Archive for the ‘Space Travel’ Category


Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt

December 7, 2012

The Book: Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt. Published in 1962 by Ace Books (F-257), this book is an expansion of the novella “A Voice Across the Years”  (written with I.M. Stephens) published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1932.

Alien Planet

The Setting:  Earth, Venus, and Murashema, around 1920-1924

The Story: A couple of guys are hanging out at their remote cabin in the woods when a meteorite strikes the nearby lake shore.  Not actually a meteorite, some guy eventually emerges from the rock. This is Ashembe, space alien, smart guy, and transmuter of metals. Stuff happens. A quick escape is necessary and one of the guys, Alvin Schierstedt, ends up in the space capsule with Ashembe, ready to blast off for adventure. However, adventure ends up being stuck in a space capsule for a couple of years… Then adventure! They land on the alien planet, Murashema, and Alvin has to learn the language (guess he didn’t have time on the way there) and learn how to live in a new society on an ALIEN PLANET.

The Science: One of the things I liked about this book is that it acknowledges that space travel can take a really long time and might, actually, be really boring once you’re doing it. Alvin takes the time to learn a Murasheman game from Ashembe, and to get really good at math, but not to learn anything about Murasheman society or language. Sigh.

The Reaction: Not bad, but not great. Definitely out of the 1930s mold. And it has footnotes, sometimes saucy footnotes. I like that. In fact, that’s one of my favorite things about this book.

The Cover: Cover art by Ed Emshwiller. I love this cover. Dude in a space suit, wibbly wobbly city, and giant-headed human-faced sky-octopus.  Imagine my disappointment when there was never a terrifying sky-octopus in the story. Beautiful cover with a spunky font, but misleading.

Next Up: Beyond Infinity by Robert Spencer Carr


Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

December 2, 2012

The Book: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke. Originally published in 1951, the edition read was published in 1954 by Pocket Books, Inc.

Sands of Mars

The Setting: Space and Mars. Mostly Mars.

The Story: A science fiction author and popular journalist travels to Mars for a story, but finds himself.

The Science: Aside from the complexities of space travel and living on Mars (which feel realistically addressed in this book), there are a couple of notable science-y things that happen. One is that the protagonist discovers a species of Martian plant which releases pods of oxygen into the atmosphere. Widespread cultivation of the plant is planned as a long term method of re-forming the atmosphere to make it comfortable for human life. This is neat. I liked this a lot.  Plants do exchange gasses regularly, so it seemed both plausible and convenient.

The Reaction: Not what I was expecting from a book that proclaims “An interplanetary adventure!” on the cover. Sure, there are aliens. Sure, the protagonist finds himself in mortal danger a couple of times. But mostly, the main character is learning about himself and discovering new interests and old connections. Yet it was still a very good read. It felt genuine. Reasonable, even.

The Cover: Cover painting by Robert Schulz. A dome, a rocket taking off, a couple of guys in tin-can spacesuits, a rocky alien landscape… what more can a girl ask for? Dreamy. Just dreamy.


Beyond the Stars by Ray Cummings

October 6, 2012

The Book: Beyond the Stars by Ray Cummings.  The story was originally serialized in Argosy Magazine during February, 1928. The book was published in 1963 by Ace Science Fiction (F-248).

The Setting: Earth, 1998, and somewhere beyond the stars, in a place called Kalima.

The Story: Two strapping young pilots, an elderly scientist, and his two granddaughters (one of whom is blind) venture “beyond the stars” where they get caught up in the politics and adventures of a different planet.  

The Science: I’ve got to give it to Cummings for inserting a lot of explanation of his various gadgets and who-bobs throughout the book. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of head scratching. The journey which starts off the adventures is not a journey by rocket, but by expansion. See, according the book, maybe the earth is just one of those things stuck in the space between atoms, so if you expand, you’ll end up in another world. Which is what they do. It almost makes sense, but… not quite.

The Reaction: I wanted to like it, really I did. It definitely suffers from some of the problems that serialized stories suffer from – disjointedness, a forgetfulness of earlier characters, exclamation points, and weary adverbs.  Cummings had a lot of decent ideas for sciencey gadgets and, apparently, a strong love of the Barsoom books (who doesn’t?), because what starts of as a promising science-fiction adventures turns into a fantasy battle romp with hideous monsters and the occasional gadget.  It’s a product of its time and it doesn’t age well.

