The Moon and Mars having been explored at length in his previous collections Moonrise and Lost Mars, editor Mike Ashley presents a more generalised view of the children of the solar system in Born of the Sun, a ten story anthology published as part of the British Library’s superb ongoing Science Fiction Classics series.
“Life is a rare thing forever poised on the brink of death,” observes John Ashcroft in The Lonely Path, a genuine discovery overlooked by history, published in Science Fiction Adventures in 1961 and never reprinted since, and drawn from between 1929 and 1968 these tales represent “the old solar system” as it was understood in that era, including the asteroid belt, Pluto, then designated a planet, and Vulcan, a planet long theorised to exist within the orbit of Mercury but never found.
The introduction shorter than Ashley’s customary comprehensive overview of his subject, instead each story of Born of the Sun has an extended individual commentary discussing the evolving understanding of each solar body, major and minor, and their varied presences within the extensive archives of speculative fiction.
Experienced by Robert Silverberg in 1957, Sunrise on Mercury begins as a simple adventure charting the second expedition to the planet described as “two Hells in one,” the approach to the thin strip between the molten and frozen hemispheres sent astray by what is unkindly dismissed as a sudden case of “space madness,” but what seems to be a linear survival tale does not follow the expected path, the merciless extremes of the planet the setting rather than the story itself.
Mythical Vulcan is The Hell Planet of Leslie F Stone’s fantasia which parallels the plunder and exploitation of undeveloped countries as the second expedition descends to the surface saturated with lethal radiation, carrying the sole survivor of the first, seeking to trick the primitive natives into revealing their mines of the invaluable space mineral cosmicite, a tragedy of profit which poisons minds as surely as the planet poisons their bodies from 1932.
Born of a planet of misery, husband and wife John and Dorothy De Courcy revealed their Foundling on Venus in 1954, found in the mud of the streets of New Reno, junction of the four occupied territories, a strange and silent child in the mud rescued by lonely waitress Jane, a child who in turn will rescue her.
The Lonely Path to Mars taken by John Ashcroft is a less fantastical vision of space exploration which captures the melancholy and optimism of Clarke, particularly The Sentinel and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as an astronaut finds himself unexpected ambassador to a dead race, two civilisations of neighbouring worlds whose proximity is rendered void by the gulf of time which separates them.
Beautifully written, science fiction had changed tone by 1961 when the first satellites were in orbit and Yuri Gagarin was preparing his first flight, understanding the challenges rather than blindly imagining adventure, but Ashcroft also carries a substantial debt to Wells which could have been paid forward with what he offered to the genre had his work not now been almost forgotten.
It was in 1952 that husband and wife asteroid prospectors Jim and Marian Hardesty discovered the bounty beneath the stars where they find the impossible, life and a survivor of a previous crash who exists with it in a symbiosis carefully crafted by the great Poul Anderson, the unlikely mechanisms of the relationship detailed so as to be fully believable in his lonely Garden in the Void.
Clifford D Simak asks for a much heavier buy in from the reader in his 1944 warnings of Desertion, set in the occupied pressure domes on the “surface” of Jupiter where conversion physically transforms humans into “Lopers,” the ranking native species, allowing them to explore the planet in that form, the drawback being that none who have departed have yet reported back from their excursion, but the danger is not on the planet but in the nature of their transcendence.
A poetically written first person perspective of an encounter in the snows of Titan beneath the sun-illuminated rings of Saturn, James Blish proclaimed How Beautiful with Banners in 1966, a passing of the torch of a lone researcher to an unanticipated conjugate of biotechnology and nature, unexpectedly compatible and unpredictable in its behaviour.
Perhaps not the best story but interesting in what it presents, E R James ventured Where No Man Walks in 1952, offering virtual reality immersion of fly-by-wire drones hunting diamond seams in the wind battered mountains of Uranus, while technology was also the interest of Clare Winger Harris and Miles J Breuer when they announced A Baby on Neptune in 1929.
Their focus as narrow as the radio waves which humanity has used for 400 years to talk to the solar system without attempting to advance any other technology to actually visit the other worlds, their story opens as a chronology of future invention before it morphs into a somewhat preposterous but nevertheless sweet vision of cross-species friendship and benevolence.
Closing the anthology, Larry Niven has been forced to Wait it Out, a slow tragedy unfolding from a miscalculation which gives rise to a desperate act, at most an evasion of the inevitable rather than a solution, a chance to delay death until such time as rescue might arrive; written in 1968, before Pluto was downgraded to dwarf planet status, it depicts the world of mountains and frozen plains of gas more recent probes have confirmed it to be.