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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Two Christmases

Some years back I wrote a piece for Alex's previous blog, Dead to My Flesh, about the Holiday Season and why having a War on Christmas makes little sense if you don't know which one you're shooting at.    Since the Divine Ms Sarah, (or as I like to think of her, the Lina Lamont of the Republican Party), has just come out with a book opening her own salvo in that War, I think now's a good time to recycle my take on The Two Christmases:

* * * * *

For a while back when I lived in Darkest Iowa, I shared a duplex apartment with my wacky brother Steeve and my friend Scott. One year, Scott asked me to draw some Christmas cards for him to send to his Internet friends. This was around 1990, back in the caveman days. We didn't actually have Internet access ourselves, but Scott had borrowed a friend's university account and spent a lot of his free time on a computer bulletin board based out of the University of Iowa. For a while, both Scott and I were forum moderators at that site, (despite the fact that neither of us were students at U of I and in fact I was an alumnus of Iowa State).

I drew three different designs for him. One was a parody of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" featuring the bulletin board's Sysop. One was a fairly bland one with a picture of a computer made out of snow. The third one bore the message "Have a Happy and Blessed Christmas Season."

"You can't say that," Scott said.

"Why not?"

"Because a lot of the people on my list are wiccans and atheists and agnostics. They'd be offended!"

Personally, I didn't see why they should. The message wasn't making any kind of religious statement; it just extended good wishes. My own attitude was, to paraphrase Bette Midler, if they can't take a blessing, screw `em. But since I was doing the cards for Scott in the first place, I acceded to his wishes and changed the message to a non-controversial "Greason's Seetings."

I think about Scott and his cards when I hear about the "War on Christmas". I suppose my experience should put me on the side of the Righteous Warriors out to protect Baby Jesus from the Evil Secularists. Somehow, though, I can't get that worked up about it. If a cashier wishes me a "Happy Holidays", she's expressing a hope that nice things happen; the same as if she had said "Merry Christmas," "Groovy Kwanzaa", "Swingin' Solstice" or "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy roost on your planet." I don't have to celebrate any of those things to recognize and appreciate nice intentions. In the same way, I don't have to consider it an affront to God if somebody says "gesundheit" when I sneeze instead of "God bless you." Take it in the spirit in which it's given.

At one time I used to get all bent out of shape about the Secularization of Christmas. I particularly detested the deification of Santa Claus. When I was in junior high and full of adolescent anger and self-righteousness, I wrote an abrasive, curmudgeonly piece on the subject which upon saner reflection I threw away. A thirteen-year-old curmudgeon is not a pretty thing. My views towards Ol' Saint Nick have mellowed since then as I have come to accept what I call The Two Christmases.

There are two holidays celebrated on December 25th. One, of course, is the Feast of the Nativity, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then there's the other holiday, the Feast of Jingle Bells and Jolly Fat Men in Red Suits and Reindeer with Luminous Noses. Both holidays happen to have the same name, but they're different.

I celebrate both; and I don't see why the two need to be mutually exclusive.

Where the Christmas Warriors get it wrong is where they assume that the holiday has to be either one or the other. To a certain extent, I can sympathize with their point. I worship Christ, the holiday's namesake; and it does bother me when the earthly Babel sounds of the secular festivities drown out the song which the blessed angels sing. The Puritans felt this way and so they banned Christmas all together when they ruled England under Cromwell. Which is a funny way to honor a man who loved parties and who used feasts in his parables to represent the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christmas, as it is celebrated today, has a rich and varied tradition; sacred and secular, spiritual and commercial, tacky and sublime. There's a lot of Christmas stuff that I deeply love, despite having no connection to the Nativity story and only a tenuous connection, if that, to my religious convictions: family get-togethers, the giving of gifts, Vince Guaraldi`s piano music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas", just about any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Thurl Ravenscroft singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".

When I was little, our family had a devotional booklet that we used every Christmas called The Talking Christmas Tree. Instead of setting up the Christmas tree and decorating it all at once, we'd put it together bit by bit. The first night we'd just put up the tree. The second night we'd add the lights. Then little by little we'd add more to the tree and we'd have a devotion talking about how each addition could symbolize something about God.

