In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today we’re going back to the 1950s to look at a pair of books by venerable science fiction author Murray Leinster that imagine what the early days of the space program would be like. We will follow the adventures of everyman Joe Kenmore, whose plans to play a small role in the effort expand beyond anything he could have imagined. The action never slows as the story barrels along at breakneck speed, and the technology depicted by Leinster veers from the wildly imaginative to some remarkably accurate predictions.
I’m not sure when I acquired these books (first published in February and November of 1953), which just resurfaced in my basement recently. I think they came in a box I inherited when my father died. Or possibly they were purchased at a used bookstore somewhere along the way, but then tucked away without being read. The books are very short and seemed thematically linked, so I decided to make this review a “two-fer.” Imagine my surprise upon finding that the second book is a direct sequel to the first, picking up the action with the same cast of characters only a few weeks after the first book had left off. Together the two short novels make up a single story about the length of a single novel in our current era.
The books were published by Pocket Books, one of the first publishers of paperback books in their modern form, and were sold for 25 cents apiece. There is a blurb on the last page of the first book bragging that Pocket Books had become the largest publisher in the world in terms of copies sold, and informing readers that the kangaroo used for their logo, with a book peeking out of her pouch, was named Gertrude.
These two books appeared during the era where space enthusiast Willy Ley was frequently updating his classic non-fiction book Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel, in a vain attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing field of rocketry (I recently reviewed that book here). For his part, Leinster comes up with some quite interesting alternatives to the methods and technology envisioned by Ley. These books portray a future that never occurred but are still of interest to modern readers, in the same way that alternate history stories can be enjoyable. For example, Tor.com featured a list of “Five Great Alternative Histories of WWII and the Space Race” earlier this year, and this book easily fits in with those stories.
About the Author
Murray Leinster is the pen name of William Fitzgerald Jenkins (1896-1975), a leading science fiction writer active from right after World War I into the 1960s. He was very prolific, and wrote groundbreaking stories in a wide range of sub-genres, including tales of first contact, time travel, alternate history, and medical SF. Leinster had no higher education, but was self-taught in a wide range of fields, and an inventor as well as a writer. I previously looked at his work in my review of the NESFA Press book entitled First Contacts: The Essential Murray Leinster (you can find that review here), and in my review of the collection Med Ship (which you can find here). Both of those reviews contain additional biographical information about the author.
Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a number of Leinster’s stories and novels on Project Gutenberg, including both Space Platform and Space Tug.
The Outer Space Treaty
A big part of the action in Space Platform and Space Tug involves efforts by rival nations to foil the plans of the United States as they attempt to put a station into orbit armed with nuclear weapons (with Russia being implied as the primary opponent, but never named). The book leaves the reader with the impression that the establishment and operation of that station, in the face of such fierce opposition, would have been a nearly impossible task. Which is probably why, instead of allowing such a conflict take place, the nations of the Earth decided to take another course, here in the real world.
Negotiators gathered and hammered out an international treaty that became known as the “Outer Space Treaty,” or by its longer official name, the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” Some of the principles of that treaty are similar to treaties on the use of the Earth’s oceans, and international law at sea, which had emerged over centuries of navigation. Others are new and unique to this new sphere of human activity. The treaty, for example, bars all nations from claiming any other celestial body as their territory.
One misconception about the treaty is that it bans military activity in space. Military bases and activities are banned on other celestial bodies, such as the Earth’s Moon, but not in space itself. The most important military aspect of the treaty is that it bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, into orbit. Because they could be positioned so close to their targets, these weapons would be impossible to counter, and whoever was able to place them in orbit would gain a huge first-strike advantage over their opponents. Rather than give any other nation such an advantage, all the spacefaring nations, and most other nations, agreed never to establish such a capability.
Because of this agreement, which went into effect in 1967, space exploration over the last fifty-plus years has benefited from a largely peaceful evolution. Nations have been able to establish orbital space stations without fear of attack, or of sparking an armed conflict. The fierce battle to establish military dominance of the space frontier, as portrayed in Space Platform and Space Tug, has not (at least, not yet) occurred in the real world.
The book opens with Joe Kenmore, a representative of the Kenmore Precision Tool company, flying as supercargo in a military transport aircraft carrying gyroscopes built by his firm, which will help stabilize the Space Platform when it is in orbit. The pilots tell him stories of the frequent attempts to sabotage their flights, when suddenly their plane is attacked in midair. Only the use of Jet-Assisted Take Off (or JATO) units allows them to evade the enemy missiles (fortunately for them, Leinster had not anticipated the development of guided missiles). JATO units (which were actually strap-on rockets, not jets) were all the rage in the 1950s, and the subject of a wide range of experimental uses.
I believe the choice of the name Joe for the main character was deliberate. In those days, the name was used to indicate an everyman, an “ordinary Joe” you might meet in a local store, or the “G.I. Joes” who prevailed in World War II. And certainly, the main character of these books, an expert machinist, is a useful stand-in for the readers, as the other characters are always explaining to him how things work. I also get the feeling that Leinster put a lot of himself in Joe, who, like the author, is a man of modest education who is inquisitive and clever.
