There in Black and White

By John Hertz: (reprinted from No Direction Home 22)  I’ve just had three remarkable meetings, all on paper.

I

Arriving at a friend’s home and finding him not yet ready to receive me, I picked up a copy of Cities in Flight from a bookshelf and began more or less idly re-reading.

This is the 1970 Avon Books collection of James Blish’s four novels about cities that leave Earth and travel the stars with a gravity-manipulation drive (the Dillon-Wagoner Polarity Generator, colloquially “spindizzy” for what it does to sub-atomic particles; it gets higher speeds the more mass it’s applied to, so cities travel), helped by an anti-agathic drug that stops human aging.

They go off looking for work, like people from Oklahoma in actual history decades ago; the books were at first known as the “Okie” novels: They Shall Have Stars (1956; originally Year 2018! – I’ve joked how the title had better mean “Year 2018, goshwow” and not “Year 2018-factorial”), A Life for the Stars (1962), Earthman, Come Home (1955; Retrospective Hugo Award for its 1953 novelette form), and The Triumph of Time (1958).

I’d read through all four more than once.  Maybe you have too.  Indeed my own current copy is this collection.  At Denvention III, the 66th World Science Fiction Convention, in a set of Classics of S-F discussions under the heading “Wonders of 1958” I took The Triumph of Time and A Case of Conscience (1958; also by Blish; Hugo Award) together, asking “How does Time compare to Conscience?”

So I began They Shall Have Stars.  At the bottom of Page 1 was Jerry Pournelle.

Pournelle and I were friends.  We met for lunch and disagreed. We’d read many of the same books; our talk could be allusive.

Now and then when the American Association for the Advancement of Science came up he might say “or as some have called it, the left-wing Triple-A–S”.  He didn’t wink at me – not his style – but his face and voice indicated he did not necessarily endorse that appellation.  Alas, I can’t remember any instance of my recognizing it.

On Page 1 of They Shall Have Stars it’s given us in the mind (though not actually in the mouth) of Senator Wagoner, the context indicating he does not necessarily endorse the appellation.

Depending upon the circumstances of After-Fandom, Pournelle may be chuckling.

II

Eric Frank Russell’s novelette “Symbiotica” (1943) is on the Retro-Hugo ballot.  I hadn’t read it in years.  Re-reading, I was going along, remembering as I met them things like the chrysanthemums, when suddenly (Part VII) I saw Jay Score throw an atomic bomb.

A what?

People have been complaining recently of stories set in the far future that show unlikely familiarity with our time instead of Churchill, or Genghis Khan, or Alexander, or some other pre-fusion hero.  Here on the contrary was “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards” (L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass ch. 5, 1871; or maybe I should have said “contrariwise”, ch. 4).

You’ll tell me science fiction is in the business of predicting the future.  I don’t think so; I don’t think we earn merit for a speculation which proves right, or lose for one which proves wrong.  To me that’s like You should get a bicycle because it’s good to have a couple of round things in your life.  I was however taken by the appearance of this expression.

Now (or, I suppose, then) Cleve Cartmill’s novelette “Deadline”, published the next year, imagined bomb development actually resembling what was then being done in the Manhattan Project.  He hadn’t gotten at any secrets; he was working from unclassified information; as Confucius said in another context, “Who can go out except by the door?” (Analects VI:17).

The wretched thing should really be called a nuclear bomb.  Physics and chemistry being what they are, any bomb is an atomic bomb (even a pumpkin bomb). However, “atomic bomb” is what lots of people called it then, and still do.

Compare Jay Score’s bomb, which seems about the size and heft of a hand grenade.  Big explosion.  No mention of radiation or fallout.

Russell might just as well have written He fired an electron gun.

But, terminologist that I am, I wondered about “atomic bomb”.  What did we know and when did we know it?

Hunting around, I learned H.G. Wells used “atomic bomb” in The World Set Free (1914; ch. 2).  I haven’t yet found whether Russell saw that.  I haven’t yet read Ingham’s 2010 biography Into Your Tent, nor other Russell stories featuring Jay Score.  I haven’t yet asked Rick Katze, editor of the NESFA (New England S-F Ass’n) Press collection Major Ingredients (2000; does not contain “Symbiotica”).

III

Also on the Retro-Hugo ballot is Anthony Boucher’s superb “Q.U.R.”

Also Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”.

Both are in the Short Story section, i.e. less than 7,500 words in length.  The ballot being in alphabetical order by title, “Q.U.R.” is immediately above “Yours Truly”.

Boucher was one of our greats, author, editor, critic, anthologist.  He co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  In mystery fiction next door (Why “next door”? and Why “mystery” fiction? will have to wait for another time) too he was excellent.

Bloch was active as both pro and fan.  My connection with him via the 61st Worldcon – if that doesn’t remind you – will have to wait for another time.

“Q.U.R.” was published under a Boucher pseudonym, H.H. Holmes, so credited on the ballot.  That put Holmes right above the Ripper.  Go ahead and look up the original H. H. Holmes.

Depending upon the circumstances of After-Fandom, Boucher and Bloch may be chuckling.

2 thoughts on “There in Black and White

  1. There’s also a hardcover edition, published by Overlook Press in 2000, ISBN 1-58567-008-1, $35.00, with a really ugly (IMHO) cover by Brad Holland.

    I really loved these novels when they appeared, and I still have the original paperbacks, which have excellent cover art.

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