Slip-sticks, space stations and wise-cracking secretaries

The Complete Venus Equilateral — George O. Smith

Complete-Venus-Equilateral

Even when I picked up The Complete Venus Equilateral way back in 1976, the stories it contained were for the most part pretty creaky material. Of the thirteen stories in this collection, eleven had been published between 1942 and 1945. There was a 1947 straggler, written to provide a coda and then one last story, written decades later (for reasons I will get into later). For the most part these ran in Astounding (now Analog) and they are straightforward gadget stories. There are a few stories worth remembering, and these exceptions are why I still have my copy of this book.


~oOo~

In a future when efficient rocket ships have been invented, but replacements for bulky vacuum tubes (and phonographic records) have not, Venus Equilateral Relay Station is a manned (and also girled) space station orbiting 60 degrees ahead of Venus. As the name indicates, it exists to relay messages between the populated worlds. The realities of orbital mechanics and radio physics mean that the Sun often blocks direct communication between worlds; thus the need for Venus Equilateral.

“Introduction” November 1976 (Arthur C. Clarke)

A brief but enthusiastic introduction by Clarke, He admits that communications satellites turn out not to need teams of experts swapping in fresh vacuum tubes for burned-out ones. He’s still optimistic about the whole living in space thing, however.

QRM—Interplanetary”, October, 1942

Venus Equilateral (henceforth VE) has functioned satisfactorily for years, operating at a modest profit. This means that the time has come to appoint as the new Director of the facility a good, solid, commercially-minded fellow like Francis Burbank, someone who, while unfamiliar with and disinterested in the technical details that make VE work, can be relied on to eliminate waste, cut costs, and finally deliver the profits to which the shareholders are entitled. Some might say that his ignorance of the facility would be a handicap, but in fact it is his greatest asset. Someone who had any concept of what’s needed to keep VE habitable would hesitate to make some of Burbank’s bold innovations.

Smith’s editor John Campbell knew his audience, so there was very little chance that the efficiency expert was going to win out over the slipstick jockeys. That said, while the set decorations in this are definitely old time, the situation—an arrogant, ignorant MBA type running a formerly successful technical concern into the ground—is one that I believe a lot of modern readers would find all too familiar.

Speaking of old time, not only was Smith unable to imagine a replacement for the vacuum tube, he was also unable to imagine that gender roles would change much over the next few centuries. Men are engineers; women are secretaries. Women are also “girls,” but perhaps to compensate for that, women get two extra servings of common sense, which is why the women spend so much of their time in these stories with an amused look on their faces as their men energetically douse themselves in naphtha, then hunt for a match.

“Calling the Empress”, June, 1943

An outbreak of disease on Venus sees VE handed an interesting challenge: can they work out a way to signal a spacecraft in transit, something that has never been done before, in time to get the ship to detour away from Venus and its quarantine zone?

Of course they can. This is an Astounding tale of engineering!

Even by 1976, this was one of the stories whose essential assumptions about communication in space had aged badly.

“Recoil”, November, 1943

Driven out of the medical field thanks to liberal, namby-pamby objections to the fact he was experimenting on living people, Allison “Hellion” Murdoch has decided to take up an entirely new livelihood: space pirate! As finding ships in the deeps of space is next to impossible, Murdoch’s version of old-time piracy is ambushing ships as they approach and leave planets. Because actually trying to sell goods looted from ships would be a bother, his scheme is less piracy and more protection racket: pay him a tariff or have your ship blown from the sky! Unfortunately for VE, control of interplanetary communications is a key element in Murdock’s plans; equally unfortunately, nobody thought to design VE with pirate attacks in mind.

Unfortunately for Murdoch, the boys in the relay station have been toying with ideas for death rays….

It’s kind of odd that it takes so long for the inherent issues with giant electron guns to occur to the engineers in VE. It’s also interesting that finding ships in deep space appears so difficult to the engineers, whereas Hellion, a pioneering space pirate, spots an obvious work-around.

“Lost Art”, December, 1943

Two enthusiastic engineers experiment with a relic of the ancient and thoroughly extinct Martian civilization; being Astounding engineers, they don’t do this out in the desert, but at home in a human settlement on Mars. The good news is, the Martians believed in documenting their toys. The bad news is, the Martians also believed anyone in possession of their technology would also be familiar with some vital, need-to-know information about said technology. This was so obvious that the vital info was never included in the Martian technical documents. Hilarity ensues.

