers over the discolored spot; it felt no different than the rest of the fabric. Then he placed the box over the area—it fitted perfectly.

He flopped down on the seat, his legs dangling out of the car, fighting down a sudden irrational wave of panic. He pushed the container to the other end of the seat.

After all, he rationalized, plastics are notoriously unstable under certain conditions. This is probably a new polymer Washington wants tested for behavior under extreme conditions of temperature and pressure. What's gotten into you?

He took a deep breath, picked up the box again. Where it had rested there was another discolored patch on the car seat covers.

Holding it away from him, Forster hurried into the office, then dumped the box into a metal wastebasket. Then he went to a cabinet and pulled out a Geiger counter, carried it over to the wastebasket. As he pointed the probe at the box the familiar slow clicking reassured him, and feeling a little foolish he put the instrument back on its shelf.

Hurriedly, he went through his mail; there was nothing in it referring to the package. Then he called the classified filing section; nobody there knew anything about it either.

For some reason he couldn't explain to himself, he wasn't even surprised.

He stared into the wastebasket. The clumsily etched instructions glinted up at him: "To be opened as soon as possible...."

He picked up the phone and called the decompression chamber building.

There was no valid reason why he should have been self-conscious as he talked to the lab attendant in charge of the decompression tank. He used it a dozen times a month for tests and experiments, yet when he gave his instructions his voice was labored and strained.

"Some genius in Washington sent this thing down without any covering instructions, but it has to be opened in a hurry in a thin atmosphere. Er—I'd like you to stay on the intercom for a while in case it blows up in my face or something." He tried to laugh, but all that came out was a croak.

The attendant nodded indifferently, then helped Forster into the helmet of his pressure suit. He climbed up the steps into the chamber, pulling the airtight door shut behind him. He placed the box on the desk in front of the instrument panel, then turned back to push the door clamps into place.

For the first time in the hundreds of hours he'd spent in the tank, he knew the meaning of claustrophobia.

Mechanically, he plugged in his intercom and air lines, went through the other routine checks before ascent, tested communications with the lab attendant, then flicked the exhaust motor switch.

Now there was little to do except wait. He stared at the box; in the artificial light it seemed full of hidden menace, a knowing aliveness of its own....

Forster shrugged his shoulders impatiently, as though to throw off the vague blanket of uneasiness that was settling around him. So somebody had forgotten to send a covering message with the container, or else it had been mislaid—that could happen, although with security routine as strict as it was, the possibility was remote. All the same, it could happen. After all, what other explanation was there? What was it he was afraid of? There was something about it—

He glanced at the altimeter. The needle showed only 10,000 feet, and seemed to be crawling around the dial. He resolved not to look at it for three minutes by the clock on the panel.

When he checked the altimeter again, it registered just over 30,000 feet. Not even half way yet.

As the pressure in the tank decreased, he began to be conscious of the need for "reverse breathing"—and he concentrated on using his tongue to check the flow of air into his lungs, then using the thoracic muscles to exhale against the higher pressure inside the suit.

Time seemed to be passing in micro-seconds ... 25,000 feet ... 30,000 ... 40,000 ... 50,000.

At 62,500 feet he gently tested the cover of the container again; it lifted.

As the altimeter needle flickered on the 65,000-foot mark, he cut the exhaust motor and picked up the box. The cover slipped off easily.

His feeling of anticlimax was almost ludicrous. As he looked in, all the box contained was a flattened roll of some greyish material.

He took it out; despite its comparative bulk, it was feather-light. It had the appearance of metal, but was as porous and pliable as a good grade of bond paper. He could not feel its texture through his heavy gloves. He took a good look.

It was new all right—no doubt Washington wanted some tests run on it, although without covering instructions and data this trip was wasted. But some heads would roll when he reported back on the way the container had been shipped in.

He started to unroll the material to get a better look at it, then he saw that it was covered with cramped, closely spaced handwriting in a purplish ink—handwriting that was elusively familiar.
Then he read the words written in neat capitals at the top, the name of the man with the familiar handwriting, and fear came back, clamped cold fingers around his throat:

James Rawdon Bentley

Dear Dick, the writing went on, Take a large economy-size grip on yourself. I know this is going to sound like a voice from the dead, but I'm very much alive and kicking—in the best of health in fact....

