Story #38 of 107: “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova
The thing about getting old is running down. I have good days and bad days. Actually, I have good hours and bad hours. This morning started off nice. I woke up early this morning to the sound Messenger makes to notify me of a new message. It was still dark outside, just a bit after six. Piet Nel has sent me a link to John O’Neill’s review of Modern Classic Novels of Short Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois. That’s an anthology I’ve wished the group would pick to read, especially because it has my all-time favorite science fiction novella in it, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delaney. Reading O’Neill’s review and comments put me in the mood to read science fiction.
Ozzy the cat was sleeping soundly on my legs, so I decided not to bother him. Instead of getting up to start my day, I tapped on the Kindle app to read “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova. The VanderMeers introduction got me interested in the story right away when they gave away the part about the astronauts having to reduce the weight of the spaceship to make the return voyage back to Earth. That same idea is used in Destination Moon (1950). I’ve always used that idea about jettison mass to minimize the weight to take off as a metaphor for succeeding at efforts in life. Often I’m weighted down by too many desires, so to get something done I have to toss out everything but the one thing I want to accomplish.
As soon as I started reading the story I liked it. The narrative was simple and engaging. I often write about why we like or dislike a story. In our group discussions, I’m amused by how some of us praise a story while others dismiss it. It’s so easy to get annoyed by a story, to fail at enjoying it. This morning while still snug under my covers and cat, and having just finished an upbeat essay about the joys of great science fiction, and still fresh from a night’s sleep, I got into this story in a big way.
“The Astronaut” is the kind of story I wanted to find when we voted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction. I hoped to find stories I loved as much as the stories I loved in the classic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I wanted to read stories I had never read and were unknown to all the famous SF anthologists. I have no memory of Valentina Zhuravlyova, and I’m quite certain I will soon forget her name. And I’ll probably even forget the name of this story, but I will remember three things about this tale.
I will remember a story about astronauts needing to throw out equipment so they could take off because I often remember Destination Moon. I now will remember two stories that used that idea.
I will remember I’ve read a story where the space administration decided it was important for astronauts to have hobbies for their long space voyages. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this idea before.
And I will remember I read a story about a lone stranded astronaut who put his soul into two paintings. Valentina Zhuravlyova has put a bit of her soul into “The Astronaut.” She is dead now, but she coded part of herself into this story.
I have another metaphor I often use to explain the limitations of communication. I compare all our efforts to speak across the void between conscious minds as throwing a message in a bottle upon the ocean hoping someone will find it. The astronaut Zarubin threw two paintings upon the void hoping to express himself, and “The Astronaut” is Valentina’s message in a bottle to us.
This is the second time I tried to write this essay. After I read “The Astronaut” I drained away the rest of my night’s store of energy by doing the exercises that keep my aches and pains away. I tried to write this later this morning, but I was too weary. I had to even nap to feel like eating lunch. And then I had to nap again. But that gave me time to think about this story and what to write. Getting old means running out of energy. I have to jettison many things I want to do just to accomplish one thing during my day. This was it. For the rest of the day, I will store up energy by napping or listening to books.
I’m alternating between two novels right now, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Both provide psychic food that gives me the energy to think. Exercise and proper eating give me physical energy. The thing about being old is my batteries drain so damn quickly. Napping and reading are my ways of recharging. But I need a quality reading diet to generate psychic energy. “The Astronaut” gave me that.
Has any science fiction writer from the 20th or 21st centuries ever done a better job exploring the science fictional themes than H. G. Wells covered in the 19th century? Has any novel or film ever gone any deeper into the idea of invaders from outer space than The War of the Worlds? Haven’t we been recycling the same speculations that H. G. Wells began way back then?
This is the third time I’ve read The War of the Worlds by H. G. wells since 1963. The first time I was in the seventh grade. I was too young to understand the novel and read too fast to really appreciate anything other than the basic plot. Back in 2005 I listened to an audiobook edition. I realized then that The War of the Worlds was far better than what I remembered, or any film or TV version I had seen over my lifetime. Reading it again this week, after rewatching the 1953 film, and seeing the 2019 British TV miniseries, I understand why we’re still reading this 1898 novel, and why people keep making filmed versions of it. There were three in 2005 and two in 2019. The War of the Worlds is truly a five-star classic.