Now I know that most of those decorations, and the tree itself, can be traced back to pagan sources, which is why the Puritans had such a problem with the holiday. But part of the joy of Christmas comes not from purging the religious holiday of all secular dross, but rather of finding things in the holiday bramble that enrich and illuminate the spiritual aspects.

(According to one story, Martin Luther put up the first Christmas tree. Walking home one winter, he was so struck by the beauty of stars shining though the evergreens that he brought a tree home and put lighted candles in its branches so his family could see. And right after that, Philip Melanchthon invented fire insurance. This story is almost certainly untrue; other scholars trace the decorating of trees back to pre-Christian times; still, it's a good story).

It works both ways. Just as Christians can enrich their celebrations with aspects of the secular holiday, so too can Christian elements filter out into to world at large. Usually these elements are diluted: sentimental crèche scenes, platitudes of "Peace on Earth", Madonna and Child postage stamps; but God's Word does not return empty; not even when it's been wrapped in tinsel.

If we limit Christmas to only Christ - which I do believe is the most important part - then we also exclude those who aren't Christian from the holiday; we become in effect dogs in the manger. If we actually wind up driving people away from that manger, then we ain't doing Baby Jesus any favors.

"Happy Holidays" is a blessing, and ultimately all blessings come from God. The proper response isn't "That's Merry Christmas, you PC secularist!" but rather "Thank you; and a Merry Christmas to you too!"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Welcome to the Red Planet

The planet Mars has always had a peculiar attraction to the human imagination and has been closely associated with science fiction for about as long as there has been science fiction. Venus is closer and brighter in Earth's night sky, but ruddy Mars, with its war-like associations gets all the attention. Personally, I blame Schiaparelli.

 The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made a series of telescopic observations of Mars during the Great Opposition of 1877, when Mars and Earth came closest to each other in their orbits. Among the most notable features of the planet's surface on the maps he drew from his observations were a network of lines, which he called "canali", meaning "channels." He figured that they were natural geological features of the planet, but when his works were translated into English his "canali" were interpreted as "canals", implying artificial waterways built by extra-terrestrial intelligences.

The American astronomer Percival Lowell was fascinated by Mars and in 1894 used his family fortune to build an observatory near Flagstaff Arizona for the purpose of studying the planet. He firmly believed that the Canals of Mars were evidence of intelligent life on Mars, and popularized the idea of Martian Civilizations and that Mars was an older, dying planet -- ideas which the new field of Science Fiction embraced enthusiastically.

Although other novels featuring the Red Planet had been written before, they fade in importance before H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.  We've looked at this book before, but let me repeat a couple significant points. The main theme of the novel is about imperialism; Wells imagines what it would be like if alien invaders did to England what Europeans had been doing to the rest of the world. Wells followed Lowell's interpretation of the Nebular Hypothesis that the Martians would have and older, probably dying civilization, and took it farther, imagining what evolutionary changes would have occurred in such a race.

War of the Worlds was so popular that in the same year it spawned an unauthorized sequel called Edison's Conquest of Mars, in which the noted Wizard of Menlo Park builds a spaceship of his own so that the Americans teach the Martians something about payback. The author clearly missed the point Wells was trying to make about imperialism.

Other notable Martian romances of that period include A Honeymoon In Space (1900),  and Gullivar of Mars (1905), whose hero travels to Mars on a flying carpet.

Novels such as these were the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, which firmly established the Planetary Romance genre.

In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback began publishing science fiction magazines with two guiding principles: that each story be grounded in science and that each writer be paid as little as possible. (Sometimes the science was pretty tenuous, but then his writers would say so were Hugo's paychecks). Stories about space exploration frequently involved Mars; one of the closest planets to Earth, the one science knew the most about, and the one which, according to Percival Lowell, showed evidence of alien life.

By this time, astronomy had largely discredited the canals of Mars. The lines Schiaparelli saw were the result of flawed equipment and the lines Powell saw were the result of wishful thinking. But they remained firmly fixed in the popular imagination for decades to come.

