Saturday, November 28, 2020

"He Was Halfway Across When the Bullet Came"

MANY WRITERS OPT for beginning their stories in medias res, the middle of things, and gradually backfilling the plot. Today's author wisely does the same when his main character struggles to get . . .

"Out of the Iron Womb!".
(a.k.a. "Holmgang").
By Poul Anderson (1926-2001).

Illustrator unknown.
First appearance: Planet Stories, Summer 1955.

Reprints page (HERE).
Novelette (24 pages).
Online at Project Gutenberg (HERE).

     "Behind a pale Venusian mask lay hidden the arch-humanist, the anti-tech killer ... one of those who needlessly had strewn Malone blood across the heavens from Saturn to the sun. Now—on distant Trojan asteroids—the rendezvous for death was plainly marked."

On an airless rock floating hundreds of millions of miles in space it's altogether possible to plan committing a murder and hoping to get away with it . . . .

Principal characters:
~ Johnny Malone:
  "Maybe that was what had started it all—the death of Johnny Malone."
~ Einar Lundgard:
  "I volunteered, even suggested the idea, because ... well, it happened during my watch, and even if nobody blamed me I couldn't help feeling guilty."
~ Valeria McKittrick:
  ". . . she had been on Achilles for about a year working on some special project and was now ready to go home. She was human enough, had been to most of the officers' parties and danced and laughed and flirted mildly, but even the dullest rockhound gossip knew she was too lost in her work to do more. Out here a woman was rare, and a virtuous woman unheard-of . . ."

~ Bo Jonsson:
  "Since coming here, on commission from the Lunar lab, to bring her home, Bo Jonsson had given her an occasional wistful thought. He liked intelligent women, and he was getting tired of rootlessness. But of course it would be a catastrophe if he fell in love with her because she wouldn't look twice at a big dumb slob like him. He had sweated out a couple of similar affairs in the past and didn't want to go through another."

Comment: The philosophical discussion among our characters in Chapter III might seem familiar in light of recent events.

Typo: "An iron-drive ship".

References and resources:
- "Vega or Spica or dear old Beetle Juice": Three fairly well-known stars; see Wikipedia (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE).
- "basing on the Trojan asteroids": Despite what the sci-fi programs would have you believe, in space it's all about delta-v; if you can't generate the necessary delta-v then you aren't going anywhere fast enough and you'll probably die before you get there. Anderson himself explains it very well:
   "There are numerous reasons for basing on the Trojan asteroids, but the main one can be given in a single word: stability. They stay put in Jupiter's orbit, about sixty degrees ahead and behind, with only minor oscillations; spaceships need not waste fuel coming up to a body which has been perturbed a goodly distance from where it was supposed to be. The trailing group is the jumping-off place for trans-Jovian planets, the leading group for the inner worlds—that way, their own revolution about the sun gives the departing ship a welcome boost, while minimizing the effects of Jupiter's drag." (Consult Wikipedia HERE).
Some Trojan asteroids are so large they've been given names like Achilles (Wikipedia HERE) and Patroclus (Wikipedia HERE); also see Atomic Rockets (HERE).

- "before the ion drive came in": The perfect thing if you're not in a big hurry:
   "Ion thrusters use beams of ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) to create thrust in accordance with momentum conservation. The method of accelerating the ions varies, but all designs take advantage of the charge/mass ratio of the ions. This ratio means that relatively small potential differences can create high exhaust velocities. This reduces the amount of reaction mass or propellant required, but increases the amount of specific power required compared to chemical rockets. Ion thrusters are therefore able to achieve high specific impulses. The drawback of the low thrust is low acceleration because the mass of the electric power unit directly correlates with the amount of power. This low thrust makes ion thrusters unsuited for launching spacecraft into orbit, but effective for in-space propulsion." (Wikipedia HERE).