I’m not sure young readers know how much credit we should be giving H. G. Wells for his contributions to science fiction. In one sense, the novels he published from 1895 to 1900 can almost be considered the foundation of the genre. Wells covered many of the main science fictional themes that writers are still tilling today. The trouble is, I haven’t read widely enough in earlier literature to know how much Wells borrowed and how much he created.
I do feel Wells brought new speculations and what ifs to the genre. We credit Wells for starting the space alien invasion theme, but Wells only took invasion literature that began in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking in a new direction. Instead of worrying about invaders from Germany or France, Wells asked, “What if invaders didn’t come from Earth?”
Once he proposed that one question, it generated all kinds of possible SF speculation. What if beings from other worlds were more advanced than us? Science fiction has explored that question over and other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever psychologically accepted any being could be superior to ourselves. Reading The War of the Worlds this time made me noticed just how much Wells thought about it. I would love to find reviews of his book published at the end of the 19th century to see if his readers significantly pondered Wells’ ideas. Here are some quotes:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end.
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
In three other points their physiology differed strangely from ours. Their organisms did not sleep, any more than the heart of man sleeps. Since they had no extensive muscular mechanism to recuperate, that periodical extinction was unknown to them. They had little or no sense of fatigue, it would seem. On earth they could never have moved without effort, yet even to the last they kept in action. In twenty-four hours they did twenty-four hours of work, as even on earth is perhaps the case with the ants.
“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”
I learned nothing fresh except that already in one week the examination of the Martian mechanisms had yielded astonishing results. Among other things, the article assured me what I did not believe at the time, that the “ Secret of Flying,” was discovered.
It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.
If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils.
Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
Can we really imagine meeting a being that is as far above us as we’re above a dog? What if the gap is as large as between people and ants, another comparison Wells makes in the book. Actually, in several places, we’re no more important to the Martians than bacteria are to us under the microscope. Wells can imagine this possibility and he tries to illustrate it in the story, but I don’t think he really succeeds because it’s something impossible to imagine. But Wells, and science fiction written since have tried. Consider Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
We have to remember how Wells portrays the Martians and how readers of Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 imagined them. The Martians had weapons that used heat, light, gas, and biological agents that quickly dispatched the greatest military in the world. London, the most advanced city on the planet was quickly overrun, and millions had to flee. This is impressive, but does it really mean the Martians are intellectually superior to us? They are more advanced technologically. And that’s been the most common thread in alien invasion stories since, even though we keep gaining in our own technological prowess.
Martians treated us like animals. In fact, they treated us like cows or pigs, and used humans for food. Does this mean they’re superior? We assume we’re superior to farm animals, but we’ve never been a cow and can’t imagine what cows think of us.
The Martians invaded Earth like England invaded other countries, and the English felt superior because they could get away with it. But does it make them superior? Over and over again science fiction has tried to portray superior aliens. Usually, writers give them advance technology like Wells did in his novel. Writers often give aliens telepathy or other psychic powers to suggest a higher state of being, and at one point Wells speculated about this. Often, advanced aliens are described like gods in old religious texts. But just how realistic is that? Isn’t it really a lack of imagination? I’m not faulting Wells, because he did try, but I think he hit a wall, and so has every other SF writer since.
Notice that Wells gave the Martians the same power that Nancy Kress did in her story Beggars in Spain. Not needing sleep would indeed be a plus, but does it make a being superior? It is a very nice specific attribute. What other attributes make a superior being?
