Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Make a Silicon Life Form

"Say, from whence you owe this strange intelligence? Or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting?"
—from William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Arrhenius Horror (1931) is a ‘blasted heath’ story similar in some respects to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space (1927) and the much older tale by Ralph Adams Cram, The Dead Valley (1895).  All three stories have as their setting a weird and remote district inhabited by a strange ecology.  Either the location is rendered nearly lifeless (The Dead Valley) or is filled with the mutated versions of ordinary life forms.  In either case, the local flora and fauna are different and hazardous as a result of a strange emanation.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s well known The Colour Out of Space, an alien entity arrives by meteorite and soon imbues an entire valley with strange coloration, genetic mutation, and death.  Though a meteorite is not specifically mentioned in The Dead Valley, the description of the setting suggests an old meteorite crater.  In the center are a single dead tree, and a curious pile of little animal bones at its base.  This one is well worth reading for its ominous locale and sense of all encompassing nightmare.   The Arrhenius Horror tops both of these places with indigenous weirdness—a marshy valley containing a huge deposit of glowing radium—which is then seeded with an alien life form.

P. Schuyler Miller’s novella is ambitious but a bit unwieldy.  It contains a number of big ideas, in particular, that of panspermia, a notion that originated with the Greeks.  This is the belief that life has spread throughout the universe by way of tiny seeds or spores that drifted from world to world seeking optimal conditions for growth and colonization.  Nineteenth century scientists like Hermann von Helmholtz and Svante Arrhenius—hence the story’s name—revived this idea.  Arrhenius was a renowned chemist at the turn of the 20th century, and there is a lot of chemistry in this story.

Like many pulp science fiction stories of the time, The Arrhenius Horror is essentially a thought experiment, and entertaining primarily for that reason.  Miller wants to dramatize the panspermia hypothesis as well as speculate on the nature of life forms that may be based on silica instead of carbon.  This is theoretical science fiction, so characters, plot and credibility are nonessential.  By the end of the story readers may be tempted to say “Gee whiz!” but not “Oh my God!”

The story begins with the narrator talking to his psychoanalyst.  Presumably, he is seeing the doctor in order to recover from a terrible emotional trauma.  He has recently seen his friend mortally wounded in a titanic struggle with a giant silicon life form, somewhere in Africa.  But the tone of his narrative is too speculative and hypothetical for this scene to be credible.  It is the author’s contrivance to have someone hear the man’s tale.  The Freudian word association test that opens the story is priceless:

“Earth.”—“Doom.” (emphasis, mine)
“Arrhenius.”—(4.5 seconds elapse)—“Ion.”

Ordinarily, a pattern of verbal responses may point to hidden or repressed memories and strong feelings that the patient may be unaware of which influence day to day behavior.  These can then be brought into consciousness through therapeutic discussion.  But the narrator has no problem at all discussing the traumatic events in great detail, and then offering pseudo-scientific theories to account for the data.  The psychoanalyst is one of only three human beings in the story besides the narrator and the doomed friend.  (Some stereotypical African laborers serve mainly as a prop.)  Again, characterization, plot, conflict, dialogue and other elements of a typical story are completely subservient to ideas and speculation in a work like The Arrhenius Horror.  Stories like this are strangely depopulated, like a low budget ‘B’ movie.  Where is everyone?

Bill, the narrator, and his friend Tom are both young chemists.  Their goal is to strike it rich by mining and purifying radium in “Hell’s Garden”, an old crater somewhere in the deserts of Africa.  A massive deposit of radium underlies the marshy bottom of this crater, giving all of the native plant life an eerie phosphorescent glow at night.  They set up a primitive refinery near the edge of the crater, and employ some of the natives to do the hard labor.

Contemporary readers will be horrified by the overt, arrogant racism that appears casually here and there in the story:

“The blacks feared us as they feared the luminescence of the crater—with much awe of the white demi-gods who played with light and life.  For once, Tom had cured a tumor for their headman, in the days of the first expedition, and the man had stolen the white chief’s medicine and died horribly of burns from the radium, tucked, in its little quartz capsule, into his loin cloth.”

What is dismaying is that material like this was quite common in the pulp fiction of the time, was probably taken for granted by many of its initial readers as normative, and was not written all that long ago—within the lifespan of a single human being.  What do we take for granted in today’s cultural products that will later—perhaps only a generation later—be viewed as appalling or ignorant or hurtful?

In The Arrhenius Horror there are explicit directions for extracting radium from uranium when one is out in the wilderness—these occupy numerous paragraphs.  Later on there is an explanation of how to grow spectacular crystal formations by seeding a media that contains all the right chemical materials in the correct proportions.  (“Write what you know,” as Mark Twain and others have advised.)  All of this takes a back seat to a thorough review of the implications of Arrhenius’ theory of panspermia. 

Radium, crystal formations, basic chemistry, panspermia.  Sure enough, one night the two men observe a super nova overhead, and not long afterwards what appears to be a speck of light drifting down from the sky into the marsh.  Readers will expect that something will start growing among the weirdly glowing reeds of the swamp, and won’t be disappointed.  Because the crater containing Hell’s Garden—perhaps a riff on the notion of a Garden of Eden—is surrounded by desert sand, conditions are ideal for the cultivation of a gigantic intelligent crystal composed of silica.  The monster is reminiscent of The Monolith Monsters, a 1957 film about Earth being invaded by giant crystals that arrive via meteorite.

Radium saves the day, but not before Bill’s friend Tom is crushed beneath a pile of the alien crystals.  Not being a chemistry major, the explanation for all this was incomprehensible and unpersuasive.

The story can be read as an adventure tale.  The description of Hell’s Garden is the strongest, most affecting part of the story—the setting is unearthly and moody.  Readers who enjoy a certain amount of theory or speculation will find a lot of it in The Arrhenius Horror.  P. Schuyler Miller was a chemist and amateur archaeologist, and worked as a technical writer for General Electric in the 1940s.  Most of his fiction was published in the 1930s and 1940s, in such magazines as Amazing Stories, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, among others.  

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