Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tunnel Visions: The KC Streetcar

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Cities aren't supposed to be hollow. Cities are meant to be vibrant places, full of people doing popular things - otherwise, what's even the point of the city existing at all? Nevertheless, over the last seventy years, North America has seen many of its cities hollow out. Some managed to hang on; some, like Toronto, ended the 20th century better off than they'd started. Some, like Kansas City, Missouri, are trying to climb back up.

Like other major North American cities, Kansas City operated a substantial streetcar network in the years immediately following the Second World War, at its height running nearly two hundred PCC streetcars on a system comparable in length to Toronto's, today. Also like most other major North American cities, Kansas City dismantled its streetcar system in the 1950s as suburbanization and ubiquitous automobile ownership demolished its foundation. Kansas City was especially vulnerable to this because, hell, look at a map - aside from the rivers that frame downtown, there are no appreciable geographic barriers anywhere around it. Kansas City had room to sprawl, and so it sprawled. Rapid transit was hard-pressed in dense cities; in the midcentury Midwest, it didn't have a chance. Some of KC's streetcars found second lives in cities like Toronto or San Francisco, but plenty of them ended up just being scrapped.

That was how rail transit in Kansas City stood for nearly sixty years, but it's different now. North and south, cities are rebuilding lines that previous generations tore out. As I write this, Kansas City is home to the newest streetcar system in North America - and it'll only be that way for another couple of weeks, until Cincinnati's starts running in early September.

I was in Kansas City to attend the 74th World Science Fiction Convention earlier this month, but I was sure to make time for a brand new streetcar.


KC Streetcar #804 pushes north at the edge of the Power & Light District.

The KC Streetcar is, thanks to its newness, a refreshingly uncomplicated system - it's a single line, three and a half kilometers (2.2 miles) long. It spends most of its time on Main Street, crossing over two highways - Kansas City didn't shy away from crashing Interstates through its downtown core - and diverging only to loop through River Market just north of downtown, with each trip beginning and ending outside Union Station. Again, "Tunnel Visions" is a misnomer because at no point does the streetcar's route take it underground; hell, aside from a couple of pedestrian overpasses, it doesn't go under anything. It's a downtown circulator more than anything else, which is understandable. To my eyes, downtown Kansas City is reminiscent of downtown Toronto circa 1975 with more artisanal coffee stores and BBQ restaurants - by which I mean it's full of parking lots where buildings once stood. According to the streetcar's official website, there are more than twelve thousand parking spots within one block of the line - which is one of the major reasons, I think, that the streetcar felt so empty when I used it during the weekdays; there are only twenty-two thousand people living in downtown Kansas City. I mean, this is a place where the downtown CVS closes at 7 PM.

What struck me as immediately unusual about the setup is how the rails were laid. In Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities I've been in where street-running streetcars have been retained, the rails generally keep to the inner lanes. In Kansas City, it's the reverse; by and large the streetcars run in the outer lanes. This does come with advantages and disadvantages over the usual setup, as where multiple lanes exist, automobiles can navigate around streetcars and passengers don't have to brave a traffic lane to board or alight. From what I'm told, it doesn't make the setup particularly friendly to cyclists, however; I know of at least one point on a bridge near Union Station where there is very low clearance between the streetcar and the pedestrian wall, and there's at least one sign along the route warning cyclists that if the bike's wheel gets caught in the rail, they may be thrown bodily over the handlebars.

Not that they're always on the outer edge; there is some weaving to accommodate turning lanes and on-street parking, and there are places where there's only one lane, so a streetcar taking on passengers can cause traffic to build up behind it. Just like home. But those cars are faster than the streetcar, they'll get where they're going sooner than anyone on foot will anyway, probably.

Once you're on the streetcar, it's very difficult to get lost. You can't stay on it indefinitely, though, since all riders are required to alight at the Union Station terminus - but nothing stops you from getting right back on. Opportunities for connections are limited, but they do exist; the MAX bus rapid transit system - which replicates some of Kansas City's former streetcar lines - has stops near the line, and the 10th & Main Transit Center permits transfers to some of RideKC's regular bus routes. Streetcar service is a bit limited, though, since they don't have many streetcars to go around; on a day like today (Saturday, August 27), when one streetcar is out of service, they can't run service frequencies better than 10-15 minutes.

