Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Narrative of a Slave
by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Song of C
by Jørn Arnold Jensen

Ready or Not
by Holly Schofield

Each Day I Walk These Hollow Streets
by Andrew Barton

Neanderthal Autumn
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Plasma Breach
by Mord McGhee

By the Light of Several Silvery Moons
by Eamonn Murphy

Packrat Machine
by Karl Dandenell

Shorter Stories

Teaching Acute Coronary Syndrome to an Alien
by Devin Miller

by Bill Suboski

We’ve Only Just Begun
by Chris Bullard


Tales From the Greenhouse
by Joseph Green

And a Tale of the Tail
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Tales From the Greenhouse

By Joseph Green

FOR THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS IN THE American space program, I was employed building missile bases throughout the U.S., and later supporting the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs at the Kennedy Space Center. As a part-time freelancer, I’ve published five novels (Doubleday, DAW, Ace, Harlequin, Gollancz, Hayne Bucher, Urania) and about eighty short works. At NASA, I specialized in preparing fact sheets, brochures, and other semi-technical publications for the general public, explaining complex scientific and engineering concepts in layman’s language. I also authored over twenty science papers for NASA and contractor executives. I now blog irregularly on my website. These essays first appeared in this blog. But I think they deserve a much wider distribution. “Perihelion’s” editors agree and will be sharing many more of my blogatorials in issues to come.

My Signature Rests on the Moon

While it contributed nothing to the American space program, I get a lot of personal satisfaction from the above. It came about this way.

Shortly before John Young, Charles Duke, and Ken Mattingly lifted off on the Apollo 16 mission, many people at the Kennedy Space Center presented them with a “bon voyage and good wishes” card. The physical card was quite large, with hundreds of signatures; and every ounce counts on a lunar lander. The card was reduced to a single microfiche, weighing less than an ounce, and that’s what actually went aboard the lunar lander. (The microfiche itself was photographed, and paper copies distributed to all signers.) When the upper half of the lander lifted off to return Young and Duke to the orbiting Command Service Module where Mattingly waited, the microfiche stayed behind in the bottom half.

None of my duties at KSC ever brought me into contact with Duke or Mattingly, but I did meet John Young. He and Robert Crippen (who later became my boss when appointed Director of The Kennedy Space Center) served on the task force preparing the NASA report on the loss of Challenger, where I was the lead writer. Later I invited Young to be keynote speaker at the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention in Orlando (I was on the Con staff as liaison to NASA), and he accepted. When commercial travel arrangements somehow fell through, Young hopped into a NASA jet and flew himself to Orlando. He gave a fine keynote speech, much appreciated by the audience.

I also met Charles Bolden, now the Administrator of NASA. At the time he was a Colonel in the Marines, a fighter test pilot detached to NASA. I spent two days escorting Charley on employee motivation visits, while he was stationed at KSC for a year as astronaut-in-residence. A great guy, Charley, friendly and approachable. He strongly impressed me with his support for education (I worked in the KSC Education Office) and his willingness to speak with anybody. I remember once a janitor, sweeping the floor in the foyer of a building we had just entered, dropped his broom and engaged Charley in conversation. After several minutes I had to urge Charley to move on, because we were holding up a large group waiting for us inside.

Charles Bolden returned to the Marines after completing four Space Shuttle missions, two as pilot and the next two as commander. He continued to rise in the ranks, finally retiring as a major general. He came back to NASA when President Obama appointed him Administrator, with an easy confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Now he oversees a NASA that has completed the Space Shuttle program and entered a time of radical change, where private contractors, using their own space vehicles, will soon be ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

The only wholly NASA manned space flight program still in operation is the Space Launch System (SLS), which will not likely fly its first crewed mission for another decade—if ever. SLS is essentially a larger and more capable Saturn V, with a larger and more capable Orion spacecraft riding on top. The whole “bigger and better” concept has many critics, me among them. I think this program is more likely to be canceled than completed, and actual missions to an asteroid, the Moon, and Mars unlikely. I’m disappointed NASA couldn’t come up with a more original and innovative way of resuming human exploration of the inner solar system. Several alternatives have been suggested, but none gotten very far.

Knowing how difficult human space flight really is, I had no expectations that I’d one day take a commercial passenger spaceship to the Moon, and walk over to stare at the Apollo 16 Lunar Module base, still holding the microfiche (hopefully undamaged). But I did think my grandson, perhaps ... Now I can no longer support even that hope. I’m pessimistic that SLS will survive long enough to put people on the Moon again, and expect that unmanned robots will remain the only way to explore other planets for the foreseeable future. (The fact they are doing incredible work is one of the major arguments for canceling SLS and putting the money into more robots.)

