Friday, April 17, 2009

Short SF Review #4: "Crazy Oil"

"Crazy Oil," by Brenda Pearce
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact - April 1975

Collins checked the appropriate recorder. "Yep. You're right. The temperature has fallen forty degrees." Without meaning to imply any condescension, he added, "Clever girl!"

Back in the 1970s, from what I'm given to understand, there was a widespread feeling that the price of oil was killing us. OPEC's 1973 decision to enact an oil embargo brought an end to prices that had hovered in the same narrow range practically since the invention of the internal combustion engine. All science fiction is reflective of the time it's written in some way or another, and as Brenda Pearce's 1975 story "Crazy Oil" demonstrates, it's a short logical leap from "the price of oil is killing us" to "the oil is killing us."

The story's set on and around Venus, the Furnace That Walks Like A Planet, in a time that is never really specified but is probably supposed to be the early- to mid-range 21st century. It follows Dr. Christopher Collins and the rest of a United European Space Service mission to the baking Venerian surface to investigate the titular crazy oil, an enigmatic inorganic oil-like substance which is not only prized for its qualities as fertilizer, but completely destroyed two installations on the planet in ways which shouldn't have been possible.

The mission descends from Venus orbit in an exploration scaphe, an armored aerospace craft which fills the same niche as deep-diving bathyscaphes on Earth and which was described as a "dump truck" by the collaborating artist, a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Rick Sternbach. That it's explicitly powered by a gravitic drive left a bad taste in my mouth, however - the presence of gravity manipulation is the only real scrap of superscience in the story, and in my opinion it honestly doesn't need to be there. Once on the surface, the crew sets to continuing the work of their comrades killed in the surface installations, and find that they have more to reckon with than the deadly hot-coal-soup environment of Venus.

I found "Crazy Oil" to be a competent, capable story of survival against long odds in a hostile environment. Nevertheless, at points I found interplay between the characters hard to follow - it was only on my second flip-through that I realized I'd been connecting one of the characters with the incorrect surname. As well, to me the protagonist Collins seemed far more bumbling, even considering the distraction of his being reunited with a lost love, than an astronaut should have any right to be. Neither the vacuum of space nor the hell of Venus are particularly forgiving of mistakes; Collins' mistakes nearly doom them all.

As I said before, "Crazy Oil" is a product of its time, and not just in terms of its subject matter. One problem most every sf author will butt heads with eventually is changing social mores. What was acceptable forty years ago might be unacceptable today, and an artifact further in the future. While Collins' casual, condescending sexism is called out in the story, the fact that it was there at all jolted me from the narrative. I had to spend a moment looking out the streetcar window as Queen Street West rolled past to remind myself that there are still, and undoubtedly will remain, individuals who act like caricatures, well into the true 21st century.


(Also, apologies for the lack of a post yesterday. I was rather sick, and updating this weblog was shoved low on the list of priorities.)

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