The writing blurred, and instinctively Forster put his fist up to rub his eyes, only to meet the hard plastic of his helmet visor. James Rawdon Bentley....

It was January 18, 1951, three years ago, and the jagged line of the Australian coast stretched like a small-scale map to the black curve of the horizon.

From the converted bomber that was his flying lab, Forster could see the other American observation plane cruising on a parallel course, about half a mile away, and beyond it downwind the fringe of the billowing cloud dome of the super-secret British thermonuclear shot.

Then suddenly Bentley's voice from the other plane was crackling over the earphones, sharp and urgent:

"Our Geigers and scintillometers are going crazy! We're getting out of here! There's something coming inside ... a light...."

Silence. Forster had watched in helpless horror as the other ship dipped a silver wing, then nosed down ever so slowly, it seemed ... down ... down ... in a dive that seemed to take hours as Forster's plane tracked it, ending in a tiny splash like a pebble being thrown into a pond; then the grimly beautiful iridescence of oil and gasoline spreading across the glassy waters of the Timor Sea.

No parachutes had opened on the long journey down. An Australian air sea rescue launch and helicopter were at the scene of the crash in minutes, but neither bodies nor survivors had been found, then or later....

"Everything okay, Doctor Forster?"

"Yes," he said hoarsely. "Yes ... everything's okay ... just routine."

Forster focussed his eyes on the writing again. There was no doubt at all that it was Bentley's. They had roomed and studied together for four years at MIT, and then there had been a couple of years' post-graduate work after that. During all that time they had used each other's notes constantly.

But Bentley was dead.

Forster read on, stunned:

First, you'll want to know what happened over the Timor Sea after the shot. Put very simply, I, the rest of the technicians, and the crew of the B-29 were transhipped to another vehicle—without any damage to ourselves. How, I'm not allowed to explain at this stage. Actually, they only wanted me, but it wasn't feasible to collect me and leave the rest behind, so they're all here, safe and well.

Who are "they," and where am I? The second question I can't answer—not allowed to. "They," roughly translated, are "The Shining Ones," which doesn't tell you anything, of course. Briefly, they're a couple of light-years ahead of Earth in evolution—mentally, morally, and physically, although I use the last word loosely. Too bad that English is a commercial language, it's so hard to discuss really abstract ideas.

Why am I here? The whole reason for this message is wrapped up in the answer to that.

As you probably know, Project Longfall, which I was heading up was delayed about a year due to my removal. That was the sole purpose, although I and the rest of us are getting special instruction to keep us occupied.

About the same time, they also took several other key people from Britain, Russia, and the United States. Others were already here.

The idea then was delay—to delay more test shots of atomic weapons, in the hope that East and West would come to some agreement. Now, because of the growing volume of tests, and the critical tension which prevails, delay will no longer suffice, and far more drastic steps are to be taken.
I wish you could be here for only a few minutes to see what happens after a multi-megaton thermonuclear test shot is set off on Earth.

I can't describe it in terms which would have any relation to your present knowledge of physics. All I can say is that life here is intimately bound up with the higher laws of electro-magnetism which at present are only being guessed at on your level. It's not the radioactivity which you know as such which causes the trouble—there are neutralizing devices throughout the planetary system to take care of that. The damage is caused by an ultra-ultra-short wave radiation which not even the most sensitive scintillometer you have can pick up, a very subtle by-product of every chain reaction.

It doesn't have too much immediate effect on the lower forms of life—including human beings, if you'll pardon the expression. But here, it causes a ghastly carnage, so ghastly it sickens me even to think about it for a second.

The incredible thing is that the people here could stop Earth from firing another shot if they wished to, and at 24 hours' notice, but their philosophy is totally opposed to force, even when it means their own destruction. That will give you an idea of the kind of people they are.

(Here they say that Einstein was on the fringe of discovering the theory involved when he died, but was having trouble with the mathematics. Remember how Einstein always complained that he was really a poor mathematician?)

But with atomic warfare threatening to break out on Earth at any minute, they have got to do something.

This is what they plan to do—this is what they are going to do.

