In this latest addition to the British Library SciFi Classics series, Mike Ashley takes us on a tour of our little neighborhood in the Milky Way. 😃 He has selected stories set in the planets orbiting the Sun (including Pluto despite its “dwarf planet status”), along with the asteroid belt. Even though in these stories the science is mostly outdated, they are all accompanied by insightful introductions where Mike writes not only about how each planet got its name, but also how our understanding of our neighboring planets evolved with time.
The Hell Planet (1932) by Leslie F. Stone is one of my favorites in this anthology, despite being set in the hypothetical planet Vulcan. In the mid 19th century, French astronomer Le Verrier sought to explain the perturbations in Mercury’s orbit by raising the possibility of an inner-planet much closer to the Sun, which he named Vulcan. Although its existence had been entirely dismissed by 1909 with the advent of astrophotography, Vulcan continued to remain in the imagination of SciFi writers. So in Leslie F. Stone’s tale, Vulcan is depicted as a beautiful planet brimming with intelligent life. It also has cosmicite, a precious rare element in abundance, so in theory, Vulcan should be paradise to humans. But alas, its soil, water, and fruits are all poisonous to earthlings because of Sun’s radiation. So to get the Vulcanites to reveal their cosmicite mines (Vulcanites have offered some cosmicite to humans, but predictably, humans want it all!), the humans pretend to be Gods, hiding their failings. The result of it is a fantastic tale exploring humanity’s greed!
Garden in the Void (1952) by Poul Anderson, a story set in the Asteroid Belt, is another memorable tale. In it, Hardesty, a human, and Marian, a Martian, are a couple of newlyweds. They are cruising past the Asteroid Belt on Hardesty’s ship when they come across a green asteroid. Upon landing, they realize its green patches are plants, and they meet its gardener, Gronauer, a German spaceman who had crash-landed there over two decades ago. To survive, Gronauer has had to observe the symbiosis of the asteroid’s native plants and learn from it. Even though the plants had tried to poison the intruder and kill him at first, Gronauer had proved his worth by digging up and providing minerals to the plants etc. Now, Gronauer is very much a part of the garden’s ecosystem. So to what extent would he go to ensure the garden will be taken care of after his demise?
The penultimate story in this anthology, set in the farthest-known planet, is A Baby on Neptune (1929) by Clare Winger Harris and Miles. This story is special because Clare was one of the first female writers to get published in a SciFi magazine. In A Baby on Neptune, which is set in the 24th century, humans have established contact with Mars, Venus, four of Jupiter’s Moons and one of Saturn’s. These intelligent life forms seem friendly, and humans are the first to figure out the mechanisms for interplanetary voyage. Human’s first visit is to Venus, and it’s a journey that goes without a hitch except for the off-putting physical attributes of Venusians (they are giant worms!!!). This latest finding makes humans wonder of the possibility of the existence of intelligent life in Neptune. They have received signals from Neptune for a while, although they haven’t been able to decipher the messages. But once they figure out there’s a long lag in receiving the signals, they decode the messages from Elzar, a physicist of Neptune, inviting humans over for a visit. When humans make the voyage to Neptune, all they see is an uninhabited world, with conditions in which no life form could exist. Confused by their findings, the humans return to Earth, where they realize the only possible explanation is that Neptunians are gaseous bodies. Sure enough, this turns out to be the case when they make a second trip. By looking through an infrared viewing box, they see Neptunians with opalescent bodies that look like Jellyfish. All their gaseous surroundings and vegetation make a breathtakingly beautiful sight. And before the end of this trip, the earthlings get to perform a heroic act that earns them the gratitude of Neptunians! A lovely story. 🥰
While there were a few stories that missed the mark, I enjoyed most stories in this collection. I’d recommend Born of the Sun to readers who are curious to learn about the evolution in our understanding of our celestial neighbors.
Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of Born of the Sun: Adventures in Our Solar System.