During my first experiences with the system found it somewhat empty, but that may be because Kansas City isn't yet a public-transit-all-the-time city like Toronto is. I've seen reports that the KC Streetcar is already exceeding its passenger projections, and my experience at 3:40 PM on a Saturday bears that out; from Metro Center to Union Station, it was standing room only all the way, and even more people boarded there for a trip back north. Fortunately, the streetcars have articulated sections much like the ALRVs and Toronto Rockets I'm familiar with, so there was always a good place to stand.


Library Station on a weekday morning.

My first impression of Kansas City's public transportation system, in the form of an hourly bus that left from an unshaded shelter on a concrete median outside Terminal C of Kansas City International Airport, wasn't exactly the best. Some of the stops the bus passed during its forty-minute trip downtown stuck strongly in my mind, because of how unstoplike they were: just a pole signed "METRO STOP" with a route number, a phone number, and a website. No shelter, no bench, not even a square of sidewalk. If you're talking about Barrie, Ontario circa 1991, that's one thing, but it's pretty thin provender for 2016 Kansas City.

With that in mind, I wasn't expecting much from the streetcar. What I found is that its stations feel like a strange middle ground to me: they're not quite stations, but they're more than just stops. The ones that aren't in their own medians are smoothly integrated into the sidewalk, designed so that they're on the same level as a streetcar to allow step-free access, and built around a central t-shaped shelter. I say "shelter" because there's no better word, but with no walls and a fairly small roof, the shelter that many of them is theoretical at best. While waiting at Kauffman Center during a heavy rainstorm, I had to stand on the far side, off the actual platform, to keep from getting drenched by passing cars.

That's irritating enough, in August - but Kansas City isn't Los Angeles, or Houston, or Miami. For now, at least, it still gets cold in Missouri, and snow does fall. These stations don't have windbreaks. I wouldn't want to be waiting at one during a snowstorm, or even just a cold and windy day. Sure, if service was frequent there might be a tradeoff, but there are plenty of times where you'll be waiting ten minutes or more for a streetcar to roll by.

On the whole, there's not much eye-catching about these stations. Many of them don't even have advertisements. They're each equipped with screens that count down until the next streetcar arrival, and have posted streetcar route maps and hours of operation. There are bits of public art scattered here and there; the one that most caught my eye was a model perched on top of the Union Station shelter, at once a streetcar and automobile and jetliner. One would think the wings would make it a bit difficult to run something like that on the streets.


A closer look at the trailing end of streetcar #802.

As you'd expect for a 21st century streetcar system, the KC Streetcar has hit the ground running with modern equipment: it provides service with four (count 'em) CAF Urbos 3 Model 100 streetcars on their first North American appearance, though Cincinnati will use them as well and they're already in service in Edinburgh, Belgrade, and multiple French and Spanish networks. They have that clean, streamlined European design to them, with all the vital equipment hidden away from riders' eyes - it's almost as if they're whispering along on a cushion of air. I do mean whispering, too - these cars are quiet. Coming from Toronto, I'm used for the 1970s-era CLRVs to make my organs rattle whenever I'm sitting in a building next to the line; in Kansas City, it took me a while to realize that streetcars were going by, and I wasn't even noticing.

The streetcars are three-module articulated vehicles, rather like the new Flexity Outlooks running in Toronto, but a bit smaller; they're about 24 meters long, with a rated capacity of 148 when everyone's squeezed in. They're numbered 801 to 804, because this is officially the continuation of Kansas City's previous streetcar system, and the earlier numbers had been used already. It puts the smallness of the KC Streetcar into perspective, though. As I wrote this, at 12:49 on a Saturday morning, there were more than four streetcars running on Toronto's 509 Harbourfront line, and it's the shortest one on the system!