Starting within a few hours after you receive this message, a mass removal of key scientists will begin. They will take 20, 30, or 40—roughly equal numbers from both sides—every few hours as technical conditions allow. That will go on until East and West agree to drop this whole mad weapons race. It will be done quietly, peacefully. Nobody will be hurt except by a fluke. But if needs be, they will lift every major scientific brain off the face of Earth to stop the present drift to disaster for everybody. There are no weapons, no devices that you have at present, which can stop this plan going into effect. There it is—it's as simple as that.

If you knew what you were really headed for, it would need no steps from here to make both sides on Earth stop this horrible foolishness in a moment.

The lesson of Mars is part of the orientation course here. (I'm not on Mars). I'm using up space, so I'll go into note form for a bit. Martians had an atomic war—forgot they had to breathe ... destroyed 60 per cent of their atmosphere ... canals on Mars aren't ... they're closely-spaced line of shafts leading to underground cities ... view from Earth telescopes, shaft mouths appear as dots which run together into lines due to eye-fatigue ... British Royal Astronomical Society figured that out 30 years ago at least ... see papers on their proceedings ... photographs here show monsters created by wholesale mutations ... lasted about four generations before reproduction failed ... now only vegetation on Mars ... saw pictures of last survivors ... horrible ... I was ill for days after ... imagine having to take 40 separate breaths after making a single step!

Getting back to the others here ... a regular U. N. Remember O'Connor and Walters in our class? They're here. Check, you'll find that O'Connor is "detached" from Oak Ridge and Walters from Aiken for "special duty." That's Central Intelligence's story for their disappearance.

Remember those top German boys the Russians were supposed to have gotten to before the Allies could reach them after the Nazi collapse? They're here too! And Kamalnikov, and Pretchkin of the Russian Academy.

Believe me (the style and the writing was a little less urgent again now), I've had all the intellectual stuffing knocked out of me here.

We all have had, for that matter. We're supposed to be the cream of the crop, but imagine sitting down to instruction from people whose I.Q.s start where yours leaves off!

But what has really made most of us here feel pretty humble is the way they have demolished Earth's so-called "scientific method"—and used the method itself to prove that it doesn't stand up!

You know how we've always been taught to observe, collect data, then erect a theory to fit the data, a theory which has to be modified when other data came along which don't fit into it.

Here they work the opposite way—they say: "Know the fundamental principles governing the operation of the universe and then all the pieces fit together inside this final Truth."

I understand now why so many of the Oak Ridge boys turned to religion after they had been exposed to the electron microscope for a while—they realized they had gone as far as their "scientific" training would ever take them.

Time and space are running out. I know all this must sound confused and incredible, Dick; I'm still confused myself. But I want you to think about what I've written, then take the action you think best. I know it won't be easy for you.

If you think this is some maniac's idea of a joke, you'll have proof very soon that it isn't, because one of the people at your Center is due to leave for here any time now.

You're wondering why I used this weird and wonderful means of communication. The problem was to find a writing material which would stand up in Earth's atmosphere—oddly enough, it's not the oxygen which causes the trouble, but the so-called "inert" nitrogen. The container will probably not disintegrate for a couple of days at sea level atmospheric pressure, but this material I'm writing on would not last more than a few seconds. That's one reason they picked you—most people just don't have a spare decompression chamber up in the attic! The other reason was that with your photographic memory, you'll know this is my handwriting, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I hope.
I'm sure you've sat in that pressure suit long enough. But remember, if you want to take another look at this, you'll have to put it back in the container before you go "down."
Wishing you all you would wish for yourself,

Forster examined the signature. That was the way Bentley made the capital J—it looked almost like a T, with just a faint hook on the bottom of the down-stroke. Then the way it joined the—

"Hey, Doc—are you going to tie up the tank all day? I've got work to do."

Forster recognized the voice on the intercom as Tom Summerford's. Summerford was one of the crop of recent graduates to join the Center—brash, noisy, irresponsible like the rest of them. He knew Forster hated being called "Doc," so he never lost an opportunity to use the word. True, he was gifted and well-trained, but he was a ringleader in playing the practical jokes on Forster which might have been funny in college, but which only wasted a research team's time in these critical days.
Practical joke.

Anger flooded over him.

Yes, this was all a macabre game cooked up by Summerford, with the help of some of his pals. Probably they were all out there now, snickering among themselves, waiting to see his face when he came out of the decompression chamber ... waiting to gloat....

"Hey Doc! You still with us?"

