Classics From a Legend
WHILE SO MANY CONTEMPORARY WRITERS repeat themselves or deliver retreads of old tropes, Joseph Green is a boundless source of new material. In the various short stories (seventy and still counting) that he’s written over the decades, there’s more than enough to spawn novels, whole series of books, or star-trekking TV shows. Few of us have access to Green’s stories and nonfiction essays in their original format, but fifteen tales from the Golden Age are now within easy reach thanks to “Running Wild: Unfettered Stories of Imagination,” a newly published collection of his favorites.
“Running Wild” comes with another bonus: Green has written a new introduction to all fifteen stories. These alone are worth the price of admission. So is the general Introduction to the whole book. Most of these stories were first published in single issues of “Analog: Science Fiction Fact” and “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”, with prices on vintage issues ranging from $7 (if you count S&H) to more than $2,000 each. As a $3 eBook or a $15 paperback, this anthology is handy for those who don’t hoard (er, collect!) vintage science fiction magazines.
Another incentive to buy this book: “Running Wild” includes stories published in lesser known magazines that are even harder for collectors to find. Green “sometimes felt the urge to write something not really wanted” by mainstream editors, he writes in the Introduction. Stories like “An Alien Conception” or “The Seventh Floor,” he says, “could not have been published in the larger circulation (and much better paying) magazines.” His “more daring or unconventional stories usually appeared in smaller (and often short-lived) magazines, whose editors were eager to make an impact on the field.”
In “The Seventh Floor” (“Eternity,” March, 1974), the hero, John, “had been blind for a week as a child—an acute case of a type of granular conjunctivitis, endemic in the Northwest Florida sand hills where he was born—and suffered from poor vision throughout adolescence.” Medication and glasses “had gotten him past the army physical.” Now he was 28, “the first member of his large family ever to attend college.” John is suddenly afflicted with something (think Tourette’s, but worse) that causes him to shout radical comments in the classroom or hallways, challenging assumptions of everyone around him, including himself. He’s forced to question his own long-held beliefs. This story, Green warns, is not for the squeamish—even today’s readers are given a free pass to skip this one.
“Three Tour Man” (“Analog,” August, 1972) is set in Appalachia, with a “villain” who “did not score high on intelligence tests designed by men with superior educations, but he had a native shrewdness and inventiveness the tests could never show.” I love how vividly the characters are drawn, how much sympathy the villain earns, and how the hero, whose job is to investigate a fellow Appalachian, arrives at his final decision.
Joseph “Joe” Green grew up in a tiny town in the Deep South (fewer than 500 people, mostly rural), with first grade through twelfth in the same building, no kindergarten, and no special classes for the talented and gifted.
“I took in prejudice with my mother’s milk, not learning better until about age 14, when I read a book on anthropology and discovered all humans are basically equal,” Green writes.
Hard science is never lacking, and the details are magnificent. The politics that even a scientist cannot escape are also brought to life, especially in “Walk Barefoot on the Glass,” in which a telescope known as Moon-Eye is at risk due to budget cuts. “You can study your pulsars and quasars for a hundred years, and that won’t help a single human being on Earth,” the budget-cutters complain. “We’ve got a right to see our tax money spent on things that will benefit us.”
Sadly, not much has changed since 1974, when that story first appeared. Even then, Green’s hero lamented that “less and less money gets appropriated for scientific research, of any kind. And basic science is the engine that pulls the rest of the train.”
In “... And Be Lost Like Me” (Analog, June, 1983), budget cuts are not the concern of the day. It’s the scary fact that an alien could be hiding inside a friend or family member’s skull. There are “no specific, infallible guidelines” to help humans discern if the new occupant had acquired its memories from the original owner. Even a highly trained psychologist is hard pressed to devise a test to provoke a response that only a human would show. So how does one know if a person is “real” or if an alien has hijacked his or her body?
In the 1990s, K.A. Applegate turned this premise into a best-selling series of children’s books, “The Animoprhs.” Here is a prime example of an author dragging out a story with no end in sight even after fifty (I kid you not) books. I vowed never to read #54, the supposed finale, even though I will always love Books One and Two.
Controversial themes, sex scenes too explicit for the vintage zines, and strange, fascinating aliens in exotic settings: there’s no end of ideas in Joe Green’s imagination. “At the Court of the Chrysoprase King” (Rigel, Issue #7, Spring 1983) is a superlative tale with characters I’d be happy to see in a series. A mysterious creature (the eponymous king) is the last of his race, and even his home is doomed: the lone planet Destry is falling toward its sun. The throne of this mysterious, nearly dead king is ornately carved from a single block of chalcedony. Every detail in this tale is vividly described, with characters who are impossible to forget.
Rather than allow all the attainments of his people to die out, the ancient king summons representatives from two very different races to visit his doomed planet and compete for “dibs” on his people’s legacy. One race is human, aka “The Lone Ones,” individual males and females with “disgusting” mating rituals. The other race is as “disgusting” to the humans as the Lone Ones are to the Dash’Ilka: “Deceptively like us outwardly, at least the human half is, but with that damnable snake parasite wrapped around each person’s body, and that long tail reaching from the anus all the way up inside to the small intestine.” The parasite’s head, about the size and shape of an orange, perches beside the “human” head and whispers into its master’s ear. “Dependent, those people are, terribly dependent on their smart little Companions,” one of the humans sneers.
