“Special Flight” by John Berryman is story #3 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Editors assembled anthologies to reprint and promote stories they believe people should read — stories they feel should be kept alive. I have to wonder why Hartwell selected “Special Flight” because to most modern readers, or even readers in 1989, the story is a clunker. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest selected “Special Flight” for their anthology Spectrum in 1961, but other than those two anthologies no other editors have wanted to save this story from oblivion.
John Berryman, according to ISFDB, only published 21 science fiction stories, and some of them were occasionally reprinted. However, John Berryman is not a name I remember. He is a forgotten author. So why read his story in 2023? I’ve never read “Special Flight” before, or even heard of it, but it’s an impressive science fiction for 1939 if you think about it in a certain way. “Special Flight” was first published in the May 1939 issue of Astounding, just months before the July issue that many consider the first issue of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Then why didn’t Hartwell choose one of the more famous stories from that year?
Reading “Special Flight” brings up a long queue of questions. The sole quality that makes this story impressive is it tries to scientifically imagine routine space flight in 1939 in a realistic manner. So, do I recommend you track it down and read it? Not really, because it gets the science all wrong. However, if you happened to have an academic bent and like to study science fiction as a subject, then “Special Flight” is an interesting read.
If you’ve ever wondered how people in 1939 imagined space flight actually working, and not just being silly Buck Rogers stuff, “Special Flight” can provide some answers. Berryman was trying to imagine a near future where we mined the Moon for minerals and rocketships were much like merchant ships or cargo aircraft. “Special Flight” reminds me of what Heinlein was trying to do in the 1950s and it also reminds me of the original Star Trek.
Shouldn’t we forgive “Special Flight” for its mistakes if it was solid scientific speculation in 1939? Jules Verne got nothing right scientifically in Journey to the Center of the Earth but it’s still a well-loved story today. Why? Because the storytelling is fun. Then what about the storytelling in “Special Flight?” It’s not bad but it’s not great either. It’s about the level of a science fiction B-movie from 1953. Remember all those old black-and-white movies where the big danger of space flight was meteors? That’s what happens in “Special Flight”
“Special Flight” is action-packed. It’s about an emergency rocket flight to the Moon to save the lives of over a hundred miners. Everything possible that could go wrong does, including a giant tank of milk busting and flowing all over the rocket ship. Berryman spends a lot of his wordage on math and navigation and not that much on characterization. The crew is often knocked around like Captain Kirk and his crew — remember how the actors threw themselves around on the sets of Star Trek? In other words, the action is cheesy. But on the other hand, the focus is on getting to the Moon, and quite a lot of detail that Berryman imagined feels realistic. For instance, Berryman imagines that spaceflight causes tiny blood clots in the brain that produces a list of effects that can make operating a spaceship difficult. He talks about the three-body problem, something I didn’t know about until I read the Cixin Liu book. He imagines an automatic pilot and system that controls chemical rockets to maneuver in space while atomic rockets provide the main thrust using water as fuel. He talks about orbital velocities, g-forces, and take-off speeds. Stuff that just wasn’t in science fiction in the 1930s.
If you like to chart how science fiction evolved or are curious about how people before WWII imagined realistic space travel, then read “Special Flight.” If you’re used to modern well-told science fiction stories, you’ll probably want to skip it.
By the way, here’s an illustration from the cover of Cosmic Stories (July 1941) that imagines being in space in a rather realistic way for the time. I do like picturing how people imagined space travel before NASA. That’s why I enjoyed “Special Flight.”
James Wallace Harris, 5/11/23
One thought on ““Special Flight” by John Berryman”
I don’t hold the wrong science against the story at all, but the level of tedium that is associated with it in the last two of the five chapters killed the story for me. After a promising beginning, too.