"I'll be out very shortly," Forster said grimly. "Just wait right there."

He spun the air inlet controls; impatiently, he watched as the altimeter needle began its anti-clockwise movement.

He'd call a staff meeting right away, find the culprits and suspend them from duty. Preston would have to back him up. If Summerford proved to be the ringleader, he would insist on his dismissal, Forster decided. And he would see to it that the young punk had trouble getting another post.

The fantastic waste of time involved in such an elaborate forgery ... Forster trembled with indignation. And using the name of a dead man, above all a scientist who had died in the interests of research, leaving behind him a mystery which still troubled the Atomic Energy Commission, because nobody had ever been able to explain that sudden dive in a plane which was apparently functioning perfectly, and flown by a veteran crew....

He glanced down at the roll.

Was it his imagination, or had the purplish ink begun to fade? He ran a length of it through his fingers, and then he saw that in places there were gaps where the writing had disappeared altogether. He glanced up at the altimeter needle, which was sliding by the 24,000-foot mark.

He looked back at his hands again, just in time to see the roll part in two places, leaving only the narrow strip he held between his gloved fingers.

He put the strip on the desk, and bent clumsily in his suit to retrieve the other pieces from the floor. But wherever he grabbed it, it fell apart. Now it seemed to be melting before his eyes. In a few seconds there was nothing.

He straightened up. The strip he had left on the desk had disappeared, too. No ash, no residue. Nothing.

His thought processes seemed to freeze. He glanced mechanically at the altimeter. It read 2,500 feet.

He grabbed at the two pieces of the container. They still felt as rigid as ever. He fitted them together carefully, gaining a crumb of security from the act.

He realized vaguely that the altimeter needle was resting on zero, but he had no idea how long he had been sitting there, trying to find a thread of logic in the confused welter of thoughts, when he heard the scrape of metal on metal as somebody wrestled with the door clamps from the outside.

He was certain of only one thing. His memory told him that the signature that was no longer a signature had been written by Jim Rawdon, who couldn't possibly have survived that crash into the Timor Sea....

From behind, somebody was fumbling with his helmet connections, then fresh air and familiar sounds rushed in on him as the helmet was taken away.

Summerford's thin, intelligent face was opposite his.

"Doc! Are you all right?" he was asking sharply. For once, there was no superciliousness in his voice.

"I'm fine," Forster said heavily. "I—I've got a headache. Stayed in here too long, I suppose."

"What's in the box?" Summerford asked.

The way he asked told Forster at once that the youngster knew nothing about it.

"Er—just some half-baked idea out of the Pentagon. Some colonel trying to justify his existence." He clutched the box to him as though Summerford might try to take it away. "The tank's all yours."

He turned and clambered out of the chamber. He put the box down on the concrete floor, and climbed out of the pressure suit, watching the box all the time. It seemed to gleam up at him, as though it had eyes, full of silent menace.

He realized vaguely that Summerford was standing in front of him again, looking anxious.

"Are you quite sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," Forster said, hardly recognizing his own voice.

He picked up the box and stumbled out, heading for his office.

When he walked in, his secretary was answering the line fitted with a scrambler, which connected directly with the Pentagon.

"General Morganson," she said, handing him the receiver.

Forster took the receiver, sat down at his desk and took a deep breath, fighting hard to regain his self control.

"Forster," he said into the mouthpiece when the office door closed behind the girl.

"Forster! What the dickens has happened to Preston? My driver met the train here this morning, but there was no sign of him. But the Pullman porter checked him in last night, and we found all his gear and papers in his compartment!"

"He left here in plenty of time to catch the train, General," Forster heard himself say. "He took the train to get a night's rest." He realized how irrelevant the last statement was only after he had made it.

The General was talking again ... important meeting with the Joint Chiefs ... whole briefing team was being held up ... he'd reported it to the C.I.A. as a precautionary measure....

Forster could see the words on the roll, the roll that wasn't, as though they were engraved on his eye-retinas: As a beginning, and to prove this isn't just a bit of hocus-pocus, one of the people at your Center is due to leave for here any time now.

"General," Forster broke in hoarsely. "I've got some very important information which you must have. I'll leave by heliplane right away."

He replaced the phone receiver in its cradle, wondering how convincing he would be able to make his story. At least, even if he didn't have Bentley's letter, he had the container. That should help.