I found the streetcar interiors pretty spartan, and I'm not sure if this is a permanent thing or just an artifact of the system being so new. Except for the external "Sprint Wi-Fi" logo on the cars' middle modules, which also advertises the free wireless access that's been implemented along the line and will eventually be activated aboard the streetcars themselves, there are no ads. There was the Code of Conduct posting there to educate Kansas Citians on how to use their new ride, though: rules like "no smoking or eating" and "please let people off before you board" and "do not bring weapons onto the streetcar," because that is something that actually has to be spelled out where everyone can see it in the United States.

The streetcars have a few tricks I wasn't expecting, either. Digitized bells aren't anything unusual - bells and streetcars have gone together for more than a hundred years - but Kansas Citians haven't needed to look out for streetcars since 1957, so when necessary, the streetcars can sound more like oncoming freight trains. That gets attention: it made me jump the first time I heard it.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Looking toward the unoccupied control cab in the trailing end of streetcar #803.

The KC Streetcar is the easiest system I've ever used, for two reasons: physically speaking, the no-step streetcar access makes it a breeze to board, and for all other respects - it's free. Absolutely, 100% no charge to the people who riding it, which is probably a big factor in why it's gone so far beyond its ridership projections already. Admittedly, that's a good way to get people thinking good things in what may be their first experience with fixed-infrastructure transit.

There's plenty of room to move around inside, and there are priority seats and wheelchair-friendly spaces as you'd expect for modern equipment, but it's honestly not that comfortable - not that comfort is that much of a problem, considering how quickly one of these streetcars can do a circuit. Besides, with the articulated sections and the hanging straps, there are plenty of places to stand if you can.

The stop request buttons were a little different than I'm used to, but I can live with that. They're only mounted on poles, which means that every once in a while, they're horizontal. What threw me about them was that it wasn't easy to tell whether or not they worked once I pressed them; I'm used to a stop request button sounding a tone immediately, but the KC Streetcar looks to have gone with waiting until the automated stop announcement has been made for the next station before sounding the request noise. I figure it's the request noise, at least, because I didn't hear it all the time - the only consistent one sounded more like the Sweet Cuppin' Cakes version of Strong Bad.

Since the system is so new, and there aren't that many in the area - St. Louis' MetroLink, clear on the other side of Missouri, is the closest - rider education looks to be one of the agency's big priorities. Still, it was a bit surprising when, before departing Union Station, the streetcar operator spoke to everyone aboard the streetcar, giving a brief overview on how to ride. Even if it made it seem more like a theme park ride than a legitimate piece of public transportation infrastructure, it was a welcome thing.


KC Streetcar #801. Look at all its majesty.

One of the big factors in early 20th century urban development was the streetcar suburb: a neighbourhood opened up by a newly-built or expanded streetcar line feeding into the central city. Hell, a lot of them were built by streetcar companies, to ensure future business. Since they were designed with the expectation that people would be making their way on foot when they weren't riding the rails, these neighbourhoods are human-scaled and many remain prosperous today; hell, in Toronto, most of them still have their streetcars.

What Kansas City is trying to do feels like a 21st century inversion of this - using a streetcar to rebuild a downtown, and why not? It's worked elsewhere. When I talked about hollow cities at the beginning of this piece, I was thinking specifically of Kansas City; a downtown doesn't feel right when it's got so many empty buildings, when it's littered with parking lots, when street life seems confined to a mere strip rather than something that spreads through the whole. It's not that surprising, though - look at a map; downtown KC has the look of a psychological island, surrounded by the river and the highways, and those highways weren't built on empty land. There are big rips in the urban fabric there, but the streetcar might be the thing to sew them together again.

Whether the streetcar's expansion plans reach fruition, or whether it never goes any further than this - that's always the struggle, isn't it?

Previous Tunnel Visions

Monday, August 22, 2016

Things You Should Totally Read #1

Recently I realized that I was only reviewing things so that I could criticize them. Not only is that unhelpful, seeing as how a lot of these things are works of short science fiction older than I am, it's unhealthy - constantly seeking out things you don't like only has negative effects, psychologically and physiologically. So in the spirit of being more helpful and more healthy, I've been inspired to start out this irregular series looking at current bits of fiction that I think are good and worth your time.

