Scavengers in Space by Alan E. Nourse
Ace Books, 1958
Price I paid: 50¢
“This fast-moving tale of the far future deals with the quest of the Hunter brothers for a mysterious bonanza located somewhere in the asteroid belt. The dangers and details of asteroid mining are carefully outlined, and the bonanza itself proves to be an open gate to wider future in the stars.
“Realistic background, good plotting, and vivid writing add up to a good adventure.”
There are books that I’m glad to finish. There are of course two reasons to be happy a book is over with. The one I’m more familiar with is, of course, a book being so bad or boring or tiresome that I’m glad I’ll never have to look at it again. And that’s fine. It’s sort of my bread and butter, as well as an enduring lesson into the precepts of Buddhism.
The other reason is that a book is so good that I’m just genuinely happy to have read it. Reasons for that run the gamut from a book that changes the direction of my life (The Once and Future King helped me decide to go into Medieval Studies in college, employability be damned), to a book that helps shape my entire worldview (The Illuminatus Trilogy might be a long-winded undefinable yarn, but the lesson seems to be that life is how you see it, so why not choose to see it as something fun and exciting), to a book that was just a ripping good tale that didn’t try to do either of those things (Scavengers in Space, yes, this book I’m about to review).
It was so good, folks!
Not only was it a fast-paced, exciting story with tolerable characterization, a decent plot, and a fun premise, it was also fairly hard science fiction. I’m not usually drawn to the harder stuff. I find it tends to lose the human element while being enamored of its own realism. Sometimes, though, some hard science meets with a decent story and you get fireworks. That’s what I live for.
It’s not to say this book was 100% accurate when it comes to science. It made a few common mistakes when it comes to astronomy, but bear in mind that it was written in 1958. Our experience in space, as a species, consisted of a couple of Sputniks by this point, I think. And who knows when Alan E. Nourse started writing the thing.
A neat side-note on the author: he was fairly prolific, with some novels and short stories under his belt that are fairly well-regarded. He was also a doctor and a lot of his work seems to reflect that, although this one didn’t all that much. Most notable is that he had a 1978 book called The Bladerunner that has absolutely nothing to do with Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or the Ridley Scott film adaptation other than the fact that at some point someone (maybe Ridley Scott himself) decided that the Phil Dick title wasn’t very good for a movie and thus got permission to grab the title of Nourse’s book for the movie. Isn’t that crazy neat?
But this isn’t about The Bladerunner (although I’m going to see if I can find a copy), it’s about Scavengers in Space.
Our heroes for this book are Greg and Tom Hunter. They’re twins from Mars. Their dad, Roger Hunter, is an asteroid prospector. Or perhaps I should say was, because he dies first thing in the book.
Another side-note: this book had a lot of typos in it, which makes for an interesting study in how a poorly-edited book doesn’t necessarily mean a bad one. I bring this up because at one point in the prologue their dad was called Roger Hunger, which is just funny.
Asteroid prospecting is just about what you’d expect. People go out, look at some asteroids, see if any have some usable metals, stake a claim (at one point somebody “steaks” a claim, though), and sell it off. It’s hard work, but everyone goes into it hoping that they’ll find the motherlode, an asteroid just chock full of high-quality metal that will make them super rich. For all we know, that’s what Roger has found when a ship from Jupiter Equilateral shows up and kills him.
Enter Greg and Tom. Greg is a test pilot, Tom is just some kind of dude. They’re twins, and although they were born identical, life has shaped them in wildly different directions. Tom was struck by “a Martian neurovirus similar to Polio” as a child (note how it wasn’t just “Martian Polio” or “Space Polio” or something like that) and that made him sickly and timid. As a result, the two brothers don’t have much to do with each other until they find out their father is dead.
They’re both convinced that Jupiter Equilateral had something to do with it. JE is a massive megacorporation that also has aims of controlling the whole Solar System both economically and politically. They’ve got control over the Asteroid Belt and are reaching their greedy fingers over to Mars. Nobody seems to be able to stop them. Unfortunately, since they’re so powerful, it’ll be hard for Greg and Tom to pin anything on them that’ll hold up in court.
So the two decide to set out and find what their father found as well as some hard proof that JE had something to do with his death. They enlist the help of their father’s right-hand-man, Johnny Coombs, whose name I kept reading as Jeffrey Combs (so that’s who I imagine him looking like, and that’s awesome), and set out for the belt where they are almost immediately captured.
They do manage to find their father’s ship first, which is nice. Tom grabs his father’s old gun (the book keeps bringing it up so I guess I should mention it in connection with our favorite Russian playwright), and tries to make a break for it, or so everybody thinks. He actually uses a cunning plan to make everybody think he made a break for it and got exploded with the ship, and thus he is able to catch the bad guys unawares.
You know, as far as character progression goes, Tom zips right through it. He goes from 90 pound weakling to the driving force of the narrative in like ten pages.
Greg and Johnny are on board the JE mining ship, which is just a big huge advanced thing. It specifically states it has a crew of about 400, which is about the crew size of the Enterprise, so I figure that’s what it looks like.
Star Trek, shaping my view of all science fiction since 1989.
While Greg and Johnny are being interrogated and detained by some guy named Merrill Tawney, Tom is sneaking around the ship’s air ducts trying to make a plan. He finally meets up with the other guys and they decide to just wreck the ship until they can make a proper escape. So that’s what they do.
