Lensman: Who’s Bad (at Being Bad)?

Triplanetary 8 – Chapter 3: The Fall of Rome

Welcome to the read! Like the previous chapter, this one is divided into three parts, starting with the Eddorian perspective on this aspect of the conflict.

1. Eddore

Like two high executives of a Tellurian corporation discussing business affairs during a chance meeting at one of their clubs, Eddore’s All Highest and Gharlane, his second in command, were having the Eddorian equivalent of an after-business-hours chat.

I mentioned before that I don’t like this very cozy humanization of the incomprehensible alien beings, and that’s still true.

“You did a nice job on Tellus,” the All-Highest commended. “On the other three, too, of course, but Tellus was so far and away the worst of the lot that the excellence of the work stands out. When the Atlantean nations destroyed each other so thoroughly I thought that this thing called ‘democracy’ was done away with forever, but it seems to be mighty hard to kill. 

I do like that the Eddorians are apparently so unfamiliar with the concept of democracy that they don’t seem to have a word for it and have to refer to it indirectly. Their political history has been so heavily weighted towards dictatorship that they never developed the term, even for theory.

However, I take it that you have this Rome situation entirely under control?”

The Roman Republic was designed to be a compromise between the various recognized political powers (the commoners, the aristocracy, the military, etc.) and was only kind of democratic even after correcting for ancient patriarchy. I’m guessing the author chose it over a purer ancient democracy (e.g. Athens) simply because Rome was better known, although I can see an argument that the Republic’s greater success and scope than its more democratic competitors could have done a better job of spreading democratic principles, had it not become an Empire.

“Definitely. Mithradates of Pontus was mine. So were both Sulla and Marius. Through them and others I killed practically all of the brains and ability of Rome, and reduced that so-called ‘democracy’ to a howling, aimless mob.

Earlier references to the use of mental force suggest that Gharlane used some degree of mind-control to work through these people, although the extent is left unclear. Sulla and Marius are good fits for his stated goals, as they led the Republic into two civil wars that killed a great many Romans and paved the way for Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Mithradates of Pontus was one of the greatest of Rome’s enemies, fighting three wars with them, and in particular killing tens of thousands of Roman settlers. Gharlane seems to have arranged for these acts to disproportionately eliminate future Roman talent.

My Nero will end it. Rome will go on by momentum—outwardly, will even appear to grow—for a few generations, but what Nero will do can never be undone.”

Nero is famous for being an insane and incompetent ruler, although the historicity of that is controversial. However, since this is (obviously) an alternate timeline, we can accept a dreadful Nero as accurate. Now, a case could be made that a dreadful Nero was a key figure in the fall of the Western Empire, but it would seem that he would do so in such a way as to undermine the system of Imperial rule, first by being an incompetent tyrant, and second by ending the Caesarian line of succession and reducing the perceived legitimacy of later emperors. On the other hand, the historian Tacitus reported that Nero’s misrule inspired a conspiracy to restore the Republic, which was discovered and wiped out; in this case that could have been an intentional strategy of Gharlane’s to reduce the reservoir of Republican sentiment below some critical threshold.

On a side note, Nero reigns from 54-68 CE, so the time-skip between this chapter and the last is somewhere between 9500 and 9600 years. It’s not ~(2X10^9) like it was between chapters one and two, but it’s still significantly longer than most chapter breaks.

“Good. A difficult task, truly.”

“Not difficult, exactly… but it’s so damned steady.” Gharlane’s thought was bitter. “But that’s the hell of working with such short-lived races. Since each creature lives only a minute or so, they change so fast that a man can’t take his mind off of them for a second.

On some level it makes sense for the Arisians to have tweaked humanity for a faster generational turnover, partly so they get more generations for their breeding program, and also so that when they get a chance to promote their politics, the generations who were raised solely in the Eddorian context fall away more quickly.

I’ve been wanting to take a little vacation trip back to our old time-space, but it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to do it until after they get some age and settle down.”

“That won’t be too long. Life-spans lengthen, you know, as races approach their norms.”

I don’t think there’s any actual biology behind this statement (what would a ‘norm’ even be in that context?), it’s probably just a setting conceit to explain why the elder aliens live more or less forever.

“Yes. But none of the others is having half the trouble that I am. Most of them, in fact, have things coming along just about the way they want them. My four planets are raising more hell than all the rest of both galaxies put together, and I know that it isn’t me—next to you, I’m the most efficient operator we’ve got.

From this perspective, the limited scope of Arisian operations seems like an error because it makes the very few areas they’ve spent the most energy on stand out all the more. If they’d given more help to more planets, that would have been better camouflage (and better altruism), but I guess they don’t have enough people with the skills to be covert Moulders.

What I’m wondering about is why I happen to be the goat.”

“Precisely because you are our most efficient operator.”

This does make sense. Gharlane took on the most troublesome planets because he was the best for the job. That the planets remain troublesome despite his efforts suggests an underlying cause not being addressed. We know that cause is the Arisians, but how do the Eddorians account for it, if they do?

If an Eddorian can be said to smile, the All-Highest smiled. “You know, as well as I do, the findings of the Integrator.”

“Yes, but I am wondering more and more as to whether to believe them unreservedly or not. Spores from an extinct life-form—suitable environments—operation of the laws of chance—Tommyrot!

I assume the Integrator is a hyper-advanced form of the mechanical calculators used in Atlantis, where they can feed in data and get answers that match the criteria. But unless it’s something like true AI, it can only respond with answers in its database, and while that’s apparently pretty extensive, it presumably can’t give them an answer they’re incapable of admitting and therefore can’t program into it. So the Integrator can’t help them, and to a certain extent works against them by providing plausible cover for the Arisians.

What’s interesting is that Gharlane seems to have intuited that the Integrator has failed, but the supposedly superior All-Highest has not. This could be a simple matter of ego: Gharlane can’t accept that his failure is caused by the proposed factors, probably especially once he was made aware of those possibilities and could compensate for them. On the other hand, he is right and the All-Highest is wrong, and this is the continuation of a pattern where Gharlane is portrayed much more competently than his boss.

We’ve seen the All-Highest fail to even harm Enphilistor, and get thoroughly owned by the Arisian Elders, and we’ve seen Gharlane defeat an entire planet by himself. Obviously, those were against very different classes of opposition, but total failure compared to total (if temporary) success is still a track record. Now we see that Gharlane is apparently out-thinking his boss as well. It paints a picture.

I am beginning to suspect that chance is being strained beyond its elastic limit, for my particular benefit, and as soon as I can find out who is doing that straining there will be one empty place in the Innermost Circle.”

This is pretty good. Even if the Eddorians could admit the existence of the Arisians to themselves, when faced with mysterious opposition it’s far more plausible for that opposition to come from the ancient super-species they know exists. Gharlane thinks one of the other Circle members is messing with him, presumably to take his place as Master Number Two.

“Have a care, Gharlane!” All levity, all casualness disappeared. “Whom do you suspect? Whom do you accuse?”

“Nobody, as yet. The true angle never occurred to me until just now, while I have been discussing the thing with you. Nor shall I either suspect or accuse, ever. I shall determine, then I shall act.”

“In defiance of me? Of my orders?” the All-Highest demanded, his short temper flaring.

“Say, rather, in support,” the lieutenant shot back, unabashed. “If some one is working on me through my job, what position are you probably already in, without knowing it?

Again, the All-Highest comes off second-best. He’s short-tempered, and his attempts to establish authority come off as desperate because Gharlane shows no deference, no sense that the All-Highest holds the power in this exchange. Gharlane is decisive, direct, committed, and already working to recruit the All-Highest. He’s showing power.

Remember that the difference between the capabilities of the All-Highest and his Inner Circle is supposed to be ‘infinitesimal.’ He should not be getting steamrolled like this.

Assume that I am right, that these four planets of mine got the way they are because of monkey business inside the Circle. Who would be next? And how sure are you that there isn’t something similar, but not so far advanced, already aimed at you? It seems to me that serious thought is in order.”

