Tuesday, 3 June 2014

"The Brigands of the Moon" by Ray Cummings

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Only a bit, but that's enough. The first story I read by this author was eye-rolling in its use of purple prose. This one is quite a bit more restrained, and it's not a bad science fiction story. Not a great one, either. I'll take the improvement.

Whereas the first story was a thinly disguised fantasy story masquerading as science fiction, courtesy of a machine that vibrated the protagonists into a medieval fantasy world, this is straight-up science fiction. It's on a cruiser to Mars and back, but this particular cruiser has a secret. On the way past the Moon, they picked up a transmission from a government scientist there, saying he'd found treasures on the moon. I think maybe gold, but I started this story a while ago and have forgotten. Let's just call it MacGuffintonium.

The Space Marine-equivalents on board the cruiser were waiting for this message, and must shepherd it back to Earth. That's not going to be easy though, as a group of revolutionary Martians and sympathizers from Earth are plotting to seize it, through any means necessary. Our stalwart young military man must fend them off, while suffering a personal and not entirely convincing lost, many wrong turns, until finally, the conspirators strike and take over the ship. The story ends just as the main character is mostly isolated and about to go all Die Hard on the ship.

It will be continued in the next issue!

It's not deep. At all. In any form. And there is some truly wince-worthy stuff here, mostly around gender. But it's not that bad. At this point, I'll take that.

Except when it comes to gender and race. Oh lord, except when it comes to gender and race. Two things. First: there is literally a part where an interesting but very, very white and thin and frail woman bemoans her lack of options in her life, and the main character, who has fallen in insta-love with her tells her:

“You have greater wonders to achieve, Miss Prince,” I said impulsively.
“Yes? What are they?” She had a very frank and level gaze, devoid of coquetry.
My heart was pounding. “The wonders of the next generation. A little son, cast in your own gentle image––”

And of course, this is so romantic that she instantly falls in love back with him! As opposed to kneeing him in the nuts. And that gives rise to the main character constantly romantically musing over the son she will give him.

Then mourning, because she dies, because her apparent plot purpose is to make the main character mad and swear revenge. Great. (Or does she? Dun Dun Dun!)

She is juxtaposed with the other woman I'm becoming quite used to in these stories. If she's the pale white virgin, oh, do we ever have the vaguely racialized, aggressively sexual, physically large woman who lusts after the main character, who always regards her with contempt. She's Martian, which is the "other" in this story, and the terms in which Martians are described make it not too hard to read this as an analogue for race.  And not in flattering or good ways. (The previous story I read by this author, you may recall, had the none-too-subtle virgin/whore dichotomy with characters named, I shit you not, Blanca and Sensua.)

The Martian woman falls for the protagonist, hard. And thus prevents her brutish Martian brother from killing him, after he'd already tried to seduce/rape the virginal woman and killed her in the process. (See? Does this make you think of any tropes of brutish black rapists? Can I sigh heavily now and perhaps start weeping?)

So yes, gender and race, they are issues. As is the entire thing where the Martians are revolutionaries working for a free Mars, but painted as all crazy lunatics. Because who would want to revolt against government interference from across the sea of space? Ooh, hitting a little home?

I'm picking on this part perhaps unfairly because I'm running a Drama System game right now using Emily Care Boss's awesome Colony Wars setting, and am having a whee of a time sending hardballs at my players about the brewing rebellion on Mars, the role of government, when rebellions go too far, and the importance of autonomy. My mind is often on a revolutionary Mars at the moment, as I try to think of even more difficult situations to put them in. My amazing players are giving me a far more nuanced view of what an incipient revolution might look like. So I reserve my right to nitpick this story.

Can I be done now? This story is sort of okay, if you can ignore what it has to say about women, race, and self-governance. Oof.

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