RogerBW's Blog

Space Platform, Murray Leinster 06 September 2018

1953 science fiction, first of a series. Joe Kenmore goes to work on the construction of the space platform, the first step in humanity's road to the stars, but finds it beset by sabotage.

I've read and enjoyed quite a bit of Leinster before, and I found this rather less subtle than most of his writing; it was published by Shasta as a juvenile, which may account for it. There are rather too many entirely unquestioned assumptions, common in the era:

  • having atomic bombs orbiting overhead will eliminate the possibility of atomic warfare forever, as well as all oppression everywhere;
  • the United States is the only country that can possibly do this, and has to go it alone, because the United Nations is in the grip of Them, and They want to be able to start an atomic war when they feel like it.

Naturally the idea that this unbeatable weapon might be used offensively never gets mentioned. (For example, what's going to happen when They try to build a platform of their own? Does the construction site get preemptively atom-bombed? Or is American know-how so much better than anyone else's that They will never be able to do it? Yeah, this is a pre-1957 book.)

But most of this is setup for the main story, which is that They – like a Doc Savage novel in 1940, They are never named explicitly, apart from one even-handed mention of "fascists and commies and nationalists and crackpots of all kinds" – are trying to sabotage the construction, by a variety of means, and our heroes prevent them.

Because the platform is being built on Earth, fully fitted out and all in one piece – to be carried aloft by specialised jet aircraft and given an initial speed boost, after which its own rockets take it to orbit. It's a lovely conceit, and not wholly impractical given the knowledge of the day; Leinster did talk with John D. Clark about rocket fuels, and with Willy Ley. (Assembling things in space is one of those problems that turned out to be rather easier than anyone expected.)

As usual in retro-futures, it's the small details that tie one to the past. A particular document is sent by facsimile, to which Leinster gives nearly as much reverence as to the space platform itself:

It would go east to the nearest facsimile receiver, and then be rushed by special messenger to the plant. Miss Ross gloomily set the machine and initialed the delivery requisition which was part of the document. It flashed through the scanning process and came out again. [...] She handed Joe back his original memo from the facsimile machine. An exact copy of his written list, in his handwriting, was now in existence more than fifteen hundred miles away, and would arrive at the Kenmore Precision Tool plant within a matter of hours. There could be no question of errors in transmission! It had to be right!

(In fact facsimile machines, working on the telegram model rather than like telephones, were already in use some years earlier, with a desktop model available in 1948, and receiver-printers in Western Union "Telecars" - see this fascinating paper.)

Still, when it's not about sabotage, this is about heroic engineering, going into details of things like the pilot gyros (which will drive the main gyros which will keep the platform steady), how to get around in zero-G, and – perhaps because there has to be something for The Girl to do – interior decoration and how to sleep and cook in zero-G, as well as some practical psychology (people are going to be living in this thing for years, so making it all look like a bare-metal submarine with freeze-dried ration packs for every meal isn't ideal). Though I'm unconvinced by the solution to the problem of a sense of falling while going to sleep - an inflatable pad to hold the sleeper securely in bed. Wouldn't that just make you think you were falling along with your bed?

For the era, it's surprisingly diverse: there's a Mohawk steelworker, even if he is referred to as "the Chief", and a "midget" who points out how, with the mass multiplication effects of rocketry, it would be vastly cheaper to send a crew of small people to space than to lift conventionally-sized humans – and nobody can tell him he's wrong. The characters are pretty flat, but there's engineering to be done, and there's more complexity to them than in many other 1950s stories.

Followed by Space Tug.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:19pm on 07 September 2018

    Fax isn't as foolproof as the qoute you gave claims. Corrupted lines are dropped at the receiver (there's a rudimentary checksum), aspect ratio is not reliably preserved (is this one doing 98 x 102dpi or the other way round? oh who cares, it's close enough for text...), and the resolution is very low on early machine. Anyone calling it an "exact copy" clearly never used early fax machines. And my use of them only goes back to the late 1980s. Anyway, never send engineering drawings by fax!

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:27pm on 07 September 2018

    Ah, but this is facsimile transmission… of the future!

    I'm faintly surprised it isn't nuclear powered.

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