The aircraft faces a number of other saboteur-created challenges in reaching the massive hangar known as the “Shed” where the Space Platform is being constructed, ultimately making an emergency belly landing and erupting in flames. Joe meets with Major Holt, an Army officer in charge of security who happens to come from Joe’s hometown, and his daughter, Sally, who also works on the program. Joe and Sally are awkwardly sweet on each other in a very 1950s-style relationship.
Joe gets a tour of the facility, and meets some interesting characters, including gang boss Haney, a Mohawk steelworker nicknamed the Chief, and the diminutive Mike Scandia (who is referred to throughout the book as a midget, a term that has since become offensive). The Chief is based on Native American steelworkers who had spent the first half of the century building bridges and skyscrapers in cities throughout the United States. And Mike regales anyone who will listen with statistics supporting his assertion that, because they weigh less, take up less room, and consume less resources, little people are ideal candidates to lead the exploration of space.
Joe’s gyros were damaged in the rough landing and fire, and these four become a team that develops an innovative way of repairing the gyro in order to keep the program on track. While mainly present as a love interest, Sally does have some agency and a role in the program, albeit one considered appropriate for a woman in those days, overseeing the domestic aspects of living on the Space Platform.
While there are many attempts at sabotage and assassination to spice up the narrative, for me the challenges of engineering and launching the Space Platform are the most enjoyable parts of the book. While the facility is portrayed on the cover as a rotating wheel-type station, in the text it is more of a spherical structure. The launch method is intriguing. The Space Platform, with its many strap-on solid fuel boosters, makes the first part of its journey balanced on a host of small craft called “pushpots,” beetle-like vehicles that take off and land vertically with jet engines. These little flying tugboats take the craft on the first leg of its journey, just like the carrier aircraft that lifted Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceplane in its recent flight. The second stage of the journey involves the pushpots firing off their JATO rockets (I told you those JATOs were popular in their day). The pushpots are fully reusable, and after the Space Platform is in orbit, will be used to lift the resupply craft that support it. The strap-on boosters are used during the third stage of the journey, pushing the platform to its final orbit. This rather creative collection of modular launch vehicles is an intriguing alternative to the disposable multi-stage liquid fuel rockets that were used as the primary vehicles during the early days of the space program.
Joe and his team are able to anticipate a final push by the saboteurs and cleverly devise a means of countering it. The book, not surprisingly, ends with the successful launch of the Space Platform. As a reward for their efforts, Joe and the others are offered positions as crew for the ferry rockets that will supply the platform.
The sequel opens just a six weeks after the previous book ended, with Joe and company completing their required astronaut training. Rather improbably, this crew has also been selected for the first ferry rocket being launched to the Space Platform. Joe is resplendent in his new uniform as a civilian member of the Space Exploration Project, although there is competition within the Pentagon to have one of the military services take over this organization. The first ferry rocket is absolutely vital, as it carries the anti-missile missiles that will defend the Space Platform from attack (why those all-important defensive weapons did not go up with the platform in the first place is not explained).
The ferry rocket launches using the same combination of pushpots, JATOs and solid fuel rockets used to launch the Space Platform. Along the way, they learn that enemy missiles are on the way. Joe launches their strap-on landing rockets as drones to spoof the proximity sensors of the incoming missiles, saving the day (why his ferry rocket was not armed with defensive weapons is also not explained). Once they arrive, however, they find the enemy have more missiles than expected, and their cargo of defensive missiles might not be sufficient. Joe comes up with a plan to launch trash from the platform as a kind of improvised chaff to spoof the missiles, and the crew is pleased when the trash causes enemy missles to detonate at a safe distance (come to think of it, given what we now know about electromagnetic pulse effects, these orbital nuclear detonations would have also taken down a good percentage of the power grids and communication systems on the planet).
Another ferry rocket arrives with the landing rockets Joe and company need to return to Earth, along with a rules-concious Navy Lieutenant Commander to take charge of the station. The two ferry rockets leave to return to Earth, but neither makes it home because of enemy attacks, although Joe’s crew is able to use their ejection seats to save themselves.
A shortage of ferry rockets looks like it will make resupply impossible until the team figures out an innovative way to make new rocket hulls, and also how to remotely control unmanned rockets from a manned one, in a combination like nautical tugs and barges, but linked by radio waves rather than cables. Joe and company return to the station with lots of supplies, and also some “space wagons,” tiny intra-orbital rockets that can be used to move things around the vicinity of the station. The enemy begin another attack, this time human controlled, and Joe and his team improvise a way to use the space wagons to defend the station.
The Navy officer is then picked to lead a military expedition to the moon. Joe and the team are jealous they can’t go, but then the Navy runs into trouble. The final challenge of the book involves figuring out a way to rescue the military expedition, which might give Joe a chance to go to the moon after all…
Murray Leinster’s enthusiasm for technical challenges is obvious to anyone who reads his stories. The narratives jump from one challenge, attack, or adventure to the next in a mad rush. While some of the dialogue and situations feel old-fashioned, and some of the technology seems improbable in hindsight, these tales are still a lot of fun to read, filled with humor and excitement. And while Joe’s meteoric rise through the space program’s chain of command might seem implausible, it is a lot of fun to imagine an “ordinary Joe” getting the chance to participate at the cutting edge of exploration.
And now, I’m done talking and ready to listen: Have you ever encountered these stories? And if not, are there other outdated tales of space exploration that you remember fondly, and would recommend to others? I look forward to hearing from you.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.