First published in Sattelite Science Fiction, February 1959.
And so we come to the end. This is the last story in The Golden Age of Science Fiction (and therefore the last story in my great classic SF read-a-thon, but we’ll get to that later). Amis is surely astute enough to know that the last story is as important as the first. These two stories are like the anchors that hold an anthology in place: come on strong and then leave them wanting more.
The first choice – The Quest for St Aquin – was slightly eccentric but perhaps the religious theme was intended to demonstrate SF’s elevated concerns. This finale also has a religious angle, but this is just one of the many classic SF tropes that exist cheek by jowl in this impressively busy story.
It’s another frontier story, but this time instead of the rather imperialistic view of The Streets of Ashkelon, this one feels a little more like Dances With Wolves. Nat Hawthorn is a biologist working with a bunch of other scientists on an outpost on Venus. Venus is covered by ocean, and in the ocean live ‘cetoid’ Venusian natives. Hawthorn has formed a particular attachment and is convinced they’re as intelligent as humans. When his colleagues make a discovery that looks set to destroy the cetoid’s habitat in favour of human colonisation, he takes extreme action to secure their safety.
As well as the Frontier, the story has elements of dystopia. The Earth is a corrupt and over-populated hell hole, and people are basically no good.
‘I am afraid we must suppress the report, Dr Dykstra. Regrettably our species cannot be trusted with the information.’
Jevons bit his lip. ‘I hate to believe that,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t deliberately and cold bloodedly exterminate a billion or more sentient beings for our own … convenience.’
‘We have done similar things often enough in the past,’ said Dykstra woodenly.
I’d read enough history myself, Wim, give a very partial roll call, thought Hawthorn. And he began to tick off on his fingers. Troy. Jericho. Carthage. Jerusalem. The Albigensians. Buchenwald.
On top of the colonial story and the dystopia, it’s also a story of alien contact turning on just how intelligent the aliens are. They’re clearly pretty smart, because the main purpose of the base isn’t science, but trading. The aliens provide various artefacts – including precious ‘firegems’ – in return for a weird selection of bits and pieces from Earth.
He continued along the trading pier. Its metal gleamed, nearly awash. Basketlike containers had been lowered overnight, with standard goods. These included recordings and pictures the cetoids already knew, but always seemed to want more of.
It seems a bit odd to be arguing about whether they’re intelligent or not when they’re clearly involved in some kind of culturally sophisticated behaviour. They even have quite specific tastes, although they don’t extend to any thing too radical.
The music bubbles of Schoenberg had been rejected. Perhaps other atonalists would be liked, but with spaceship mass ratios what they were, the experiment wasn’t going to be done for a long time. On the other hand, a tape of traditional Japanese songs was gone and a two carat gem had been left, twice the standard price for a novelty: in effect some cetoid was asking for more of the same.
As usual, every contemporary pictorial artist was refused, but then, Hawthorn agreed they were not to his taste either. Nor did any cetoid want Picasso (middle period), but Mondrian and Matisse had gone well.
Maybe they think the cetoids just playing a complicated game of fetch? Well, it doesn’t matter because Hawthorn is given a personal revelation by Oscar, a cetoid he’s made particular friends with.
These big SF themes are backed up by some impressive sounding planetological science and geology. Add to this the religious element – it has a prologue featuring a verse from Ezekiel and Hawthorn exchanges religious views with the other characters at various times – and it all adds up to a weighty pudding.
I’m inclined to damn this story with faint praise. It has some moments of nice writing and the disparate elements listed above work in relative harmony (although the Earthly dystopia I could probably have lived without). Today, though, it portentous and over-egged, in particular the religious analogies. Despite trying really hard, it just doesn’t feel like it adds up to all that much.
Themes: the frontier, alien contact, the godless universe, people are bastards.
And with that, we’re done! It’s taken a lot longer than I expected and taken up large amounts of my (dwindling!) reading time. It’s good to end with the Amis volume, as a lot of the stories in The History of the Science Fiction Magazine weren’t that great.
It was important for me to get the historical perspective, though: it would be unfair to take your average issue of a modern SF mag and compare it with a volume like Amis’s, which draws on the handful of the best stories from a fifteen year period.
So, what now? Well, I’ve got a wrap article in mind, just to try and set out once ond for all what I mean when I say ‘science fiction is dead’. I may even get it done before the New Year. Stick around