The ending is one of those clever surprises that are the hallmark of Golden Age gems.
With “The Fourth Generation,” Green flips an old trope that equates big muscles and physical bravery with arrogance and ego. He delivers two heroes, big, handsome, husky Grant Johns, an exalted hunter, and Andy the Brainiac. The story could almost as easily have been set in the Old West, replacing Uglies with Natives. Almost. Humans in “The Fourth Generation” have left Earth on a rocket ship in search of a new world to colonize, only to crash-land on a hostile planet where the “Uglies” sometimes kidnap humans. Many who survived the crash were killed by the natives. The fourth-generation humans have never lost hope that radio signals will attract help and a way off this planet. Meanwhile, they honor protocols to preserve the species. Andy has “the dullest and most prosaic job in the community, that of Keeper of Records.” Both Andy and Grant are good men, both worthy of the esteemed “Redhead.” When the Redhead is taken by the Uglies, these men compete to be the hero who saves (and therefore wins) her. Then again, who says she’s ready to choose?
There’s a freshness to this story that reminds me of all that I love about science fiction and the timeless theme of brave pioneers. I’d read a whole novel set in their world. Tell me, Joseph Green, please, that this is not the only story featuring Grant, Andy, the Redhead, and the Uglies.
I’d also love to read more stories based on Green’s time as “a millhand, welder’s helper and construction worker” in his twenties, when he was “pretty muscular,” as he writes in the intro. The more autobiographical a story, the better, as far I’m concerned.
“I am not the small-town boy who grew up in the deeply segregated South,” he explains. “I have always tried to incorporate tolerance and an understanding that we are all equal into my stories (though not so obviously that it becomes preaching).”
Much has changed since his childhood, “before the racial integration that has tremendously improved our society.” However, “we still have a long way to go.” Older people tend to hold “deep-seated beliefs that can’t be expunged, which helps explain why major societal change seems to occur by generations.” Only a few manage to shed old fallacies along the way—“though not without trauma, trouble and strife.”
This, to me, is the hallmark of science fiction. More than the iconic little green Martians, robots (how I love them!), rocket ships, and busty babes wielding laser guns, science fiction illuminates the best of humanity and the worst. Sensitivity, insight, and progress are forever challenged by selfishness, greed, and resistance to change.
Born during the Great Depression (1931), Green retired from NASA at age 66, a 37-year veteran of the American space program. He is a charter member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
“I’ve been around a long time,” he says with characteristic understatement.
In this volume, we learn more about his occasional co-author, Patrice Green, an avid genealogist and a web site designer. Perhaps her name should be added along with her husband’s to the John W. Campbell “stable,” which included Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, L Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Clifford D. Simak and Jack Williamson. Campbell edited “Astounding Science Fiction” (later called “Analog Science Fiction and Fact”) from late 1937 until his death in 1971.
The first story the Greens co-authored leads the anthology. Green says he was inspired to write “To See the Stars That Blind” shortly after his marriage to Patrice Milton. He wrote the first draft at “white heat,” and she collaborated on the finished version (published in “Fantasy & Science Fiction,” March, 1977). “It became the first of our many joint efforts,” and in his opinion is “still the best.”
The tale is taut and suspenseful, opening with a bride whose vision is suddenly impaired. Specialists cannot help her, and any details would constitute spoilers, but her husband’s devotion knows no bounds. The story builds inexorably to a startling conclusion. Once again, I note that peculiarities of a sense we take for granted, seeing with our eyes, is a theme that recurs in Green’s work. His novel “Gold the Man,” also known as “The Mind Behind the Eye” (1971), may be his most famous.
Green has written five novels, with a sixth on the way. His work has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Polish, and Dutch.
I expected this to be a quick read, but every story has so much impact, I had to pause and reflect before starting another. I also had to revisit my magazine collection to view several of these tales in their original format. How extravagant it seems, for so many different exotic settings, bizarre aliens, and memorable protagonists, all so richly drawn and detailed, to be used only once. To discuss these stories with the attention and depth they deserve, I’d have to write a book about this book.
Look at the prices of those vintage issues of Analog at Amazon—most start at $4 plus S&H, but you can pay more than two grand for a single issue of one 5 × 7.5 softcover magazine with 178 pages. Namely, that would be Analog, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 6, with Green’s story, “Three-Tour Man,” on page 112. There’s also the world debut of “The Pritcher Mass” (part I of III) by Gordon R. Dickson; a novelette: “Nanda,” by Gary Alan Ruse; short stories: such as “Long Shot” by Vernor Vinge. Oh, and there’s “Science fact: The Computer Was a Fish,” a nonfiction article by some young upstart named George R.R. Martin, “a recent graduate of Northwestern University”—today his bio includes “Game of Thrones."