“Perhaps so…. You may be right…. There have been a few nonconformable items. Taken separately, they did not seem to be of any importance; but together, and considered in this new light….”

Thus was borne out the conclusion of the Arisian Elders that the Eddorians would not at that time deduce Arisia; and thus Eddore lost its chance to begin in time the forging of a weapon with which to oppose effectively Arisia’s—Civilization’s—Galactic Patrol, so soon to come into being.

This conclusion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me on a couple of levels.

First: I will buy that these two are diverted by paranoia for a while, but the idea that they’d be diverted for thousands of years is ridiculous. If there were actually a secret plot against them that was at an unknown stage of progression, they should move pretty fast to make sure it doesn’t come to fruition – and one of them is the actual dictator of their society, he can just have his suspects imprisoned and interrogated at will, the very efficiency their system exists to promote. This secret plot delusion should be debunked in a very short time, and then the Eddorians would be looking for new explanations again. Intra-Eddorian suspicion would be a great cover for more obvious Arisian activity in one of these prequel chapters. More than that, and the Eddorians look badly incompetent.

Second: I’m really not clear what kind of weapon is being discussed or why it would take so long to make. The Arisians have to work slowly because they’re being covert and also breeding creatures with human lifespans (among others). The Eddorians, on the other hand, have already built an enormous intergalactic empire, and have hyper-advanced technology. It’s really unclear what keeps them from using their massive advantages in resources, manpower, and technology to just annihilate the Galactic Patrol whenever it shows up. I’ll raise this again when it becomes relevant.

If either of the two had been less suspicious, less jealous, less arrogant and domineering—in other words, had not been Eddorians—this History of Civilization might never have been written; or written very differently and by another hand.

Both were, however, Eddorians.

My concerns for this section have been mostly narrative, but here’s a nice little opportunity to talk about social matters that goes right back to the problems of genetically inherent morality I brought up in an earlier post. Protip: if you have written a passage about a people, and if you were to replace that people’s name with ‘Jews’ the resulting passage would look like something written by Nazis, rewrite.

Lensman: Kinnexa is (mostly) Awesome

Triplanetary 7 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! This chapter has a deal less questionable material in it than previous ones, so you’ll see some longer intervals between my comments.

Four of the conferees filed out and a brisk young man strode in. Although he did not look at the Faros his eyes asked questions.

“Reporting for orders, sir.” He saluted the Officer punctiliously.

“At ease, sir.” Artomenes returned the salute. “You were called here for a word from the Faros. Sir, I present Captain Phryges.”

“Not orders, son… no.” Ariponides’ right hand rested in greeting upon the captain’s left shoulder, wise old eyes probed deeply into gold-flecked, tawny eyes of youth; the Faros saw, without really noticing, a flaming thatch of red-bronze-auburn hair.

In 1948 as today, very distinctive hair and eye colors are a good indicator that someone is a protagonist.

“I asked you here to wish you well; not only for myself, but for all our nation and perhaps for our entire race. While everything in my being rebels against an unprovoked and unannounced assault, we may be compelled to choose between our Officer’s plan of campaign and the destruction of Civilization.

Wait. In the previous half of this section, the Officer’s first-strike plan was described as ‘entirely futile.’ A large chunk of the text was spent establishing that it was both unacceptable morally and unworkable practically. Why is it still being talked about like it’s even remotely a thing? Sure, proceed with the recon mission, it’s always good to have better intel, but – huh? I feel like I’m looking at a transitional draft because this makes no sense to me at all.

Since you already know the vital importance of your mission, I need not enlarge upon it. But I want you to know fully, Captain Phryges, that all Atlantis flies with you this night.”

Yeah, this ‘weight of the world’ talk really makes it sound as though the first-strike mission had not just been rejected. In context, Phryges’ mission should still be an important fact-finding mission, but nothing to justify ‘all Atlantis flies with you.’ This reads like the author really liked the dramatic tension of the super-high-stakes mission, but didn’t bother to reconcile it with the actual ethics and politics of nuclear weapons that he wound up outlining beforehand.

I’m going to try reading it like this: for some reason (morale, focus, continuity, information sequestration) the Faros has decided not to tell Phryges that his mission isn’t the tip of a nuclear spear. Let’s see if that’s consistent with the rest of the text.

“Th… thank you, sir.” Phryges gulped twice to steady his voice. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

That’s a nice touch of emotional vulnerability to humanize our hero.

And later, in a wingless craft flying toward the airfield, young Phryges broke a long silence.

‘Wingless craft’ could mean a lot of things: helicopter, hovercraft, some sort of jump-rocket, a lifting-body aircraft; all modern or futuristic ideas in 1948.

“So that is the Faros… I like him, Officer … I have never seen him close up before… there’s something about him…. He isn’t like my father, much, but it seems as though I have known him for a thousand years!”

That’s a lot of ellipses, indicating a very unusual pattern of speech. I don’t know what to make of it. Is he meant to be deep in thought? Star-struck and rambling?

“Hm-m-m. Peculiar. You two are a lot alike, at that, even though you don’t look anything like each other…. Can’t put a finger on exactly what it is, but it’s there.” Although Artomenes nor any other of his time could place it, the resemblance was indeed there. It was in and back of the eyes; it was the “look of eagles” which was long later to become associated with the wearers of Arisia’s Lens.

More Lens foreshadowing. ‘Look of eagles’ is an interesting term; it sounds good without being at all clear what it means. As far as I can tell, it goes back to Roman times, applied to a particularly martial attitude, referencing the golden eagles on the standards of the legions.

“But here we are, and your ship’s ready. Luck, son.”

“Thanks, sir. But one more thing. If it should—if I don’t get back—will you see that my wife and the baby are…?”

It’s not common for pulp action heroes to be married, but in this case it’s essential. I can’t really talk about this without spoilers: Phryges’ eye and hair color are the signature of a very important Arisian-cultivated bloodline, and so it’s important to establish how that bloodline outlived Atlantis.

“I will, son. They will leave for North Maya tomorrow morning. They will live, whether you and I do or not. Anything else?”

I don’t know what the extent of the fictional Maya nation is supposed to be, but I guess that North Maya probably refers to North America, a bit of USA-centric conceit. It does seem to mean that Phryges’ precious awesome genetic material spent thousands of years being passed down through the Native American population, which is a welcome nod of racial inclusion, not that I think it’s ever mentioned again.

“No, sir. Thanks. Goodbye.”

The ship was a tremendous flying wing. A standard commercial job.

Flying wing aircraft got a lot of development during WW2, and seem to have been particularly popular models for futuristic fiction, possibly because they just look so distinct from ordinary aircraft.

Empty—passengers, even crewmen, were never subjected to the brutal accelerations regularly used by unmanned carriers.

I was surprised to see that this vehicle is essentially a drone, but apparently remote-controlled aircraft were used in a number of roles in WW2.

Phryges scanned the panel. Tiny motors were pulling tapes through the controllers. Every light showed green. Everything was set. Donning a water-proof coverall, he slid through a flexible valve into his acceleration-tank and waited.

Use of liquid suspension to help people withstand acceleration is something that’s had a lot of math done on it but has always wound up being impractical. However, as a minor element in a soft sci-fi story, it adds a nice gloss of realism.

A siren yelled briefly. Black night turned blinding white as the harnessed energies of the atom were released.

Whoa, okay. So this standard commercial aircraft uses some sort of nuclear-powered propulsion. That’s terrifying, because it means that there are fleets of these things flying around, and they’re basically low-grade nuclear missiles in cargo plane drag. It’s also kind of nuts that the technology has developed fast enough that a nuclear drive fits on an airplane, but that the world is still dealing with what seems to be the first round of fallout from nuclear energy.

For five and six-tenths seconds the sharp, hard, beryllium-bronze leading edge of the back-sweeping V sliced its way through ever-thinning air.

