First published in Planet Stories, Fall 1940.
This is an early example of one of sci fi’s hoariest yet most enjoyable genre mash-ups: Robinson Crusoe In Space. It’s a great way for a writer to explore a setting and the main character’s conflict against the environment provides constant spikes of suspense. At the same time, the hope of rescue gives the whole thing forward momentum. You can even have an alien Man Friday if you like.
SF fit right into a whole bunch of existing story types: the adventure thriller, the traveller’s tale, the western and the military novel. These are all genres of the frontier, of taming the fringe zones and keeping the lid on the natural world. These are all frontier genres and they fit with SF so well because SF is the ultimate frontier genre. This story is a great example of why.
This is the story of an old spacer, Jasper Jezzan on an exploratory trip through the Saturn’s third ring on the way to the moon, Dione. In transit, the ship encounters a mysterious white mist which causes damage to a lot of its system and kills its entire crew except for Jezzan, who must survive alone on the deserted ship.
Jezzan is a great character, a classic SF competent man with an incurable love of adventure:
He thanked his lucky stars that he was living in the twenty-fourth century that saw mankind pushing back the boundaries of the unexplored solar system with exploits in space pioneering. In his younger days Jack had been on the first expedition to Mars. Now, both Mars and Venus were been colonised. Jasper had figured in many strange adventures on both worlds as well as on several of Jupiter’s sattelites and the asteroids.
Much is made of his age and experience: he only survives the attack of the white mist because he ‘had travelled the space lanes too much of his life not to sense something unusual.’ He has only one line of speech in the whole story, and sets about the task of survival with determined efficiency and expertise. He’s the kind of laconic jaded pro you see in so many action movie stars late in their careers. It would have been a great Sean Connery movie in about 1987.
In the early 20thcentury America was a still warming its hands in the after glow of the frontier era. In the real world the frontier was disappearing into film noir cities and regimented white picket suburbs. At the same time, The yearning lingered in the American soul but popular culture found the old clichés increasingly unconvincing. Readers were interest in the unrealistic tales of savagery or brutality in what were now suburbs and tourist spots. SF gave popular writers new frontiers, from ripe space operas barely covered over with a SF gloss to tight and tense stories with a more down to Earth scope like this one.
I really enjoyed this one. According to Ashley’s introduction into it’s one of a series of connected stories that sketch out a future history. This is one of the few stories I’ve read here that makes me want to go and look out more of them.
Themes: The final frontier, man vs the environment, space exploration, mysterious alien predator, Robinson Crusoe In Space, competent man