The Cover: Cover by Jack Gaughan. The cover is neat. The title is in some wacky font, and I’m a sucker for wacky fonts. The man on the cover has some sort of ray gun (probably the Frazier ray, which plays a large role in the story), and it’s all yellow and action looking. I like it!

Next Up: Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt. 


“Here There be Tygers” by Ray Bradbury

February 15, 2012

The Book: “Here There be Tygers” by Ray Bradbury. The story was first published in the anthology New Tales of Space and Time  in 1951. The edition read is in R is for Rocket, published by Bantam Books in 1978.

The Setting: A planet far far away.

The Story: Prospecting space men find a planet which provides them with all their wants and desires, unless it’s threatened…

The Science: Sentient planets? Or at least reactionary eco-systems? Eh, why not?

The Reaction: Like so much of Bradbury, it’s vivid and fun to read. And, in this case, classic. So many others have ripped this idea off – paradise with a bite.

The Cover:Still not impressed. 

Next Up: “The Pumpernickel” by Ray Bradbury


“And the Walls Came Tumbling Down…” by John Wyndham

February 10, 2012

The Book: “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down…” by John Wyndham. Originally published in Startling Stories, May 1951. The version read was in Beachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: Earth, the desert, maybe in the Southwest US.

The Story: Invisible silicate life forms land in the desert and investigate.

The Science: It’s interesting to read stories written from non-human points of view. Particularly when the life forms in question break at individualized frequencies. I’m a little unclear as to which noises are destroying these life forms, but it’s cute.  Cute idea.

The Reaction: Cute idea, but I had a little trouble following the story. I get that the reader was supposed to put together a lot of the pieces on the way, but it was a kind of a difficult puzzle, and I’m not sure I got enough pieces to complete the picture.

The Cover: Still awesome. 

Next Up: “Here There be Tygers” by Ray Bradbury.


Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser

December 21, 2011

The Book: Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser. According to the ISFDB, originally published as two shorter stories in June and July of 1951. The edition read was printed by Belmont in 1965.

The Setting: Earth, Space and Really really distant planets, all in a not that distant future.

The Story: A strong man in a circus is really a famous space archaeologist who has discovered a secret of eternal life and now people are trying to kill him. Then, the strong man/archaeologist’s son and a girl travel the universe trying to find who first found the secret of eternal life, and love.  Also Martians, Venusians, and competing planetary mobs.

The Science: Uh. Okay. So. You sit in this chair in this mysterious “black planet” hanging out in the asteroid belt, do some stuff, and you get infused with life, strength, the ability to heal, and, what the hell, you can even come back after being killed-but-good.  BUT! If you sit in that chair too long, you’ll age in reverse until you’re not even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye. In that second scenario, something is seriously wrong with the law of conservation of mass, because no energy seems to be given off in the reaction.

Don’t even getting me started on the teleportation issues.

The Reaction: I liked that it was an adventure story for a while. It was very much in the spirit of John Carter, and that was fun. When it’s fun, I don’t care that it’s not making much sense. But this book committed a cardinal sin, in the area of formatting. In many places, SECTION BREAKS ARE OMITTED. You might not think section breaks are important, but when you’re jumping between two scenes, and there’s no space between the paragraphs to alert you, it gets confusing. Confusing pulls you out of the story. It all ends in rage. Bad editor, bad bad editor.

The Cover: Formatting issues aside, this cover is awesome. Alas, no credit for the illustrator. There’s a spaceship, there’s a dude with a ray gun in his long johns, and there’s a girl straight out of the ’40’s hanging back. Also, that font. I love a font. The only problem is that the blurbs on the front and back cover seem to have been written by someone who read a different story.

Next Up: “Feedback” by Katherine MacLean


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

April 4, 2011

The Book: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Originally published by Doubleday in 1950, the edition read was published by Bantam Books in 1966.

The Setting: Mostly Mars, the future. Also, a little, Earth.

The Story: A series of short stories and vignettes chronicles the fall of Martian culture, then the rise and fall of human society on Mars.

