Monday, January 25, 2016

Life and Death in the Asteroid Belt

Collections of work by Clark Ashton Smith are not often easy to find these days, though there have been a couple of valuable compilations of late.  For example there is The Return of the Sorcerer, put out by Prime Books in 2009, and also the more recent The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, published by Penguin Classics in 2014.  The latter was edited by S.T. Joshi, and contains helpful annotations of each story as well as a selection of Smith’s remarkable poetry. 

On a recent expedition to my favorite used book store I was able to obtain an older collection, A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1988) published by Arkham House.  This one is illustrated (!) with suitably disturbing photo montages, and contains a sampling of stories from various cycles including Zothique, Atlantis, Hyperborea, and as the title suggests, Averoigne.

The 1988 collection includes a story that has apparently impressed many readers, Master of the Asteroid (1932).  If interested readers Google the story or its setting—the asteroid Phocea—they will find numerous references to Smith’s story.  It was first published in Wonder Stories, sharing that particular issue with the Hazel Heald/H.P Lovecraft collaboration The Man of Stone, (“Petrified they lay…man and wife…and behind this grim tragedy was the diary of a madman…”, see also Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer:The Diary of "M...).  Master of the Asteroid is one of the relatively few science fiction stories Smith wrote in the early 1930s.

The author departs from the ornate style of his better known dark fantasies for a grim realism that sounds very modern.  In tone, though not in content, the story is comparable to Smith’s The Face by the River, a story he wrote in the fall of 1930, (it was published posthumously).  The author described The Face by the River as “an attempt at psychological realism”.  Master of the Asteroid also displays Smith’s knack for describing the progressive unravelling of sanity in a way that is both convincing and disturbing.  (See also Don’t Take Me to the River.)
Master of the Asteroid has two narrators, each providing a dramatic contrast with the other: rational detachment in the one and a soul-destroying desperation in the other.  The first narrator is a disinterested investigator and space historian.  He relates the daunting history of mankind’s early attempts to colonize the solar system—which amounts to a series of gruesome disasters with few survivors. 

An outpost on Mars manages to endure, but barely.  The beleaguered colonists are prey to illness, insanity and mutiny.  The latter is what drives three of the characters to hijack the rocket ship Selenite.  Interestingly, these conditions are also the impetus behind one of Smith’s Captain Volmer adventures, (see also With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda).  In Master of the Asteroid, Smith anticipates current aspirations for the planet Mars, seeing it as a potential waystation for mining operations in the nearby asteroid belt—a potentially lucrative source of nickel, iron, titanium and water, among other resources.  An ambitious plan for an economically self-sustaining Martian colony is described in Robert Zubrin’s exciting book, The Case for Mars (2011).     

The first narrator soon narrows the focus of his discussion to the fate of the rocket ship Selenite and its crew of three doomed astronauts.  The incident involving the Selenite is intended as just one of many possible examples of the hazards experienced by the early explorers.  As the now deceased but longest surviving member of the three man crew, the second narrator speaks through the entries he wrote in a recovered ship’s log.  Master of the Asteroid—the title must be intended ironically—is a derelict story, the text driven by the haunting question:  “What happened to the people who were on this vessal?”  (See also Meanwhile, Somewhere in the Sargasso Sea for another example of the form.)

It is interesting to see where in time the fictional historian and the author Smith place this tragic event.  The Selenite reportedly disappeared in 1980, fifty years before the historian begins his account.  Thus the doomed crewmember is writing in the late twentieth century, the historian is writing in 2030, and the author of Master of the Asteroid is writing a century before that, in 1930 or thereabouts.  Smith is remarkably prescient about the hazards likely to endanger the first explorers of the solar system.  He was fairly accurate in his speculations about some of the dangers faced by humans in space:  “pestiferous” bacteria, dangerous radiation, and the metabolic as well as psycho-emotional effects of prolonged space travel are described.

The log chronicles the lone survivor’s attempts to cope with the mental deterioration of his ship mates, his own desperate and doomed situation, and his unraveling mental health.  The Selenite eventually crashes on the asteroid Phocea, its food and oxygen dwindle, and because of the nature of the crash, the ship becomes in effect a sealed coffin.  But while he still clings to life and sanity, the astronaut studies exotic life forms through the port window as well as the accelerated seasonal changes on the small spinning asteroid, all of which he contemplates with the perspective of a dying god. 

The author apparently researched some aspects of the asteroid; Phocea was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century and was unique among the known asteroids for being one whose unusual orbital pattern took it closest to the sun.  Smith substantiated some of his speculations about life on other worlds with what astronomical science knew at the time.

Smith’s love of language and obscure terminology is evident, as well as his tendency to populate other planets and planetoids with bizarre flora and fauna.  This was very typical of the pulp science fiction of the time, though Smith shows some restraint.  But it helps to know that crytpogamous refers to primitive plants, such as ferns, moss, algae, or fungi—which propagate by spores instead of flowers and seeds.  It helps to know that phasmidae (i.e., Phamatodea) is the scientific name for the large insects we call walkingsticks, and that aphelion is the point in the orbit of a planet or asteroid that is furthest from the sun.  At least the story is completely devoid of alchemical terms—usually the required vocabulary for many of the author’s dark fantasies.

However, Smith’s efforts in science fiction—too few and far between—are a cut above the space operas of Edmond Hamilton and his peers, both in attention to character and emotional state, and in the emphasis on realistic and scientific detail.  Absent is the upbeat “can-do” reliance on heroism and gadgetry.  The tone of Master of the Asteroid is relentlessly dark, and echoes the decadence of Zothique and Averoigne, though in a very different context.

It is interesting to compare Master of the Asteroid to Smith’s “Captain Volmer” series, (see also The Terrors of Alien Zoology), which more closely resembles the pulp fiction adventures of the time.  Master of the Asteroid has a much more modern feel, probably because of its realism and cynical tone.  It is a much purer form of science fiction, less transitional, and pre-figures the refinement of the field in the 1940s and 1950s.  It is also fascinating to see an author best known for fantasy cross over to another genre with success.  H.P. Lovecraft also produced a few noteworthy science fiction efforts, especially At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and possibly The Whisperer in Darkness (1931), though it is difficult to imagine Lovecraft doing much with rockets—surprising given his interest in astronomy.

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