My own bits will be brief, because I'd rather you spend your time with the authors.


"Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" by Mina Li

I'm not too familiar with Li's work. In fact, this was the first thing of hers I'd read, but when she brings skill like this to the page, I'm certain it won't be the last. This is a fantasy story that I felt did a thought-provoking job at not only inverting the typical fairy-tale-princess setup but weaving deeper meanings into it. I don't know if they were intended by Li or it's just a result of me bringing myself to the table, but good stories aren't inert; they start internal conversations. "Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" had my brain chugging for a while afterward, so it's successful in that regard. Plus, I know things I didn't know before, like the notions of good fortune associated with peach trees and bamboo. It's a worthwhile story that broadens your horizons, and this is one of them.

It's free to read at Kaleidotrope, so I suggest you do it!

"The Last," by Premee Mohamed

When I was in high school in Central Ontario they made us read CanLit. So much CanLit. Stories about people in the cold north woods, in the windswept prairies, in the frozen Arctic, people alone and struggling with the angry environment at every turn. If I'd had stories to read like Premee Mohamed's "The Last," I would have enjoyed it a lot more. This story is so very Canadian - drippingly, meltingly so. I mean, it is a story about cowboys that wrangle sentient icebergs. I read this on my smartphone browser and couldn't put it down. It has a fine, polished edge and a cold heart - much like an iceberg, in fact! This will definitely be on my Aurora nomination list for next year, because it is that good. Mohamed is another author I expect to go far in the years ahead.

"Runtime," by S.B. Divya

Finally, people are realizing that novellas can stand on their own. "Runtime" is one of the first standalone novellas to come out of Publishing, and in the low-word-count constraints of the form S.B. Divya has created a future that feels real, alternatively gleaming and grimy, hopeful and hopeless. It pivots around Marmeg, an eighteen-year-old cyborg who upgrades herself with rebuilt parts rescued from behind dumpsters and can write fresh code in minutes, and her struggle to win a punishing rough-country footrace. It's rich with the technical crunchiness that you might expect from an Analog story, coupled with a good human core. The characters were well-built, and the world felt like a logical extension of the present day, rather than a logical extension of, say, 1977.

I read this one as a physical, printed copy, and I suspect that heightened my like of it even more, but read it however you want to! This one is definitely in the running for a Hugo, and it'll be on my nominating list next year.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Horizon of Desperate Events

Black holes are unpleasant things to be around, and that's not just because they're places so warped that mathematics means nothing inside them. All the familiar rules get twisted up around them, and if you're not skillful or you're not paying attention it's easy to end up getting your big, shiny starship trapped forever. Given the right black hole, you could cross the event horizon and the only indication would be all the light of the universe winking out behind you. You're perfectly fine, for the moment -- but you're always getting closer to the singularity, the ultimate destructor.

This is kind of how I feel about modern politics, specifically the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. Seventeen million people decided it would be a totally rad idea to skim the event horizon, and come now, it couldn't possibly be as bad as the rest of the crew was saying. Except now the universe has gone out behind them, and every trajectory in spacetime leads closer to the singularity, and they're realizing that playing chicken with a black hole is, in fact, not the wisest decision anyone has made.

I'm seeing commentary pop up now -- Charles Stross, for one, has a good rundown here -- that the UK may not have crossed the event horizon after all, that there's still a way out of the situation and a way to stay in the European Union. Whether it's a second referendum to say "actually, about that, wasn't that a capital joke, simply capital" or clauses in the Scottish and Northern Irish constitutions that could give them vetos over leaving the EU if you squint, there's a lot of desperation out there to walk it back.

Personally, I think it's not going to happen. Things have already gone too far for that. A wound can be healed, but it can't be uninflicted. Words, once said, cannot be unsaid. Democracy is an axiom of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and saying "whoops, just kidding!" undermines that whole foundation. I know it would be better for everyone for the UK to stay in the EU; my personal preference is for them to stay.

But they can't, not anymore. Look at it this way: if you took a shit on your boss's desk, how well-disposed do you think she would be to your frantic, frenzied apologies, your begging to not be fired, when she discovered you wiping your ass with a dayplanner? We've all experienced times in our lives where we wish more than anything we could rewind time, use the Omega-13 to correct a single mistake, but that never happened for any of us and I highly doubt it's going to happen for the UK.