But when he looked across the desk, he saw that it too had disappeared, without a trace.

General Morganson was the newest product of the Atomic Age, half soldier, half scientist—shrewd and perceptive, an intellectual giant.

He listened carefully, without comment or change of expression, as Forster doggedly went through his story in chronological order.

Half way through, he held up his hand and started pushing buttons on the console built into his desk. Within a few moments men began filing into the room, and sat down around Forster.

Then the general motioned to the clerk seated in the corner by a tape recorder.

"Gentlemen, listen to this playback and then I'll have Dr. Forster here go on from there."

What was left of Forster's confidence leaked away as he heard his own diffident voice filling the room again. It was like being awake in the middle of a weird dream.

But when the tape recorder hissed into silence, he went on, staring straight ahead of him in quiet desperation.

When he ended his story, there was silence for a moment. Everyone sat motionless.

Then Morganson looked up and around.

"Well gentlemen? Mr. Bates, C.I.A. first."

This was no longer a story told by one man; it had become a problem, a situation to be evaluated objectively.

"Well, sir ... the only part of the thing I can comment on at this point is the stuff about O'Connor and Walters. That checks. They both disappeared without a trace. It was treated as a maximum security situation, and we did give out the story they had been assigned to special duty." He glanced briefly at Forster. "Up until now, we assumed that only the directors at Aiken and Oak Ridge knew the real situation—outside of the Atomic Energy Commission and C.I.A., of course. This represents a very serious leak—or...." His voice trailed away.

"Colonel Barfield, Intelligence?"

The young colonel tried to sound flippant, unsuccessfully.

"General, acting on the assumption the story is true, it would answer about two hundred question marks in our files. Maybe more, with further study."

The C.I.A. man cleared his throat and raised a finger.

"For everybody's information," he said, "a preliminary field check shows that Dr. Preston's train was stopped for ten minutes by fog last night. The train's radar installation failed simultaneously. There wouldn't be anything odd about that except the temperature at the time was about 65 degrees, and the humidity was only 55 per cent. Consider that, gentlemen.

"Theoretically, fog can't form under such conditions. Similar local fog occurred on the occasions when O'Connor and Walters were reported missing. The Met. people couldn't explain that, either. That's all."

Morganson sat up straight, as though he had suddenly made a decision.

"I don't think there's any value in further discussion at this point. You will all have transcripts of Dr. Forster's statement within a few minutes. According to that statement, we are due to lose a number of key men in the next few hours. I'll have Code One emergency precautions instituted at all research establishments, and I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs should hear from me right away. Colonel Barfield, I'd like you to ask Colonel Malinowski, the Russian military attaché to see me here not later than an hour from now. We'll have a full dress conference here at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, with written evaluation reports in detail from all branches. Dr. Forster, consider yourself assigned to Pentagon duty as of now, and until further notice."

Forster sat, dazed, until he realized that the others had left, and the general was standing in front of him.

"Go get some rest, Forster," the other man said with surprising gentleness. "You've had a tough day."

As Forster slept that early summer night, weathermen across the world were marking their weather maps with thousands of observations—feathery wind arrows, temperatures, barometric pressures and relative humidities.

Then, as they drew their isobars, the pattern for the northern hemisphere emerged. A giant high pressure system with its center in northern Oklahoma promised warm fair weather across America. Another, centered east of the Ural Mountains, forecast clear weather for most of Europe and northern Asia.

A low pressure trough between was dropping light warm rain on the green fields of England, but from Seattle to Washington, D. C, from Stettin to Vladivostock the sun was rising or setting in clear skies.

Then about 9 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, a thickening mist descended over warm and drowsy southwest South Carolina. It was a fog that was not a fog, observers said afterwards, because there was no damp, no coldness—just a steady loss of visibility until a man couldn't see his hand held up in front of his face, even though a bright moon was shining. Most of the reporting night shift at the Aiken hydrogen bomb plant never reached the tightly-guarded gates. Those who did were not allowed in.

At the same hour, across the world at the newly-built underground heavy water factory of Rossilovskigorsk, west of the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the late morning sun cast deep shadows into the gaping holes in the hillside which marked the plant entrances and exits. Deep below, miles of filtration chambers hissed quietly as they prepared their deadly concentrate.

