Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Short SF Review #13: "Second Chance"

"Second Chance," by Walter Kubilius and Fletcher Pratt
Appeared in Fantastic Story Magazine, September 1952

The picture changed - not so much in character as in location, for the mountains were not quite so steep here. But there was the same range upon range of smoking mountains, and from the side of one a slow flow of lava was making its way down to quench itself boilingly in a sullen grey sea.

We've always known, as a species, that we live on the edge of annihilation. Every nation, every civilization, every moment in history has had no shortage of doomsayers preaching about the end of the world. That pattern changed in the mid-twentieth century. After the Second World War, humanity went from living in a world that could end at any time to living in a world that really could end at any time. Stories of Ragnarok or Judgement Day are all well and good, but Mutually Assured Destruction puts them all to shame. It's no surprise that postwar science fiction struggled with the implications of the shadow that had fallen across the world.

In "Second Chance," set in an otherwise undescribed late 20th or early 21st century, Earth is groaning under the strains of the Fourth World War. Grains are effectively extinct. The Western Alliance and Cominworld, presumably descendants of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, have been driven into underground cities, and are wholly dedicated to the war against each other - the concept of total war is taken to its logical conclusion here, with "every man, woman and child in the territory of the Western Alliance... engaged either in the production of war materials or in providing food for those who do produce them."

The exception, as always, is the leadership. "Second Chance" focuses on General-of-the-Armies Alvin Weinburger and his philosophical conflict with Clifford Dayton, leader of the Civilian Authority, the civilian government that's come to rule what remains of civilization in the Western Alliance. As the story begins, the military sees an opportunity - to launch a massive ballistic missile strike against the underground cities of the Cominworld, destroy them utterly, and thus pave the way for the Fifth World War.

The problem here is that Earth is on its last legs. Constant exchanges of "hydro-bombs" - presumably hydrogen bombs, the first test of which took place several months after the publication of this story - have shattered the planetary environment. Though they didn't predict nuclear winter, the authors' image of a post-nuclear world is not particularly pleasant. For some reason, the nuclear exchanges activate or create volcanoes, pumping carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere in such quantities that the sky is always dark. The ice of Antarctica has melted, drowning the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and flooding much of the Mississippi Valley. This is a world where positive feedbacks have taken control, and Earth is fast becoming a tropical planet unsuitable for the maintenance of human civilization.

Of course, there's an out - in these stories there's always an out, which always makes me gnash my teeth because there is no corresponding out in the real world. The same ballistic missiles with which General Weinberger seeks to destroy the Cominworld could also be used as spaceships to ferry colonists - not to Mars, which in a surprising bit of accuracy for a 1950s pulp skiffy story, is described as not habitable - to Venus, which is potentially habitable. To his credit, one of the generals chews out the scientist presenting the plan for having made no effort to determine if Venus has oxygen, water, or anything else necessary for human survival.

When General Weinburger learns that the civilian government has been working with its opposite numbers in the Cominworld in support of the Venus colonization proposal, he also learns how limited his authority really is - that through the Western Alliance's practice of total war, "the military has been swallowed by civilian necessity." Had I been writing this story, this is probably where I would have ended it, with a bit of fluffing on the earlier parts as well. Not Kubilius and Pratt, though; they've still got three pages.

What happens now is that the Venusians arrive. Really. A fleet of spaceships descend into the atmosphere, establish mathematical communication with Earth on the basis of the Pythagorean Theorem, and after what seems to be about five minutes, the cryptographers decode the Venusian language. Considering that there are purely human languages which have yet to be deciphered, I find that rather hard to swallow - though, on the other hand, exactly the sort of thing I'd been led to expect from less disciplined Golden Age writing.

The Venusians have come to Earth begging - they've ruined their own world, and they seek permission to settle Earth's "swamps and volcano-lands." They fought a war, you see, that scrubbed the carbon dioxide from Venus' atmosphere, and biological warfare turned their crops into "wholly inedible hard grains... there is even ice at one of the poles."

How conveeeeeeeeeenient. It honestly seems like nothing but a tacked-on "happy ending" so as to not leave the readers with a ruined Earth and an uncertain, but extremely precarious, future. There's good seeds of potential in there, I think, but I don't think they were realized. Aliens inhabiting the solar system is just par for the course when it comes to Golden Age science fiction. Nevertheless, too much of the resolution depends on superscience and convenient happenstances.

The reason that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is so fondly recalled today is because a lot of stories like this have been forgotten.


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