Murray Leinster and the Moon
I first encountered Murray Leinster’s work when Black Gate published his classic pulp story “The Fifth-Dimension Catapult” in BG 9.
While the story was enjoyable, it didn’t resonate much with me at the time. The key I suppose was that his name stuck in my mind, and as time went by, and as I followed the Black Gate blog, I began to appreciate the many treasures I had been missing out on — purely through consuming mostly contemporary fiction.
Resolving to remedy this oversight, I decided to pay more attention when scanning flea market stands and the shelves of book exchanges. My Ace Double collection (something else I owe to Black Gate) started to grow exponentially, and eventually I came across a Murray Leinster novel: Four from Planet 5.
It’s a thin volume, which seems to have been par for the course back in the days before the fat-fantasy trend. It was published by Fawcett in 1959 under their Gold Medal imprint and runs to 160 pages, with cover art by the prolific Paul Lehr. Some research indicates that the story was published a few months earlier in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, September 1959, under the title “Long Ago, Far Away.”
A second edition was published by Fawcett in 1968, and the story reappeared. under either of the two titles, in The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told (in 1968), a paperback edition from White Lion (1974), and most recently in Operation Terror from Resurrected Press (2010). It is also available via Project Gutenberg.
The blurb on the back of the Gold Medal book reads:
The radio and television stations of the world carried the short, terrifying statement: The visitors were telepaths. These children from another time, another planet, were able to read human minds. They were utterly invincible. And they were infinitely dreaded….
In the Pentagon and the Kremlin, leaders were grim with awareness that all military secrets would be exposed…. The overlords of the underworld realized the children could smash their most profitable rackets…. And even ordinary citizens shuddered at the prospect of their shabby sins being found out.
So four small children came to be hated by the entire world. A whole civilization wanted them dead.
The story is fast paced and riveting as one tries to work out where planet 5 is, and who the mysterious four visitors are. In typical Leinster fashion, he sticks to a small cast of core characters, preferring to speak of non-core characters in terms of their position or level of authority.
Soames is an underpaid scientist and helicopter pilot based at the Gissel Bay research station in Antarctica. The story opens as he is considering his finances and how they cannot accommodate fantasies of marriage to Gail Haynes, a visiting reporter accompanying US Air Force W.A.C. Captain Estelle Moggs. The action starts immediately when what appears to be a shooting star starts behaving erratically, followed by a burst of static energy that affects planet wide communications.
One has to consider the time the novel was written. Cold war tensions were high, and people’s attitudes were different. In retrospect, the tender honor men display to women and the lack of expletives is refreshing, and may provoke some introspective thought as to how society behaves today by comparison. Four from Planet 5 is not only an entertaining tale, but it also provides a degree of social commentary into human nature and politics. This is a novel I would definitely recommend to friends and fans alike.
But what does all this have to do with the moon, you ask?
Well, apart from the fact that the moon does get some mention in Four from Planet 5, the main connection is that, in my excitement at finding this gem, and knowing the esteem Mr. O’Neil has for Murray Leinster’s work, I thought to write a short review. In retrospect it was a bit too short. Fortunately I had by then obtained another Leinster classic: City on the Moon.
My copy of City on the Moon is the Ace Double D-277, which is paired with an anthology of lunar short stories titled Men on the Moon edited by Donald A. Wollheim. Men on the Moon contains the following stories:
- “Operation Pumice” by Raymond Z. Gallun
- “Jetsam” by A. Bertram Chandler
- “The Reluctant Heroes” by Frank M. Robinson
- “Moonwalk” by H.B. Fyfe
- “Keyhole” by Murray Leinster
While the other authors are all well respected stalwarts in the science fiction field, it’s the last story that’s the icing on the cake, especially for Leinster fans.
City on the Moon was first published in hardcover by Avalon Books in 1957. The Ace Double version followed in 1958, with both covers by Ed Emshwiller. At 151 pages, the Ace Double version I read was likely abridged from the hardcover version. which weighed in at 227 pages, making a review somewhat risky as some potentially important text may have been omitted.
The only later English language publication of City on the Moon appears to have been in 2008 by Electronic & Database Publishing Inc. While I read City on the Moon as a stand-alone novel, it should be noted that two predecessor novels in the To the Stars series featuring the same lead character do exist: Space Platform aka Space Platform 1965 (1953) and Space Tug (1953). I did not feel I missed anything critical by not having read these two. These two books seem to have received more publishing attention than City on the Moon, although they also appear to have been aimed at a younger audience.
The blurb on the inside leaf of the Ace Double reads:
Further progress in atomic power could now come about only as a result of experiments so dangerous that they could only be carried on in an isolated space station hanging near the far side of the moon. If these experiments succeeded, they could open the way to the stars…
To supply this space laboratory was the duty of the CITY ON THE MOON. And when Joe Kenmore, moon colonist, realised that there were agents working actively to sabotage the city, he knew he was up against a supreme crisis of humanity – one in which his own life and those of his fellow colonists were mere pawns to be sacrificed ruthlessly by that hidden foe – unless he personally could block their super-atomic deviltry.
The formula here is similar to that of Four from Planet 5. It gets right into the action, and shortly thereafter introduces some female protagonists. However the cast of characters is a little broader, with some interesting people joining Kenmore’s motley crew as the novel progresses. Some of the themes — such as the need for international peace — are also familiar. The characters and their motivations are believable, at least for the time it was written.
Would I recommend this book? The short answer is no. Leinster fans I expect will read it anyway, and draw their own conclusions. My main gripe is that the story line is somewhat disjointed, and comes off as weak. The ending is a bit too glib, almost a deus ex machina. There’s a lack of motivation for stretches of the book, and one has to rely on the lead characters suppositions, which are not properly resolved. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the abridgment to fit it into the Ace Double format?