The vessel seemed to pause momentarily; paused and bucked viciously. She shuddered and shivered, tried to tear herself into shreds and chunks; but Phryges in his tank was unconcerned. Earlier, weaker ships went to pieces against the solid-seeming wall of atmospheric incompressibility at the velocity of sound; but this one was built solidly enough, and powered to hit that wall hard enough, to go through unharmed.

Historically, flying wing aircraft actually fell out of favor because they weren’t compatible with supersonic flight. Flying that fast requires a thin wing, and if that wing has to contain the crew and machinery it simply can’t be thin enough. I don’t know if the power of a nuclear rocket could overcome that, but I don’t care, this is exciting stuff.

The hellish vibration ceased; the fantastic violence of the drive subsided to a mere shove; Phryges knew that the vessel had leveled off at its cruising speed of two thousand miles per hour.

Holy crap. Two thousand miles/hour is Mach 2.6. My back-of-napkin calculation estimates that the average acceleration during those 5.6 seconds of acceleration was ~16 gravities. That’s… remarkably reasonable; apparently untrained humans have remained functional at up to 20 gravities for less than 10 seconds exposure (which makes Phryges’ tank seems like over-caution) but those tests weren’t done until 1960, so you can’t blame the author for not knowing.

What’s remarkably unreasonable is that the fleets of nuclear drone missiles are also super-sonic. That seems like a truly absurd security risk, if someone could manage to override their controls to use them as weapons the devastation would be ghastly.

He emerged, spilling the least possible amount of water upon the polished steel floor. He took off his coverall and stuffed it back through the valve into the tank. He mopped and polished the floor with towels, which likewise went into the tank.

He drew on a pair of soft gloves and, by manual control, jettisoned the acceleration tank and all the apparatus which had made that unloading possible. This junk would fall into the ocean; would sink; would never be found.

Covering his tracks, espionage-style. This is the signal to the reader that despite the ancient time period and sci-fi setting, Phryges’ part of this narrative is a spy story. Spy thrillers had experienced a significant resurgence before and during WW2, so pulp readers could be expected to be familiar with and enjoy such, even as an interlude in a larger sci-fi narrative.

He examined the compartment and the hatch minutely. No scratches, no scars, no mars; no tell-tale marks or prints of any kind. Let the Norskies search. So far, so good.

‘Norskies’ sounds very similar to ‘Ruskies,’ a slang term for Russians.

Back toward the trailing edge then, to a small escape-hatch beside which was fastened a dull black ball. The anchoring devices went out first. He gasped as the air rushed out into near-vacuum, but he had been trained to take sudden and violent fluctuations in pressure. He rolled the ball out upon the hatch, where he opened it; two hinged hemispheres, each heavily padded with molded composition resembling sponge rubber. It seemed incredible that a man as big as Phryges, especially when wearing a parachute, could be crammed into a space so small; but that lining had been molded to fit.

This ball seems like it could be a high-tech spy gadget, but given the setting it could just be an ordinary (for the setting) device that we’re unfamiliar with. I’m a little shaky on the physics of operating in an unsealed craft at supersonic speeds, but I’ll buy it for the purposes of pulp action.

This ball had to be small. The ship, even though it was on a regularly-scheduled commercial flight, would be scanned intensively and continuously from the moment of entering Norheiman radar range.

Much less plausible is the conceit that one nation would let another nation routinely send these horrifying death machines into their airspace, even with very close monitoring. The economic incentive must be enormous.

Since the ball would be invisible on any radar screen, no suspicion would be aroused; particularly since—as far as Atlantean Intelligence had been able to discover—the Norheimans had not yet succeeded in perfecting any device by the use of which a living man could bail out of a super-sonic plane.

Okay, so this ball is a spy gadget, high-tech even for the high-tech setting. Limited forms of radar stealth technology had been developed in WW2, and sonar stealth before that, so that’s simple extrapolation.

Phryges waited—and waited—until the second hand of his watch marked the arrival of zero time. He curled up into one half of the ball; the other half closed over him and locked. The hatch opened. Ball and closely-prisoned man plummeted downward; slowing abruptly, with a horrible deceleration, to terminal velocity. Had the air been any trifle thicker the Atlantean captain would have died then and there; but that, too, had been computed accurately and Phryges lived.

And as the ball bulleted downward on a screaming slant, it shrank!

This, too, the Atlanteans hoped, was new—a synthetic which air-friction would erode away, molecule by molecule, so rapidly that no perceptible fragment of it would reach ground.

That is a very neat little piece of speculative technology, much more plausible and interesting than I was expecting.

The casing disappeared, and the yielding porous lining. And Phryges, still at an altitude of over thirty thousand feet, kicked away the remaining fragments of his cocoon and, by judicious planning, turned himself so that he could see the ground, now dimly visible in the first dull gray of dawn. There was the highway, paralleling his line of flight; he wouldn’t miss it more than a hundred yards.

He fought down an almost overwhelming urge to pull his rip-cord too soon. He had to wait—wait until the last possible second—because parachutes were big and Norheiman radar practically swept the ground.

This is recognizably a High Altitude Low Opening (or HALO) parachute jump, and it’s very much ahead of its time. John Stapp had experimented with high-altitude flight in 1946, but as far as I can tell, practical HALO techniques didn’t start development until 1960. If this is a genuine prediction-come-true on the author’s part, it wasn’t the first; there’s a much more famous one I’ll get to when it comes up.

Low enough at last, he pulled the ring. Z-r-r-e-e-k—WHAP! The chute banged open; his harness tightened with a savage jerk, mere seconds before his hard-sprung knees took the shock of landing.

It’s not a completely accurate depiction. The opening is far too low even by HALO standards, and there’s no depiction of Phryges using an oxygen tank to stave off hypoxia from the altitude and pressure sickness from the rapid descent. This is amply excused by the at-the-time lack of data and general action hero fudge factor.

That was close—too close! He was white and shaking, but unhurt, as he gathered in the billowing, fighting sheet and rolled it, together with his harness, into a wad. He broke open a tiny ampoule, and as the drops of liquid touched it the stout fabric began to disappear. It did not burn; it simply disintegrated and vanished. In less than a minute there remained only a few steel snaps and rings, which the Atlantean buried under a meticulously-replaced circle of sod.

More super-spy gadgetry. This focus on leaving as little evidence as possible really sells the sense of threat without ever seeing any opposition.

He was still on schedule. In less than three minutes the signals would be on the air and he would know where he was—unless the Norskies had succeeded in finding and eliminating the whole Atlantean under-cover group. He pressed a stud on a small instrument; held it down. A line burned green across the dial—flared red—vanished.

“Damn!” he breathed, explosively. The strength of the signal told him that he was within a mile or so of the hide-out—first-class computation—but the red flash warned him to keep away. Kinnexa—it had better be Kinnexa!—would come to him.

How? By air? Along the road? Through the woods on foot? He had no way of knowing—talking, even on a tight beam, was out of the question. He made his way to the highway and crouched behind a tree. Here she could come at him by any route of the three. Again he waited, pressing infrequently a stud of his sender.

A long, low-slung ground-car swung around the curve and Phryges’ binoculars were at his eyes.

The term ground-car implies that there are non-ground cars, presumably the flying cars that sci-fi kept promising us.

It was Kinnexa—or a duplicate. At the thought he dropped his glasses and pulled his guns—blaster in right hand, air-pistol in left.

As far as I know, the term ‘blaster’ originates in Asimov’s Foundation series, in 1942, where it referred to a specifically nuclear-powered energy weapon. Actually deadly air guns date back to at least the 18th century, and since they don’t rely on a detonation to propel their projectiles, are considerably stealthier than ordinary guns, which seems like a decent choice for covert action.

But no, that wouldn’t do. She’d be suspicious, too—she’d have to be—and that car probably mounted heavy stuff. If he stepped out ready for business she’d fry him, and quick. Maybe not—she might have protection—but he couldn’t take the chance.