This would be an example of a Smith story in which a protagonist’s bemused (but not surprised) girlfriend watches the chaos and carnage escalate from a safe(ish) distance.

H. Beam Piper fans may be interested to know Smith casually mentions, as an aside, the idea that drives the archaeological breakthrough in Piper’s “Omnilingual.”

This would also be another one of the stories that stayed in my memory. Not so much the complete inability on the part of either engineer to wonder if maybe they should stop trashing the local infrastructure by playing with alien technology that they don’t understand, but the bits about how tech writers leave stuff out because they think it’s obvious stuff everyone knows. That still rings true.

Way back in the Before Times, I was one of the first people to get a debit machine for my store. I was very surprised to discover that while the impressively thick manual that came with the machine covered all kinds of issues that never came up, one thing it didn’t cover was how to replace the roll of receipt paper.

“Off the Beam”, February, 1944

When a mishap leaves a spaceliner zooming off into deepest space, the boys from VE (one of whom is in said ship) have to solve a previously unsolvable problem: how to find a ship that is Lost! In! Space!

“The Long Way”, April, 1944

Intrigued by the power relay gadget found on Mars in “Lost Art,” the boys in VE are determined to play with one, the only problem being that the rights to the device were sold to Terran Electric. Terran Electric’s legal team is reluctant to trust VE with a new technology that TE is sure will have many useful, and profitable, applications. TE reluctantly accedes to VE’s request and sends VE a relay, as well as an engineer to mind it and a lawyer named Kingman to mind the engineer. The engineer is soon seduced to the VE way of thinking. but Kingman proves a more difficult opponent.

Oh, yes, and the boys from VE also discover that you can use relay tubes to suck power out of the sun or indeed any star. Doesn’t work from the surface of planets with thick atmospheres, but since the space propulsion systems of this era are limited by available power and the new device can supply unlimited amounts of that, there is no reason humans couldn’t start launching interstellar missions at this point. If anyone does that, Smith fails to document it.

“Beam Pirate”, October, 1944

Irate because VE got the upper hand in the previous story, Kingman schemes to use stock market manipulation (which he does understand) and a newly discovered FTL communications capacity of the Martian relay (which he does not understand) to drive down the price of VE stock. He will acquire the company and wreak a terrible, managerial revenge in the engineers. Mwahahaha!

Hmmm, another story driven about a non-technical person who assumes that his technological ignorance isn’t going to come back to bite him on the ass.

You may notice that I name the antagonists in these stores, but rarely name the engineer protagonists (such as Don Channing or Frank Whateverhisnameis). This is because the bad guys are all malicious in their own individual ways, but Don and Frank and all the other hardworking, hard-drinking, wacky, never-heard-of-a-concept-that-couldn’t-go-from-a-sketch-to-working-model-in-a-couple-of-days guys are pretty indistinguishable fellows.

“Firing Line”, December, 1944

The return of Hellion Murdock (the would-be space pirate)! And not just that but a team-up with Kingman! Hellion is sure he knows what went wrong the last time he attacked VE and he is sure that with Kingman’s help (specifically, with access to TE technology) Hellion can do the job right this time.

Hey, a super villain team-up! It is clear that the two bad guys understand their roles. The back-biting and sniping starts up pretty much as soon as Hellion breaks into Kingman’s home to propose an alliance. On the one hand, Hellion is a genuine medical and technical genius, but on the other hand, Kingman has always been a careful criminal and has never been convicted, something lawyer Kingman argues means that nothing he did was really illegal. This time, as always, he carefully ensures that he won’t be implicated in Hellion’s crimes.

“Special Delivery”, March, 1945

The boys in VE decide to play around with the matter-transportation applications of the Martian relay. TE claims that this is a violation of their intellectual property rights. This leads to a thrilling court case—also to the revelation that what the guys in VE have come up with isn’t so much a teleportation device as a matter-duplicator.

This story is mostly important because it sets up the next one.

“Pandora’s Millions”, June, 1945

Thanks to the idiots in VE springing their matter-duplicator (and a virtual end to material poverty) on an unprepared Solar System, the interplanetary economy implodes. Most companies suddenly find themselves irrelevant. Hilarity ensues as billions scramble to understand, let alone adapt to, the new normal.

