Saturday, November 16, 2013

Two 1930s stories by Raymond Z. Gallun

Some years ago I read Raymond Z. Gallun's The Planet Strappers, finding its unique view of space travel as well as its tone and attitude charming. Today I read two Gallun stories from anthologies I have on my shelf, Hartwell and Cramer's The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF (1994) and Asimov's Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (1974).

"Davy Jones' Ambassador"

Hartwell and Cramer take as their definition of hard SF "the part of sf that takes science as its central subject" (page 989) and the Gallun story they include in their 990 page anthology fits that description in more than one way. "Davy Jones' Ambassador," written in 1935, tells the story of Clifford Rodney, the one-man crew of a submarine exploring the deepest reaches of the Atlantic. Rodney and his sub are captured by the intelligent beings who live in the region of the ocean floor, and put into a tank to be studied by someone with authority who calls himself (itself?) "The Student."

The Student and his people are not the sexy mermaids and muscular mermen we so often encounter in stories set under the sea, but vaguely squid-like creatures with tentacles, suckers, beaks, and translucent skin through which their pulsing organs can be observed. These people have an advanced technology based on selective breeding: they have bred various types of sea creatures to act as robot soldiers and steam shovels, even electric generators and text message transmitters. Gallun really lays on the science in his description of how The Student has constructed the aquarium in which he keeps Rodney, and how it is supplied with fresh air.

The Student is fascinated by the surface world he has never seen, but learned about from examining sunken ships and items humans have thrown overboard. He can even read and write English, having learned it from books he has found. (This is necessary to the story, but seems a little unbelievable. I recall having a similar objection to how Tarzan learns to read.) He challenges Rodney to try to escape from the tank in which he is imprisoned, suggesting he thinks it will be an instructive experiment, a test of human ingenuity. Rodney studies his prison, cobbles together various items and engineers his escape (more science!)

It is quickly revealed that this was no mere test - The Student wanted Rodney to escape, and clandestinely aided him, because The Student wanted to hitch a ride to the surface. The Student's people are fearful and suspicious of surface civilization, and had forbidden the release of Rodney and any other intercourse with the upper world. Gallun's project in "Davy Jones' Ambassador" is not just to throw a lot of speculative biology and McGuyver engineering at us, but to glorify the scientist who risks death and the opprobrium of his people in the noble quest for knowledge.

Another element of Gallun's story worthy of note is the relationship between Rodney and The Student. These two risk-taking seekers of knowledge have much in common, but at the same time Gallun does not sugar coat their relationship, reminding us that, between people from such radically different cultures, "real sympathy" may be impossible. The Student specifically rejects friendship: "I am not your friend. What I did, I did for myself," he tells Rodney at the end of the story.

"Old Faithful"

"Old Faithful" also tells the story of an alien keen to learn more about humanity, this time a Martian. This story is quite similar to "Davy Jones' Ambassador," but superior in almost every way. It flings a lot of science at you, glorifies the risk-taking scientist, creates an interesting alien culture, and even tugs at the heart strings. Asimov, in his 1974 intro to "Old Faithful," written in 1934, credits Gallun with being a pioneer in writing sympathetic aliens, and the Martian, known as Number 774, is certainly a sympathetic figure, and this is a really good story.

Mars is an ancient world, its natural resources almost exhausted, and so for untold centuries the Martian people have been governed by authoritarian "Rulers" who judge people by how useful they are to society. When you reach a certain age, if your work is not judged useful, you are deemed a waste of food and water and sentenced to death. Number 774's life's work has been to study and attempt to communicate with Earth, and this work is not deemed useful by the Rulers.

So devoted to the pursuit of knowledge is Number 774, however, that he is the first Martian in thousands of years to try to escape his sentence of death. He and his gang of robots strive to build a space ship that will take Number 774 to Earth.

Gallun paints a compelling picture of Number 774, his society and his life.  Gallun succeeds in making the Martian quite alien but also easy to relate to - I really hoped Number 774 was going to escape Mars, come to Earth, satisfy his own curiosity and inaugurate a period of prosperity for both Earthmen and Martians. There is quite a bit of science and even math in the story, but it doesn't get in the way of the drama of a being driven to break thousands of years of tradition in the quest for knowledge, to see with his own eyes new worlds and new peoples.  Asimov made a very good selection here.


So, two stories glorifying the adventurous scientist-engineer, one solid, and one very fine. Definitely worth the time of the classic SF fan.

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