Then, without warning, the sun grew watery and paled, and within a few minutes a haze began to form at ground level. It grew thicker and thicker; the sun became a dim orange sphere, then was blotted out. Total darkness enveloped the area.

And at the same hour, the watchers manning the lonely circle of probing radar domes, facing each other across the frozen wastes of the Arctic, cursed softly in Russian and English as their scopes sweeping the upper air first went blank and then dark.

They were shaken men at the meeting in General Morganson's office the next morning.

"Over 30 key men gone from Aiken," Morganson was saying. "In terms of goals, it means that our 1960 program now cannot possibly be fulfilled until 1965. If the situation develops as forecast in Dr. Forster's statement, our entire nuclear weapons program will grind to a halt within two weeks. If we drain men from civilian research, it will cause a total breakdown in the civilian atomic power production program. As you all know, the nation's entire economic expansion program is based on the availability of that power. Without it, industry will be forced into a deep freeze. That in turn means we might as well run up a white flag on the White House lawn."

He smiled thinly. "I would be a lot more worried than I am except we have the first indications that the other side is in the same boat. I broke every regulation in the book last night when I talked to Malinowski. I took the liberty of warning him, on the basis that there was nothing to lose. His reaction then was that it was all a Wall Street-capitalist plot—'psychological warfare,' he called it.

"He phoned me an hour ago. Sounded as though he'd just seen a ghost. He said the Russian ambassador had asked for an appointment with the Secretary of State this morning...."

Forster, bewildered and out of his depth in these global problems, let the flood of words pour over him.

Then he realized that Morganson was staring at him over the telephone receiver at his ear, and that the room was very quiet.

Then Morganson said respectfully: "Very well, Mr. President. We'll have Doctor Forster there."

Forster was relegated to the sidelines after his interview with the grave-faced man in the White House. Events were moving swiftly—events which Forster could read behind the blurred black headlines of the newspapers.

The Russian ambassador was closeted with the Secretary of State for a record six-hour talk. Then the Soviet Foreign Minister took off for Washington at 30 minutes' notice, and another record was made when he spent all day with the President. The Washington columnists began to hint of lessening tension in the cold war, and the wire services carried reports of Russian radio broadcasts talking of a new era of cooperation between East and West.

Only fragments of the broadcasts could be monitored, because radio reception had suddenly deteriorated right across the world. The reports could not be confirmed because Russia had cut all phone communication with the outside world. There was no possible mode of contact.

Meanwhile, in the United States, television reception was blacking out for hours at a time, with no explanation available. The Civil Aeronautics Administration and the Air Force banned all plane movements under instrument flight conditions, because radar navigational equipment had become so unreliable as to be useless.

Newspapers across the nation were reporting sudden fogs of short duration which baffled local weathermen. The U. S. Weather Bureau in Washington refused to comment.

For the first time in the history of an East-West conference, there was no haggling, no propaganda speeches. Hour after hour, even as the talks went on, the cream of the world's scientific brains quietly continued to disappear, it was revealed later.

In three days, the major powers accomplished what they had failed to do in the previous 15 years. Just 4 days and 21 hours after Forster had first talked to General Morganson at the Pentagon, a treaty was signed ending the world atomic weapons race.

And it had all happened, was over and done, before the people of the globe could realize what was happening, before they could rise in mass panic in the face of the incredible unknown.

Almost immediately after the announcement, radio and radar communications suddenly returned to normal, and reports of the mysterious fogs ceased.

Back at the Center, as he walked down the floodlit ramp of the heliport towards his car, Forster found himself thinking of the experimental work on the dream state which he had performed as a graduate student. He knew that a dream which might take half an hour to recount took only a fraction of a second to occur in the sub-conscious of the sleeper as he awoke.

It was the same way with the events of the last five days; already details were becoming fuzzy and blurred as though they had happened five years ago.

He opened the car door, and the soft glow of the dome light filled the interior.

Then he saw again the neat rectangular discoloration on the seat covers, and the jolt back to reality was almost a physical thing. Relief, overwhelming, flooded over him.

He looked up into the indigo-velvet sky. Above him was the enormous triangle formed by Deneb, Vega, and Altair. Framed within it were a thousand other dimmer stars, but all, he knew, far, far bigger than the speck of solidified gases called Earth.

