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Earthwreck!

Earthwreck! by Thomas N. ScortiaEarthwreck front
Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1974
Price I paid: 75¢

The Americans watched from space as the earth erupted in flashes of incredible brilliance. Their probes told them all they had to know. The earth was buried under a blanket of radioactivity. No life remained.

Except for them—and their Russian counterparts.

Together the American and Russian space stations had enough resources to build a colony on the moon. But could they bear life imprisoned in a tiny, man-made pocket of air?

There was no alternative. Or was there? A far more perilous course might ensure the survival of the human race.

I had set this book up to follow last week’s review because it was kind of like Earthwreck! was the bad ending of Pursuit of the Phoenix. Of course, the previous book had a lying cover and the risk of nuclear annihilation was really played up, but it still amused me. Earthwreck!, on the other hand, had a fairly faithful description on the back. Color me surprised.

I like the cover art to this book, as well. There’s no attribution and I can’t make out the signature on the actual cover, but I’d like to see more work from this person. Although the nuclear explosions in the background reaching right up into orbit makes it a little fantastical, it’s still some pretty nice astronautery.

The book itself was a bit of a letdown, though. Like plenty of other books, it wasn’t exactly bad, per se, but it could have been a lot better. It dragged on a lot at the beginning, for one thing, and a lot of the book was spent on character development that it didn’t really need. It’s an excellent premise, though. Reminds me of that bit from World War Z about the astronauts on the ISS watching Z-day unfold below them. That was my favorite part of the book, really.

Our main character sports the unlikely name of Quintus Longo, and he’s a fairly decent guy. The book really goes on and on about how he’s Italian and how that means he’s “emotional.” I’m serious, it mentions it like five times, it just seems like no one can agree on whether thats a pro or a con. For me, I’d say it was a pro because he was the only person in the book that actually seemed like some kind of person.

Longo is chosen at the last minute to command a mission to the American space station. The previous commander called in sick so Longo gets called in on his day off to make a trip to space. I think we can all sympathise with that. Longo, incidentally, is fiercely dedicated to his wife and children, which has exactly the consequences you’d expect.

So he’s in space. His pilot is a dude from Germany named Steinbrunner who escaped East Germany by jumping over the wall with a motorcycle. That’s pretty awesome, because The Great Escape is a fantastic movie. Steinbrunner is silent, taciturn, and ever so German. He’s also gay? I don’t know. He’s probably bisexual. Late in the book there’s this bit where the narrative breaks off just to describe how he likes his men manly and his women womanly and there’s no room for anything in between. He also takes a shower with Longo at some point. I can understand that in space you might have communal showers, but this one got uncomfortable for me. Not that I have anything wrong with anybody’s sexual orientation, mind you, but being all creepy shower-stalky is just wrong no matter where or on whom the person wants to put their privates.

Anyway, space. On the station, everything’s proceeding normally with the sort of dickering you expect from astronauts, when suddenly the astronauts start seeing flashes down on Earth. They get radio signals about what’s happening. First Tel Aviv goes up, then the Israelis hit back with an automatic system taking out the Aswan Dam, and then all hell breaks loose and the missiles start flying from every which direction. It’s all-out thermonuclear heck, people.

Longo doesn’t take it well and goes into an extended fugue where he remembers all the sex he used to have with his wife, as would anyone whose family has just been reduced to radioactive cinders along with the rest of life as we know it.

After some of the shock wears off everybody starts wondering what exactly humanity is supposed to do with itself. Options range from just dying to settling on the moon to using the moon-settlement gear to set up back on Earth. I actually liked that idea. After all, if we have the technology to set up shop on one of the least habitable balls of rock we know of, why not use that technology to filter out the bad stuff on Earth? Sadly that idea is shot down when the astronauts make contact with their cosmonaut counterparts.

The cosmonauts point out that the nuclear holocaust just wasn’t enough and that their military guys back on Earth also set loose a biological agent that is airborne and won’t likely fade from the atmosphere for quite a while itself. So that option’s out.

Everybody decides that the moon is the best idea, despite her reputation as a mistress. Meanwhile, the fact that there aren’t a lot of women left on the American station starts to weigh down on our man Longo. See, his wife and children and species have just been incinerated in nuclear hellfire and that makes him a bit randy, as you might expect of an emotional Italian.

That’s not me saying that, that’s the book. Well, most of it.

Anyway, the lack of women on the space station is a bit of an understatement. See, there’s only one token woman on the station, and her name is Janice Svoboda, and we get a lot of background information on her and why she’s sexually repressed. What is it with science fiction and sexually repressed women coming out of their shells? Oh wait, never mind.

Also, I feel the need to point out that 95% of women in science fiction fall into one of two varieties:

1. Heartbreakingly beautiful from the first moment our hero lays eyes on her. Often she is capable in some other ways but mostly she looks good.

2. Just short of heartbreakingly beautiful, but her nose is a bit too long or her chin a bit too square or her hair exactly the wrong shade of blonde. She, too, is often quite capable of great things until the hero decides that her one little flaw can be overlooked.

Janice falls into category two.

Longo hooks up with her and she starts to come out of her shell, which as I have pointed out is often the case in these situations. They have all sorts of space-sex while underneath their sweaty undulating bodies the Earth burns. I guess it’s like doing it in front of the fireplace in a way.

The Russians and the Americans make nice and then somebody drops the bomb. Oh wait, that’s a really bad choice of words in this context, sorry, let me start over.

