Friday, May 13, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter VII - An Unimpressive Name for a Ghost Planet

So we've seen Corday get a feel for the work involved in running a spaceship, and we've raised the possibility of a mutiny that got sidetracked when Corday got sick and was defeated by the sadness.  Now we'll get a chance to see what interstellar trade looks like.

We join our hero and that Gow-eater guy as they look out a window at the mountains and valleys of the planet below, Johnny's Landing.  I can only assume that this world was settled relatively recently, and that all the good colony world names were already taken.

They were in second con, standing by preparatory to landing.  It was an all-hands evolution and, the ship being about a quarter manned, everyone down to five years of age had his or her post.  It took a lot to bring the Flea Circus down to the ground, particularly when no landing racks had been provided - and in strange areas Jocelyn liked to have at least token crews on her after batteries just in case somebody proved hostile.

And no, they're never hailed by space traffic control and get permission and instructions on where to land, nor do they spend some time listening in to radio or TV transmissions as they approach a world.  As far as I can tell, the Hound of Heaven just arrives in orbit over a planet, maybe scouts with its little plane, and then parks somewhere.

In this case, though, there's nothing coming out of Johnny's Landing for a reason beyond the author forgetting that radios exist.  Gow-eater has good memories of the place, the enormous diamonds you could find along rivers, its uranium-rich hills, the delicious apples the locals have cultivated, and its "mighty pretty," "much obligin'" womenfolk, but that was a ship-year ago and at least five hundred years sidereal.  Or maybe more like twelve hundred, the old opium addict's memory ain't so good.  But that was then, and now there's no sign of the world's population, so Swifty the scout pilot is trying to figure out where everybody went.

Hence the captain's caution here, with Corday on the auxiliary bridge located close enough to the engines to be rumbled by the "chemical explosions" of the ship's drives.  If there is danger, and something disastrous takes out the Hound's main bridge, Corday and his crack group of back-up crewmen will be ready to take over.

A gong clanged and they stood more precisely to their stations.  The ten-year-old kid who was handling second con's communicator bent a keen, veteran eye out the port and said, "There comes the-"

"Bill," said her mother sharply from her post at the phones, "you watch your language."

"Well, he does anyhow," said the undaunted Bill.

The more we learn about this ship, the less surprised I am that it accidentally collided with a planet's atmosphere.

Swifty the scout comes back safely, and we get his report second-handed - he spotted a town on the coast, and more interestingly another spaceship, the King's Lion out of Boston.  Now, I suppose it's possible that there are vessels flitting around out here that launched from more diverse places like Mumbai or Yokohama or Durban.  But the ones we'll be seeing in this story are reassuringly white and American.  Which is to say that the King's Lion is the only other named spaceship I can remember appearing.

Anyway, they're gonna go and land now, and the other ship is gonna come with.

A moment later the bridge sighted her with the help of metonic locators.  The uneasy situation of second con in regard to gravity - since the Hound's decks were perpendicular to planet surface in this cruising position - was corrected by the bow pointing skyward as the ship crawfished down.

I'm not sure if Hubbard is implying here that the Hound has some sort of artificial gravity to keep people from floating around, and it's a bit weird experiencing both that the increasing pull of a planet you're descending toward, or whether everyone's being pulled sideways by the planet's gravity and the author has just taken it for granted that they're able to walk around normally in deep space.  There certainly isn't any mention of those gimballed chairs Hubbard put in Tug One.  Or will put.

But yes, the Hound successfully lands on its tail on the beach, and it doesn't topple over or anything because it doesn't have a safe, stable landing pad to rest on.  It also takes the vessel twenty minutes to get there from orbit; for reference, the space shuttle takes about half an hour to hit the runway, and spends several hours beforehand positioning itself and decelerating.  The Lion must have landed nearby, even though there's no mention of this development, because the crews of both ships get out to have a little mixer.  Both ships are of the same class, you see, and were both struck in Old Angeles and are about forty subjective years old.  Just because the Lion's crew is two hundred years, relatively-speaking, older than the Hound's crew is no reason for them not to chum it up.

Though this generation gap does lead to a little awkward moment, where someone brings up those fine ladies on "Caterdice of Deneb," leading to puzzled looks because the last time another guy was in the system "the dominant race on the planet had been African pygmy labor importation."  Because when you think of people suited for hard labor on an alien planet, obviously the first thing you'd pick would be... really short guys...

I wonder if sentences like this were just as baffling to readers in 1954 as they are now.  Surely, even in those unenlightened times, there were people staring in befuddlement at their copy of Return to Tomorrow, trying to puzzle out how this statement could possibly make sense.  Like, maybe Deneb has a lot of little tunnels in its spice mines or whatever, so you'd want little folk to get at them?  Or maybe Deneb has high gravity, so compact frames are ideal.  The author sure as hell doesn't give us any context to help.

Oh, and it goes without saying that everyone is running around without helmets on, enjoying the fresh air of this perfectly-habitable planet, with no concerns about any local diseases that they wouldn't have any immunities against.  Dr. Strange must have given everyone their shots off-camera.

