Saturday, April 25, 2009

Short SF Review #5: "No Shoulder to Cry On"

"No Shoulder to Cry On," by Hank Davis
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact - June 1968

Before the moon bases had been developed beyond the level of extraterrestrial summer camps, before man had gone to Mars in person, the stars had come to see him. And brought hope.

Truly timeless literature is in the distinct minority of everything that's been written. For every Epic of Gilgamesh, there were doubtless a thousand pointless tales carved by Babylonian hacks who have since been completely forgotten. The same is true of science fiction. While some works retain their relevance and their capacity to compel decades after they were first put to paper, all around their pedestals the lone and level sands stretch far away.

"No Shoulder to Cry On" is one of those not-particularly-timeless stories, in my estimation. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, this was the only one of Hank Davis' stories to appear in Analog's pages. Arguably set in 1973, it follows Howard M. Nelson, Esq., Ph.D., a lone scientist travelling to an alien world as part of an effort for the "three point nine billion - and more on the way" people of Earth to "coexist on the same eight thousand mile diameter life raft without... capsizing the shaky thing and drowning one and all?" The underlying assumption of the story mirrors Carl Sagan's expectation that any starfaring species would be peaceful as a matter of course, because otherwise they would not have survived to become starfaring in the first place. Nevertheless, this is still Analog it's appearing in, and the humans find that the aliens have far less to offer them than they have to the aliens.

It's a short one - only six pages - and that's good, because I think it was already on the edge of wearing out its welcome by the time it ended. There just wasn't much oomph in it to craft a compelling yarn, just a lone scientist in an alien environment ruminating about what had got him there and speculating on what he'd encounter. On the whole, it struck me as fairly sterile - though I did like the early note that the alien ship's faster-than-light drive also slightly shifted its internal color spectrum, with the result of the character's white shirt appearing violet while cheating Einstein.

I don't think it's much surprise that this story was published when it was. Beyond the ever-present shadow of nuclear annihilation, in 1968 John W. Campbell had been at the helm of Analog for thirty years. Though he was already in the twilight of his life, his tastes in stories hadn't changed. Campbell was always one for the space opera - witness his editorial support of the reactionless Dean Drive - and he likewise had little patience with the "Elder Big Brother" model of extraterrestrials. In Popular Contemporary Writers, Michael D. Sharp wrote that Campbell "believed firmly in human superiority" and that "humans were better than aliens."

"No Shoulder To Cry On" thus strikes me as a story almost tailor-made to appeal to Campbell. That may be so, but it didn't do the same for me.


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