The Science: Science is not really the strong point of this book. It’s much more social. That said, the Martians fend off/murder several expeditions of human explorers with/because of their mind powers. However, the humans ultimately win because of disease. Chickenpox wipes out nearly the entire Martian race – near enough so that it doesn’t matter if any are left. The people can come and take over. Interestingly enough, no disease travels in the opposite direction.  Decimation (understatement: decimate technically means only 10% reduction) by disease is common on earth, and would probably be a very serious issue if mankind ever encountered biologically similar alien life forms.

The Reaction: A good set of stories with an interesting variety of focuses. Classically Bradbury with an interest in the social and lack of interest in exactly how and why things work the way they do. 

The Cover: Elegant, simple, evocative of Mars and Earth. Two thumbs up.

Next Up: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov


Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

June 18, 2010

The Book: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.  First published in 1938, the edition read was published by MacMillan in 1975.

The Setting: Earth, but mostly Mars (Malacandra)

The Story: A philologist is kidnapped by a physicist and an opportunist.  Kidnapped to MARS! He learns he is to be handed over to the inhabitants of Mars (sorns), presumably so he can be eaten by their leader.  Sensibly, he runs away after they land.  He encounters a hrossa, a sort of tall skinny intelligent otter, goes to live with them, and learns their language.  He is accepted by them, but is told by invisible voices that he needs to go see Oyarsa, who runs Malacandra.  He goes, encountering a sorn along the way.  He does not get eaten.  Anyway, he talks to the invisible Oyarsa, learns that earth is run by a demented version of Oyarsa (and thus “silent” cut off from the rest of the planets), sees how pitiful and broken mankind is, and goes back to earth where he is tasked to make sure the physicist never leaves again to cause interstellar trouble.

The Science:

  • Lessened gravity and the natural world:  Mars has less gravity than earth.  In other books, it makes the earth men seem like supermen.  Here, it has less an effect on the earth men, than working a change on the biology and the natural world.  Both the sorns and the hrossa are tall and thin.  The sorns especially so.  The mountain peaks are tall and needle like.  The trees are enormously tall and wave like stalks of corn.  Basically the idea is less gravity leads to taller and thinner shapes in the natural world.  Which, on the surface, seems to make perfect sense.  Nature meets less resistance as it moves up, so it moves up further.  But evolution on Mars would face a series of different challenges than life on earth, so would there be this sort of generalizable difference in the worlds?  Honestly, I don’t know.
  • Hot in space: We love some space travel.  Once again, the vehicle of choice is a sphere.  Because the main character is drugged when it takes off, we never get a really clear idea of how the space ship is supposed to operate, only that it does.   The individuals in the ship go from being desperately hot to almost unbearably cold.  Why?  Because of where they are in relation to the sun.  Space itself has no temperature, but objects in space are subject to radiation from the sun.  So when the sun hits the craft, it gets really hot.  When the craft is further from the sun, or the sun is blocked by a different body, it gets really cold.  Here’s an explanation from someone who seems to be a real scientist.  So the experience in the book seems reasonably accurate!  Which is neat.

The Reaction: This is a book.  This is literature.  This is someone who can really write and write well.  And the story is interesting and novel.  There are familiar elements: kidnapping, a journey, Mars – but they are reconfigured in such a way as to be novel from earlier incarnations.  And it’s C.S. Lewis, so you know it’s good, and probably a little theological.  But a neat story, even if you don’t go in for the theology so much.  Recommended.

The Cover: Cover painting by Bernard Symancyk.  First off, the cover painting is awesome.  I mean…  look at that spaceship… those spacey bubbles… that spacey spaceman.  There are quibbles with accuracy – the landscape doesn’t seem quite right, there were no spacesuits, I don’t think the spacecraft was painted.  But mostly, it’s pretty sweet.

Next Up: “The Day Is Done” by Lester Del Ray


The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith

May 20, 2010

The Book: The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith.  Originally published as a serial in 1928, the edition read was published by Pyramid Books in 1958.