The EU is not going to take a punch to the face with a smile. They're going to break the UK to the greatest extent they can, pour encourager les autres. Even as someone whose background is English, who knows people over there who are already broken by this -- I honestly can't say I blame the EU, or that I would do any different were I in its place.

In their way, institutions can be as cold and as mechanical as black holes. We forget that to our peril.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Short SF Review #24: Perspectives

"Perspectives," by W.R. Thompson
Originally published in Analog, November 1983

"You realize how dangerously tense things are up here, don't you?"
Bob looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is the most stress-filled environment in which humans have ever attempted to live."

The 1980s were interesting times for science fiction. The gosh-wow-isn't-this-gadget-rad-as-heck stories and odes to pocket-protected engineers solving technical problems that had once dominated it were an increasingly smaller part of a larger galaxy. The Space Shuttle had begun to fly, and proved the 1970s dreams of two-week turnarounds and $10-per-pound orbital launch costs to be just that--dreams. The world was becoming more like science fiction every day, but to some science fiction writers, the world was always trying to take it away.

A lot of those writers ended up placing stories in Analog, and as a result, many Analog stories in the '80s are built around space boosterism and reflect the anxieties of authors that, just as it had been possible to reach for space, their hands were being slapped away by "budgets" and "physics" and "U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI)," about whom they complained mightily. Stories that come out of this zeitgeist often look rather... warped to modern eyes.

W.R. Thompson's "Perceptions" is one of them. Set in the near future of 1983, so probably ten or fifteen years ago, the United States has set up a lunar colony as the core of a space mining operation. Buffetted and battered by its dependence on Earth and its politicians, a deep vein of uncertainty and stress is piled on to the ordinary concerns of space life--you know, that unless everything keeps working, everyone will die. Into this comes Charles Augustine Hacker, a psychologist sent up to study the effects of stress in the colonial environment. Makes sense, really; a lunar colony runs in completely different circumstances from anything on Earth, and you'd want to have an outside opinion on mission-critical things like psychological stability, for the same reason you'd want air traffic controllers or nuclear reactor technicians to be in good mental health.

But he isn't 100% on board with the idea of space colonization, so in the world of a 1980s Analog story, he is of course the villain.

Hacker has an argument behind him -- the colonists act weird to his eyes, beyond their general-but-understandable unwillingness to dwell on the hostility of their environment; they're as sober as a temperance convention, they're careful to a fault, they use jargon-filled slang that implies they'd rather think of themselves as machines. He also has a solution: for the colonists to return to Earth, before their society snaps. The colonial leaders, being the colonial leaders, don't think much of this solution, and when they discover where Hacker's coming from, they immediately make plans to resolve the situation to their benefit.


I'll admit that the execution of "Perceptions" may suffer from being, as best as I can tell, Thompson's first professional sale. I know that my first sale to Analog, back in 2012, doesn't match up to things I'm creating now. Still, readers can only engage it by how it was executed, and honestly, I still can't decide if the author *intended* the reader to look askance at the story or to take it at its word. When I first read it on the subway, I reached a point where I said to myself "oh, I see what's going on, all these expectations that're being set up are going to get toppled," right until I reached the last line and the tower of expectations stayed defiantly upright.

The story is built around the colonists' realization that Hacker has an ideological axe to grind: specifically, that technological advancement had made civilization more and more stressful, that "technology has destabilized the foundations of life" and "form[s] dangers to life and limb which are beyond human comprehension." The leaders decide he lacks intellectual honesty because he filters things through his viewpoint rather than theirs, and come to the conclusion that abandoning the colony would end up dooming all of humanity to a new Dark Age. So, being calm, rational individuals who are in no way suffering from severe psychological pressure, they decide to give Hacker a nervous breakdown.


That's pretty much how it ends. The colony's director wonders how long it'll be until he can sleep soundly again, even though he's convinced himself that he's saved the colony -- and there's a lot of convincing going on in this story. The colonists convince themselves that they're totally okay, that Hacker is full of shit solely because he has a particular viewpoint, and that all of their actions are worthwhile and justifiable.

