Thoughts about three old sf stories

Here are some thoughts about three old sf stories. (These thoughts include spoilers.) The stories aren’t particularly connected to each other except by appearing in the same anthology.

Story 1: “Environment,” by Chester S. Geier (1944)

The two male human protagonists, who are the only characters in the story, constantly say each other’s names when speaking to each other, roughly once every other paragraph.

Like, when the two of them step onto a platform that rises into the air: “Wade—we stepped into some kind of elevating force.” Or: “Objects, Jon—The room was full of them.” Or: “I wonder, Wade…” Or: “The beginning, Jon.” Or: “Those pictures, Wade—” followed immediately by “Yes, Jon, the pictures.”

It’s like they have to keep reminding each other (and the reader) what their names are.

I have a vague idea that I’ve seen other old stories where characters call each other by name more often than I would expect, but I don’t think I’ve ever before seen it done quite this often.

At one point, I thought maybe the author was doing something clever: Over the course of the story, the two protagonists are transformed, and I thought maybe they would stop calling each other by name as they became less human. But nope, they don’t.

Story 2: “High Threshold,” by Alan E. Nourse (1951)

The apparent protagonists are scientists who have encountered a mysterious phenomenon in their lab. (It’s a hole in space that somehow looks like a hypercube, whatever that means.) People who try to investigate the phenomenon die of fear, because it’s too alien for human minds to deal with, so the scientists need someone who’s incredibly adaptable … and it turns out the super-adaptable person who gets recommended to them is a 19-year-old woman! (That’s in the middle of the story; this isn’t a surprise twist ending.)

I had been expecting that the adaptable person they would find would be a hard-drinking straight-shooting grizzled male adventurer, so I was surprised and pleased for a moment—That’s great, a male writer in the 1950s making a prominent tough character female!

But then my suspicious-reader self kicked in. Don’t you know by now, Jed, that when a 1950s white male sf author includes a character who isn’t a white man, it’s for plot reasons?

And sure enough: the adaptable woman survives her trip into the weird world of the hypercube, but in the end, she figures out that what’s really needed is a baby who can be raised partly in the ordinary world and partly in the weird world.

To Nourse’s credit, the woman doesn’t explicitly state that she’s going to have to bear and raise the baby herself, nor that the father will be the lead scientist on the project. But I assume that that’s what Nourse had in mind. (Given that she’s the only adult human who can survive in the weird environment.)

Still, I do like what little we see of her character—no-nonsense, and refreshingly aware of her own worth (and not afraid to say so).

Story 3: “Test Piece,” by Eric Frank Russell (1951)

A Space Navy ship crewed by three human men arrives on a planet that has had only one previous contact with a human (named Samuel Fraser), 300 years previously. The narration notes, in passing: “Time brings many wide and sometimes unexpected changes.”

The inhabitants turn out to be humanoids; unlike most aliens, they look just like humans. The narration says: “No especial difference fron the ship’s crew except that they were a little smaller, a little lighter in build, and had skins of a deep, rich copper color. Yes, that was the greatest contrast: the dark glow of copper skins and gleam of jet black eyes.”

So I rolled my eyes and thought Yet another story where whiteness is so much the default that the aliens are marked as alien by having a non-white skin color.

Later in the story, it turns out that Fraser (the human who had previously contacted these aliens) had told the aliens that (a) the longer it was before other humans showed up, the better; and (b) when humans did eventually show up, if they said two particular words, they should be killed. Otherwise, they could be welcomed in peace.

The protagonists pass the test—they visit the shrine to Fraser and they don’t say the two words. Relieved to have passed the test, they ask the locals what the two words were. The locals tell them the words (the narration tells the reader that the two words have two syllables each, but the words aren’t written out in the story), but the protagonists are confused—the words are not words they’ve ever encountered before, and they have no idea what those words mean. The locals also don’t know what the words mean.

And then in the third-to-last paragraph of the story, “the three men looked up [again] at […] the life-sized painting of the gray-haired, black-skinned Space Scout Samuel Fraser.” And they repeat that the words are gibberish to them, and that’s the end of the story.

So, presumably, the two words are some intensifying swear word followed by the N-word, and the point of the story is that by the time of the story, humans are no longer racist.

Which I imagine was a particularly progressive and utopian idea in 1951. But even though Russell was presumably trying to set up thematic stuff by having the aliens be “copper-skinned,” I feel like he undermines his own point by having their skin color be the noticeable difference between them and the humans. All of the human Space Navy officers in the story apparently have non-copper skin, non-black eyes, and 20th-century-American-sounding names (Joe Hibbert, Steve Randle, and Harry Benton), which to me suggests that the Space Navy isn’t particularly diverse, and thus that maybe the human culture hasn’t gotten as far beyond racism as Russell wants us to believe.

…That said, my reaction in that direction was stronger before I figured out that there are only three humans on the ship. With just three of them, it seems possible that Russell meant their skin and eye colors to be coincidental, with the rest of the Space Navy being much more diverse. And for that matter, it seems possible that they themselves aren’t white—all we know about their skin color is that it’s not “copper.” The story doesn’t explicitly say that they’re white; I just assumed that.

And my willingness to give Russell the benefit of the doubt on this issue is greatly bolstered by his publishing history, starting ten years earlier. Because Wikipedia reminds me that “Russell’s short story ‘Jay Score’ (1941) is unusual amongst the pulp fiction of its time in presenting a [Black] character, the ship’s doctor, without any racial stereotyping. Indeed, this story and its sequels […] may be considered an early example of the science fiction subgenre in which a spaceship is crewed by a multi-ethnic, mixed human/non-human, complement (cf. the much later Star Trek).”

Join the Conversation