Probably the best story from this period was Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey", published in 1934. It describes a space explorer who has crash landed on Mars making his way on foot to his expedition's base camp, and is notable for the imaginative martian fauna he encounters and for the friendship that develops between him and the native martian who accompanies him on his journey. Some critics consider the martian Tweel to be the first fictional alien to meet the challenge of later Astounding editor John W. Campbell: "Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

The Northwest Smith stories by C.L. Moore written between 1933 and 1936 were also set on Mars but mixed a bit of noir -- and a bit of Lovecraft as well -- into the setting.

About the same time, a couple of stuffy Oxford professors who had a taste for fantastic literature decided there weren't enough books of the type they liked and so agreed that they would each write a science fiction story. J.R.R. Tolkien would write a story of time travel, and his friend C.S. Lewis would write about space travel. Tolkien never finished his story about psychic time travelers witnessing the destruction of Númenor, but Lewis's Wellsian pastiche became Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Lewis was influenced by H.G. Wells in his story, most notably by The First Men in the Moon, and although the story makes deprecating comments about Wells's novels, Lewis acknowledges in a preface his debt to them.

Lewis felt self-conscious about how he hand-waved the science in his tale. He included the canals in the story, but made them so freakin' huge -- as they'd have to be to be visible from Earth -- that the protagonist spends much of the story inside one and never identifies it as such until he leaves the planet and sees them from a distance.

The year 1938 brought Wells and Mars to the public attention in another way when Orson Welles produced an updated radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that was so plausible in it's simulated news flashes that it convinced a great many people that Martians really had landed in Grover's Corners New Jersey.

In the 1940s - 1950s, Robert Heinlein wrote several novels set on or involving Mars. Heinlein never tried to shoehorn all these stories into a consistent universe -- not exactly -- but his martians all had points in common. They had three legs, they had a culture largely incomprehensible to humans, and they frequently had powers and abilities that made them terrifying when they were angered. Fortunately, for the most part humans were beneath their notice, so they rarely got that angered. They feature prominently in Red Planet (1949) and Double Star (1956) and are the source of the mystic religion/philosophy taught by Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Ray Bradbury, who as a young boy growing up in growing up in Waukegan Illinois devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs, wrote several stories set on Mars, most of which were collected in 1950 as The Martian Chronicles. The book describes the first human landings on Mars, the enigmatic contacts with the native martians, how men settle across Mars like a tide across the dead martian deserts, and then recedes again.

By the 1950s, Mars had spread from the pulp magazines into popular culture, appearing in science fiction movies. One of the most interesting was Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a science fiction re-working of the DeFoe classic and featuring a truly creepy performance by Adam West. No, seriously. Arguably the worst was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) which, if you look at it the right way could be seen as a prophetic allegory about the Fall of the Soviet Empire... nah, it's still bad. Then there was Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), except that the boys never actually get to Mars; they land in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and just think it's Mars. They do go to Venus though.

Science fiction stories involving Mars also appeared on television as well, most notably on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Isaac Asimov at one point tried pitching an idea for a television space opera. Athough his brainy action hero "Lucky" Starr never made it to the small screen, Asimov adapted his idea into a series of novels starting with David Starr, Space Ranger (1952). The first novel was set in a commercial farming community on Mars and one of the characters, a martian-born human named Bigman, became Lucky's sidekick. Asimov was a little embarrassed about writing trashy space opera, and wrote the series under the pseudonym "Paul French", although by the time he started introducing positronic robots following the Three Laws of Robotics into the series, no one was really fooled.

In 1962, the Mariner space probes gave us our first really good look at the planet Mars, and much of what we thought was true turned out to be false. There were no canals; there were no gleaming cities; there were no oviparous princesses on six-legged thoats.

Something of the romance went out of Mars with the Mariner space probe, but it remains the most likely next step after the Moon if mankind is ever going to go out into space; (Venus, alas, is completely hostile; Mariner was even less kind to her). So it remains an important setting in science fiction.