The car slowed; stopped. The girl got out, examined a front tire, straightened up, and looked down the road, straight at Phryges’ hiding place.

It’s not clear exactly how old Kinnexa is supposed to be, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt she’s an adult engaged in serious business, and calling her a girl isn’t really appropriate. On the other hand, I’m not sure where the standard for that was in 1948.

This time the binoculars brought her up to little more than arm’s length. Tall, blonde, beautifully built; the slightly crooked left eyebrow. The thread-line of gold betraying a one-tooth bridge and the tiny scar on her upper lip, for both of which he had been responsible—she always did insist on playing cops-and-robbers with boys older and bigger than herself—it was Kinnexa! Not even Norheim’s science could imitate so perfectly every personalizing characteristic of a girl he had known ever since she was knee-high to a duck!

There are a number of notable women in this series, but I think Kinnexa is the only one who’s allowed to have her looks marred in even this small way, to illustrate her history as a rough-houser, no less. She’s also one of the few who doesn’t have her beauty expounded on at length, and one of the few who gets to go into serious physical danger.

The girl slid back into her seat and the heavy car began to move. Open-handed, Phryges stepped out into its way. The car stopped.

“Turn around. Back up to me, hands behind you,” she directed, crisply.

Also, she’s not messing around.

The man, although surprised, obeyed. Not until he felt a finger exploring the short hair at the back of his neck did he realize what she was seeking—the almost imperceptible scar marking the place where she bit him when she was seven years old!

“Oh, Fry! It is you! Really you! Thank the gods! I’ve been ashamed of that all my life, but now….”

Kinnexa is not a Strong Female Character in the wonderfully mockable mold. She gets to have regrets and sentimentality and so on.

He whirled and caught her as she slumped, but she did not quite faint.

She also gets to barely remain conscious. Wow, I did not see that coming. The fainting woman trope is usually a signifier of a damsel in distress figure, and Kinnexa’s shown none of the signs of that so far. It kind of feels like the author thought he’d written her too bad-ass and needed to establish some frailty so she didn’t look better than the male hero.

“Quick! Get in… drive on… not too fast!” she cautioned, sharply, as the tires began to scream. “The speed limit along here is seventy, and we can’t be picked up.”

“Easy it is, Kinny. But give! What’s the score? Where’s Kolanides? Or rather, what happened to him?”

“Dead. So are the others, I think. They put him on a psycho-bench and turned him inside out.”

Hm, maybe that fainting was justified after all; emotional fainting requires truly extraordinary intensity, but having your entire spy ring captured, tortured, and executed certainly qualifies. Still, I don’t think we ever see a man faint, no matter the circumstances, although I’ll remember to keep an eye out for such a thing.

“But the blocks?”

“Didn’t hold—over here they add such trimmings as skinning and salt to the regular psycho routine. But none of them knew anything about me, nor about how their reports were picked up, or I’d have been dead, too. But it doesn’t make any difference, Fry—we’re just one week too late.”

“What do you mean, too late? Speed it up!” His tone was rough, but the hand he placed on her arm was gentleness itself.

“I’m telling you as fast as I can. I picked up his last report day before yesterday. They have missiles just as big and just as fast as ours—maybe more so—and they are going to fire one at Atlantis tonight at exactly seven o’clock.”

“Tonight! Holy gods!” The man’s mind raced.

“Yes.” Kinnexa’s voice was low, uninflected. “And there was nothing in the world that I could do about it. If I approached any one of our places, or tried to use a beam strong enough to reach anywhere, I would simply have got picked up, too. I’ve thought and thought, but could figure out only one thing that might possibly be of any use, and I couldn’t do that alone. But two of us, perhaps….”

“Go on. Brief me. Nobody ever accused you of not having a brain, and you know this whole country like the palm of your hand.”

“Steal a ship. Be over the ramp at exactly Seven Pay Emma. When the lid opens, go into a full-power dive, beam Artomenes—if I had a second before they blanketed my wave—and meet their rocket head-on in their own launching-tube.”

This was stark stuff, but so tense was the moment and so highly keyed up were the two that neither of them saw anything out of the ordinary in it.

So, the intel-gathering mission has become something much more serious. I think it works better as an escalation from a fraught but relatively ordinary mission rather than from a preliminary to nuclear first strike.

“Not bad, if we can’t figure out anything better. The joker being, of course, that you didn’t see how you could steal a ship?”

“Exactly. I can’t carry blasters. No woman in Norheim is wearing a coat or a cloak now, so I can’t either. And just look at this dress! Do you see any place where I could hide even one?”

He looked, appreciatively, and she had the grace to blush.

The implication that a female agent would be impeded by revealing fashion is a good bit more realistic than the actual arguments made against female agents in, for example, both World Wars, which were a greatest hits medley of sexist fables. Those same sexist attitudes frequently gave (and indeed, give) women agents a significant edge in avoiding suspicion.

“Can’t say that I do,” he admitted. “But I’d rather have one of our own ships, if we could make the approach. Could both of us make it, do you suppose?”

“Not a chance. They’d keep at least one man inside all the time. Even if we killed everybody outside, the ship would take off before we could get close enough to open the port with the outside controls.”

“Probably. Go on. But first, are you sure that you’re in the clear?”

“Positive.” She grinned mirthlessly. “The fact that I am still alive is conclusive evidence that they didn’t find out anything about me. But I don’t want you to work on that idea if you can think of a better one. I’ve got passports and so on for you to be anything you want to be, from a tube-man up to an Ekoptian banker. Ditto for me, and for us both, as Mr. and Mrs.”

“Smart girl.” He thought for minutes, then shook his head. “No possible way out that I can see. The sneak-boat isn’t due for a week, and from what you’ve said it probably won’t get here. But you might make it, at that. I’ll drop you somewhere….”

“You will not,” she interrupted, quietly but definitely. “Which would you rather—go out in a blast like that one will be, beside a good Atlantean, or, after deserting him, be psychoed, skinned, salted, and—still alive—drawn and quartered?”

Casually talking about mass shooting, calmly choosing her death, Kinnexa gets all the good spy dialogue. ‘Fry’ seems pretty vanilla by comparison. Maybe that’s to make him easier for the reader to project upon? I don’t know, in the earlier books (that are later in the narrative), the author seems to make a real effort to make his characters distinct.

“Together, then, all the way,” he assented. “Man and wife. Tourists—newlyweds—from some town not too far away. Pretty well fixed, to match what we’re riding in. Can do?”

“Very simple.” She opened a compartment and selected one of a stack of documents. “I can fix this one up in ten minutes. We’ll have to dispose of the rest of these, and a lot of other stuff, too. And you had better get out of that leather and into a suit that matches this passport photo.”

“Right. Straight road for miles, and nothing in sight either way. Give me the suit and I’ll change now. Keep on going or stop?”

“Better stop, I think,” the girl decided. “Quicker, and we’ll have to find a place to hide or bury this evidence.”

While the man changed clothes, Kinnexa collected the contraband, wrapping it up in the discarded jacket. She looked up just as Phryges was adjusting his coat. She glanced at his armpits, then stared.

“Where are your blasters?” she demanded. “They ought to show, at least a little, and even I can’t see a sign of them.”

He showed her.

“But they’re so tiny! I never saw blasters like that!”

Kinnexa talks about guns like most girls talk about kittens.

“I’ve got a blaster, but it’s in the tail pocket. These aren’t. They’re air-guns. Poisoned needles. Not worth a damn beyond a hundred feet, but deadly close up. One touch anywhere and the guy dies right then. Two seconds max.”

“Nice!” She was no shrinking violet this young Atlantean spy. “You have spares, of course, and I can hide two of them easily enough in leg-holsters. Gimme, and show me how they work.”

“Standard controls, pretty much like blasters. Like so.” He demonstrated, and as he drove sedately down the highway the girl sewed industriously.

