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Dream to Find Another World

One Step from Earth

By Harry Harrison 

9 Feb, 2020

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You

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Harry Harrison’s 1970 One Step from Earth is a science fiction collection. All the stories involve matter transmission. 



Introduction: The Matter Transmitter • essay 

Harrison makes a case that human history is governed by the history of transportation, with informative asides like

[quote] When only the tiny minority traveled, society was fixed at a simple agrarian level. The life of the seventeenth-century European peasant differed very little from the life of the eleventh-century European peasant. [/quote]

Instant travel is at the other extreme. How would it affect society?

One Step from Earth” • (1970) • short story 

The transmatter put lifeless Mars a single step from overpopulated, polluted Earth. Someone would have to be the first human to brave the unknown dangers of the Red Planet. International adventurer Ben Duncan was the man for the job. 

Comments

Technically, Ben is just there to take care of nebbish scientist Otto Thasler. Don’t get too attached to Otto. Earth’s scientists are too impatient to wait more than a few hours after the first test animals are sent to Mars before they send the human team. 

Earth in 1993 is an overpopulated nightmare:

Mile after mile of buildings and streets stretched to the horizon, jammed, packed, and turbulent with people. It could have been any city on Earth. They were all like this — - or worse. He had come out through Calcutta and he still had nightmares about it. 

There’s a certain tension in SF between enthusiasm for Man’s Manifest Destiny and loathing of actual human beings. 

Pressure • (1969) • novelette 

The first manned expedition to Saturn is complicated by high gravity, crushing pressure, and the fact that the matter transmitter which should allow explorers to exit the vessel doesn’t work under Saturnian conditions. 

Comments

Like the previous story, this is a tale of a two-fisted he-man having to manage timid scientists who are too cautious to do what’s clearly necessary. Unlike the previous story, it works out badly for the he-man. Harrison ends his tale before we find out whether the poindexters do any better. 

Harrison’s Saturn has a surface gravity that’s oddly high, although not high enough for Jupiter. I wonder why? It seems easy enough to calculate.

(Most of the giant worlds — Jupiter aside — have cloud-top gravities comparable to Earth’s. The higher masses are compensated by lower densities.)

No War, or Battle’s Sound • (1968) • novelette 

Intellectually, Dorn thought war a waste of human potential. Practically, someone had to prevent the warlike Greater Celtic Co-prosperity Sphere from conquering the Earth.

Comments

Interestingly, this is set at least a hundred generations” from now but all the named ethnicities are ones we’d recognize today. That’s surprisingly little change for that amount of time. 

Wife to the Lord” • (1970) • short story

A desperately poor world pins all their hopes for prosperity on one beautiful girl. She can surely be sold to a suitably wealthy husband. The oligarch who pays her bride-price proves to be not just incredibly rich, but a living god to his ignorant but contented subjects. There are consequences.

Comments

If you’re expecting the young woman to overthrow the patriarchy or establish an egalitarian society, it’s clear you’re not familiar with the values of this era of science fiction. 

The sexism and the lie-that-came-true-because-people-believed-it elements led me to believe this must have run in Analog . Not so! It appeared in Ed Ferman’s The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1970 (about a decade later than I would have guessed).

Waiting Place” • (1968) • short story

Astounded to find himself on Fangnis, planet of irredeemable convicts, Jomfri struggles to prove his innocence to the prison-world’s administration.

Comments

Jomfri’s home world appears to lack the concept of diminished capacity” and therapy seems to be a lost art where criminals are concerned. This may be because Fangnis is such an easy solution to the problem of crime: chuck a prisoner through the one-way gate, and then forget about them. 

The Life Preservers • (1970) • novelette 

Isolated for centuries, this retrograde world possessed only rudimentary technology and a warlike culture. The EPC task: drag the backward world back into modernity without inadvertently depopulating the planet with a thousand years worth of galactic diseases.

From Fanaticism, or for Reward” • (1969) • short story 

Jagen the assassin took every step he could to avoid pursuit. Follower, the implacable machine hunting him, rendered every counter-measure ineffective. The question was not would he be tracked down but what the consequences would be when he was.

Comments

Follower is a lot like one of Cameron’s Terminators, except that instead of doling out lethal violence, Follower prefers very hurtful personal criticism. 

Heavy Duty • (1970) • novelette

The World Openers corporation offers the galaxy to a backward world. The price of modernization is generations of servitude.

Comments

This is reminiscent of The Life Preservers,” (see above) except that the EPC seems to be charitable, whereas World Openers is profit-focused. Both stories ran in Analog , the first in April 1970 and the second in May 1970. It’s surprising that Campbell would have run two stories that were so similar in such short succession.

A Tale of the Ending” • (1970) • short story 

In a very distant future, when the entire Milky Way is intimately interconnected by matter transmitters, two scholars stumble over a long-forgotten truth about civilization’s origins.

Comments

This is a moderately creepy mood piece. 

General comments

There is a certain amount of cultural variation in these stories, but one consistent element involves robotic explorers: aside from the robotic Follower (see From Fanaticism”), they don’t exist. Space probes were an actual thing by the time Harrison wrote the stories, but I guess he felt that using them would reduce the dramatic potential of will the explorers die?”.. In the first story, animals are sent to Mars before humans, but they freeze to death before much information can be sent back. Plot friendly but a bit short-sighted….

The transmatter is a one-way device: if you travel in the wrong direction, you get scattered across the portal dimension. I don’t understand how molecular bonds could have been maintained as the travelers step through the machine. The proper analogy may be event horizons, which are also traversable in one direction.

This is a fair sample of Harrison’s work of the time: the prose is unremarkable, and one senses loathing for humans in large numbers. 

One Step From Earth is available here (Amazon US), (Amazon Canada), (Amazon UK), and here (Chapters-Indigo).