ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/1/09
I would say that everyone who considers themselves a devotee of Science Fiction should read at least one book like this, were it not for the fact that everyone I know who likes SF already *has* read at least one book like this. I myself have read several, though not in a very long time. I used to love these kinds of 1950s books about how great the Space Age would be once it got going. I loved everything about them - the smell of library dust, the cheap hardcover bindings with cloth on the outside, the way the light hit the slightly-yellowing pages of fairly thick paper, the cheap-but-effective black and white illustrations (In this case by Clifford Geary).
I even love the “Date Due” tag in the back of the book, which tells the sad, forlorn history of the tome. My copy of this book was first checked out in May of 1962, and last checked out in April of 1987. In the quarter century between, the poor thing was only checked out a whopping seven more times. Poor little wallflower, doomed to sit lonely on the shelf while the Hardy Boys books and copies of Dick and Jane get all the love. If books can be personified, if books have a soul - which of course they don’t - then this one was a sad, quiet spinster, living a life of increasingly quiet desperation until it was discarded by the library. It’s hard not to look at a book like this, and feel sorry for it. “There, there, little book,” you want to say, but then you realize you’re being an idiot and quickly put it down and look around nervously to make sure no one noticed.
It is a curious thing that in my adolescence, already-hoary books like these were very popular in the libraries of Christian Schools. I did find them elsewhere as well - my public high school had a few copies of one I really liked - but certainly my formative years in Christian Schools introduced me to them, and made me fall in love with them, and I’ve never seen such concentrations of them elsewhere. I’m not sure why that is, but of course I have my theories: Science in these books is essentially limited to engineering, which isn’t as scary as evolution, so it’s ‘acceptable.’ I’m digressing, but in any event this book is no exception: A big stamp inside the cover informs me that it belonged to the Hickory First Baptist Church Library, wherever that was.
Now, the reason I say that everyone who likes SF - and really, everyone who’s interested in Space at all - should read at least one of these books is that they’re basically flies trapped in amber. They show us what people on the eve of the space age thought the space age would be like. Just like watching some SF movie from the 60s, and goggling at all they got wrong, it’s fun to read these books and marvel at the scale, the assumptions, and enthusiasm with which they completely blow damn near every portrayal of the future. But this is informative: Behind what they got wrong are a series of assumptions that tell us a lot about the people who wrote these books, and about the society that gave rise to them. For instance, it’s a source of endless amusement to me that this book for fourth-or-fifth-graders takes the time to explain how to pronounce “Gravitational,” but doesn’t bother with explaining how to pronounce “Psychological” because it just assumes kids are already familiar with that one. Honestly, what a great testament to 1950s culture that they have to explain a basic science word, but they take it for granted that a bunch of nine-year-olds already have lots of exposure to psychology. How cool/funny is that?
Later on in the book, the author explains to us about the “Transistor” (And, yes, pronunciation assistance is given for this word), but we’re told not to even bother looking it up in the dictionary because it’s so new it likely won’t be there. Wow! Was the world ever so young as to not have Transistors in it? Yes, yes, I know it was - that was rhetorical - but the breathless enthusiasm for a new technology that we’ve already left far, far behind us is pretty giddy and infectious. That energy and fun is a good thing to be able to tap in to, either if you want to be a writer, or if you want to better appreciate the (real) space program, or if you just want a quick contact buzz from some non-ironic mid-century optimism.
Am I saying this is a great book? By no means. What I *am* saying, however, is that this book is a good way to take yourself out of your present-day mindset and put yourself in a mid-fifties one for a little bit, and that can be a handy learning experience. “Flies trapped in amber,” as I said.
The implicit assumptions that underpin this book - and most books of similar ilk and vintage - is basically the “Colliers” plan from a few years before. “Colliers” was a magazine who decided to do a massive multi-part series of articles advised by space scientists and engineers, talking about how the endless frontier of space would finally be breached and conquered. It was a watershed event for the public awareness of space back in the days when Magazines actually still did something constructive from time to time. This was done on their own initiative, not because any country in the world had a space program at the time - no one did - but because the Magazine thought the concept was neat. They developed their own plan to get in to space using the best and the brightest available at the time, many of whom - a decade later - would actually be working for the Apollo Program.