Are we incapable of imagining a realistic being more developed than humans? We consider ourselves superior to animals because we have language. In recent years, many science fiction stories have explored the idea of communication with beings from other stellar systems. The film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does suggest a possibility. What if a language isn’t based on linear time, and the structure of the sentence isn’t depended on word order? That’s a wonderful theory, but is it even possible? Imagining the impossible is impressive, but not as impressive as imagining the possible that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Can we imagine a process of communication that goes beyond language? We always fall back on telepathy. Would that be instantaneously sharing of words, or sharing sense organ input? If the Martians of Wells’ novel could read human minds, would they still kill and eat people, and destroy their civilization? Wouldn’t a superior alien have empathy and compassion for other beings? If we were really superior to animals would we eat them and kill them the way we do? Aren’t we just acting like animals that eat each other?
If you look at in the right light, Christianity was an effort to create a superior human. Unfortunately, few humans have ever achieved what Christian theory hoped to have achieved. Religions have routinely rediscovered compassion throughout history, but they’ve never been able to make humans compassionate. We see in Star Trek, at least in some episodes about the Prime Directive, how the Federation tried to codify a compassionate treatment of other beings, but often the plots don’t allow for it. Still, it’s a concrete example.
Science fiction writers keep trying to imagine a superior being and keep failing. I believe Heinlein tried with Stranger in a Strange Land, by giving his Martian named Smith superpowers. But Smith shows no compassion for lesser beings, and frequently vanishes them out of existence. Clarke tried with Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but again he falls back on godlike powers, and a lack of compassion for lesser beings. Remember, Earth and humans were destroyed when a new species of humans emerged. Why do we continually believe superior beings have the right to destroy lesser beings?
We seem stuck in a Groundhog Day loop regarding invading aliens. Did anything new really show up in Independence Day (1996) a century after The War of the Worlds, or will show up in The Tomorrow War that’s coming out on Amazon Prime? Isn’t it logical to assume any alien that’s invading us can’t be superior because they’re invading us? Superior beings don’t go around exterminating other beings? Conversely, we can’t be all that superior to the other species on this planet. Unless the only definition of superior is the ability to destroy. And how often in science fiction are we the alien invader? Just recall the film Avatar for an easy example. Or think of how we treated the aliens in District 9.
There are two stories I’ve read this year that dealt with this issue, but sadly, I can’t remember the title and author of either one. The first suggested there were two types of beings in the galaxy. One type wants to conquer the galaxy because they are spreaders. The other type wanted to explore the galaxy because they are seekers, seekers of knowledge. We like to think humanity is a seeker species, but we’re really spreaders.
The other story was about species genocide. A character had the military power to destroy a whole species of alien invaders, but worried about using it. The justification given to her claimed the galaxy was full of violent species that acted no better than murderers or thieves, so it was either kill or be killed, so she killed the invading aliens. As long as we’re a product of evolution do we always assume we have to keep playing its game.
My idea of a superior alien is one that can step outside of their evolutionary upbringing and can act with compassion and empathy towards their fellow species. But I also imagine, this superior species would also develop the ability to communicate precisely, way beyond the power of words, and understand reality. We only perceive reality indirectly, with very limited senses, and usually interpret what we perceive with a lot of bullshit desires. I’m guessing a real superior space alien would avoid us like a dangerous pathogen or generator of gamma ray bursts.
In the end, I wondered if Wells didn’t model his Martians on the English in Africa and India. That implies any science fiction about aliens is really about looking at ourselves in a mirror. Shouldn’t science fiction writer ask how we could become superior beings?
I’ve seen a lot of science fiction movies since I began watching them back in the 1950s, so I seldom catch an old movie that I haven’t seen or at least read about. Well, last night I caught The Creation of the Humanoids on Amazon Prime. The film supposedly came out in 1962, but maybe 1961, and maybe made in 1960. The poster for it on Amazon made it look dreadful. I can’t believe I even tried watching it. However, The Humanoids by Jack Williamson is one of my favorite old SF novels, meaning that one keyword got me to give the flick a view. And since then, the more I think about it, the more I think about it.
