Friday, 26 March 2021

Born of the Sun, edited by Mike Ashley

 

The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies is now growing into a substantial resource which is well worth acquiring by anyone with an interest in the roots of SF. The format is now well established: the introduction by editor Mike Ashley sets the stories in their historical context and he supplements this with brief biographies of the authors at the start of each story. 


Born of the Sun (subtitled Adventures in Our Solar System) has one story set on (or near) each planet of our system - except Earth. There is even an imaginary one - Vulcan. The chosen stories were generally written when there was sufficient uncertainty over the physical characteristics of the planets to allow authors to exercise their imaginations, some more freely than others. It comes as something of a surprise to be reminded how recently some discoveries have been made: Pluto was only found in 1930; until the mid-20th century it was thought possible that Mars had a breathable atmosphere; Venus was thought to be a watery world until the mid-1950s; and Mercury was believed to be tidally locked to the Sun (with the same hemisphere always facing the Sun) until 1965. The cloud-covered worlds of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune still attract imaginative writers to consider what kind of life might be able to survive there, although the larger moons of these worlds are also favoured, presumably as they seem to be more manageable and less hostile. 


Sunrise on Mercury by Robert Silverberg (first published 1957). This is one of the “tidally locked Mercury” stories, with an impossibly hot sun-facing surface, a brutally cold dark side, and a narrow band in between in which human technology can function. If any life were able to exist on this planet, it would bear no relationship to “life as we know it, Jim”, as demonstrated by Silverberg.


The Hell Planet by Leslie F. Stone (1932). For half a century, beginning in the middle of the 19th, it was believed that an undiscovered planet orbited the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury; it was dubbed Vulcan. The orbital irregularities which had prompted the search were subsequently explained by Einstein’s work, but that didn’t stop some writers being attracted to this notion.  This story falls into the “planetary romance” category, with humanoid natives living in dense jungle. Incidentally, the author was a woman, despite the spelling of her name.


Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcey (1954). A small child is found abandoned on Venus, a world colonised by mankind although the air was barely breathable. The child turns out to be very mysterious indeed.


The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft (1961). Longer and more ambitious than most of the stories in this collection, this concerns a team of explorers on Mars who are focusing their research on a vast, ancient and clearly artificial tower. Much dedicated cogitation is necessary to persuade the tower to give up its secrets and the adventure that follows opens up the history of the planet.


Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson (1952). Pushing the boundaries here, Anderson imagines what must be the smallest of celestial bodies to have generated visible (i.e. not microscopic) life in the Asteroid Belt. 


Desertion by Clifford D. Simak (1944). This is the original short story which was later incorporated (with a modified ending) into Simak’s classic novel; City. Humanity has established some precarious bases on the surface of Jupiter, and is trying to colonise it by converting humans to “lopers”; native animals. However, every one who has undergone the change leaves the base, never to return. Eventually, there is only one thing left to try.


How Beautiful with Banners by James Blish (1966). A rather poetic short story concerning an unexpected “romance”, set on Saturn’s moon Titan.


Where No Man Walks by E.R. James (1952). Diamond mining on Uranus, where conditions are so extreme that the remotely controlled mining machines have a high wastage rate. Sometimes, only a human there in person can get the job done. 


A Baby on Neptune by Clare Winger Harris & Miles J. Breuer (1929). A fascinating story with an unusual combination of elements - some very unscientific, others remarkably advanced. In this story, every known planet except Neptune has its own intelligent life form, and there is an interplanetary communication system - but physical travel  has not been attempted.  Earth scientists eventually work out that as communications take much longer the greater the distance from the Sun, messages from Neptune are too slow to be recognised unless they are considerably speeded up - similarly, the Neptunians don’t pick up Earth messages as they are much too fast. Once this problem has been corrected and communications are established,  it is decided to attempt a physical journey to Neptune. This runs into a related chronological  issue, and it is fascinating to follow the reasoning of the human visitors in resolving the problem.


Wait it Out by Larry Niven (1968). A short, punchy story concerning an exploration of Pluto which goes wrong, and how one of the crew decides to survive until rescue can arrive.


The usual interesting mix of stories, of which my favourite is Ashcroft’s Martian exploration - in the best traditions of classic SF.



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