Almost fainting aside, I kind of love the juxtaposition of traditional femininity and hard-boiled spy activity that is Kinnexa. It’s not a lot of depth, but it’s enough that she feels authentic to me.

The day wore on, nor was it uneventful. One incident, in fact—the detailing of which would serve no useful purpose here—was of such a nature that at its end:

“Better pin-point me, don’t you think, on that ramp?” Phryges asked, quietly. “Just in case you get scragged in one of these brawls and I don’t?”

I think it’s a mistake to gloss over the action that hard. Action’s what we’re here for at this point, deliberately withholding all description is just stingy.

“Oh! Of course! Forgive me, Fry—it slipped my mind completely that you didn’t know where it was. Area six; pin-point four seven three dash six oh five.

“Got it.” He repeated the figures.

But neither of the Atlanteans was “scragged”, and at six P.M. an allegedly honeymooning couple parked their big roadster in the garage at Norgrad Field and went through the gates. Their papers, tickets included, were in perfect order; they were as inconspicuous and as undemonstrative as newlyweds are wont to be. No more so, and no less.

Strolling idly, gazing eagerly at each new thing, they made their circuitous way toward a certain small hangar. As the girl had said, this field boasted hundreds of super-sonic fighters, so many that servicing was a round-the-clock routine. In that hangar was a sharp-nosed, stubby-V’d flyer, one of Norheim’s fastest. It was serviced and ready.

It was too much to hope, of course, that the visitors could actually get into the building unchallenged. Nor did they.

“Back, you!” A guard waved them away. “Get back to the Concourse, where you belong—no visitors allowed out here!”

F-f-t! F-f-t! Phryges’ air-gun broke into soft but deadly coughing. Kinnexa whirled—hands flashing down, skirt flying up-and ran. Guards tried to head her off; tried to bring their own weapons to bear. Tried—failed—died.

It’s not explicit that Kinnexa is responsible for those kills, as opposed to Phryges picking them off to cover her, but given the range limitations of the air-guns and the implication that she drew her own weapons, I don’t think there’s any reasonable doubt that she’s fighting for herself.

Phryges, too, ran; ran backward. His blaster was out now and flaming, for no living enemy remained within needle range. A rifle bullet w-h-i-n-g-e-d past his head, making him duck involuntarily and uselessly. Rifles were bad; but their hazard, too, had been considered and had been accepted.

Huh. Ordinary bullet-firing rifles. They feel slightly out-of-place; blasters seemed to be set-up as the standard firearm. It seems like Norheim is still transitioning to personal energy weapons, or (since we don’t see them use any) haven’t gotten the power sources for them small enough yet. Transitional states can be a really good world-building tool, but this is a too nebulous to be effective.

Kinnexa reached the fighter’s port, opened it, sprang in. He jumped. She fell against him. He tossed her clear, slammed and dogged the door. He looked at her then, and swore bitterly. A small, round hole marred the bridge of her nose: the back of her head was gone.

Kinnexa gets a warrior’s death. It’s not particularly heroic, but she got the job done and was a fully-contributing member of the mission.

He leaped to the controls and the fleet little ship screamed skyward. He cut in transmitter and receiver, keyed and twiddled briefly. No soap. He had been afraid of that. They were already blanketing every frequency he could employ; using power through which he could not drive even a tight beam a hundred miles.

But he could still crash that missile in its tube. Or—could he? He was not afraid of other Norheiman fighters; he had a long lead and he rode one of their very fastest. But since they were already so suspicious, wouldn’t they launch the bomb before seven o’clock? He tried vainly to coax another knot out of his wide-open engines.

With all his speed, he neared the pin-point just in time to see a trail of super-heated vapor extending up into and disappearing beyond the stratosphere. He nosed his flyer upward, locked the missile into his sights, and leveled off. Although his ship did not have the giant rocket’s acceleration, he could catch it before it got to Atlantis, since he did not need its altitude and since most of its journey would be made without power. What he could do about it after he caught it he did not know, but he’d do something.

He caught it; and, by a feat of piloting to be appreciated only by those who have handled planes at super-sonic speeds, he matched its course and velocity. Then, from a distance of barely a hundred feet, he poured his heaviest shells into the missile’s war-head. He couldn’t be missing! It was worse than shooting sitting ducks—it was like dynamiting fish in a bucket! Nevertheless, nothing happened. The thing wasn’t fuzed for impact, then, but for time; and the activating mechanism would be shell-and shock-proof.

But there was still a way. He didn’t need to call Artomenes now, even if he could get through the interference which the fast-approaching pursuers were still sending out. Atlantean observers would have lined this stuff up long since; the Officer would know exactly what was going on.

Driving ahead and downward, at maximum power, Phryges swung his ship slowly into a right-angle collision course. The fighter’s needle nose struck the war-head within a foot of the Atlantean’s point of aim, and as he died Phryges knew that he had accomplished his mission. Norheim’s missile would not strike Atlantis, but would fall at least ten miles short, and the water there was very deep. Very, very deep. Atlantis would not be harmed.

There’s the real hero’s death. Kinnexa and Phryges gave their all in true action hero style, and stopped the missile. But we know it’s futile in the end, so…

It might have been better, however, if Phryges had died with Kinnexa on Norgrad Field; in which case the continent would probably have endured. As it was, while that one missile did not reach the city, its frightful atomic charge exploded under six hundred fathoms of water, ten scant miles from Atlantis’ harbor, and very close to an ancient geological fault.

There it is.

Artomenes, as Phryges had surmised, had had time in which to act, and he knew much more than Phryges did about what was coming toward Atlantis. Too late, he knew that not one missile, but seven, had been launched from Norheim, and at least five from Uighar. The retaliatory rockets which were to wipe out Norgrad, Uigharstoy, and thousands of square miles of environs were on their way long before either bomb or earthquake destroyed all of the Atlantean launching ramps.

And there’s the other shoe. The Norgrad-Uighar alliance’s first-strike only led to their own destruction from the Atlantean response, and presumably either the fallout or further infighting will doom the other nations as well.

But when equilibrium was at last restored, the ocean rolled serenely where a minor continent had been.

I like this. It builds up the opposition as genuinely threatening. This series has a fair number of defeats for the good guys, but most of them occur on the personal scale. Opening the story with a larger-scope loss (or two, or three) helps create a sense of risk that could carry through the rest of the story.

Join me next post for Chapter Three, and the next round of humanity being caught between other species’ differences.

Lensman: Mayanism and Modernization

Triplanetary 6 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! I mentioned in an earlier installment that I think this might be the very first example of a sci-fi take on Atlantis, so let’s see what that turns out to be.

3. — ATLANTIS

Ariponides, recently elected Faros of Atlantis for his third five-year term, stood at a window of his office atop the towering Farostery.

Faros is a Greek word (or close approximation thereof) meaning lighthouse or beacon, which I think is a cool title for an elected official; it is not linguistically related to the Egyptian title of Pharoah. Farostery seems to be an entirely original word, but I assume it’s a poetically lighthouse-like structure that serves as the Faros’ administrative headquarters. I also assume that the Faros is the head-of-state, as lesser civil servants don’t usually have towering buildings named for their title.

Plato’s Atlantis was ruled by a confederation of ten kings, so this is greatly deviant from the source material, and as far as I can tell is breaking new ground – that is, no previous interpretations of Atlantis put aside the rule of kings. I suspect this is representative of the ‘cultural pattern’ they have developed that is at odds with the Eddorian principles.

His hands were clasped loosely behind his back. He did not really see the tremendous expanse of quiet ocean, nor the bustling harbor, nor the metropolis spread out so magnificently and so busily beneath him.

Ariponides is getting his brood on, I see. Plato’s city of Atlantis did not have a harbor, instead being connected to the sea by a canal. This seems like a much more conventional arrangement.

(Experiment time! We haven’t had a description, but notice what sort of clothing you picture this guy wearing.)