- "on Kullen overlooking the Sound, back on Earth": An attractive place in Sweden; see Swedentips (HERE).
- "The Great Bear slid into sight": It does look rather ursine:
   "Ursa Major is primarily known from the asterism of its main seven stars, which has been called the 'Big Dipper,' 'the Wagon,' 'Charles's Wain,' or 'the Plough,' among other names. In particular, the Big Dipper's stellar configuration mimics the shape of the 'Little Dipper.' Two of its stars, named Dubhe and Merak (α Ursae Majoris and β Ursae Majoris), can be used as the navigational pointer towards the place of the current northern pole star, Polaris in Ursa Minor." (Wikipedia HERE).
- "it wouldn't take much of an impetus to throw him off this rock entirely": Asteroids are notorious for having very low escape velocities; you can jump off one and not come down for a long time. See Wikipedia (HERE) for the full skinny about asteroids.
- "once in a Venusian snowfall": If it ever snows on Venus it'll be a cold day in you-know-where:
   "Venus' surface [is] hotter than Mercury's, which has a minimum surface temperature of 53 K (−220 °C; −364 °F) and maximum surface temperature of 700 K (427 °C; 801 °F),even though Venus is nearly twice Mercury's distance from the Sun and thus receives only 25% of Mercury's solar irradiance. This temperature is higher than that used for sterilization." (Wikipedia HERE).

- "a kip in the public barracks": Slang for a place to sleep; a bunk. (Cambridge Dictionary HERE).
- "with a slipstick": Before reliable electronic computers came along, it was the way engineers did their calculations:
   "The slide rule, also known colloquially in the United States as a slipstick, is a mechanical analog computer. As graphical analog calculators, slide rules are closely related to nomograms, but the former are used for general calculations, whereas the latter are used for application-specific computations." (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Orion was marching past": "The film distribution company Orion Pictures used the constellation as its logo." (Wikipedia HERE). "The Southern Cross flamed in his eyes": Crux, a southern hemisphere constellation, "is dominated by a cross-shaped or kite-like asterism that is commonly known as the Southern Cross." (Wikipedia HERE). "stark against Sagittarius": The constellation of "Sagittarius is one of the prominent features of the summer skies in the northern hemisphere although in Europe north of the Pyrenees it drags very low along the horizon and can be difficult to see clearly. In Scotland and Scandinavia it cannot be seen at all." (Wikipedia HERE).
- "What would the centrifugal and Coriolis forces be?": See Wikipedia (HERE) and (HERE) for detailed explanations.
- The alternate title of our story, "Holmgang," was an ancient tradition: "Holmgang (hólmganga in Old Norse and modern Icelandic, holmgång in Swedish, holmgang in Danish and Norwegian bokmål and nynorsk) is a duel practiced by early medieval Scandinavians. It was a legally recognized way to settle disputes." See Wikipedia (HERE), especially (WARNING! SPOILERS!) the "In popular culture" section.
- Our story is one in a series called "The Psychotechnic League":
  "The Psychotechnic League is a future history created by American science fiction writer Poul Anderson. The name 'Psychotechnic League' was coined by Sandra Miesel in the early 1980s, to capitalize on Anderson's better-known Polesotechnic League future history. Anderson published 21 novels, novellas and short stories set in this future between 1949 and 1957, with a 22nd published in 1968.
  . . . "By the late 1950s, Anderson's political beliefs had altered to the point where he was uncomfortable with the political philosophy underlying the series, and he abandoned it. In particular, he had completely reversed his earlier strong support for the United Nations as the nucleus of a world government, a stance which formed the main plot element of several earlier stories in the series." (Wikipedia HERE).

- An SFF legend and a stickler for scientific accuracy in his fiction, Poul William Anderson's career is well covered on Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), the ISFDb (HERE), Project Gutenberg's collection (HERE), and the one and only movie adaptation of one of his stories (IMDb HERE).
- The asteroids have proven to be a fertile field for SFF authors to plant their storylines in; see, for examples, Donald E. Westlake's "The Risk Profession" (HERE), Jack Williamson's "Salvage in Space" (HERE), Nat Schachner's "Jurisdiction" (HERE), Eando Binder's "Double or Nothing" (HERE), Malcolm Jameson's "Stellar Showboat" (HERE), and Thorp McClusky's "Little Planet" (HERE). Another story not set on an asteroid but that does involve a battle to the death in an airless landscape is Fritz Leiber's "Moon Duel" (HERE).

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