Basically this about an economy transitioning from an industrial economy (one with which Smith would have been familiar) to a close to 100% service and information economy (with a bit of resource extraction on the side). All in a matter of months rather than decades. On the plus side, there’s no reason for anyone to starve to death while economic and political adjustments are ongoing. On the minus side, that does not mean that they won’t starve to death while the politicians wrangle.

An implication I missed in previous readings (and one I am not sure is intended) is that since the matter-duplicator is derived from Martian technology, it’s probably that the Martians had duplicators as well. At one point there’s speculation that the iron on Mars’ surface is a waste-product of the nuclear armageddon in which the Martians are believed to have killed themselves. I wonder what happens when you add cheap matter duplication to Global Thermonuclear War.

The Daddy Warbucks figure in this story is pretty nasty to his wife at one point, dismissing all of her art and social activist efforts as the pointless hobbies of a spoiled rich woman. I point this out because, as dated as Smith is, that’s about the only time I recall one of his protagonists being mean or dismissive to a woman. It’s true that many of the (interchangeable) engineers have (interchangeable) girlfriends, whose primary function in the plot is as someone to whom things must be explained (“As you know, Betty …”). Insofar as one can tell anything about a writer from their fiction [1], it does not seem that Smith feared, dismissed, or despised women as so many of his contemporaries did [2].

Of course the duplicator means that the stuff the rich wife is doing (art, literature and so on) may retain commercial value, while the stuff the husband was doing, (making and moving stuff) definitely won’t.

“Mad Holiday”, November 1947

The conniving Kingman returns with a plan to discredit and then replace VE. A plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel! If necessary, he will include a side-order of death-trap so pointlessly complex that even Bond villains would face-palm on seeing it!

And then Kingman wins. No, really: he’s never charged for the death-trap thing and he ends up in sole possession of Venus Equilateral Relay Station.

“The External Triangle, November 1973

Long retired but not ready to stop engineering, the boys from VE get together to tackle one last challenge: true teleportation. It turns out to come with a lethal twist, one they will have to solve if they are to save the lives of two young children.

Smith wrote this for Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology, which should have been remembered as an example of the right way to commemorate an influential editor. After Campbell died, a group of authors decided to write one last story in each of the series they had sold to Campbell in the past, and then publish that as an anthology. What an obvious and appropriate way to pay tribute to an editor. So why the heck has this idea not caught on? Why was this not remembered?

It’s true that the business relationship between Smith and Campbell cooled somewhat after 1949, when Campbell’s wife Dona divorced Campbell and married Smith. However, Campbell and Smith seem to have got past that little road bump by 1959, when Smith stories began showing up in Astounding again.

“Identity”, November, 1945

One of the unintended side-effects of matter-duplication (and its use in a European war) is that it turned being a twin into a social handicap. [3] The twins in this story see each other not as brothers, but attacks on their unique identities. When one twin stumbles over the key to Hellion Murdock’s lost treasure, the rivalry escalates from open hate to murderous violence.

A better writer could have really done something with the basic idea in this story. Smith’s version is okay but it’s not one of the more memorable stories in this collection. I was intrigued by the male protagonist, who is a stay-at-home, rather squeamish fellow (although a dab hand with a sword). His relationship with his girlfriend is threatened by her love of exotic travel and complex surgery. It was also kewl that Smith realized that any material goods Hellion stole would be valueless in a post-duplicator world, and jiggered the plot to ensure that Hellion’s treasure remained valuable.

1: I find myself thinking of something that I am told Patrick Nielsen Hayden said online, on GEnie, lo these many years ago. (I was never on Genie; kinda wish I had been.) Something to the effect that writers who say you cannot tell anything about them from their work are like someone who is claiming not to be naked while cavorting in a flesh-coloured body stocking.

2: Randall Garrett is a notorious example. Is anyone particularly surprised that the same guy who wrote the work reviewed here and who also wrote passages like:


“No. But you wanted to be able to think like a man, and you couldn’t. You think like a woman!”

was a serial sexual harrasser of women at cons?

3: Human military use of the duplicator included making thousands of copies of elite military personnel. There were no plans for dealing with the copies after the war. Presumably war materiel was copied as well, but happily nobody seems to have thought that using a nigh-infinite supply of atomic weapons was a good idea. Bully for Europe.


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