Yes, back then, Martin was an unknown (as was Dean Koontz when the original 1960s, college-student-created and operated “Perihelion” first published him). Campbell was legendary for scouting and promoting talent, and he’s credited with shaping the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Today, Green writes nonfiction articles and short stories for “Perihelion Science Fiction” and other magazines. He has a new novel coming down the pike (see his website).
I look forward to more science fiction from this living legend. The closest Green will come to boasting is an understated “I ’spose I am a member of the SF establishment.” (“Running Wild: Unfettered Stories of Imagination,” Joseph Green, Wildside Press) —Carol Kean
Once Upon a Nuclear Accident
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1980, an Airforce worker performing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile, dropped the socket from his socket wrench. The socket dropped seven stories (80 feet) and punched a hole in the side of the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, causing rocket fuel to leak out. The incident occurred at the Titan II ICBM Missile Silo 374-7 site. The site was administered by the nearby Little Rock Air Force Base near the town of Damascus, about an hour’s drive north of Little Rock. The event is sometimes referred to as “The Damascus Incident” or “The Damascus Titan Missile Explosion.” This mishap triggered a series of events that are the basis for the documentary film “Command and Control” which is itself based on the book “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser.
The Titan II missile carried the largest warhead ever deployed by the U.S., the
The W-53 warhead deployed on the Titan II was a thermonuclear weapon, colloquially referred to as a hydrogen bomb. A thermonuclear weapon uses a nuclear fission reaction to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction, and is much more powerful than the nuclear fission bombs dropped on Japan. Modern nuclear weapons are thermonuclear (fusion) bombs, because they are so much more powerful than fission weapons. The W-53 had a yield of nine megatons, an explosive force that is hard to imagine.
None of these has ever been used in war, so no one really knows what the effect would be. The first test in the South Pacific of one of these “H” bombs turned out to be more powerful than the physicists had expected. The usual way to describe a nine-megaton blast is that it contains more explosive power than all the bombs dropped during WWII combined, including both atom bombs dropped on Japan.
In addition to the explosive force, the radioactive contamination from such an explosion is vast and devastating. This film includes a chilling graphic that describes how, if one of these bombs was dropped on Washington D.C., it would cause fatalities from radioactivity as far away as New York City. Anyone within a twenty mile radius of the explosion would be incinerated, and most buildings within ten miles of the explosion would collapse.
“Command and Control” heightens the inherent dramatic tension by contrasting eyewitness accounts of the Air Force with civilian accounts. Civilians didn’t know what was going on, but at least one nearby farmer knew something was up when nearby roads were blockaded. There are dramatic re-creations of the events within the missile silo—the filmmakers got permission to film in an abandoned missile silo and so didn’t have to build mock-ups. Unlike some documentaries, the recreations are believable, and sometimes it is hard to know what is a re-creation and what is actual footage.
Even though we know that a thermonuclear warhead didn’t really explode in Arkansas in 1980 (we would have heard something about that on the news, wouldn’t we?) the film still has all the dramatic tension of a thriller. Within a day, the leaked rocket fuel explodes, throwing the thermonuclear warhead into a nearby field. What with the confusion of the fuel explosion (in which one man was killed), it takes a few hours more for the Air Force to figure out what happened to the warhead. No one knows where the warhead is.
Much of the film’s dramatic tension results from the variance between what the Air Force knows and what it tells civilians, including high-placed government officials. If you’re not disposed to believe in governmental conspiracies and cover-ups, your faith in the verisimilitude of government pronouncements (especially military ones) will be shaken by this documentary.
Another intriguing revelation of this documentary is how complex and yet fragile nuclear weapons installations are. The people who designed these weapons aren’t the people who maintain them, and also aren’t the people responsible for using them. The people who use and maintain these weapons aren’t physicists, and don’t have an overall understanding of how they work. Everyone knows their own little role, but no one has the big picture. In order to get around this lack of comprehension, every action regarding the maintenance and deployment of these weapons is spelled out in a guidebook. Everything is literally done by the book.
The problem with this approach is that if something unexpected happens—something as simple as a person dropping a wrench—there’s nothing in the manual to cover the situation. No one knows what to do, no one wants to do anything without proper authorization, and no one wants to be responsible when something goes wrong. So what possibly could have quickly been dealt with can spiral out of control and create unmanageable chaos.
At the end of the film, the then Secretary of Defense Harold Brown makes a startling admission. “Accidents were not unusual in the Defense Department,” he says. “There must have been several every day.” The movie makes the point that nuclear weapons threaten both sides.
Now that the Cold War is over, people don’t think about our nuclear arsenal much anymore. The film made me curious about the current state of our nuclear weapons arsenal. How many are there? Have they been updated with current technology, or are these old weapons still deployed? This is a good film that could have been better by bringing the viewer up to date on the current state of our nuclear defense, but perhaps that is another documentary.How secret should our nuclear arsenal be in a democracy? This accident happened more than thirty years ago but is only now being reported on. By shining a light on this forgotten incident from the Cold War, “Command and Control” is a worthwhile documentary. It is entertaining, informative, and chilling. (“Command and Control,” directed by Robert Kenner, American Experience Films) —Joshua Berlow