The Russians and Americans make nice and then somebody makes a surprise announcement. (That lost a lot of oomph.) Their scientists and mathematoguys have been talking and it seems like there’s an even better option than the moon for the continuation of the species. Why not Mars?

This is the bit I liked least about this book. Up to this point I was willingly suspending belief all over the place, and then this happens.

Longo says, essentially, that going to Mars would be a fine idea if it weren’t for the fact that there are a lot of problems with the idea.

He is rebutted with, essentially, that all those problems have solutions in technology that, up to this point, has never entered the narrative or even poked its head around the curtain to see if its mom was in the audience.

For one, they have some kind of super duper algae that can turn CO2 into O2 at a fantastic rate. For two, they can put people into cold freeze until they show up at Mars and get situated. For three, Mars has a whole bunch of buried plant matter from when it was wonderfully lush and green which will provide burnable fossil fuels. For four, the Russians believe in equality more than the Americans do so they actually have more than one woman on their space station.

I think there was more but you get the idea. Using all that hidden tech, they expect they can terraform Mars in two centuries.

Everybody’s on board except for one member of the American crew who just hates Commies and all they stand for. He figures they’re going to try and impose their Communist dialectic on the mission and the colony and its descendants and so forth. If anybody’s going to impose their will on the Red Planet, it’s not going to be any damn Reds, I’ll tell you what!

He figures the best thing he can do is sabotage the mission and doom humanity because better dead than red, I guess. He actually succeeds in destroying some fuel tanks, therefore ensuring that the mission won’t have enough fuel to get the proper orbit to reach Mars. He dies in the process, though, so nobody even gets the pleasure of throwing him out an airlock. What a weenie.

Just as everybody is about to give out hope, Longo and Janice decide to have some sex, like you do when humanity is doomed again. Just before they get to the good bits, though, one of them has an idea that saves the human race. I forget what exactly led up to this point in the pillow talk, but one of them mentions Toro, a quasi-moon of Earth. Fun fact, Toro is a real thing. It has nothing to do with bullfighting, but I think the sexy talk did, so feel free to think of that when you’re trying to sleep tonight.

Toro is reaching perigee and will zip on off and away again at a substantial speed. Our heroes are able to piggyback on its tiny gravity well to gain enough speed to make the trip to Mars. I think piggybacking also came up in the aborted sex scene. You’re welcome.

So it happens that the book ends with Longo and Janice looking out of the Martian landscape, thinking about how nice it is to save the species.

Okay so all-in-all the chief problem with this book was in its treatment of sex. It wasn’t as juvenile as some of the books I’ve read, but it was still really jarring and weird and creepy. I think the heterosexual bits were a lot worse than the homosexual bits, too, but nobody was safe in this book. What was really really jarring was that even the bits that didn’t talk about naughty bits seemed tinged with an odd sort of sexual overtone. I know you can’t talk about spaceflight without using terms like thrust, but this book really took it to the limit. Talk of mating the spaceships together came up more than a few times too.

The premise was good, even though the big switcheroo about halfway through the book about going to Mars felt badly handled. Neither the decision nor most of the technology needed to carry out the decision were mentioned for the first half of the book. The things that were mentioned were noticed by somebody like Longo but when asked about everybody just went “shh it’s a secret” and ran away giggling.

The descriptions of the orbital spaceplanes the Americans used were pretty nifty, though. The plans for the Shuttle fleet were probably being discussed in 1974 (I think they were first brought up under the Nixon administration), but Scortia pretty much nailed a lot of the ways they would work and look. I was impressed there, but he still had it using powered flight to descend back to Earth, so there’s points off. Way to not be a perfect prophet of space travel, author.

I feel like the book would have been a lot better if it’d been trimmed a lot more. It had a lot of superfluous bits that didn’t really add anything to the story, and maybe it would have worked a lot better as a novella or even a short story. I’ve been told Scortia’s shorts are better than his novels, so maybe this is a good example of that. At the very least it wouldn’t have had as much room to be so damn tinged with creepy sexuality. I need to wash my brain.

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4 Comments

  1. 2theD says:

    “treatment of sex … was still really jarring and weird and creepy” — My favorite line, by far: “There was no place to do it but on one of the tables, hanging from the bulkhead with a row of animal cages near at hand. He found it perversely exciting, especially when the hamsters seemed to catch their excitement.” (150)

    Like

    • Haha, yes! I feel like one of the things about this book that made me so uncomfortable was that Scortia talked about some sexual (and non-) aspects of Longo’s personality in such a frank and detailed way that were sort of understandable but, for lack of a better way of putting it, better left unsaid.

      The one that stood out to me most was a long description of how much Longo liked to admire his child son’s little wingwang. It was absolutely not pedophilic at all, it even made some sense. He was thinking about what a healthy and wonderful man his son would make someday. But still…maybe one just shouldn’t talk about a grown man admiring a child’s private parts.

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      • 2theD says:

        Since reading Earthwreck!, I’ve bought Artery of Fire (1972), The Prometheus Crisis (1975), and Caution! Inflammable! (1975). I’m eager to seek out other awkward moments, like “She was a marvelously hairy woman, very much true to her French ancestry. He had persuaded her, in spite of the style, never to shave under her armpits. She had a lush growth there, and its clean perspiration odor had an exciting effect on him.” (72)

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  2. According to ISFDB the cover artist is John Berkey, who’s done a lot of other covers:

    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?22975

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