The key thing that the story appears to gloss over, though? Hacker isn't wrong. The moon is far more hostile than any environment on Earth. Stress can be a real problem, and it can sneak up on you. "I don't feel any tension," says Bob Dubois, the colonial director, as if that settles things. But tension is funny like that, and it's something I can speak to. I've been working the same job for nine years now, but it's only fairly recently that the tension migraines started to appear, and even more recently that I discovered they were tension migraines. You can think you're calm, collected, and in control and be totally unaware that the dam holding back everything has started to buckle.

I thought that this story would end by, in part, vindicating Hacker. Much of the story's middle is a dialogue between two characters justifying the colony's customs to each other, which I read as the characters trying to convince themselves that they were right, that nothing was wrong with them. There's never any self-awareness, never any doubt; the colonists know they are the Good Guys Here. It's like they're terrified to interrogate their own beliefs, in case they discover something they'd rather leave hidden.

In their own way, the colonial leaders are no better than their villain -- but you could make an argument that they're worse. They barely bother seeing if Hacker can be swayed, with the doctor justifying the induced breakdown by saying that he can't be reasoned with. What's left unsaid is that, to all appearances, neither can they.

"Perspectives," to me, is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not many stories that leave me thinking for days after I read it, wondering whether the author was pointing to this thing or that one.

what do you mean i haven't used this category for FOUR YEARS woooooow

Previous Short SF Reviews:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

On a Rail to the Future

If you were to take a measuring tape to one of the many railways embedded in or buried under Toronto's streets -- not recommended, incidentally, because those tracks are heavily used -- you'd find something unique, if a bit pedestrian. Every railway has a track gauge, which is just how far apart the rails are. The miniature railways you'll find at certain tourist attractions may have only a fifteen-inch gauge, while the broad-gauge railways of India, Pakistan, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are five and a half feet wide. In Toronto, you'd find that the rails are built to a gauge of 4 feet, 10 7⁄8 inches -- just slightly wider than standard gauge -- and nowhere else in the world will you find operating tracks built to that specification.

It's not because Toronto wanted to be unique and special. It goes back to 1861, when the first horsecar lines started operating in the young city; the rails were built with that specific gauge so that the carriages in use at the time could themselves take advantage of the rails. As the streetcar system expanded, the track gauge was maintained so that the same equipment could be used across the entire network, and as the Toronto subway was initially aiming to use streetcar-derived rolling stock, the underground railways use the same track separation because of one decision a hundred and fifty years ago.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a simple illustration of how history echoes; not only can simple choices have wide-ranging consequences, but the past reverberates in the present.

These rails haven't even been used for fifty years, and yet they're still here.
This is not something a lot of people appear to understand. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive heir to the Democratic presidential nomination because, well, her last name is "Clinton." Back in 2010, while she was still Secretary of State, she commented on the issue of African economic development, but in the sort of tin-eared way that only a Westerner who thinks history is "just a bunch of things that happened" could.

"For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century," Reuters quoted Clinton as saying. "We've got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let's make money for everybody."

Think back to rails for a moment. Toronto's unique track gauge is the result of a simple choice a hundred and fifty years ago, but it's not going away. To remove it from the face of Earth would not only mean tearing up eighty-two kilometers of streetcar lines, but the complete re-railing of nearly a hundred kilometers of subway and the retrofitting of hundreds of subway trains and streetcars. It would take a supreme effort to make the gauge go away.

The Western conquest and occupation of Africa lasted for decades. It carved scars that will never heal. Just as the outlines of the Roman Empire are visible in the shape of the world today, two thousand years later -- hell, there's a legend that says wagon wheel gauges go back to ruts cut by Roman chariots -- in the forty-first century, the damage that the West caused to Africa, and Asia, and, hell, anywhere that wasn't the West, will still be visible.