He stood there, motionless, until a subtle vibration warned him that visitors were approaching his door.

I’ve always read this ‘subtle vibration’ as a technological alert system, but on closer inspection it could just be Ariponides feeling his visitors’ footsteps through the floor.

“Come in, gentlemen…. Please be seated.” He sat down at one end of a table molded of transparent plastic.

The aim here is obviously to modernize the Atlantean setting. We already know that this Atlantis is a nuclear power, but now we get to see that they have other modern technologies as well. Plastic (including transparent varieties) was around before the American Civil War, but it was really taking off in the 1940s.

“Psychologist Talmonides, Statesman Cleto, Minister Philamon, Minister Marxes and Officer Artomenes, I have asked you to come here personally because I have every reason to believe that the shielding of this room is proof against eavesdroppers; a thing which can no longer be said of our supposedly private television channels. We must discuss, and if possible come to some decision concerning, the state in which our nation now finds itself.

(Experiment follow-up: What sort of clothing do you picture the various Atlanteans wearing at this point, and how does it compare to your original vision?)

I think almost all councils in this series, official or impromptu, include a psychologist; it just seems to be a quirk of the setting. The shielded room and private television channels are more modern context. Broadcast television in the U.S. was properly established in 1941, and so was still only a handful of years old when this was being written.

“Each of us knows within himself exactly what he is. Of our own powers, we cannot surely know each others’ inward selves. 

This is some oddly philosophical talk for a state-of-the-nation meeting.

The tools and techniques of psychology, however, are potent and exact; and Talmonides, after exhaustive and rigorous examination of each one of us, has certified that no taint of disloyalty exists among us.”

In this respect, at least, the Atlanteans seem to be more advanced than the author’s day (and indeed our own). I don’t know what ‘tools and techniques’ Talmonides is supposedly using, but I suspect they’re related to the polygraph, whose prototype was bought by the FBI in 1939.

“Which certification is not worth a damn,” the burly Officer declared. “What assurance do we have that Talmonides himself is not one of the ringleaders?

Ah, so we have some sort of conspiracy that’s infiltrated the government. That contextualizes all the ‘inward selves’ and ‘loyalty’ talk.

Mind you, I have no reason to believe that he is not completely loyal. In fact, since he has been one of my best friends for over twenty years, I believe implicitly that he is.

Well, then we have the assurance of you as a character witness, don’t we?

Nevertheless the plain fact is, Ariponides, that all the precautions you have taken, and any you can take, are and will be useless insofar as definite knowledge is concerned. The real truth is and will remain unknown.”

This is an unusually florid way to say ‘we can be certain of nothing.’ I’m surprised that it is the military officer who is so concerned about philosophical absolute certainty, the job seems to call for a more pragmatic approach.

“You are right,” the Psychologist conceded. “And, such being the case, perhaps I should withdraw from the meeting.”

I don’t get the motivation for this gesture. If Talmonides is under sufficient suspicion to recuse himself, then (as Artomenes just pointed out) his certifications are worthless and everyone else is just as suspect.

“That wouldn’t help, either.” Artomenes shook his head. “Any competent plotter would be prepared for this, as for any other contingency. One of us others would be the real operator.”

Artomenes seems to attribute extraordinary abilities of foresight to ‘any competent plotter.’

“And the fact that our Officer is the one who is splitting hairs so finely could be taken to indicate which one of us the real operator could be,” Marxes pointed out, cuttingly.

From an in-fiction perspective, I agree with Marxes; Artomenes’ comments generate an air of paranoia and otherwise accomplish nothing. As a reader, I suspect that the air of paranoia is intended by the author, but handing all responsibility for it to a single character just colors that character.

“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Ariponides protested. “While absolute certainty is of course impossible to any finite mind, you all know how Talmonides was tested; you know that in his case there is no reasonable doubt.

The Faros cuts through the crap. Apparently there was the assurance of testing that leaves no reasonable doubt, which Artomenes knew of; I guess he dismissed it because his paranoiac tendencies demand philosophical certainty.

Such chance as exists, however, must be taken, for if we do not trust each other fully in this undertaking, failure is inevitable. With this word of warning I will get on with my report.

That’s some decent leadership-type talk.

“This worldwide frenzy of unrest followed closely upon the controlled liberation of atomic energy and may be—probably is—traceable to it.

Nuclear weapons are dramatic things, and despite strong anti-Japanese sentiment, the use of them against the Empire of Nippon created widespread unrest in our own history, so this is a reasonable assumption. We aren’t given any context for how nuclear weapons were introduced to these peoples’ geopolitics, so it’s not clear how justified a ‘frenzy’ might be.

It is in no part due to imperialistic aims or acts on the part of Atlantis. This fact cannot be stressed too strongly. We never have been and are not now interested in Empire.

These, and the four following sentences, appeal to me as a writer. At first glance they seem like clumsy exposition, as the Faros makes the Atlantean case to Atlantean officials who must know the facts already and need no persuasion. On the other hand, the Faros’ position probably requires him to give frequent speeches, so maybe he just unconsciously slides into oratory mode every so often, at which point it’s characterization that also justifies exposition, which is a neat little technique.

It is true that the other nations began as Atlantean colonies, but no attempt was ever made to hold any one of them in colonial status against the wish of its electorate.

This sentence is such an appeal to American identity that at this point I’m convinced that we’re supposed to read Atlantis as a close analogue for the contemporary-at-the-time late-1940s USA. I will also say that even if the sentiment isn’t actually sincere, simply expressing it as an ideal makes the Atlanteans the best people we’ve seen in the story so far.

All nations were and are sister states. We gain or lose together. Atlantis, the parent, was and is a clearing-house, a co-ordinator of effort, but has never claimed or sought authority to rule; all decisions being based upon free debate and free and secret ballot.

This is the sort of thing that sounds good, especially to Americans in 1948, but is also romantic and naive. I think it’s meant to be taken by the reader at simple face value, which is fine, but I think it gets more interesting if it’s read with a skeptical and cynical eye.

If Atlantis is meant to be a close analogue for the late-1940s USA, then it’s an analogue for a country that had a history of talking a good deal about freedom while also continually engaging in empire-building, both explicit and implicit. Debates and ballots both are vulnerable to corruption, intimidation, and propaganda, and Atlantis could be using non-military force to push its foreign policy upon other nations while using the non-military nature of that force as deniability. That wouldn’t necessarily make them bad, or even not good (international politics being what they are, some moral compromise is only realistic), but it would mean that Atlantis is not a cartoon of virtue, nor its colonies cartoons of suspicion.

“But now! Parties and factions everywhere, even in old Atlantis. Every nation is torn by internal dissensions and strife.

It sounds a little like this is implying that parties and factions are not the usual condition, which is weird because one-party states don’t have a great rep, but whether it’s notable that they exist or just that there’s more than usual, it seems they’ve gotten out of hand.

Nor is this all. Uighar as a nation is insensately jealous of the Islands of the South, who in turn are jealous of Maya. Maya of Bantu, Bantu of Ekopt, Ekopt of Norheim, and Norheim of Uighar.

Uighar seems to be a reference to the Uyghurs, a group with ancient roots in northern China and Mongolia. Maya is a reference to the Mayans of South America. Bantu is a reference to the African language group and associated peoples. Ekopt seems to be a portmanteau of Egypt and also the Copts. Norheim is the name of a few places (in Norway and Germany) and generally implies a north Germanic situation. The Islands of the South is a less obvious reference, but at a guess it refers to Australasia. So the Atlantean diaspora is a global-scope international community.

The idea that Atlantis is the original source of the human species, with all ancient civilizations being Atlantean colonies, is part of the Atlantean myth popularized by Ignatius Donnelly, but he didn’t originate the idea. It’s drawn from a centuries-old racist pseudohistorical movement called Mayanism, which attributes the achievements of the Mayans (and other ancient civilizations) to an advanced Atlantean precursor nation, or extraterrestrials, either being apparently more plausible than dark-skinned people having architectural skills.

