2006-05-19 06:36:54 UTC
"Out Around Rigel" by Robert H. Wilson (c. around 1930)
On the ancient Moon, at a time when Luna was habitable and Terra a
primordial cloud-shrouded planet (1), there is a high civilization.
The narrator, Dunal, and his best friend Garth, dwell in "Nardos the
Beautiful, the City Built on the Water," the water in question being
that of the Oceanus Procellarum near the Grimaldi Plateau (2). They
are both in love with Kelvar, who is Dunal's betrothed.
This is a rather Barsoomian sort of high culture: they have spaceships
and can build a "ten mile long adamantine bridge" to connect Nardos
to the mainland, but they fight honor duels with razor-sharp two-handed
swords. We don't know much about Dunal and Garth's background,
save that they were schoolboys together and that they are really good
swordsmen; however they have "aristocratic" attitudes and are both
well-educated and probably wealthy, so we may assume that they are from
their society's upper classes.
Garth has been given command of the Comet, the most advanced spaceship
ever built. The Comet is built of "shining helio-beryllium", is a
cylinder whose main element is 20' long by 15' wide, with 5' long
pointed extensions bow and stern, and four fins that hold its main
engines. Power is provided by the disintegration of mercury (3). The
main drive is an electromagnetic warp system that is capable of
flinging the ship at an estimated speed of 4000 C.
Garth wants Dunal along with him on the first flight of the Comet, a
voyage to Rigel (4), which Garth figures should take about six months
round trip. Dunal signs on. The two will be the ship's only crew.
The Comet flies to Rigel, where they discover a planet smaller and
denser than Luna, with a flourine atmosphere. They land on the planet.
Garth theorizes that any life forms would have to be silicon-based.
They step out onto the surface of the planet, protected by the
helio-beryllium paint on their spacesuits, and admire the weird alien
beauty of the place.
Garth then reveals his real reason for bringing Dunal on this
expedition. He will fight Dunal with the aforementioned Lunarian
dueling swords. Even a slight cut will mean death, because of the
ferociously poisonous atmosphere. The winner will survive to marry
They duel. Dunal cannot bring himself to slay his friend, and passes
up many openings. But Garth is fighting to win. Suddenly, Dunal sees
tentacles rise from the sand and slither towards Garth. Dunal tries to
warn Garth, but his friend strikes Dunal across the faceplate, which
does not break, but the force of the blow knocks Dunal to the ground
A horde of alien beasts surface. The two men, once again allies, fight
their way towards the Comet, shattering the glassy-bodied creatures
with their dueling swords. Recovering his honor, Garth boosts Dunal
into the ship and slams the hatch, remaining outside to fight until he
is overwhelmed by the silicon beasts.
Saddened, Dunal returns home to the Solar System. But when he lands on
Luna, he discovers to his horror that a thousand years have passed back
home (6): there has apparently been a cataclysmic meteor shower and
his homeworld's atmosphere and oceans have been flung into space.
After a month of hopeless waiting, he writes an account of his
adventures, seals it into a helio-beryllium box, and lies down to die,
knowing that all he has loved, including his betrothed and his best
friend, is now dust.
A footnote to the story explains that it is a translation of the
account that Dunal sealed in the box, which was found by an expedition
launched from the Earth to the Moon at some unspecified time.
This is a reasonably exciting and well-written story; it's obvious
why Damon Knight chose it for the anthology. Dunal, Garth and Kelvar
are sparsely characterized but do have distinct personalities, and the
first time I read this story I was struck by the inherent tragedy: not
only did Dunal and Garth unwittingly leave Kelvar behind forever, but
their duel was completely pointless - 500 years had already passed
back home at that point.
On the other hand, I do have to worry about the lack of common sense
shown by their whole culture. It's explicitly stated that they ARE
aware of the speed of light as a limiting factor; they simply assume
that the electromagnetic warp drive gets around this limit. They have
apparently never tested the drive! Even if we assume that the Lunarian
civilization has the same lack of automation as most 1930's SF-nal
cultures, one would THINK that they could have taken the ship on a
short hop and see what happened. The drive is explicitly stated to be
capable of insystem use - Dunal and Garth use it in this manner in
both the Solarian and Rigellian systems. This lapse is mystifying.
However, it doesn't kill the story for me. It's fairly obvious, as
I mentioned, that the Lunarian culture is full of the same sort of
aristocratic, honor-bound recklessness that characterizes ERB's
Barsoom, so perhaps the Lunarians believe that a mere test-flight is
unworthy of the pilot's courage, or something like that.
Slightly less understandable is why the first flight is to be a 1000-LY
round trip, rather than one of only 10-20 LY (there are right now many
interesting stars within 10 LY of the Sun). This I can also handwave
away - perhaps there is something especially interesting about Rigel,
and after all Garth thinks that the voyage will only be a half-year
Of course, both these assumptions are necessary to make the tragedy
work. If the Lunarians test the drive, the flaw becomes obvious. If
Garth makes a short hop to a neighboring star, then only about a decade
or two pass on Luna - given the idealistic nature of the Lunarians,
maybe Kelvar even waits for Dunal. And then it's very unlikely that
much would have changed back at home.