My initial reaction made me think the screenplay cribbed ideas from Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Philip K. Dick. The story and acting are very talky, but then a lot of classic science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is overburdened with infodumps and preach dialog, so this movie has both the feel and philosophy of old pulp science fiction. And the cinematography reminded me of old science fiction magazine covers. The sets look like three different backdrops from an avant-garde theater play, but this cheapass movie was filmed in Technicolor. And the costumes and makeup are really good for the time. So there are levels of quality weaved into its low-budget production. I think they did the maximum they could with their budget.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you try watching this film, you’ll probably think, WTF??!! at the beginning. The acting is very wooden. If you stick with it, it might start growing on you until you’re thinking: “Okay, this is weirdly interesting” And if you stay until the end, you might even wonder “Is this some forgotten gem.” Or maybe not.
If you don’t have Amazon Prime, a 360p print is available on YouTube, watchable, but far from sharp.
What makes you forgive the weaknesses of The Creation of the Humanoids is the ideas it presents. I recently read and reviewed Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, a recent 2021 novel that covers some of the same themes dealing with androids. Android related speculations have been popular in movies and television shows for several years now, so it’s impressive that this 1960 B-movie is so ahead of its time.
The setup for this story is about a future after a nuclear war. The human population is dwindling, while the robot population is increasing. Robots are slowly taking over all human jobs and some humans resent that. Even the anti-robot crowd accepts robots at a certain intelligence level because society needs them, but doesn’t want robots produced with anything like human-level intelligence. The main character in this story is Capt. Kenneth Cragis is a leader in the racist organization called The Order of Flesh and Blood. He and his buddies wear Confederate uniforms and call robots “clickers,” so it’s pretty obvious that this early 1960s movie is not just about robots. At one point in the plot, Cragis learns his sister has married a robot and is furious.
But don’t think this film is just a thinly disguised story about civil rights. It covers all the ideas of modern science fiction on artificial intelligence and more. Don’t want to say too much that will reveal plot twists in the second half of the movie, which is far better than the first half. But those extra themes are frequently used in SF today.
Wikipedia has a positive write-up about The Creation of the Humanoids. They even let us know this was Andy Warhol’s favorite film. The Projection Booth has a ninety-minute podcast where three film buffs admit they’ve been converted to fans too. And over at Galactic Journey, a site that pretends to exist 55-years ago reviews the film with quite a bit of love and detail.
Don’t get me wrong. Probably, 99 people out of 100 who stream this movie are going to click the back button rather quickly. My initial reaction was “Yuck!” but I’m glad I stuck with it.
Finally, I think I got into The Creation of the Humanoids because the movie felt like reading a story out of Astounding or Galaxy. That says a lot about my nostalgia, but it also says something about the writing quality in the 1940s and 1950s science fiction magazines. I hate to think of it, but if I gave some of my old SF magazines to my friends to read, they’d probably react to my favorite stories just the way most audiences react today to The Creation of the Humanoids.
I love a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next. As soon as I started listening to “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones I knew I was hooked. Mel Hastings, a reporter, is waiting to hear about his wife’s operation. But what was troubling him was what his wife Alice said before going into surgery: “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun—”
Mel Hastings knew they had never been to Mars. Mel’s mystery became my mystery, and I knew this story was going to be a ripping good yarn. But I also thought the story sounded like the beginning of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, a much more famous science fiction story from 1966, and known today by the title of the two movies that were based on it, Total Recall.
The mystery deepens when the surgeon tells Mel his wife has died and that she wasn’t human. Her internal organs were all different. Because Mel is a reporter he starts investigating his wife and was able to prove she was human until very recently with other medical records. Then he finds photos of Alice on Mars and souvenirs from a Martian vacation. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the PKD story? But it gets even more like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”
Mel decides he must go to Mars to find out what happens but he has a deep phobia against space travel. He then goes to a medical specialist to erase that phobia and they discover Mel had gone on vacation to Mars with Alice. Now this is getting eerily like the PKD story. Could Dick have been inspired by “The Memory of Mars” to write his tale?
Mel Hastings has quite an adventure solving these mysteries with even more similarities to the PKD story. But I hope you’ll read “The Memory of Mars” to find out what happens.
I love finding old SF stories that are forgotten but still deserve to be read. “The Memory of Mars” was never reprinted in an anthology, and in only in one collection of stories by Raymond F. Jones mention above. You can see its reprint history here.