It will take a supreme effort to for the conquered and oppressed regions of the world to heal. It is not something that can just be "got over." To make a statement like that betrays not only privilege but unthinking privilege, and helps illustrate why Clinton is fortunate she's going against candidates as oozily unlikeable as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

History is loud, and we live in an echo chamber. The voices of the past still whisper today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tailings of the Golden Age #5: The Trouble with Telstar

"The Trouble with Telstar," by John Berryman
Appeared in Analog, June 1963

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I'm pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking of equipment I never heard of. We had gyros--hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

Analog doesn't have a reputation as a hard-science magazine for nothing. Open a copy from the 1960s: amidst the stories and John W. Campbell's angry denunciations of scientific orthodoxy, you'll find ads from outfits like Republic Aviation and General Dynamics and Allied Chemical. Analog gained a reputation as being filled with stories about engineers solving technical problem because, to a great degree, that's the audience it was aimed at in the '60s--and that's the audience that John Berryman's "The Trouble with Telstar" was written to appeal to.

Mike Seaman has a problem that, presumably for once, doesn't have anything to do with his name. He's one of the top men behind the communication satellites made by Communications Corporation--truly, a staggeringly inspired name, but I've seen ones in real life every bit as ridiculous--and these satellites are failing in a way that can't be pinned down. There's a lot of talk about busted solenoids and backroom back-and-forths about who's responsible, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the point: apparently, it'd be cheaper to send a man (because 1960s) into orbit to repair the satellites. Much of the story deals with Seaman training for his mission and dealing with friction from the established astronauts, who look at him as a jumped-up repairman. Granted, they're not wrong; he's flying the mission not because he's an ideal astronaut candidate, but because he came up with the idea for the orbital repair and his bosses volunteered him. Life in the private sector sure is grand.

Once in orbit, Seaman fixes the satellites and there's some brief peril, because there's always got to be some kind of peril. Fortunately, with the production of fresh space debris that totally won't come back to haunt anyone ever, the day is saved and Our Hero™ can claim his reward in the form of his boss's secretary, who only dates astronauts. ("If you haven't made at least three orbits, she won't even have dinner with you.")

Maybe this would be entertaining to an engineer in 1963 who has to deal with crap like this on a regular basis, but to a non-engineer like myself in 2016 it's just... boring. I can see why Campbell printed it, because John W. Campbell loves him his stories of engineers solving technical problems, but that doesn't change the fact that it's aggressively mediocre. I mean, there wasn't even any quote from it ridiculous enough to stick in my mind for use at the top of this post. It's just inert, but that didn't keep it from being on the cover of the issue it ran in!

Now, to be fair, there were some parts in there that struck me as interesting--but only in a historical context; had I read the story in 1963 they would not have stood out. Berryman did earn a nod in that he anticipated neutral buoyancy training for EVAs a couple of years before NASA picked it up. Seaman is launched to orbit in a Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which at the time would have placed the story in the late 1960s. In reality the Dyna-Soar program was cancelled six months after the issue disappeared from newsstands, so the story has an unintential alternate history vibe to it now. Berryman's frequent use of "telstar" as a standard noun for a communications satellite felt like a brush with a parallel dictionary, before the terminology of space had settled firmly down into what we have today.

As well, the story is only passively sexist, which practically feels like a victory for something printed by John W. Campbell in 1963. The secretary character has no character, is described little beyond "small, dark, intense... pert [and] lively," and the punchline of the story is her being dumped by Seaman: "no dame was worth that ride."

I will note that the John Berryman who wrote this is not the John Berryman who's listed on Wikipedia. Unless you're a weirdo like me reading old magazines for fun, there's no real reason for you to have heard of him; the science-fictional Berryman's career was dominated by short fiction, and trailed off shortly after "The Trouble with Telstar" was written; his last credit is 1986's "The Big Dish," which was also an Analog cover story, and he died in 1988.

If you're really interested, you can read "The Trouble with Telstar" for free at There's also a Kindle edition available on Amazon for $5.45, which is utterly ridiculous; the entire June 1963 issue of Analog cost $0.50, and even with fifty years of inflation factored in, that's only $3.91. But unless you have some specific interest in the history of the field, there's not much to recommend spending your time with it.

Previous Tailings
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)