The Setting: Earth, Outerspace, Planet Osnome

The Story: A brilliant scientist, Richard Seaton, from humble beginnings accidentally discovers the secret of space travel.  His arch-nemesis, De Quesne,  steals it from him and kidnaps his girl into DEEP SPACE.  Seaton and his millionaire best friend, Martin Crane, set off to rescue the girl.  They do, narrowly escaping a black hole at the far reaches of the universe.  They also rescue De Quesne and another dame he’d kidnapped.  They team up, reluctantly, and try to get home to earth, for which they need more copper.  They try a few planets, encountering only terrible danger.  They find a copper bearing planet with inhabitants suspiciously like Barsoomian red men except kind of greenish, beat the bad guys, marry the girls, and become Overlords of the planet.  Then they make it make to Earth just fine.  But super rich from jewels and stuff.

The Science: The author is actually a Ph.D in chemical engineering, so there’s a lot of science in this book.  How much of it is good science…  I don’t know.

  • Space travel: Seaton discovers the mechanism for space travel by accident.  There’s this element X, you see, found by accident.  He’s examining it and put some into solution.  When he went to throw it out, the solution sloshed over the side of its copper tub and the tub accidentally came into contact with some electric current and then… it busted out through the wall.  Small bits of copper wire had the same result.  Turns out, a machine in the next room was the key, in addition to the solution of X and the electricity.  The X somehow turned the copper into pure energy, no radiation by products.  So naturally, into space they go! Honestly, I have no idea if something like this is feasible.  I mean, I kind of doubt it.  Especially since it relies on Chemical Element X, only ever found on Earth once.  But it works well enough for a plot device for the story.  It’s a hell of a reaction – complete transfer  of matter to energy.  Certainly nothing we’re even close to achieving on earth.
  • Otherworldly food: One thing I really appreciated in this book is that, when invited to a feast on a planet very different than their own, the human protagonists (geniuses, all, except for the women who are merely spunky and fast learners) have the presence of mind to examine the food and determine if it will kill them or not.  It will.  How exactly they can tell, I’m not sure, but it’s a good effort.  Later, the aliens make them food they can eat, something which is not fully explained.  But, in so many books, humans eat whatever they find and it very rarely disagrees with them, much less poisons them.
  • Education machines: At one point, an alien prince rigs up a learning machine MacGyver style in order to teach the humans how to speak.  And, accidentally, he imprints his entire brain on Seaton, and Seaton’s brain imprints on the alien.  But it’s cool – their normal brains are still there, they just have bonus knowledge.  An education helmet is a pretty classic science fiction idea, as are education pills.  At this point in time, the brain is still a very mysterious thing, so a machine to imprint knowledge is pretty much not gonna happen.  However, science is reaching a point where it knows what you’re thinking.  I’m not kidding.  It’s pretty crazy.

The Reaction: I tried to read this book once before.  The prose is…. not so good.  Smith has this unfortunate habit of not really fleshing everything out – I kept having to go back to try and figure out what was happening or why it was happening, and not finding an answer.  Once I got past the prose, I hit the misogyny.  Sure, the broads are spunky, but the men are always amazed at their spunk and the women are always off dressing up and making sandwiches for the men somewhere out of scene.  I can assign it as a function of the times and the genre – the main characters in this book are hyper-idealized; the men are manly and the women are beautiful and good at making sandwiches.  Or something.  Anyway, I guess it’s a classic and one of the first space operas and all, but…  I’m not inclined to be at all interested in reading this again.

The Cover: Cover art by Richard Powers.  The cover (what hasn’t been damaged) shows a super cool, kind of organic-y building and a couple of flying spaceships, of which I assume one is meant to be the Skylark (that’s the name of the spaceship, by the way).  Problem is, the Skylark is just a great big sphere.  But that wouldn’t look nearly as awesome.  So I’m okay with the cover.  In fact, I kind of love it.

Up Next: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.


The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells

March 7, 2010

The Book: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.  Originally published in 1901.  The edition read was published in by Ballantine Books (F687) in the early 1960s (no publishing date).

The Setting: Britain, the Earth.  The Moon.

The Story: A failed businessman, Mr. Bedford, plans to write a play to pay off his debts.  An eccentric scientist, Mr. Cavor, distracts him.  The two team up for fun scientific discovery and profit.  Cavor invents a material which neutralizes gravity.  They build a glass sphere/spaceship with cavorite (the anti-grav material) shutters all around it.  They get in and travel to the Moon.  They arrive just as day breaks.  They find a desolate plain, just as expected, but then are astounded to see vegetation sprout before their eyes.  They start jumping around, have a jolly old time, and lose the spaceship.  A terrible rumbling is heard, followed by the appearance of moonmen (Selenites) and mooncows (enormous maggot looking things) in the area.  Terrified by the insect looking Selenites, Bedford and Cavor hide in the undergrowth and try to find their sphere.  No luck.  Starving, they eat some moon mushrooms, proceed to trip balls and get themselves captured.