Raymond F. Jones had marginal success as a SF writer back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. His biggest claim to fame was the film This Island Earth based off his fix-up novel of the same title. I became acquainted with his work as a kid reading his young adult novels for the Winston Science Fiction series (Son of the Stars, Planet of Light, The Year When Stardust Fell). I definitely need to read more of his work.
I’m finding all kinds of old and forgotten films on YouTube, including some science fiction films I didn’t know existed. I’ve read about the 1928 English novel Deluge by S. Fowler Wright, but never knew it was made into an American film in 1933. According to Wikipedia it was lost for many years, then Forrest J. Ackerman discovered an Italian language copy in 1981. Then in 2016 an English language copy was found. It’s now available on DVD/Blu-ray made from a 2K scan. However, it can also be seen on YouTube. I don’t know if it’s a legal copy or not, but this print is pretty good. There are other prints there that aren’t.
Deluge is a Pre-Code Hollywood film which means it’s grittier and sexier than most old films from the 1930s and 1940s, and that gives it a kind of brutal honesty. However, it’s still an early sound picture, and probably most modern viewers will think the cinematography, acting, and special effects primitive and clunky. It was made by the same studio and in the same year as King Kong. I thought the special effects in Deluge were damn impressive for that era.
Deluge is post-apocalyptic flick where we get to see New York City destroyed by earthquakes and a tsunamis. Martin (Sidney Blackmer) is a married man with two small children who tries to save his family but is washed away. He believes his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and kids are dead and starts a new solitary life by scavenging supplies he stores in a cave and living in a small cabin.
Concurrent with Martin’s story, Claire, a competitive long distance swimmer, has washed up on shore and is discovered a brutish man named Jepson (Fred Kohler) who claims her as his possession. But Claire escapes by swimming back out to sea and washing up on another shore where Martin finds her. They begin a new life together and eventually consider themselves married.
However, Jepson hasn’t given up looking for Claire, and has joined a band of ruthless men who rove the countryside looking for women to rape and kill. Along with all of this, a group of survivors are rebuilding a small town, and Martin’s wife and kids find their way to it.
The big conflict of the story comes when the town decides it must hunt down and kill all the roving males who are capturing their women. It’s not Mad Max, but the story is quite honest about the brutality of living in a post-apocalyptic aftermath. The story even gets nicely complicated when Martin rediscovers that his wife is alive and doesn’t want to give up either woman.
Deluge is only 77 minutes long, but it is a science fiction film from a time when science fiction films were so rare that people didn’t know they belonged to a genre category. Here is Wikipedia’s list of science fiction films of the 1930s. I don’t consider them all science fiction, some are fantasy, and several are the classic horror films from Universal Studios. Plus, many are crude multi-episode serials about Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and similar adventure heros. Science fiction was known as that crazy Buck Rogers stuff back then. The most impressive science fiction film of the 1930s was Things to Come from 1936, and if you haven’t seen it you should. Quite a few films on this list are from Europe.
Ranker has a rather nice list of these old films worth watching, The Best ’30s Sci-Fi Movies. It’s just 34 titles, and Deluge comes in at #27. I plan to watch The Invisible Ray (1936) next with a story about seeing the past by viewing light from the Andromeda galaxy.
I enjoy watching these old films because I like to imagine how people from the 1930s explored science fictional concepts. Some ideas are old, like in Deluge with civilization being destroyed. That’s as old as Noah’s Ark, which predates The Bible. Knowing that light from other stars and galaxies comes from the past is a relatively new concept, and only significant since we learned of the speed of light in the late 19th century. Space travel by rockets is also recent, since the first chemical rockets were built in the 1920s. The word robot was coined in the early 1920s. Many of the science fiction films listed for the 1930s in Wikipedia are based on 19th century novels.
Even thinking about the future in the way we think about the future isn’t all that old. One of the earliest science fiction sound films was Just Imagine (1930). It was considered a musical-comedy about the future.
It’s fun to see how the past saw the future. I always thought it would be a gas if I could travel back in the past and show them films from the future, from our times. Would they marvel or be horrified?