THE PLANET STRAPPERS
started out as The Bunch, a group of student-astronauts in the back room of a store in Jarviston, Minnesota. They wanted off Earth, and they begged, borrowed, and built what they needed to make it.
THE PLANET STRAPPERS got what they wanted—a start on the road to the stars—but no one brought up on Earth could have imagined what was waiting for them Out There!
In THE PLANET STRAPPERS, Ray Gallun has written a story of the Day After Tomorrow—a story of what it will be like for the men who cross the space frontier—a story that some of us will be living some day….
When I picked this book up to read it, I had no idea what was going on on the cover. We’ve got some kind of space stations or satellites or something. They’re coming from what I guess is supposed to be a planet? There’s nothing present to give us any sense of scale, so it’s hard to determine if these metal contraptions are fit for, say, a single person or the remnants of an entire civilization. They appeared, to me, to be very large. It turns out I was wrong.
What’s surprising is that these things get described and detailed in the book! This is one of the few times when I looked at a cover, didn’t know what was going on, and then read the book and suddenly I understood what was going on on the cover. I guess “suddenly” isn’t the right word, since I had to work my way into this universe and figure out what was going on, but when I did, the realization that the cover art did represent something from the book was sudden, so I’m still partly right.
This is another book that seemed like two narratives combined into one novel, with the first narrative comprising the first half of the book, almost to the exact page. This is a thing that seems to happen a lot. I get the feeling that a number of books are written when a publisher says “I like this idea, give me 80,000 words” and so the author writes about 40,000 and then switches it up, maybe because the first plot wasn’t going anywhere or because the second plot was the one they really wanted to do and they felt they needed to work their way up to it. I’m curious about this method of writing and how right I am about it.
So the first half of the book is an ensemble cast. There are twelve people who call themselves “The Bunch.” They’re all young, in their early twenties for the most part, and they want to go to space. It’s their common dream. They meet up in a hardware store in their hometown in Minnesota, where they’re working hard to make this dream come true. It was all very sweet and fun to read. It had a certain poetry to it, a whimsy maybe, that made the whole thing seem like what might have happened if Homer Hickam and Ray Bradbury had written a book together.
Perhaps most surprising was the composition of The Bunch. There were twelve of them, and while at first I expected it to be twelve strong white boys with big dreams, I was wrong. There was a young woman named Eileen. There was a guy with a bum leg and a congenital heart defect. There was a black guy. There was a hispanic guy. There was a nerdy guy.
It was so inclusive! Sure, half of The Bunch were hale and hearty white guys, the sort who played football and wore letterman jackets to the malt shop with their best girls, but they were working side-by-side with people who were, well, not 50s caricatures. For the most part they got along, too!
So we follow this group of kids as they try their best to get off Earth and explore the solar system. This isn’t some kind of plot where it turns out that they’re the first to do it or anything, perhaps braving the impossible and making it merely improbable with a healthy dose of by-your-own-bootstraps and vigorous exercise and healthy eating and studying engineering and patriotism. What I’m saying is that this was not actually a Heinlein juvenile, but it had some similarities.
No, the solar system has had people in it for a while (not just on Earth). The moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt are all colonized, and there are even people struggling to make Mercury and Venus work for them. What these kids want to do is get out there and help out with the effort and make their fortunes.
I had a hard time figuring out which of these characters was going to be the main one. Could it be that they were all main characters? The idea scared me. A dozen people with stories making up a book of less than 160 pages would be crowded and nearly unreadable. No one would get enough time to have any kind of story worth mentioning.
The group makes some strides, securing some obsolete (workable but cheap) space suits, the parts to make some ion drives, and a hefty supply of some stuff called stellene. Stellene is what that makes this particular book work, but surprisingly the plot doesn’t really hinge on it or anything like you’d expect. It’s just there.
What it is is basically airtight canvas. It’s got some other properties, like blocking cosmic radiation, but really it’s the stuff you use to make an inflatable spaceship. What do you inflate it with? Oxygen, duh.
Getting it up into space is the hard part. Conventional rockets are still necessary, and they ain’t cheap. You can charter one, but that’s still not cheap. The folks take out a loan to get the ready cash, get their space green cards (some kind of fitness test is required to blast off), and then start dropping out. The first to leave is a guy whose name I don’t remember but later in the book we find out that he died in a car accident after everybody else left. He was too chicken to live out his dream, got surly, got alcoholic, and boom. That’s sad.
