Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tailings of the Golden Age #5: The Trouble with Telstar

"The Trouble with Telstar," by John Berryman
Appeared in Analog, June 1963

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I'm pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking of equipment I never heard of. We had gyros--hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

Analog doesn't have a reputation as a hard-science magazine for nothing. Open a copy from the 1960s: amidst the stories and John W. Campbell's angry denunciations of scientific orthodoxy, you'll find ads from outfits like Republic Aviation and General Dynamics and Allied Chemical. Analog gained a reputation as being filled with stories about engineers solving technical problem because, to a great degree, that's the audience it was aimed at in the '60s--and that's the audience that John Berryman's "The Trouble with Telstar" was written to appeal to.

Mike Seaman has a problem that, presumably for once, doesn't have anything to do with his name. He's one of the top men behind the communication satellites made by Communications Corporation--truly, a staggeringly inspired name, but I've seen ones in real life every bit as ridiculous--and these satellites are failing in a way that can't be pinned down. There's a lot of talk about busted solenoids and backroom back-and-forths about who's responsible, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the point: apparently, it'd be cheaper to send a man (because 1960s) into orbit to repair the satellites. Much of the story deals with Seaman training for his mission and dealing with friction from the established astronauts, who look at him as a jumped-up repairman. Granted, they're not wrong; he's flying the mission not because he's an ideal astronaut candidate, but because he came up with the idea for the orbital repair and his bosses volunteered him. Life in the private sector sure is grand.

Once in orbit, Seaman fixes the satellites and there's some brief peril, because there's always got to be some kind of peril. Fortunately, with the production of fresh space debris that totally won't come back to haunt anyone ever, the day is saved and Our Hero™ can claim his reward in the form of his boss's secretary, who only dates astronauts. ("If you haven't made at least three orbits, she won't even have dinner with you.")

Maybe this would be entertaining to an engineer in 1963 who has to deal with crap like this on a regular basis, but to a non-engineer like myself in 2016 it's just... boring. I can see why Campbell printed it, because John W. Campbell loves him his stories of engineers solving technical problems, but that doesn't change the fact that it's aggressively mediocre. I mean, there wasn't even any quote from it ridiculous enough to stick in my mind for use at the top of this post. It's just inert, but that didn't keep it from being on the cover of the issue it ran in!

Now, to be fair, there were some parts in there that struck me as interesting--but only in a historical context; had I read the story in 1963 they would not have stood out. Berryman did earn a nod in that he anticipated neutral buoyancy training for EVAs a couple of years before NASA picked it up. Seaman is launched to orbit in a Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which at the time would have placed the story in the late 1960s. In reality the Dyna-Soar program was cancelled six months after the issue disappeared from newsstands, so the story has an unintential alternate history vibe to it now. Berryman's frequent use of "telstar" as a standard noun for a communications satellite felt like a brush with a parallel dictionary, before the terminology of space had settled firmly down into what we have today.

As well, the story is only passively sexist, which practically feels like a victory for something printed by John W. Campbell in 1963. The secretary character has no character, is described little beyond "small, dark, intense... pert [and] lively," and the punchline of the story is her being dumped by Seaman: "no dame was worth that ride."

I will note that the John Berryman who wrote this is not the John Berryman who's listed on Wikipedia. Unless you're a weirdo like me reading old magazines for fun, there's no real reason for you to have heard of him; the science-fictional Berryman's career was dominated by short fiction, and trailed off shortly after "The Trouble with Telstar" was written; his last credit is 1986's "The Big Dish," which was also an Analog cover story, and he died in 1988.

If you're really interested, you can read "The Trouble with Telstar" for free at Archive.org. There's also a Kindle edition available on Amazon for $5.45, which is utterly ridiculous; the entire June 1963 issue of Analog cost $0.50, and even with fifty years of inflation factored in, that's only $3.91. But unless you have some specific interest in the history of the field, there's not much to recommend spending your time with it.

Previous Tailings
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

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