Somewhere out there, living, thinking, breathing was Bentley.

"Good night," Forster said out loud

And somehow, he was sure he wasn't talking into thin air.
This is pure and quiet Atomic Horror.  Indeed, it is a purer example of Atomic Horror than many in the genre, because the horror is linked directly to our misuse of atomic energy.  That misuse threatens us with nuclear annihilation; but it directly threatens powerful aliens -- the story never makes clear whether they are extradimensional, interplanetary or ultra-terrestrial -- with harm.
And so the aliens do what thoughtful men cannot.  They deprive us of the fruits of our atomic discoveries, by taking away the scientists and engineers we need to reap these fruits.  Deprived of these fruits, the economies of both East and West will suffer.  And this is still better than the alternative, even for ourselves, because we would have destroyed ourselves.
This story touches me deeply, because it was metaphorically prophetic.  We really have been robbed of the fruits of atomic energy, because of the superstitions we roused in ourselves by our misuse of its power.  And we are suffering today for that misuse, in real life.  And, just as in the story, we can't find our way out of it.
It ends on a hopeful note, but we don't actually know that our access to atomic energy will be restores.  And nor do we in 2016, not really.
It's quiet Atomic Horror, though, because there is no giant monster, no fleet of alien flying saucers, no hideous mutations (at least not on Earth -- the whole gamut of Atomic Horror is run by the unfortunate Martians, however).  There are only the super-powerful aliens, able to reach right into our most guarded military bases and vanish men away.  Which is pretty damn scary, if you think about it.
A minor point of interest is that this story was almost certainly written before 1954, because it is set in 1954 ("three years" after 1951) and it talks about a 1960 program which will cannot now be fulfilled iuntil 1965.  But the story was actually published in 1959.  It must have languished for over five years before it saw the light of day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wishful Thinking About Matriarchy, Compared to Technology as a Source of Freedom

There is a notion that in the past, there was a Matriarchy or Matriarchies, and that in it women were treated better.  They were not limited to the roles of wives, mothers caretakers and so on that they are seen occupying (if they are lucky) in every historic culture.

However, there is no actual historic evidence of the existence of this Matriarchy in the past.  There is, at best, evidence that past cultures worshipped Mother Goddesses and accorded women some rights in their children, which is manifestly not the same thing.  It is manifestly not the same thing because almost all historic cultures also have worshipped Mother Goddesses (yes, even Medieval Christendom -- think of the cult of Mary Mother of God) and have accorded women some rights in their children (indeed, promoting or restricting these rights has been fertile ground for legislators since the first written legal codes).

Here's what lies at the nub of the wishful thinking.

In most, perhaps all, pre-industrial cultures, the vast majority of people of any particular class and role only got to play their role, which was narrowly-defined compared to the equivalent roles in the modern world.  This is because pre-industrial cultures are poor and survival to adulthood, let alone old age, was uncertain compared to industrial and information age cultures.  You were doing well if you were merely living another day, another month, another year.

A woman who was getting to be a wife, mother and caretaker was doing well.  She wasn't being a whore, a spinster or a beggar, which were some of the other obvious alternatives (and ones which left her far more miserable and less powerful).  Lest we imagine that this was because of he Evil Patriarchy, take a look at the way that most men lived in those cultures.  They weren't exactly swimming in gravy either.  The truth is that living in pre-industrial cultures sucked -- by modern standards.

Why was this?  Because when survival is uncertain, most of what one does has to promote one's own survival and that of one's offspring.  Families have to be strong -- weak families fail to provide one with survival-support during bad times (wars, famines, plagues) and their members tend to die; it is from among the stronger families that the survivors are found.  People play whatever roles advance the interests of their families, even if this means a woman marrying someone she doesn't love, or a man risking his life in a war about which he doesn't care and for which he is inadequately-equipped and poorly-trained.  In return, their families help them out when they're in trouble.

The world of today, in which we pursue our own happiness even if our paths don't suit our families, is made possible only by our tremendous wealth, which in turn is made possible only by our advanced technology.  We take this for granted because we grow up rich (compared to Humans of most times and places); we are exactly like the spoiled children of the aristocracies of previous cultures save in that we mostly live better than they did (the richest and most powerful king of the 18th century died in agony if he got seriously ill, and all his wealth and power couldn't save him, because the doctors had no idea what to do for him).