Waking, they discover themselves chained in a room deep inside the moon.  Freaking out about their situation, they break free from the Selenites.  Bedford leaves carnage in his wake as he leads the escape.  They get to the surface and find it’s nearly nightfall.  They separate to search for the sphere.  Bedford finds it.  When he tries to find Cavor, he discovers a note suggesting that Bedford has been captured or, more probably, killed by the Selenites.  Bedford gets in the sphere and somehow manages to get back to earth despite a total psychotic break en route.

Back on earth, and in Britain even!, he changes his name (to Wells), and writes up his moon experiences and gets it published (thus the book).  But then he finds another scientist who has built some kind of radio receiver and is getting messages!  From the moon!  In English!  And thus we learn the fate of Cavor… more or less.

The Science: Lots of stuff to talk about in this book, but I’ll just address three topics.

  • Cavorite:  A substance which neutralizes the effect of gravity.  I’ll readily admit, I’m still not 100% clear on how this stuff works.  But, apparently, the production of a slab of cavorite neutralizes the effects of gravity for any material atop it.  Thus, when the first slab of the stuff was made, all the atmosphere above it went rushing off into space, causing a gap, followed by a rushing of air to fill the void.  Now, this sounds great if it can be produced for commercial use – and that’s Bedford’s thought exactly.  But when it comes right down to it, I don’t get it.  I went back and reread the bit where Wells explains how the sphere works, and I cannot wrap my brain around it.  It is another interesting example of how pre-heavier than air flight individuals conceived of the possibility of flight.  But the stuff just doesn’t make sense to me.
  • The Selenites: The Selenites are an insect looking, hive type race.  The individuals are bred and molded (quite literally!) so that each Selenite has a distinct purpose in life and wants nothing more than to achieve that purpose and, moreover, finds it amazing that anyone could want something out of life than what they want.  Cavor’s final missives include a lot of amazement (and not a little bit of revulsion) at the diversity of appearance in the species.  Also, they are less dense creatures than humans, as Bedford discovers when he punches clean through one of them.  More amazingly, there seems to be only one other form of animal life on the planet – the mooncow which they herd and butcher for food.
  • Life on the moon: In and on the moon.  Bedford and Cavor arrive on a desolate wasteland, just before daybreak.  As daybreaks, the frozen atmosphere once again becomes a gas and plants begin to sprout from the surface at an amazing speed – literally before their eyes.  That is a pretty neat little adaptation.  It’s sensible, too, although what would be involved in shielding a seed from lunar night would be very extreme indeed.  All other life exists primarily inside the planet.  The interior of the moon is pitted and hollowed, with an ocean at the center.  Since the interior is shielded from the extremes of the surface, most life has developed within.  The Selenites, the mooncows, and some unknown, but terrifying, fish are all the animal life the moon has to offer.  It’s a precarious eco-system.  The real question is, why didn’t anyone see this from earth beforehand?

The Reaction: I didn’t love it.  I felt like the narrative structure was weird.  You have the story arc which ends with Bedford in Italy trying to write that play again, but then you get a kind of second ending with Cavor’s messages from the moon.  Although Cavor’s messages have the interesting effect of calling the reliability of Bedford’s narration into question, which gives the book a whole new twist.  It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t able to wrap my head around the whole cavorite thing, which was essential to the story.  I appreciate it, but I don’t anticipate turning back to read this book in the future.

The Cover: Two men, presumably Bedford and Cavor, appear to be captured and escorted by four or five Selenites.  I think this is the scene right at or before Chapter the Fourteenth.  One Selenite has a prod that looks rather like a fireplace poker.  Really, I think this is a pretty good literal style cover.  The humans aren’t in quite the right outfits; they were wearing Clint Eastwood style ponchos over their usual British clothes.  And the Selenites look perhaps too normal and not weird enough, but these are quibbles.  This is a perfectly acceptable, if not over exciting cover.

Next Up: Short story!  “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells.