Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vintage Voyages: Mercurian Memories

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NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) space probe began orbiting Mercury last week, a first that makes a good inspiration for a first post.

"Goblins in the Library" is a blogging experiment, and a chance to talk about some of my favorite things -- science fiction, fantasy, children's books, libraries, games, and maybe other stuff too. "Vintage Voyages" will be one of the repeating themes, a look at science fiction of earlier decades.

Back in the 1970s, when I first got into reading science fiction, MESSENGER's predecessors were giving us wonderful information about the true nature of the solar system. But the pictures from the Mariners and other probes had the bittersweet effect of drawing the curtain on the pulp era of solar system stories, those days of swamps on Venus, canals on Mars, and a Mercury that was tidally locked and always aiming one face at the sun, and the other at the darkness.

In some ways the tidally locked Mercury was the strangest of those worlds, because many depictions imagined a thin livable zone of twilight between hemispheres of blazing heat and freezing dark. Leigh Brackett's space hero Eric John Stark grew up on this version of Mercury, toughened by the presumed harshness of this barely habitable strip -- as did Captain John MacShard, the hero of Michael Moorcock's more recent wild homage to planetary romance, "The Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel" -- "He remained as fierce and free as in the days when, as a boy, he had scrabbled for survival over the unforgiving waste of rocky crags and slag slopes that was Mercury and from the disparate blood of two planets had built a body which could withstand the cruel climate of a third."

I've never read the stories about Stark, or about his peer, C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith, but some of my first science fiction reading was about a spiritual descendent of theirs. The astonishingly prolific Isaac Asimov wrote a series of "juveniles" about Lucky Starr, Space Ranger, set in the usual inhabited solar system, but with somewhat more science than the pulp-style adventures they honored. In Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, there's a twilight zone, though it's not habitable, and it's the site of an energy-tapping experiment. Enemies of the Solar System are out to sabotage the project, in an adventure involving an abandoned mine, rock creatures, and a deranged robot. It's got adventure, action, and the Three Laws of Robotics. I don't remember much about the plot now, but I remember enjoying the vision of the blazing dayside and the frozen nightside, and I remember wanting to be as clever a kid as Starr.

By contrast, when Clark Ashton Smith wrote an earlier Mercury story, he made his twilight band more habitable. But in a monster-filled Smithian universe you're probably safer on a lifeless world anyway. In "The Immortals of Mercury" the hero leaves the comparative safety of the twilight band, narrowly escapes burning on the bright side, suffers an underground journey in alien-occupied catacombs, and emerges to freedom -- on the deadly dark side.

As sort of a coda to the idea of a tidally-locked Mercury, Larry Niven set his first published story "The Coldest Place" on the supposed night-side, coyly keeping the actual locale of "the coldest place in the solar system" a secret until the very end. I originally assumed the setting was Pluto, which was then believed to be the outermost world -- as was no doubt the intent.

Niven was almost too late out the door with "The Coldest Place," which according to Wikipedia was published shortly after astronomers concluded Mercury wasn't tidally locked after all. Since then Mercury has been a less romantic place in fiction, though still a possible site for adventures. Stephen Baxter's noted story "Cilia-of-Gold" is set on Mercury. Ben Bova set a recent novel there as well.

But Mercury seems less of interest to science fiction writers than in pulpier days, perhaps because of all the wonders revealed further out in our Solar System -- ice-moons with possible hidden seas, a world of methane lakes, and a Mars that, while barren, looks a smidgen more hospitable now than it did after the first wave of probes.

But I suspect MESSENGER will draw a few more writers back to the first planet. Every time there's a close look at a place in the solar system, new surprises emerge. Mercury has some startling properties -- a strong magnetic field, a long "tail" of particles, and the possible presence of ice in permanently shadowed craters. No doubt there will be many more surprises to draw paper explorers back to the innermost planet.

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