The “Colliers” plan - which is basically the one we follow in this book - involves putting people in to space on semi-reusable space shuttles, then building a space station 1000 miles up, then using the space station as a shipyard to build a fleet of moon ships. From thence, the moon ships depart on the first (Massive) expedition to the moon, and build a base, then head back to the station a month or so later. And from the station, they catch a shuttle back to earth. The scope and scale of these plans is amazing, and the designers just assumed industry and government would be quick to back this kind of thing in the interests of national security and the obvious rewards of…uhm…things like…uhm…new access to bits of…uhm…well, I don’t need to delineate them here because they’re obvious. The lack of a cash crop was something Colliers sidestepped, of course, and this book does so as well. Even said, the assumption was that our expansion in to space would take place with the strength and vigor of our westward expansion from the 19th century.
The notion that we’re still just putzing around in orbit a half-century later would no doubt piss these big thinkers off. Hell, it pisses *me* off, and I’m no brainiac. Damn hippies.
Lynne Poole takes a great deal of time to explain each leg of this trip, and set up some ground rules before she does. She laboriously explains gravity, the absence of gravity, and of course the pseudo gravity that comes from spinning a donut-shaped space station. She explains - in detail - the laws of motion, and how rocket engines work, and she gives a quick overview of the progress with rockets up to the time of publication. This is really handy stuff, functioning as a kind of reality check for modern SF fans who’s only exposure to the laws of physics is Mr. Scott yelling that “Cannae break” ‘em. Indeed, the lack of real scientific knowledge among fans - and authors - is kind of appalling. Of course the book shares some of the misunderstandings inherent in it’s source material: There’s no mention of the (highly dangerous) Van Allen belts because they hadn’t been discovered yet. A lot of time is spent discussing protecting the crew from “Ultraviolet rays” which are not really any big deal, but Radiation is mostly blown off as no big deal.
Previous to writing this book, Poole had been one of the science advisors for the long-running “Johns Hopkins Science Report,” a scientific program aimed at kids, so she had good credentials, and she makes frequent references to experiments performed on that show. Her writing style is brisk and straightforward. There’s not a lot of art and artifice to it, but of course this is a book aimed at middle century middleschoolers. There’s some interestingly odd terminology here and there, since a lot of terms we take for granted really hadn’t been invented when this book was written. For instance, she refers to manned orbital spacecraft as “Manned satellites,” she refers to multistage rockets as “Bumper Rockets,” and she uses a 150-mile altitude as a more-or-less arbitrary border for space itself. (NASA and the USAF say space begins at 50 nautical miles up, the Europeans place it at about 200 kilometers, the Russians are, as usual, too practical to get caught up in such hairsplitting). The book was hastily and clumsily re-written for a second edition immediately after Sputnik went up - there’s a few paragraphs added (You can tell as the style is a bit jaring), and some references were made to illustrations that simply aren’t in the second version..
The bulk of the book is told in an unusual kind of second-person narration (“You will go here, and you will discover…” etc.) It’s a seldom-used device that could easily have degenerated in to an Italo Calvino novel or one of those damn “Choose your own adventure” books, but she makes it work. Interestingly, she kind of oversells the difficulties of training and crew selection early on in the book in a way that almost seems deliberately discouraging, and I’m not sure why she does that, but after the “Boot camp” is out of the way, it’s all giddy excitement as she details “your” launch, your time building the space station and the moonship, and the other aspects of your journey. Curiously, if this book had been at all prognosticative, the primary job of an Astronaut would have been as a highly-demanded, fully-employed low-and-no-gravity construction worker.
It’s to the shame and sadness of everyone in our far-less-ambitious modern world that she was wrong.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
Well of course. It came out of a church library, remember? There’s no discussion of disturbing biological theories, just simple engineering and physics, and the notion that space is our - American’s - manifest destiny, which is something I can get solidly behind. There’s a simplistic, but enervating mid-fifties feel to the whole thing, too: God is in His heaven, America is the greatest country on earth, Eisenhower is in his Whitehouse, and all is right in the world.
WHAT I'M READING NOW:
"Juggler of Worlds" by Niven and Lerner
"The Toynbee Convector" by Bradbury
"The Star Diaries" by Lem
"Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Bradbury
"The Killer Angels" by Shaara