That said, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy a fast paced story with lots of action and some novel concepts about lunar life, by all means pick up a copy.
The lunar theme continues with the anthology Men on the Moon. Consider that all these stories were written long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, and that for me, the lunar landing was (recent) history when I was born. These are true science fiction stories of their day, hypothesizing how certain physics and concepts would work, mostly with reasonable accuracy.
The Ace Double version was published in 1958, and the Men on the Moon anthology republished by Ace in 1969 with cover art by Gary Morrow. Page count was boosted to 192 from the original 137; the new edition benefitting from a new post moon-landing introduction and a lengthy non-fiction section with essays by Donald A. Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, John Brunner, Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Frederik Pohl, Murray Leinster, and nearly two dozen others.
Raymond Z Gallun’s “Operation Pumice” was first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949, and reprinted twice (in 1951 & 1952) in the Possible Worlds of Science Fiction anthology, with cover art by E. B. Mudge-Marriott. As the oldest story in the collection, it shows its age with a pulpier take on how a rocket would orbit the moon. Even so, the various aspects of multi-stage rockets are in place.
What gave me a chuckle was the main character, Mel Robbins, struggling to write a note with his pen in space – reminiscent of the legend of NASA spending millions developing a ball point pen that would work in space, while the Russians already had a solution, a pencil.
I could take or leave this story. It was more about inspiration and striving for the stars than orbiting the moon, which seemed to be an almost incidental event.
A Bertram Chandler’s “Jetsam” was first published in New Worlds of Science Fiction, March 1953 with cover art by Bob Clothier, and in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the following month. It has seen publication in various anthologies since, and most recently resurfaced in 1950s Tales from Outer Space, published by Lost Science Fiction.
This story in some ways ties in with a theme in Four from Planet 5. It involves a true lunar landing, some commentary on how military requirements can hijack science and a startling discovery, with a not so subtle warning about cold war politics. I enjoyed it even though the theme has been seen before – or perhaps more correctly, since.
Frank M Robinson’s “Reluctant Heroes” first saw publication in the January 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction Stories, with cover art by John Bunch. It was subsequently published a year later in the Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction anthology. It saw publication in further anthologies during the 1960’s, and appears to have last been published in 1981 by Bantam Books collection: A Day in the Life of… and Other Short Stories, with a David Perry cover.
This story lives up to its title. In some ways one could liken it to the short story “Red Star, Winter Orbit” by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. An enjoyable piece about the sacrifices some have to, oft unwillingly, make for the good of all. It also allows one to crack a smile about the usage of certain outmoded technologies, which the writer clearly had not considered or anticipated at the time. Something M Harold Page discussed in an earlier blog entry.
Space Science Fiction, November 1952 edited by none other than Lester del Rey, published HB Fyfe’s “Moonwalk.” The story saw re-publication in the likes of Fawcett Gold Medal’s Worlds to Come (edited by Damon Knight) and most recently in the 2012 reprint of Space Pioneers edited by Andre Norton. This story must be popular as, barring a two decade hiatus in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it has pretty much remained in print.
This is the longest story in the anthology, weighing in at 53 pages. Technically it may be considered a novella, or perhaps a novelette if my estimation of word count is correct. The story is well paced and intriguing. A triumph-of-the-will type story, which was inspirational in terms of the hardships that one may endure. The odd contrast I drew to Murray Leinster’s style was that those characters even with minor parts still had a name, which gave a close, almost family feel to interactions.
Murray Leinster’s “Keyhole” is the final short story in the anthology and is by far the most popular, having remained in print ever since its initial publication in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1951, with the most recent version being in Alien Stories 1 by Oxford University Press.
This is a clever tale that blurred the line between science fiction and fantasy. It has some philosophical tones in terms of what we as human beings consider to be sentient and worth preserving. This story holds a special memory for me as the power utility in my home country, through poor planning, had a series of blackouts, and this was the story I read to my wife by candle light to while away the time.
All of these stories have two things in common:
1. They are all about the moon.
2. They were all published before man actually went to the moon.
It would thus be remiss of me not to make mention of possibly the quintessential science fiction novel about the moon – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein. It shares the two commonalities mentioned above, although its publication date (1966) was far closer to the actual moon landing.
By then rocketry was understood by the public, and people could smell the proverbial lunar cheese, they were so close. So the story does not involve itself much with methods of transport, rather exploring subterranean lunar life, artificial intelligence, independence, crime and punishment and of course, rail launcher catapults.
While I have not read as much Heinlein as I probably should have at my age, of the ones I have read this is the best, and many a friend agrees (apologies to Johnny Rico from Starship Troopers).
So do yourself a favor. Think back to the time when the moon was a distant planet of wonder and possibility, and not a dry article in the National Geographic.
In this brief tour we started with a recognized SF great, came across some others some readers may not have encountered, and finished with another SF great, all without leaving Earth or the moon. I found that Murray Leinster, while enjoyable, tends to repeat certain events, which may be indicative of a writing style used to serialization. His heroes are real, people who accept responsibility when it comes their way, something I would personally like to see more of in these days of buck passing and committee decisions.
Lastly, I should mention the first and last images in this article are both by Paul Lehr.
Much of the statistical information and many of the pictures in this article are courtesy of The Internet Speculative Fiction Database.
Leinster was one of the greats, but everyone has to start somewhere. 🙂
Thanks for the link DTruesdale. Agree one of the greats. I am currently reading Ace Double D44 which has another Leinster short story: The Malignant Marauder. Look forward to getting to it.
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“Long Ago, Far Away” is a SHORTER version (34k words) of “Four from Planet 5” (53k words), not just an alternate title.