I don’t know if this perpetuation of a racist trope is deliberate or thoughtless on the part of the author, but I do know that it’s unnecessary. This Atlantis already deviates from the popular Donnelly version of Atlantis in technological advancement, democratic principles, and apparently geography, so it’s not like the author was shackled to an established version for authenticity. It’s also never plot-relevant that the other nations be Atlantean colonies and not just other nations lost to time.

A vicious circle, worsened by other jealousies and hatreds intercrossing everywhere. Each fears that some other is about to try to seize control of the entire world; and there seems to be spreading rapidly the utterly baseless belief that Atlantis itself is about to reduce all other nations of Earth to vassalage.

It’s never explicitly stated that this is what Gharlane is up to, but I don’t think there’s any doubt. It’s pretty clever as dastardly plans go. The development of atomic power was mentioned as a turning point in Arisian history, but the first step to atomic power is nuclear weapons, which creates both a means to collapse a planet’s development and also a political instability. Gharlane seems to have simply bolstered the natural nuclear paranoia and let human nature take its course.

“This is a bald statement of the present condition of the world as I see it. Since I can see no other course possible within the constituted framework of our democratic government, I recommend that we continue our present activities, such as the international treaties and agreements upon which we are now at work, intensifying our effort wherever possible.

There’s a nice example of real principle: Ariponides isn’t willing to pursue courses outside the framework of his democratic government, even if he might see them. It’s not clear what it is that he’s not proposing, but his commitment is clear enough.

We will now hear from Statesman Cleto.”

“You have outlined the situation clearly enough, Faros. My thought, however, is that the principal cause of the trouble is the coming into being of this multiplicity of political parties, particularly those composed principally of crackpots and extremists.

‘This multiplicity of’ is importantly distinct from ‘multiple,’ so I think my earlier concern about the text condemning the mere existence of multiple parties was unfounded.

The connection with atomic energy is clear: since the atomic bomb gives a small group of people the power to destroy the world, they reason that it thereby confers upon them the authority to dictate to the world.

This seems a bit tenuous. I don’t really buy that there are that many people who would be willing to hold the world hostage, especially when following through on that threat destroys themselves as well. That would require a degree of cultural nihilism that just isn’t established. I think a far more plausible connection would be that since whoever controls the government now has the power to destroy the world, there are a lot more people interested in being the government, if only to keep that power out of other peoples’ hands.

My recommendation is merely a special case of yours; that every effort be made to influence the electorates of Norheim and of Uighar into supporting an effective international control of atomic energy.”

Note that the nations of concern correspond to Germany and (probably) China. At a guess, Russia didn’t get an analogue because it didn’t have a famous ancient culture. It’s a little weird that China gets villainized here, because the most recent relation they’d had with the USA in 1948 was ally against the Japanese, and because the country didn’t properly go communist until late 1949. Maybe as the pan-Asian representatives, they’re standing in for Japan, and this reflects lingering postwar anti-Japanese sentiment?

“You have your data tabulated in symbolics?” asked Talmonides, from his seat at the keyboard of a calculating machine.

“Yes. Here they are.”

“Thanks.”

A calculating machine is a mechanical (as opposed to electronic) calculator, and were apparently what passed for a desktop computer from the 1900s to the 1960s.

“Minister Philamon,” the Faros announced.

“As I see it—as any intelligent man should be able to see it—the principal contribution of atomic energy to this worldwide chaos was the complete demoralization of labor,” the gray-haired Minister of Trade stated, flatly.

Huh, this makes it sound like the Atlanteans have made it to nuclear power plants, not just weapons, since I don’t know how nuclear weapons would especially demoralize labor. That would put the Atlanteans as not 1940s America, but 1940s America twenty minutes into the future, seeing that nuclear power plants didn’t become practical until the early 50s.

“Output per man-hour should have gone up at least twenty percent, in which case prices would automatically have come down. Instead, short-sighted guilds imposed drastic curbs on production, and now seem to be surprised that as production falls and hourly wages rise, prices also rise and real income drops.

Yes, that’s definitely nuclear power that Philamon is talking about; nuclear weapons don’t improve ‘output per man-hour,’ but more abundant electricity… might? So I guess it’s a double-threat: nuclear weapons causing political strife, and nuclear power causing economic turbulence.

I don’t know enough to really comment on the econo-speak and whether it’s at all plausible.

Only one course is possible, gentlemen; labor must be made to listen to reason. This feather-bedding, this protected loafing, this….”

“I protest!” Marxes, Minister of Work, leaped to his feet. “The blame lies squarely with the capitalists. Their greed, their rapacity, their exploitation of….”

Marxes is revealed as a Karl Marx reference.

“One moment, please!” Ariponides rapped the table sharply. “It is highly significant of the deplorable condition of the times that two Ministers of State should speak as you two have just spoken.

Given their titles, it seemed very likely to me that this bickering was simply an older argument intruding into the affair of the moment, but it’s supposed to be a reflection of the general turbulence of the time.

I take it that neither of you has anything new to contribute to this symposium?”

Both claimed the floor, but both were refused it by vote.

It seems harsh that after being asked a question the two Ministers are then denied the opportunity to answer it, but at least it’s democratically harsh.

“Hand your tabulated data to Talmonides,” the Faros directed. “Officer Artomenes?”

“You, our Faros, have more than intimated that our defense program, for which I am primarily responsible, has been largely to blame for what has happened,” the grizzled warrior began.

The only defense program that’s been mentioned here is the simple existence of nuclear weapons (of which nuclear power is a natural development), so is Artomenes supposed to be a stand in for General Groves, the military administrator of the Manhattan Project? I guess there’s a read where this more-than-intimation happened off-screen in a previous conversation, but that would be extremely awkward writing.

“In part, perhaps it was—one must be blind indeed not to see the connection, and biased indeed not to admit it. But what should I have done, knowing that there is no practical defense against the atomic bomb?

Okay, for Artomenes and his defense program to be ‘to blame’ for the situation triggered by nuclear technology, they have to have been the ones to develop the first nuclear technology. To have developed the first nuclear technology out of concern for defense from nuclear technology implies a nuclear race – the principles were out there, other people were also seeking to develop them, and in lieu of a ‘practical’ defense, they needed first-strike advantage (in the short run) and a deterrent (in the long run). So far, so like our own history.

Every nation has them, and is manufacturing more and more.

Here’s a deviation. At the time this work was published, the USA was still the only nuclear power in the world, the USSR not detonating their first bomb until 1949. Apparently part of their twenty-minutes-into-the-future includes the fulfillment of nuclear proliferation anxieties.

Every nation is infested with the agents of every other. Should I have tried to keep Atlantis toothless in a world bristling with fangs? And could I—or anyone else—have succeeded in doing so?”

This reads to me like Artomenes has a guilt complex about his part in creating the nuclear state of affairs. I’m sure there’s a psych term for his desperate casting about for alternatives he didn’t take. In fact, Artomenes comes off as pretty unstable throughout this scene. First he’s paranoid, then he’s guilty, and later on…

“Probably not. No criticism was intended; we must deal with the situation as it actually exists. Your recommendations, please?”

The Faros practices some more good leadership. He briefly addresses Artomenes’ point to let him know he’s been heard, but redirects the conversation back to immediate practical matters.

“I have thought this thing over day and night, and can see no solution which can be made acceptable to our—or to any real—democracy. Nevertheless, I have one recommendation to make. 

Unlike the Faros, Artomenes is willing to propose a course which is against the principles of their society.

We all know that Norheim and Uighar are the sore spots—particularly Norheim. We have more bombs as of now than both of them together.

This doesn’t sound like it’s going anywhere good.

We know that Uighar’s super-sonic jobs are ready.

The first manned supersonic flight took place in 1947, so this is another reference to a recent-to-1948 tech development. It’s not clear if Uighar’s ‘jobs’ are bombers or missiles, though.