In the meantime, they learn that Tawney has been searching in vain for the asteroid their father found. Investigation, though, has only found a bunch of regular rock-type asteroids (which are weak to water-type, fighting-type, ground-type, grass-type, and steel-type asteroids).
Remember the gun I mentioned? It gets to be important. Johnny looks at it and says, basically, that this is by no means the gun that their father carried. It is, in fact, nothing like it. In double fact, it’s not even a gun.
What the hell, guys.
Well, honestly it’s kind of a gun. But it’s nothing like any gun they or anyone else is familiar with. So they do the thing that doesn’t make any sense—but let’s be honest with ourselves, we’d all do it—and pull the trigger.
ZIP ZAP ZIBBITY ZOOP
Turns out they end up melting a bulkhead.
So they do the thing we’d all do in this circumstance and use their phenomenally powerful ray gun that is leagues ahead of current technology to just wreck stuff. They use the ventilation shafts to access all these parts of the ship like the engine room and hydroponics and just blow holes in the walls, the equipment, the floors, and whatever else just happens to be sitting there. I’m sure some guy was just waiting to get back to his quarters to eat his leftover synthopizza and is going to be sorely disappointed.
They cause enough havoc to get Tawney to give them a scout ship they can take back to Mars. He does and they do. As soon as they show up they are arrested for space piracy.
Fortunately the guy who arrests them has no love for Jupiter Equilateral, and while there’s nothing he can do about the charges, he at least doesn’t make things too rough on them for now.
It’s while they’re sitting around waiting for the other boot to drop that Tom comes up with the solution. Everybody had already figured out that the raygun was probably what their father found instead of some ore, but surely there’s more to it. But where? None of the asteroids near their father’s ship had anything of note, and asteroid orbits are generally really stable. It couldn’t have just disappeared. Then he looks at a map and gets it.
See, most asteroids in the belt follow roughly the same orbit between Mars and Jupiter. A few are weird, though. Tom hits upon the fact that one of those weird ones passed by where his father’s ship was when they found it. It’s called Hermes.
You know what, let’s use some diagrams.
(There’s a real-life asteroid named Hermes, discovered in 1937, that does follow a highly elliptical orbit, but it doesn’t cross the actual belt like this one does, so I guess they’re not one and the same. Oh well.)
They all set out because yeaaaaaahhhh
That’s where they find the awesomeness. It’s a time capsule of sorts, left by an alien race. They open it up and find some things that sound astonishingly like CDs to me, but they also find a simple diagram. Ten planets (counting Pluto). One of the planets (between the red one with two moons and the giant one with a buncha moons), has a little line coming off it. Follow the line to a binary star.
The interpretation the characters come to is that there was once a planet where the Belt is now. It exploded, but a scientist sent his newborn baby to another star, whose yellow light would empower him oh wait no that’s Superman
No the real interpretation is similar, though. The inhabitants of Sol V set out for Alpha Centauri but left behind a memento. This is important for two reasons: it proves that humans are not alone in the universe, and also that interstellar travel is possible.
Tawney shows up one last time to throw poop on the parade, but some quick thinking takes care of him and everybody is saved. There’s even evidence to implicate him and JE in the murder of Roger Hunter, thus discrediting their efforts to take over the Solar System.
The book ends with everybody happy, including me.
Okay! Wow! That was really fun!
Like I said, the book had a few scientific errors, but the only major one deals with the ending here. Lots of people have speculated that the Main Belt may have once been a planet that exploded (I believe the science term is “Got Alderaan’d”) but sadly this idea has become discredited. There’s just not enough mass there to make up a whole planet. Ceres, the largest asteroid (and a dwarf planet), is about a third of the total mass of the entire belt. The entire mass of the belt would come out to about 4% of Earth’s moon. Modern speculation is that there was once enough mass there to quite possibly have formed a planet, but it never solidified because of Jupiter’s massive gravity well, so about 99% of that mass either fell into The Sun or Jupiter or the dinosaurs.
The book got a lot of other stuff right, though. When the group was heading into the belt, Tom made some kind of offhand “When are we gonna get there” comment. Johnny pulls an Ozymandias and is like “We’ve been there for a half an hour.” He then explains that there’s a lot of empty space in the asteroid belt. It’s only busy compared to everywhere else. If you want to see an asteroid, you basically have to go looking for one.
Other stuff like Hohmann orbital transfers and deceleration burns were at least mentioned. Alan E. Nourse did his homework. I only know about most of that from playing Kerbal Space Program and Wikipedia. Being interested in space travel back in the fifties must have been hard.
You know what’s even crazier? The front cover of this book is an accurate representation of something that happened in the book. I know. I’m scared too.
So this one’s going into the lost classics pile. I encourage you to read it or any other books by the author. I certainly hope that his other books are this entertaining, and either way he deserves to be read by more people.
You know what? Let’s take this further. How do we get this guy a Retro Hugo?
3 thoughts on “Scavengers in Space”
“Star Trek, shaping my view of all science fiction since 1989.”
sigh same here, dude.
The book can’t possibly be as exciting as this review!
This really sounds like a great find – fast, fun, smart, zippy, and some good science and gee-wiz thrown in. Close enough that you can “feel it can be real” which is a lost art in much SF sadly.
I get what you mean about these books – being a person that read some weird obscure genre stuff over the years, there really are hidden treasures out there.
Turns out this one is also on the iBooks store. ;-)
What this one really reads like to me is a Tom Swift novel; writing style, pacing, even the story and characters struck me as closely resembling Tom Swift (though I doubt they’d ever kill off Tom’s dad in the opening scene…).