This may be an "idiot plot" - I'd call it more of an "idiot
culture plot." But then the same is true for the Barsoom stories,
and I love those.
For a story written around 1930 to get relativistic physics even
remotely right was good science. I do not know if this is the FIRST
story ever written in which time dilation played a key role, but it is
certainly ONE of the first stories about which this can be said. Given
popular conceptions of the Universe c. 1930, it may not be surprising
that the Lunarians weren't certain what would happen - especially
given the warp drive.
Wilson also gets gravity right - he's aware that it is essentially
a bending of the fabric of spacetime. This is a very good
understanding of the nature of the Universe by c. 1930 sf-nal
Flourine-breathing silicon-based life is actually possible, though
improbable. Wilson may have been the first science fiction writers to
grasp the connection between flourine breathing and silicon as a basis
for life chemistry (fluorocarbon biochemistry is less probable than
flourosilicon biochemistry, though neither is particularly likely).
It does seem likely that Luna passed through an early stage in which it
had a significant atmosphere and probably hydrosphere as well. It is
NOT likely that Luna developed complex life (though prokaryotic life
can't be ruled out), let alone sapient life, in the few hundred
million years before said atmosphere dissipated, but it is of course
possible. Williamson used the same premise even more famously in
"The Moon Era."
"Meteors" and storms of "meteors," including those powerful
enough to devastate whole worlds, were indeed more common in the early
history of the Solar System than they are today. We now know that Luna
itself was created by a Mars-sized impactor striking the Earth; it is
POSSIBLE (though unlikely) that Luna later might have lost its
atmosphere rapidly as the result of a major impact.
Mercury is not a natural fissionable. As I mentioned, this is probably
not something that Wilson COULD have known around 1930. I would
handwave this away by proposing that the Lunarians knew something we
don't about nuclear physics, but it is rather odd that they would
have discovered this but NOT ascertained the truth of time dilation.
It is rather obviously impossible to make "helio-beryllium alloy,"
at least using any chemical processes we know. Helium is a noble gas;
it doesn't bond with anything. Now, some noble gases have been
forced into combination with flourine, so maybe the Lunarians also knew
something about chemistry that we haven't discovered yet. Maybe.
Actually, this alloy was rather interesting, it was the "light
inactive alloy of a metal and a gas," and if it were real there would
be all sorts of good aerospace and industrial applications for it.
Given some sort of bizarre femtotech, it might even become possible.
But that's science at a level "indistinguishable from magic," of
SEMINAL WEIRD SCIENCE
Did you notice that the Comet had a warp drive? Actually Wilson
doesn't CALL it a "warp drive," he says simply that it "bends
space," but essentially that's what a modern sf-nal warp drive
does. We don't yet know whether warp drives are in general good
science, but he's got the basic idea, and very early on. Though, of
course, the whole point of his story is that his warp drive is STL.
Wilson makes the assumption that Rigel is roughly where it is today.
But the story is set a long time ago - at least half a billion years
by my guess, and certainly many millions of years by any guess. Over
mere tens of millions of years, the set of "near stars" drastically
changes. The story would have made more sense if Wilson had simply
picked a random, made-up star name!
This was an interesting, exciting story by the standards of its day,
and it had considerable influence on later science fiction. The
fictional alien culture itself was partially inspired by Edgar Rice
Burroughs' Barsoom novels, which is not surprising as ERB was one of
the field's most highly regarded authors around 1930. The level of
scientific plausibility was actually very high for its era.
(1) The exact time is never stated. By early 1930's planetology, we
would guess at least half a billion years ago; by modern planetology,
we would guess more like four billion years ago.
(2) Wilson uses the modern selenological terminology. Presumably
Dunal's race had their own terms for these features. I do not recall
whether or not the "Oceanus" Procellarum is in reality a highland
or a depression; in the story it is obviously a water-filled
(3) This of course is impossible. I don't think that Wilson had any
way of knowing this, however, given the primitive state of nuclear
physics c. 1930.
(4) "Estimated" is the word for it. As story events show, no
Lunarians have yet actually traveled or projected any object at FTL
speeds. It says something about both the courage and the recklessness
of Dunal's civilization that they plan to make their first test of
this drive with a 1000-LY interstellar voyage conducted by a manned
(5) Note that Dunal has not only behaved nobly all through this fight,
but has actually demonstrated superior prowess at every point. This
sort of overkill of heroism was standard for stories of this era, and
this is why I described the fight in detail.
(6) Because the Comet's drive isn't really FTL, it's only NAFAL,
and due to time-dilation what seemed like six months from the POV of
Dunal was actually a thousand years from the POV of Luna. Wilson gets
some of the relativistic reasoning slightly wrong, but he comes to the
(7) Am I the only one to wonder if the creator of SAILOR MOON ever read
this story, given the location, the aristocratic honor-based culture,
and the strong romantic theme?