Thursday, 23 April 2015

"The Long Voyage" by Carl Jacobi

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?

From: Fantastic Universe, September 1955

There are some plotholes in this story, but other than that, it's a pretty good one. Except that the women characters get shafted. That's not surprising, but what is is how many women are supposed to be on board this ship, and how very little they actually get to do. And, of course, we're given no indication that any of the crew on this "Long Voyage" are anything but white and heterosexual. Which is to say that it's a science fiction story written in the 1950s.

At any rate, Norris, one half of a famed inventor duo, is recruiting young couples, 18 of them to be exact, to undertake a perilous space journey outside the solar system, in search of a new world to colonize. Those fuddy-duddies at the "Space-Time Commission" won't like it, but who cares about those stick-in-the-muds?

He's got weird rules, and this is where the plothole kind of comes in. It's established he doesn't know what will happen when the spaceship travels, and absolutely established that he cannot possibly have tested it before the entire crew gets on board, or he wouldn't have been there to pick them up. But he's got all these weird rules so that they won't do things that he has no way of knowing would be an issue.

So, these young men and women have landed on several successive planets, ostensibly for colonization, they take samples, find there is no animal life on the planet, and Norris insists they move on. One of the young men decides this is silly - even with only the plant life available, they could certainly colonize one of these planets! He foments dissent.

But the dissent doesn't come to much - instead, he discovers that Norris has a dead guy in his bunk. The dead guy is the other half of the famed inventor duo, who had never told Norris how to make the endurable substance that made them rich. Norris is certain that the clue is hidden on his body - and indeed it is, as we discover over the course of the story. What's not clear is what Norris thought this spaceflight was going to do to help solve the problem.

The nice twist here, though, is that it is revealed that they've been travelling not through space but through time, forward in huge jumps to older versions of the planet Earth. That's where the precautions Norris takes to keep the group from realizing it's Earth (namely, being back indoors by dark, so they can't see the constellations) don't make sense - he can't have known it would be a jump forward in time until he'd done it, and since it seems to be one-way, he can't have tested it.

At any rate, it's a good reveal, and I may be spoiling things if I tell you that eventually the other occupants of the ship manage to find how to reveal the secret in the body of the other inventor, and that somehow knowing how to make Indurate lets them travel back in time to where they started.

I'm not all that sure of the logic on that one, but okay. The twist is good enough that I'll be forgiving.

What does get me, though, is that Norris packs a ship full of 36 people, and half of them are effectively useless. All the science, all the anything, seems to be carried out by the men. The women are literally there so that the dissenter's wife can be trapped by a fire, causing him to cut through into Norris' bunk and discover the body. That's the sole purpose - potential victim.

Why this gets me is that not six years later than this was published, Heinlein's Stranger in the Strange Land will come out, meaning it was being written in the years previous. And Heinlein gets it in a way Jacobi doesn't. When you only have a limited number of seats, you can't have half the people be useless. You need everyone to be a specialist of some sort or another, and probably to multi-class at that. In Stranger, the mission to Mars is made up of married couples, but everyone on that ship, women as well as men, is super competent at more than one thing. (I mean, this is part of the small section that happens around the mission to Mars, but it's important.)

Heinlein gets that one gender can't merely be brought along as ballast. Jacobi does not.

So the women here are victims, and maybe get told about the dissent, but that's about it. One woman gets led out coughing from a room on fire. And because within just a few years, someone will get this right where this does not, it bothers me.

So, in the long run, gender politics are wonky, everyone's white, but darn it, that twist is good, even if it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.

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