I have no easy solutions to offer that will get humans back into exploring deep space. Wish I did.

Why It’s Hard to Write Science Fiction Today

In late 2013 IBM published an article featuring some interesting forecasts on learning in the future, and other speculations.

If one or all of these come true, they will strongly affect each of us individually, and society as a whole. IBM also says the communications technology gap between developed and undeveloped countries will narrow, with many benefits and some drawbacks for western societies. The fact that cell phones and smartphones are becoming ubiquitous in countries normally thought of as still developing serves as a prime example.

These highly likely upcoming changes make writing realistic and believable science fiction, particularly in the short forms, very difficult. If you ignore all these highly probable changes in stories set in the near future, you are being unfaithful to a basic premise of science fiction. If you pick winners and losers, and write your story incorporating the results of these choices, half your wordage will be needed to explain the changes and make them seem believable. The result may be good science fiction, but likely a dull story. And ten years later you’ll learn you were wrong anyway.

Starting in the 1930s with Doc Smith, Robert Heinlein, Edmond Hamilton and others, far-futuristic “GIGANTIC!” science fiction gained popularity. Its writers, and those who followed them right up to the present, think nothing of expanding the Roman Empire to galactic dimensions, smashing stars if the local denizens irritate you, or traveling backward in time to see the “big bang” for yourself if your first-choice vacation plans for this year don’t work out. These far-flung vistas captured and enthralled teen-age minds everywhere (including mine) for over half a century. And science fiction was the only place to find them.

Today I turn on my TV and go to the “Science Channel.” It features several fine programs, but a favorite is “Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman. In a resonant baritone, this excellent speaker (and equally fine actor) conducts you through realms of speculation that would make John W. Campbell reach for the aspirin box, and A.E. van Vogt sit up and say “Why didn’t I think of that?” With clear explanations and helpful graphics, this program unabashedly tackles such subjects as alternate dimensions, dark energy and dark matter, the birth and coming death of the whole damn universe, as well as more mundane and immediate subjects such as the robots taking over tomorrow  (to discover as usual that they don’t really need us any more), and the consequences of everyone living to a healthy 200. (I’m for that!)

I’ve been writing and selling science fiction for over half a century now (and am still writing and selling). I had already lost interest in writing the “Big Science Fiction” story before weekly TV exceeded my most far-out speculations, while calling it “science” and not fiction. And the future is rushing toward us so fast that speculation may become reality between acceptance and printing, and readers think the story should have appeared in “Popular Mechanics” instead of “Analog” or “Perihelion.”

Many former primarily science fiction writers have turned to writing fantasy. Think I’ll go there myself (in fact, under one of my pseudonyms, I already have).

Remembering Sir Arthur

Arthur C. Clarke (who died Sir Arthur, after receiving a well-deserved knighthood) was a casual but long-term friend. He often had dinner at the Greenhouse when visiting the Kennedy Space Center. (He also attended the Apollo 11 prelaunch party at the Greenhouse, a tale told elsewhere.) A large briefing room at the KSC Visitors Center had been named “Room 2001” in his honor, and the NASA branch stationed there dubbed their conference room “2010.” Just before I retired I persuaded the manager of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, also at the clarkeVisitors Center, to name their major presentation area “Room 2061,” to complete the trilogy. (I don’t know if he followed through.)

Working behind the scenes, I usually managed to get myself assigned as Clarke’s official escort. The last time he visited (August, 1994) before I retired in 1996, he had some difficulty walking, and needed a wheelchair for long distances. He managed the short walks in and out of buildings by holding on to my shoulder.

[Right, Arthur C. Clarke and Joseph Green entering the Center Director’s office at KSC. Photo courtesy of NASA.]

Clarke was at KSC this time primarily to attend a press conference, in his capacity as a member of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund Board of Trustees. The NASA connection with Fossey was the Space Radar Laboratory-1, which had flown in the cargo bay of a Shuttle Orbiter the previous April, obtainiing some excellent multi-use data on gorilla habitats. But as with most distinguished guests, Clarke’s itinerary included visits to several sites of major interest.

Over the course of most of a day, while being driven from site to site (KSC is very big, and spread out), we had several chances to chat. The subject of the then-extant science fiction magazines came up. Clarke told me he faithfully subscribed to all of them—but they just went directly on to his library shelves. He didn’t actually read them; couldn’t find the time.