And who is to say that we can't go retro? In 1998 a very good role-playing game written by Frank Chadwick was published titled Space: 1889, which hearkened back to the era of Edison's Conquest of Mars, describing a world in which the Great Powers of the 19th Century have established colonies on Mars and Venus. Alan Moore's comic The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen had one issue set on the Mars of the 19th Century featuring John Carter, Gullivar and C.S. Lewis's sorns forcing Wells's tentacled martians to flee to Earth.

Percival Lowell's dreams may not have been real, but they haven't yet died.

NEXT WEEK: Who would have guessed it? Next time we're going to Mars! We begin a look at Ray Bradbury's ode to the Red Planet, The Martian Chronicles. Get ready for Rocket Summer!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 6: The Battle for Osnome

Concluding our look at Edward E. "Doc" Smith's seminal space opera, The Skylark of Space.

Dick Seaton and his partner Martin Crane have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, and another girl, Margaret Spencer, who had been abducted by Seaton's scientific rival Marc C. DuQuense. Now the lot of them are in a remote section of the galaxy, trying to find enough copper to fuel Seaton's spaceship, the Skylark.

This search has landed them right in the middle of a millennia-old conflict between the Kondalians and the Mardonalians on the planet Osnome. Imprisoned by the jerk of a ruler of Mardonale, Seaton manages to escape with the help of Dunark, the crown prince of Kondal. Now the Skylark, badly damaged in the fight, is on its way to the palace of Dunark's father.

The Skylark arrives in Kondal and is greeted by Dunark's father Roban, the Karfedix of Kondal. Dunark introduces Seaton and Crane as "Karfedix of Knowledge" and "Karfedix of Wealth" respectively.

Dunark's father is puzzled. The word "Karfedix" means roughly "emperor." "Knowledge and wealth are not -- cannot be -- ruled over. Are you sure that you have translated their titles correctly?"
"No translation is possible. Crane has no title, and was not at all willing for me to apply any title to him. Seaton's title, one of learnedness, has no equivalent in our language. ... Their government is not a government at all, but stark madness, the rulers being chosen by the people themselves, who change their minds and their rulers every year or two. And everyone being equal before the law, does just about as he pleases..." 
"Incredible!" exclaimed Roban. "How, then, is anything done?" 
"I do not know. I simply do not understand it at all. They do not seem to care, as a nation, whether anything worth while gets done or not, as long as each man has what he calls his liberty."
But Dunark insists that despite the earthmen's incomprehensible values and sense of ethics (not to mention Seaton's inexplicable truce with his enemy DuQuense and their bizarre insistence of wearing clothing), "...their sense of honor is, at bottom, as sound as ours, and as strong." And the fact that Nalboon tried to kill them puts the earthmen firmly on Kondal's side.

After the formal reception is over, Margaret takes Crane aside. "What did Dunark mean calling you Karfedix of Wealth?" He had originally been introduced to her as Marty Crane, an inventor friend of Dick's; when she agreed to marry him she had no idea he was M. Reynolds Crane, the billionaire industrialist. He takes her in his arms. "Is that all that was bothering you?"

As Dorothy had guessed earlier, if Margaret had known about Martin's wealth, she would have been too intimidated to talk to him. But now that the two have gotten to know each other, and fallen in love, and agreed to marry, the unfortunate situation of Crane's fortune is not longer an impediment.

Dorothy also wants to speak privately with Dick. Being located in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet Osnome never experiences night. She tells Dick that the continual daylight and lack of darkness is starting to freak her out and making it difficult for her to sleep. She cuddles up to him and pleads, "I never thought I was a clinging-vine type, I'm I'm getting to be. I'm simply scared to death to go to bed."

Seaton, the classic clueless male, misses the point. "We'll fix the chariot and snap back to Earth in a hurry."
She pushed him into his room, followed him inside, closed the door, and put both hands on his shoulders. 
"Dick Seaton," she said blushing hotly, "You're not as dumb as I thought you were -- you're dumber! But if you won't say it, even after such a sob-story as that, I will. No law says that a marriage has to be performed on Earth to be legal."
Despite all the alien nudity they encounter, this is the closest we're going to get to a bedroom scene in this story. Be that as it may, Dick agrees to talk to Dunark about arranging a wedding ceremony; and at Dorothy's suggestion, talking to Martin about making the wedding a double one. Seaton handles this with his usual lack of tact, but both Martin and Margaret are agreeable. "The sooner the better," Margaret says blushing.