Corday's wandering around feeling out of place - the way the setting sun turns the clouds gold and green certainly doesn't help - and overhears Jocelyn conferring with the Lion's nameless captain.  Let's call him Horatio.  Captain Horatio describes how as far as he can tell, the planet's population just "Tucked up and left," leaving behind "Bread in the oven, plows in the field, pigs and chickens gone wild all through the bresh."  Captain Jocelyn suspects that Horatio is just telling tales to try to scare a rival merchant off, but Horatio is an honest sort, and swears that "I wouldn't make er man burn atoms in such a wasteful fashion not if he war my most blessit enemy."

I'm not sure if this is Hubbard attempting a Boston accent, or if the author is trying to show how English (or whatever language they're speaking) might have evolved in the centuries separating these men.  The latter would be clever, but, well, it's Hubbard.

Captain Horatio explains that he was here to pick up some "air yewranium," and when Jocelyn asks reveals that yes, the local uranium mines are still intact.  Jocelyn thinks that's good news, since if the "Mine's all right, then there'll be no raid."  And hey, why is the Hound here, anyway?  Is it carrying goods it was hoping to sell to the colonists?  Is it after the uranium too?

See, with conventional trade, you have a destination and associated trade good in mind when you set out.  You sail all the way to the Far East to pick up some porcelain or spice or whatever that you know is in high demand back in Europe, and in return you give the locals some muskets or crap that they don't have.  That's what trade is, moving stuff around to where it's needed for a modest (or exorbitant) fee.

Except with relativistic, interstellar trade, everything gets all screwy.  It's been six hundred local years since Jocelyn has been to Johnny's Landing.  That's a lot of time for the supply of goods to change on this planet, and a lot of time for demand for those goods to change on Earth.  So what, is the Hound just winging it, opportunistically picking up whatever stuff is available on the worlds they visit and hoping that someone on the next planet will buy it?  And they'll make enough money to cover the cost of operating and maintaining an increasingly out-of-date spaceship, and compensate for the angst of being travelers out of time without a country yadda yadda?

It's like the author is taking an old concept, a trade ship and how being away from a place to call home for extended periods might take its toll on you, and then he's transplanting it to a sci-fi setting, which he recognizes would emphasize one aspect of this concept for even greater drama, but he doesn't see how this shift would also undermine the very premise of the story.  Kinda like how "The Great Secret" fell apart because the technology involved in setting up the story would've solved the problem of finding a lost city in the first place.

Anyway.  Jocelyn summons Swifty from a crowd of the Lion's womenfolk, says "we've got a mystery here," and sends him to find that colony Horatio described.  Which I thought Swifty found in his initial flight.  Or was the "he" mentioned in that paragraph Captain Horatio?  Whatever, Swifty gets Corday to clear some driftwood so... I dunno, so the Hound can relocate to the colony, except that driftwood didn't impair the ship's landing, so maybe it's just insulting busywork?

Except Corday does nothing of the sort - Swifty takes off in his scout jet, then Corday's following a group of people to the deserted colony.  Maybe there's a paragraph break that got messed up when the manuscript got divided into pages.

Where the roofs were still intact one could enter houses and find there strewn toys, set tables, and what the sea air had left of clothing not worn the past fifty years.  The wandering groups of spacemen and women touched nothing, not from honesty but from a highly developed sense of luck.  But soon their superstition faded away enough to bring about the election of a mayor, the making of a bonfire from tattered park benches and the trial and execution of a wild pig who was promptly cooked and eaten.  Somebody else discovered a cellar and Alan at length found himself on the outskirts of a singing crew, forgetful already with bumpers of sweet wine.

Nothing about how Corday feels about this, walking through the abandoned homes of people presumed dead.  No speculation from anyone about what might have happened here, no fear that it might happen to them.  No description of the way the overgrown paths muffle their footsteps, or how the wind moans mournfully through empty windows and open doors, or how the normally-rowdy crews are hushed and humbled by the tomb-like emptiness of the city.

Nope, everyone's just hungover the next morning, they move their ships over to the uranium mines, the crews spend ten days grubbing through dirt with Geiger counters until the Lion and Hound are full of hot rocks, and then the former is off for Pollux while the latter heads toward Earth.  The story spends all of a page describing the abandoned colony and how the spacemen helped themselves to some nearby minerals before leaving.

Of the colony's fate they had no faintest clue.

"Note it down in your Star Pilot, Mr. Hale," said Jocelyn.  "Johnny's Landing is open for a colony,  A colony with some brains."

What, you thought we'd solve this mystery?  You must be confusing this story with an episode of Star Trek or something.

Also, what about the situation on Johnny's Landing requires brains?  Did the previous colonists stupid themselves to death?  Or perhaps Jocelyn is suggesting that some halfway smart guy come along with the next load of settlers, and maybe they can be bothered to figure out what wiped out the previous group.

Back to Chapter VI

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