The press conference came at the end of the day, when Clarke was visibly tiring. The local press turned out in force, probably thirty or more; an unusually high number for anything less than a launch. I escorted Clarke to the table on the dais, which he shared with some other people associated with the Gorilla Fund, and took a seat in front.

The press conference itself was fairly routine, except that the press concentrated their attention on Clarke and almost ignored the others. He perked up a little while sitting and answering questions. At the end of the standard thirty-minute conference I stood up and announced that we would take two more questions, and then had to go.

The two questions came, the conference officially ended—and then half or more of the reporters present hurriedly dug into their rucksacks or tote bags, pulled out copies of Arthur C. Clarke books, and rushed the table for autographs!

Press people, by and large, are a skeptical lot. This uncoordinated, spontaneous rush to get their books autographed while they had the chance warmed the intake valves of my cynical old heart. Clarke, although a little startled, seemed happy to comply. So I sat back down, and for another ten or twelve minutes, Clarke autographed books. Then, finally, I could get him out of the building and into our waiting limousine.

I had already escorted Clarke to see several people and places, including a meeting with the highest local dignitaries in the KSC Center Director’s office. But it was that demonstration of genuine, unforced admiration on the part of the press corps that I most like to remember.

Reaching for the Stars

Earlier last year the local paper, “Florida TODAY”—highly space-oriented because its territory includes the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center—carried a front page story that brought back vivid memories. The article said that space scientists, working from accumulated and analyzed data, had finally agreed that the Voyager I spacecraft entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012. Up until then the exact time had been a matter of dispute. The spacecraft is still operating, and expected to have enough power to keep sending back reports from at least one sensor until about 2025.

In 1977 I manned a console as a member of the Atlas/Centaur launch team. I also prepared the A/C technical documents, including the “NASA Fact Sheet(s)” distributed in advance of each launch. These were a compilation and distillation of the most important basic data on both spacecraft and launch vehicle. They were carefully written for the layman, explaining the mission in terms understandable to most high school juniors. These fact sheets became very popular with non-technical Kennedy Space Center personnel, the general public, and in particular the news media (the last for obvious reasons—a lot of their work done for them).

Although I wasn’t a member of their teams, the Delta and Titan/Centaur managers tasked me with preparing fact sheets for their missions, as well. The larger and much more powerful Titan/Centaur had been chosen as the launch vehicle for the Voyagers because of the weight of the highly sophisticated (for their time) robot explorers, and the unusually high velocity required to reach Jupiter in only eighteen months.

After a close-up exploration of Jupiter and several of its moons, Voyager I went on to Saturn for another flyby, then headed into interstellar space. The last was basically frosting on the cake, as was the famous photo Voyager I took on February 14, 1990, looking back at the Solar System (showing Earth as a “pale blue dot”). The two most important mission objectives had been successfully accomplished. Few expected this hardy explorer to still be functioning and reporting back when its escape velocity of seventeen kilometers per second (in relation to the Sun) took it into interstellar space. But it’s there, and with another decade (hopefully) of life expectancy.

The accomplishments of the Voyagers have been reported and widely discussed in the media. For me, they trigger reflection and thoughts on perspectives. Mine is that of a teenager reading science fiction in the 1940s, never dreaming that mankind would land on the Moon in my lifetime. (By 2050, maybe?) And sending a robot into interstellar space was in the far, far future, something my great-grandchildren might try. And yet I not only lived to see both, I actually played a small role in these two great scientific adventures. Those of you growing up at a time when you rather expected to see men walking on the Moon, or robots reporting back from interstellar space, may have an entirely different perspective.

Sometimes the glamor and excitement of manned space flight overshadows the accomplishment of the Voyagers, Pioneers, and other doughty robotic explorers. But in many ways, unmanned spacecraft have contributed more to our knowledge of the solar system and galaxy than the manned programs. We’ve now had robot explorers do close-up, highly instrumented flybys of all eight planets, and one has now performed a flyby of the disenfranchised Pluto/Charon system, providing incredible photos and a treasure-trove of scientific data. These accomplishments are worthy of more respect than they have received from the world at large. Just ask any astronomer or space scientist which mission has contributed the most to human knowledge. END

Joseph Green is a charter member of the SFWA. He retired from NASA as Deputy Chief of the Education Office at Kennedy Space Center. He has written five novels and his short stories have appeared in “F&SF,” “Analog,” and many other publications.




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Joseph Green