Friday, January 8, 2010

Short SF Review #12: "Hades"

"Hades," by Charles F. Ksanda
Appeared in
Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1939

The thermometer on Thorpe's wrist registered 2500° Centigrade. But much of Hades was tungsten, whose melting point is close to 3,400°. Phil's eyes watched the river of white flame wearily as again and again he dropped the specimen bucket on its thin, strong cable of Insulite into the fluid. And always he would empty it disappointingly.

One of the great careers in science fiction writing began in 1939, when Robert A. Heinlein's short story "Life-Line" was printed in Astounding Science Fiction. As he related in Expanded Universe, while it was ultimately bought by Astounding the story was precipitated by an amateur writers' contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories, one of the many pulp science fiction magazines of the day. Alfred Bester won that contest, but his was hardly the only submission Thrilling Wonder's editors received. Whether Charles F. Ksanda's "Hades" was a runner-up in that contest or the winner of a second I can't say. While there may be something vaguely quixotic about reviewing a story that was published only once, seventy-one years ago, I think it provides a fresh window into the state of the science fiction genre when Flash Gordon was still state-of-the-art.

"Hades" follows Philip Thorpe, who ventured twenty-light years to the titular world in search of valuable Black Gems, "very dense, slightly radioactive... formed under the conditions of extreme heat and pressure of Hades' sunward surface." Tide-locked Hades orbits its white dwarf sun at a distance of five hundred thousand miles (0.005 AU), and certainly lives up to its name - Ksanda built it because Mercury was just too damn cold. Much of the planet is made of tungsten, mainly because its surface temperature exceeds the melting point of all but a handful of the elements. The beginning of the story - "Hades was hot" - is, if not active, at least extremely accurate.

The story finds Phil Thorpe and his wife Virginia desperately searching for a Gem to take back to Earth, a month after their arrival and two days before departure. To his credit, Ksanda doesn't drown the reader with expository infospeak - I've seen some of his pulp contemporaries provide individual footnotes that occupy half the page - and plants the seed of a grim future with Thorpe's conviction that, if he doesn't strike it rich, he'll end up in the mines or worse.

Driven by desperation, Thorpe sends his wife back to the nightside base camp and makes his way to Hades' dayside, a realm whose description suffers only because English lacks words with sufficient power to impart the sheer intensity of the environment. It's a world where the landscape itself melts and churns like butter. Though he finds his Gems on the boiling dayside, while returning to the safety of night Thorpe loses his fortune and, very nearly, his life. "Hades" is a clear, direct man vs. environment story, exaggerated beyond all earthly experience.

From its core, "Hades" was meant to be an aversion of some common tropes in 1930s science fiction. In the issue's "Story Behind the Story" column, Ksanda pointed out that "there haven't been many s-f stories based on inorganic chemistry; mostly they are about other branches of science - physics, biology, biochemistry... But here I saw the germ of a story."

It's not a bad story, either - in fact, given its setting as the untamed, albeit molten, frontier and its use of themes that have always resonated with humanity, I believe "Hades" has aged far better than many of its contemporaries. I can't imagine the similarity to the myth of Orpheus is coincidental. "He couldn't resist the temptation to look once more at the precious Gems" - and he drops the bucket that contains them into a molten lake, reducing the Gems to "vague patches of shadow" within white-hot slag. In the end, though, Thorpe is the better for it - if I had to boil this story down to a truism, it would be "all that glitters is not gold." Thorpe's white-hot slag is precipitated into diamonds when he accidentally plunges it into a sub-zero lake on Hades' night side.

Superscience was a hallmark of 1930s science fiction, and while "Hades" treats it with a light brush, it remains in degrees. Survival on Hades is possible only by wearing spacesuits made of Insulite, a barely-described wonder material capable of withstanding ferocious heat - to the extent that at the climax in the story, Thorpe is standing in molten rock up to his knees with absolutely no ill effect whatsoever. The suit's diminishing air reserve is treated as a far more serious threat to Thorpe's well-being than the prospect of being drowned by most of the periodic table.

As far as scientific accuracy, "Hades" varies. Hades can't have an atmosphere - otherwise, thermal transfer would make it impossible for a -70° liquid to exist within walking distance of a 2500° environment - but Ksanda's concept of a planet orbiting so close to its star has been vindicated by hot Jupiters such as 51 Pegasi's Bellerophon. While a planet orbiting so close to a white dwarf strikes me as intensely unlikely - given modern astronomical knowledge, the only way I can imagine it happening would be through Hades being perturbed into such a close orbit only after its sun burned through its red giant phase - I'll forgive it, since stellar evolution wasn't nearly so well-understood in 1939 as in 2010.

Nevertheless, it's fundamentally based on a scientific concept that seems to have been the cold fusion of inorganic chemistry. Henri Moissan, a 19th century French chemist who claimed to be able to manufacture synthetic diamonds in a high-temperature, high-pressure fashion that eluded scientific reproduction, is name-checked by a character in the story. Hades itself was designed specifically so that Moissan's method of diamond synthesis could take place "in the wild." Still - it wouldn't be the first time a compelling idea was jossed by Science Marching On.

One last thing that "Hades" showed me was the degree to which the genre is dominated by the masters. Our modern perception of the Golden Age of Science Fiction is greatly informed by the work of the luminaries of the time, while authors like Ksanda are relegated to the background and almost entirely forgotten. The only online references to this story I can find are a bare-bones entry on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and a handful of websites that list the contents of the October 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It's sobering - but it's still worth recognizing. "Hades" and stories like it, stories that filled the pages of the pulp magazines back in the day, represent the first phalanx of spear carriers of science fiction.


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