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Alien Dust and Footsteps of Angels

by EC Tubb

(Cosmos Books, $15.95, 224 pages. Gryphon Books, $20.00, 144 pages.)

Review by Eric Brown

Alien Dust is an early book in that grand old tradition of stories set on Mars. Among the first were the Barsoom books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Later came Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Since then, practically ever SF writer has had a go at the red planet, culminating in Kim Stanley Robinson's massive and definitive--for the time being--Mars trilogy.

Alien Dust was first published in hardback in 1955 by TV Boardman, and is not a novel but a series of linked stories or episodes, 'fixed-up' to form a continuous narrative. The stories were first published in Nebula and New Worlds in the early Fifties.

Instead of a contents page we have a helpful Synopsis of Events, taking us from 1995 (forty years in the future when the book was written) to 2030. The seven stories that comprise the book take place at intervals spaced along this time-line. The first, in 1995, charts the arrival on Mars of three spaceships, commanded by the single-minded and indomitable (something of a characteristic of all Tubb's heroes) Jim Hargraves. From the outset, the founding colony faces terrible hardship and privation. The book opens with the destruction of one of the spaceships, resulting in the loss of resources and man-power, and records the survivors' attempts to stay alive for three months until the arrival of the re-supply ship. A water pipe-line is laid to the north pole; the production of yeast culture is postponed in favour of saving essential water; a conflict of opinion arises between Hargraves and dietician Weeway, who is all for the abandonment of the colony and a quick return to Earth. Against a backdrop of terrible dust storms which take the lives of twenty men, Tubb effectively charts a grim story of survival against the odds.

Tubb's Mars is an unforgiving planet; not the lush, habitable world of Barsoom, nor the hostile uninhabitable frozen wasteland that modern science has proved it to be, but a lifeless planet with a thin but breathable atmosphere, ravaged by dust storms which infect the colonists with a form of silicosis. If that were not bad enough, supplies from Earth are scant; there are no luxuries, a limited diet, and few pastimes other than work. The reasons for this are described in the 1998 episode, in which spaceships pared down to the basic minimum ply the route between Earth and the red planet. (The fuel against cargo ratio is so tight that the pilots must even leave behind their dentures!) This episode, set aboard a re-supply ship, records what happens to a hapless stowaway, and is remarkable for being originally published (in New Worlds 15, May 1952) two years before Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" used the same idea.

The 2000 episode brings to Mars Jud Anders, a representative of the extra-Planetary Affairs, on a mission to close down the struggling colony. With him is feisty reporter Patricia Easton, whose news articles of sterling Martian heroes galvanise the population of Earth resulting in a migration of women to the red planet, the consequences of which are played out in the 2005 and 2010 sections. The colony struggles on, but the alien dust of the title proves inimical to the female of the species: they bear one child and then succumb to cancer (which spares the men) and this forces the evacuation of women colonists to Earth. In the 2020 episode--perhaps the best in the book--Mars is a forgotten, neglected refuse dump for the unwanted criminals and delinquents of Earth. Sam Weston arrives on Mars, a petty criminal, and we watch him identify with the spirit of intrepid survival against the odds, typified by Commander Ventor and Pop, the oldest surviving colonist. In sacrificing himself, Weston achieves a form of redemption. By 2030 all hope of maintaining a viable, thriving colony on Mars is a thing of the past--though Commander Denton, once himself a delinquent shipped to the Martian penal colony, thinks otherwise. With the help of Pop, he devises a daring plan to make the apathetic authorities of Earth at last take note of Mars' potential.

Very much of its time, Alien Dust displays the two-dimensional characterisation of much Golden Age SF, but manages to transcend its limitations by telling a rigorous, vigorous story of survival against the odds. The spaceships are needle-shaped and finned and land on pillars of flame, and Earth is a green-tinted point in the night sky... and reading this book, written half a century ago, one is immediately transported back to a safer, nostalgic age, the cosy future of the past.

The Footsteps of Angels, Tubb's most recent novel, tells the story of Max Feyman, a ruthless multi-millionaire entrepreneur and his quest to find the cure for the illness that afflicts his daughter, and others, in a crowded future solar system. Zip-drive, a means of incredibly fast travel between the planets, allows Feyman and his computer-expert sidekick Lynne Colman to zip (excuse the pun) from world to world, tracking down leads that might bring them a cure. Feyman is not a nice man--vain, egotistical and ruthless--but, in Colman, Tubb has created a humane and credible character to counter Feyman's cynicism. The novel cracks along at a breakneck pace, with much colour and action along the way--though the finale, I felt, was a little rushed and predictable.

These two books, written fifty years apart, bracket a long and productive career in science fiction. Readers interested in looking up more of this author's work are advised try the excellent generation starship adventure The Space-Born (1956), and the interesting near-future drama The Luck Machine (1980). Both titles are now available from the Wildside Press.


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