What was even more sad, to me anyway, is that the girl, Eileen, drops out of the group too. She decides that this isn’t the time for her to go. Later we find out that she does go to space, but in a more “feminine” way, which bugged me at first because I thought maybe she went up by promising to marry some dude on the moon. Turns out it was far from it! She went up to the moon, yeah, but she because an exotic dancer and later became the most famous one in the solar system. No one spoke ill of her for it, I guess it’s nice that we don’t have slut shaming in this future, but it still felt weird to me that she didn’t do what the men all did when she was a competent engineer and so forth. It felt like the author just wrote her out of the way.
So what used to be twelve scrappy kids turn out to be ten, and they all go to space. They inflate their “bubbs” (short for bubbles), and all get going.
See, it turns out that individual spaceships are the way of this particular future. Stellene can be used to create almost any sized space structure, and they even use it for buildings on the moon and Mars.
The party splits up but promises to keep in touch. Our viewpoint chracter turns out to be Frank Nelsen, a standard white kid from the ‘burbs.
At this stage the story sort of fell apart. I couldn’t follow it anymore and it didn’t feel like there was much of a point to it. Frank jets around the solar system in his bubb and gets into some shenanigans which he then manages to escape, usually thanks to a serendipitous arrival of one of the other members of The Bunch, which incidentally changed its name to The Planet Strappers when they left Earth. We mostly get to see, through his eyes, how the other members of the group make good. One of them becomes a botonist on Mars and saves Frank’s life when the plant life there turns on him. Two of them set up shop in the asteroid belt and Frank manages to sell them some scrap when he’s low on cash. One of them becomes the first human to visit Saturn, which nearly kills him. The list goes on.
Frank, on the other hand, almost gets killed everywhere he goes. On the moon he ends up working for an archaelogist who basically tries to enslave him. He escapes that and goes to the asteroid belt, where he almost gets killed by space bandits. He goes to Mars and almost gets killed by sentient Martian plants. It goes on.
There were a lot of really neat ideas in this book but hardly any of them were dwelt on for more than a couple of pages. Some of the other ideas, like space bandits, were less original but they could have at least turned into something to get the plot rolling. Everything just seemed, I dunno, incidental. Maybe that’s not the right word, but nothing carried much narrative weight and instead were just background noise to Frank’s occasional wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have left Earth in the first place.
He bounces around for a while until, for reasons I didn’t understand, a group of people have decided to gather up a fleet of bubbs and forgo living on rocks altogether. This is hailed as a grand idea and Frank joins them. It turns out that the space bandits are back and they raise some hell. Stellene bubbles are prone to being punctured. When it happens, it’s usually fatal to whoever was inside. Some people die.
The crisis is ended when Frank hollers at the bandits and says “Hey, your life sucks, come live with us,” and some of the bandits think that might be a good idea, but other bandits are like “Hell no” and they get in a fight and the bandits all kill each other.
Frank moves back to Earth and the book ends when he marries the cute neighbor girl.
I didn’t understand anything that happened in this book after about page 80. It was so disjointed that it didn’t make any sense. The plot jumped from incident to incident so quickly that I’d have to go back and re-read pages because I missed a line that was the linking point between two pieces of the story.
But it had such good little ideas! I love the idea of inflatable spaceships. I love that they were powered by accurately portrayed ion drives. I love that there was a minor bit where a new model spacesuit came out that let you take off the boots and change your socks. I love the idea of a dozen scrappy kids whipping up some spaceships in the back room of a hardware store because their dream is to go to space. I love that it’s well known in this future that Mars was once inhabited but they went to war with the folks that lived on the planet that became the asteroid belt and they wiped each other out millions of years ago.
I love so much about this book.
I just hate everything else in it.
With a good story to support it, this book would have been grand. And to make matters worse, it almost did. The first eighty pages were some damn fine writing. I wanted that to be the whole book. I’m sure there are plenty of books out there, like aforementioned Heinlein juvies, that are pretty much just that.
Worth mentioning is the fact that 1961 was pretty late in the day for a book of this particular flavor to come out. Ray Gallun was a bigger deal in the 30s, I’ve seen him compared to Stanley Weinbaum and Edmond Hamilton. I see here that he had some better works, ones with some better ideas floating around in them, and I’d like to take a look, but The Planet Strappers left a bad taste in my mouth at the end. Like I was enjoying a delicious baked potato and them somebody came in and swapped it out with liver while I was up getting a Dr Pepper.
The Dr Pepper in this analogy is global warming.