Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jovian Moonlight Madness

Stanley G. Weinbaum’s mastery of character, dialogue, setting and concept made him stand out among science fiction writers of his time, even earning H.P. Lovecraft’s praise.  His career began with the publication of A Martian Odyssey in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories.  Sam Moskowitz credits him with having a “pervasive influence on the attitudes of his contemporaries” and believes that Weinbaum’s talent inaugurated “the true beginning of modern science fiction”.  (See also Revisiting Tweel and the Martian “Dream-Beast”.)

Like Lovecraft, Weinbaum excelled at creating wholly nonhuman alien species.  Neither author relied on the hackneyed conception of extraterrestrials as essentially manlike monsters with all too human desires and vulnerabilities.  Moskowitz notes that before Weinbaum, these monsters

“…were bent on either eating the earthmen or coveting their women.  The likelihood that a diet of human flesh might contain the proper balance of vitamins and minerals for a growing alien monster was rarely evaluated nor were the possible differences in aesthetics or anatomy considered in their undeniable predilection for females of the human species.”

But this may be an unfair criticism.  One could argue that a truly alien species, one that is completely other, might be problematic, in fiction at least.  If such beings had no inclination to kill and eat us, and did not want to mate with our women in order to repopulate their dying planet, could they sustain our interest?  So many of our most exciting narratives deal with avoiding a predator or defeating an enemy that threatens our resources or our romantic or familial relationships.  It seems there should be some commonality of purpose or motivation between the human and the extraterrestrial—so that we can tell an engaging story about that interaction.  Weinbaum skillfully achieves this balance of otherness and intersection with human needs and fears.

In The Mad Moon (1935), Grant Calthorpe is employed by a pharmaceutical company, working to ensure a supply of ferverin.  This is a valuable medicinal derived from a plant that grows on Io, a moon orbiting the planet Jupiter.  The medicine is useful to combat many of humanity’s ills; more locally it is the remedy for the “white fever” that earthlings are vulnerable to.  But living and working on Io is difficult and dangerous.  Weinbaum imagines the lunar terrain as hazardous tropical jungle, not unlike the terrain explored by Earth’s intrepid botanists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The flora and fauna that thrive in Io’s equatorial belt are at best indifferent to the humans, and occasionally intolerant or predaceous.  Most of the colonists, save for Calthorpe and other harvesters of ferva leaf, live in cities at Io’s north and south pole.    

Weinbaum was right about Io being a hot place, though he underestimated the actual temperatures.  Larger than Earth’s moon, Io is known to be exceptionally volcanic, a result of the intense tidal forces it endures as a result of its orbit around Jupiter.  Its surface is frequently molten and swelled by the gravitational pull of the giant planet; one theory is that the surface material is liquefied sulfur and sulfur compounds, or possibly silica rock. 

An iron core not only gives Io its own magnetic field, but makes the moon an enormous electric generator as it passes through the Jovian magnetic fields.  Io is capable of producing 400,000 volts across its surface and an electric current of 3 million amperes.  Because of this, Io is able to discharge lightning into the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.  Imagine if Earth’s moon could do something like that!

As in A Martian Odyssey (1934), Weinbaum catalogues the exotic zoology and botany of Io: there are slinkers, loonies, (“Lunae jovis magnicapites”), parcats, stinging palms, bleeding grass, arrow vines, and toothers.  The inventory recalls the hazardous supernatural ecology of Manly Wade Wellman’s The Desrick on Yandro (1952), although this Appalachian horror story was written many years later.  (See also Back Up on Yandro, Yonder.) 

Complicating the situation on Io is an outbreak of “blancha”, a fever that causes Calthorpe and another character to have dangerous hallucinations.  He must rescue the boss’s daughter, Lee Neilan, whose vehicle has crashed nearby, before the ferverin runs out and both fall victim to the slinkers, or worse.  Their symptoms combine with the cacophony of the natives and the confusion of celestial spheres overhead—Jupiter, but also the moon Europa—to produce menace and disorientation.

Sadly, Weinbaum’s career only lasted about a year and a half following the publication of his first story.  He died of cancer at the age of 33, and The Mad Moon may have been one of the last of his stories to be published in his short lifetime.  In that brief period he produced a remarkable body of work, including 4 novels and 13 short stories, much of which was published posthumously.
Interestingly, Weinbaum wrote the opening lines of one version of The Challenge from Beyond (1935), a “round-robin” story that included Donald Wandrei, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Harl Vincent and Murray Leinster.  These authors produced the science fiction version of the story for Fantasy Magazine, which was celebrating its third anniversary issue.  At the same time, H.P. Lovecraft’s team, which initially included C.L. Moore, Frank Belknap Long, A. Merritt and later Robert E. Howard, produced the horror version.  (See also Help, I’m a Centipede!.)

Sam Moskowitz, in his introduction to A Martian Odyssey and other Classics of Science Fiction by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1962) remarks that Weinbaum may have been aware that he did not have long to live, even at the time his first story was published.  Readers may recall that the radioactive crystal Jarvis purloined from the subterranean drum shaped aliens caused his warts to disappear, and was thought to have potential as a remedy for human diseases.  In The Mad Moon, Calthorpe also steals a medicinal product from the slinkers on Io, with which he revives himself and Lee Neilan.  It is implied that the colonization of space will also involve the ongoing search for new medicines—surely this was also Weinbaum’s personal search as well.

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