We don’t know exactly what Norheim has, since they cut my Intelligence line a while back, but I’m sending over another operative—my best man, too—tonight. If he finds out that we have enough advantage in speed, and I’m pretty sure that we have, I say hit both Norheim and Uighar right then, while we can, before they hit us. And hit them hard—pulverize them.

There it is: Artomenes is proposing a nuclear first-strike strategy.

Then set up a world government strong enough to knock out any nation—including Atlantis—that will not cooperate with it.

As a follow-up, he proposes a mind-boggling feat of politics: just the unification of the world, after making a pariah nation out of Atlantis.

This course of action is flagrantly against all international law and all the principles of democracy, I know; and even it might not work. It is, however, as far as I can see, the only course which can work.”

It is a particularly military perspective, especially in states of total war, that sometimes there are no acceptable courses of action, so you must choose from the monstrous courses of action available. In some respects, this is the same position that the Eddorians put the Arisians in; except of course that the Arisians never acknowledge the unacceptability of their actions.

“You—we all—perceive its weaknesses.” The Faros thought for minutes. “You cannot be sure that your Intelligence has located all of the danger points, and many of them must be so far underground as to be safe from even our heaviest missiles.

Hidden and/or protected launch sites are second-strike nuclear strategy, allowing a nation that does not get first strike to retaliate. I was surprised to see such a well-developed sense of nuclear strategy in a book published before the Soviets had the bomb, but apparently gaming out nuclear conflict scenarios began well before even the Manhattan project produced results, and that made its way into fiction.

We all, including you, believe that the Psychologist is right in holding that the reaction of the other nations to such action would be both unfavorable and violent.

Well, obviously! As far as I can see, the closest Artomenes’ plan could come to working is that after Atlantis pulverizes Uighar and Norheim, and is pulverized itself either by its targets’ second-strike or by the other nations, the remaining nations might be so aghast at what’s happened that they’d be driven to a diplomatic solution. Even that’s an optimistic scenario.

Your report, please, Talmonides.”

“I have already put my data into the integrator.” The Psychologist punched a button and the mechanism began to whir and to click.

This is interesting, because it supposes an extraordinary advance in computing powers in the ‘twenty minutes’ Atlantis is ahead of the 1948 USA. I don’t think any mechanical calculator could perform a function more advanced than calculating a square root, so dealing with the kind of sophisticated data described here would be far beyond them. Pre-transistor predictions about the future of computing are infamous for underestimating how far and fast the field would advance, and this series will provide us with at least one spectacular example of that; but this is closer than a lot of people got: it’s much more powerful than machines of the time when it was written, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly enormous.

“I have only one new fact of any importance; the name of one of the higher-ups and its corollary implication that there may be some degree of cooperation between Norheim and Uighar….”

This is actually strange, because in the circle of international hate set up above, Norheim was listed as being ‘insensately jealous’ of Uighar, which makes their cooperation seem unlikely.

He broke off as the machine stopped clicking and ejected its report.

“Look at that graph—up ten points in seven days!” Talmonides pointed a finger. “The situation is deteriorating faster and faster. The conclusion is unavoidable—you can see yourselves that this summation line is fast approaching unity—that the outbreaks will become uncontrollable in approximately eight days.

There was a mechanical calculator called the Ordonnateur Statistique, created in the mid-1800s, that was somehow supposed to summarize social statistical correlations, but I know nothing else about it. At a guess, that machine is intended as the ancestor of this fictional one.

With one slight exception—here—you will notice that the lines of organization and purpose are as random as ever. In spite of this conclusive integration I would be tempted to believe that this seeming lack of coherence was due to insufficient data—that back of this whole movement there is a carefully-set-up and completely-integrated plan—except for the fact that the factions and the nations are so evenly matched.

Talmonides has intuited Gharlane’s influence, but cannot seem to conceive of a nihilist and non-national actor, the now-stereotypical Nolan-Joker sort. That’s not really believable, given how one of their problems is a multitude of fringe political movements, but perhaps Talmonides has thought of the possibility and rejected it without mention; maybe the resources to covertly carry out such a plan simply aren’t available to any of the local crackpots.

But the data are sufficient. It is shown conclusively that no one of the other nations can possibly win, even by totally destroying Atlantis. They would merely destroy each other and our entire Civilization. According to this forecast, in arriving at which the data furnished by our Officer were prime determinants, that will surely be the outcome unless remedial measures be taken at once.

This raises the question of why the other nations don’t seem to know this. Why would they aggress if it could be ‘shown conclusively’ that they could not possibly win? Are their calculators not as good as Atlantis’, or are they being written as unreasoningly aggressive?

You are of course sure of your facts, Artomenes?”

“I am sure. But you said you had a name, and that it indicated a Norheim-Uighar hookup. What is that name?”

“An old friend of yours….”

“Lo Sung!” The words as spoken were a curse of fury.

Lo Sung is a reasonable approximation of a Chinese name (and not of a Japanese name), which suggests that Uighar is meant to be more of an analogue for China than Japan.

“None other. And, unfortunately, there is as yet no course of action indicated which is at all promising of success.”

“Use mine, then!” Artomenes jumped up and banged the table with his fist. “Let me send two flights of rockets over right now that will blow Uigharstoy and Norgrad into radioactive dust and make a thousand square miles around each of them uninhabitable for ten thousand years! If that’s the only way they can learn anything, let them learn!”

Man, that ‘curse of fury’ description was not underselling it. I don’t know the background, but Lo Sung’s name makes Artomenes so angry that he becomes even more irrational than he was.

Also, ‘Norgrad’ is obviously intended to sound like a Russian city name, like Kaliningrad or Volgograd. I’m not aware of any cities that end in -stoy, but I guess that suffix is meant to recall Tolstoy, a famous Russian name. I think this is meant to hammer home that the two nations are also standing in for a nuclear USSR, but it’s a pretty confused analogous space at this point.

“Sit down, Officer,” Ariponides directed, quietly. “That course, as you have already pointed out, is indefensible. It violates every Prime Basic of our Civilization. Moreover, it would be entirely futile, since this resultant makes it clear that every nation on Earth would be destroyed within the day.”

When speaking for himself Ariponides stopped with the moral argument, but he includes a practical element when speaking to someone who is willing to go beyond the moral arguments.

“What, then?” Artomenes demanded, bitterly. “Sit still here and let them annihilate us?”

Artomenes has been all over the place in this scene, and now he’s moved on to childish. It’s kind of bizarre, because it seems like he’s behaving in a way that displays a manifest unfitness for his responsibilities, but neither the text nor the other characters ever comment on it.

“Not necessarily. It is to formulate plans that we are here. Talmonides will by now have decided, upon the basis of our pooled knowledge, what must be done.”

“The outlook is not good: not good at all,” the Psychologist announced, gloomily. “The only course of action which carries any promise whatever of success—and its probability is only point one eight—is the one recommended by the Faros, modified slightly to include Artomenes’ suggestion of sending his best operative on the indicated mission.

What mission is this? The only recommendation Ariponides has made is  the continuation of ‘our present activities, such as the international treaties and agreements upon which we are now at work.’ The only mission that’s been mentioned was part of Artomenes’ rejected first-strike plan.

For highest morale, by the way, the Faros should also interview this agent before he sets out. Ordinarily I would not advocate a course of action having so little likelihood of success; but since it is simply a continuation and intensification of what we are already doing, I do not see how we can adopt any other.”

This foreshadows the grimness to come. The high officials are out of options and are simply doing their utmost with the course that is left to them, and although that sort of situation is usually the set-up for a heroic success, we know that Atlantis is doomed, that even their best efforts are simply not enough. That’s decent pathos, and also the demonstration of the effectiveness of one Eddorian against a whole world of a younger species.

“Are we agreed?” Ariponides asked, after a short silence.

They were agreed.

Join me next post for the last of this chapter, where after three sessions of set-up, we get some genuine action as pay-off.