Thursday, July 19, 2012

Short SF Review #24: The Man in the Moon

"The Man in the Moon," by Mack Reynolds
Appeared in Amazing Stories, July 1950 and March 1969

There was no night and no day; there was no sound and there was nothing to do; there was practically no food to eat and little water to drink. And this lasted for four days.

There was nothing to do but sit and think.

Forty-three years ago tomorrow Neil Armstrong took one small step off the ladder of the lunar lander, but when it comes to journeys in spirit he wasn't even close to being first. In decades when spaceflight was a distant dream of engineers, enthusiasts and scattered scientifictionists, the moon was the shining objective, the great goal. Moon journey stories are littered through the corpus of science fiction, from Asimov's "Trends" to Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon," and go back past Jules Verne and the supergun Columbiad all the way to Cyrano de Bergerac's seventeenth-century moonflights by firecrackers and more.

The years between the end of the Second World War and the first spaceflights weren't just the Golden Age of science fiction--they were also a shining time for moonflight stories, a time where the technical state of the art was advanced enough that it was a "day after tomorrow" idea, but when there was still wide room for speculation as to how it would all come about. Many of them didn't resemble the form that the actual lunar missions took--but they're still valuable, both for entertainment value and as windows into a vanished time.

Mack Reynolds' "The Man in the Moon" is one of these. Republished by Amazing Stories in early 1969, a copy of which I found in a Portland vintage store, its first appearance was in the July 1950 issue of Amazing and looks at the moon from a time when some people still thought rockets wouldn't work in space because there was no air for them to push against. It's the story of the first successful manned flight to the moon, and resembles Apollo 11 in two respects: the flight was by rocket, and it was American.

Other than that, well...

The year is left unspecified, but from the nature of the story it seems to be set twenty minutes into the future--that is, probably around 1955--and it's a world where the United States and Soviet Union (or "our potential enemy," as the story calls it) have thrown themselves into space with even more reckless abandon than they did in real history. The United States has been attempting, in secret, to make a successful lunar landing because the Potential Enemy has successfully placed a space station in Earth orbit, and it's taken as a matter of course that a space station "completely dominates earth in the military sense"--this is, of course, why Don Pettit is now the Science Lord of Humanity. Therefore, the United States is desperately racing to land men on the moon to counterbalance the enemy space station.

I'm sure it must have made a lot more sense back in 1950.

This was the state-of-the-art in rocketry back in 1950, incidentally.

The story follows Captain Jeff Stevens of the United States Space Service, an astronaut in the scattershot effort to claim the moon for America through a secret space program that resembles nothing if not a shotgun blast. Rather than using a single powerful rocket to send up sizeable capsules, Mack Reynolds' moonshots involve as many as one hundred rockets being fired at the moon--most being unmanned, and more than half of them somehow managing not to make it to the moon at all. Stevens is one of three astronauts who are to be fired at the moon in individual rockets in hopes of claiming it--of the previous three sent only one managed to land, only to suffocate from lack of air.

This story is thick on desperation--the problem is that it assumes the need for things to go in such a desperate way is so obvious that it's unnecessary to establish them in the story itself. As a result, from my 21st-century vantage point it all looks rather crazy, like "Kerbal Space Program: The Story," but with dudes instead of kerbals. Pre-flight checks? Not in this world; the astronauts aren't informed that they're flying until twenty minutes before launch, and once Stevens finishes strapping himself into his own rocket, he's only got four minutes to wait before launch.

Another oddity of the story is the terminology that's used, an artifact of its predating the actual Space Age. The story opens with a quote from Willy Ley's Conquest of Space, and Reynolds uses Ley's preferred terminology: the German term brenschluss is used continuously throughout the early parts of the story without explanation, and it wasn't until I got to a computer that it made sense; it refers to engine cutoff, it's a term Ley unsuccessfully tried to get the American aerospace industry to adopt. Similarly, the story refers to the moon rockets as multi-step vehicles, when in reality we would call them multi-stage.

While "The Man in the Moon" is an interesting adventure story, it does have its flaws. Not only does the story's triggering event feel particularly artificial, the ending struck me as hollow. Sure, Stevens manages to land and assemble a crude base bare-handed from the cargo rockets that preceded him. He's also got a broken arm because the descent stage collapsed while he was on the ladder. He is the commander and sole occupant of Fort Luna... to what end? So the United States has a base on the moon. In what world does that translate into "dominance of Earth," and how does it prevent simple Cold War one-upmanship?

This story's real value is, I think, getting across what science fiction readers in 1950 were prepared to accept as realistic and believable.


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