Before we feel so superior, consider this -- a half-millennium from now (assuming that we don't manage to stop technological progress in its tracks, or freeze society back into some rigid class structure) humans will be immortal and free of any diseases save those we invent to war upon one another.  We will pretty much all have tremendous amounts of energy at our command and live better than the wealthy do today.  The humans of that time will pursue life choices impossible to us today.

What the wishful thinkers don't want to admit is that the Whigs had the right of it.  It is technological progress that improves the world, and technological progress is facilitated by Classical Liberal ideas.  The "Progressive" (absurd term, in this context!) fantasy of going back to a "sustainable" lower-energy, lower-tech civilization would just throw us back into the Dark Ages.  (Perhaps literally, as many of these fantasies have us giving up "unnecessary" lighting).  And then, everyone would suffer.

And what the feminists don't want to admit is that they are wrong about patriarchy being some sort of giant conspiracy which (somehow, don't think too hard about how) displaced a previous matriarchal or egalitarian culture (all over the world, which logically implies that this imaginary matriarchy was inferior in cultural-evolutionary terms, but this though most especially must not contaminate the virgin minds of the feminists).  And they are wrong about industrial technology disempowering women; on the contrary, it was the development of industrial technology (and, in particular, scientific medicine) which empowered women.

The historical evidence is overwhelming.  Politically male-dominated societies are the Human norm for pre-industrial cultures.  They outcompete sexually-egalitarian or matriarchal societies at those tech levels.  It is industrial and informational technology which change the rules of the game and make possible the sexually-egalitarian Western cultures of today.

If you love sexual equality, then love industrial Science and Technology.  Because if we go back to the "good old days" and eschew such knowledge, we will be going right back to the Patriarchy, in its most powerful and unapologetic forms.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Millennials in the History of the Mandate

(the following refers to the worldlines of the American Mandate)

The Millennials                          born 1983-2005                                Civic-Adaptive

Like the generation that fought the First American Civil War, their crisis came too soon and was resolved ambiguously, whipsawing between the First Terrorist War under George W. Bush, the feckless delusions of the Barack Hussein Obama Administration, and the return to battle in the Second Terrorist War. In their youth, they fought hard but were frequently betrayed, as their Boomer and Slacker leaders repeatedly shifted direction, and initially failed to take the Terrorist threat with sufficient seriousness.

In their prime (2005-2047) they built greatly and enduringly.  This is the generation that returned to Luna and colonized Mars, restored the economy after the Second Great Depression, and led the conquest of the Carribean Basin in the Third Terrorist War. But here too they suffered repeated betrayal: their hero President John Garcia failed to prevent the San Antonio Massacre, in which the Narcoterrorist government of Mexico executed a partially-successful nuclear strike against Texas.

Their next hero, President AnthonyPowers, staged a coup from above and made himself the first President to rule the United States of America as a dictatorship, bringing about the fall of the First American Republic in 2040.  He completed the conquest of Mexico, winning the Fourth Terrorist War and completely securing American control of the Carribean.   By the time that President Biggs restored the Republic in 2045, they had become more than a little cynical of their political leadership.

They were also quite divided, which became obvious once they started moving into leadership positions (2025-2069).  They ran the cuntry under Powers and Biggs and the Crazy Fifties.  When they advanced into high leadership positions their generalship was largely ineffective in the Second Pacific War.  They were saved from the consequences of their indecision by General Randall O'Hare, himself a late Millennial (born 2001).  They then led on both sides in the Second (2067-69) and Third (2076-77) American Civil Wars, which ended with the victory of President George Custis Lee.

As elders, many saw their lives blighted by these wars, and they were only too happy to surrender their freedom to George C. Lee when he assumedthe title of Commander Lee the First in 2080.  Only the oldest Millennials (such as Jeanne Delarue) remembered a time when the American government did not rule unconstitutionally, save for the brief golden age under Garcia. They had decided to put their trust in princes rather than principles; by and large Commander Lee I did not betray them.  Most Millennials died before the suppression of the Omeganists or the Belt Rebellion.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Retro Review of The Collapsium (2000)

"Retro Review of  

The Collapsium

© 2000 by Wil McCarthy


© 2015 by Jordan S. Bassior