Dunark's father is delighted at the opportunity to host their double wedding.
"Marriage between such highly-evolved persons as are you four is demanded by the First Cause, whose servants we all are. Aside from that, it is an unheard-of honor for any ruler to have even one other karfedix married under his roof, and you are granting me the honor of two! I thank you, and assure you that we will do our best to make the occasion memorable."
The Osnomian religion is a curious blending of theology and Darwinism. They believe in a supreme being, which they call the First Cause, and of the existence of "an immortal and unknowable life-principle, or soul." But they also regard the "survival of the fittest" not just as a natural law, but as a Divine Commandment. Although weaker in physical strength than humans due to the planet's weaker gravity, the natives of Osnome are otherwise physically perfect, thanks to millennia of selective breeding. There is a dark side to their Divinely-mandated Darwinistic culture: the feeble-minded and the feeble-bodied are executed; and the punishments for "vice" are particularly draconian. This vast difference in cultures is one of the reasons Dunark has difficulty understanding Seaton's culture, despite having all the memories in Seaton's brain imprinted on his own.

There are three levels of marriage on Osnome. Couples are initially given a two-year trial marriage, but may at any time opt for a full marriage. Couples of the highest evolutionary development and mental character -- and Kondal's Chief Prelate and Commander of the Army assure Seaton and his friends that they are such -- are permitted the third level of marriage which is bound not just until death, but all eternity. As part of the marriage ceremony, the couples are given brain scans to ensure their compatibility.

Dick wonders if the Kondalian wedding will be considered valid on Earth. "Is there any precedent in law that says a man can make a promise that will be binding on his immortal soul for all the rest of eternity?"
"I rather doubt it," Martin replies. "I'm sure there will be, however, when our attorneys close the case."

For the ceremony, the girls wear dazzling gowns made of iridescent Onsomian fabrics -- the Onsomians generally don't wear clothing, but will wear robes of state on formal occasions -- and ornamented with the brilliant jewels that the Onsomians love. Dunark sheepishly admits that he gave them the smallest diamonds he could find; by terrestrial standards they are still gaudy and ostentatious. Each one of the two couples receive a special jewel, called a faidon; a beautiful, light-emitting adamantite crystal; to symbolize their eternal bond of love
The guys, lacking formal wear of their own, dress in tennis whites. "Only Dunark will know that whites are not our most formal dress." Given the tropical Kondalian climate and the exotic lighting from Osnomes multitude of suns, tennis togs prove to be a perfect choice.

While the wedding preparations are being made, Seaton and Dunark are also working on building a new version of the Skylark as well as new ships for the Kondalian navy. Seaton gives Dunark several pounds of salt from the Skylark's stores -- they have plenty to spare -- as well as some of the nuggets of X metal they found on the planet of the Carboniferous Era monsters -- Seaton knows where he can get more.

The Kondalians make the new Skylark to Seaton's specifications out of arenak, the transparent, nigh-invulnerable metal they use to armor their battleships. The salt Dick gave to Dunark is a necessary catalyst in the process of making arenak. (Smith, the chemist, must have liked catalysts). While the new ship is being built, Dunark also has his people manufacturing the copper bars they'll need to power it. Smith devotes as much loving description to the construction of the new Skylark as he does to the wedding.

While testing out the new Skylark, a karlon, one of the huge sky-leviathans that roam the planet, appears near the site. Seaton and Crane try capturing the beast for scientific study using the Skylark's attractor beams. They "hook" it, and the monster takes the Skylark on the aerial equivalent of a Nantucket sleigh-ride, zooming from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean, to burrowing into the muck of a swamp. Unable to tire the beast, or even of driving it away, Dick reluctantly finishes it off with an explosive shell.

Dunark has also been concerned about a possible Mardonalian attack. While a prisoner of Nalboon, he overheard discussion about some kind of secret weapon. Seaton suggests that Dunark take the first batch of copper bars, fly over to Mardonale and raid the palace, but Dunark is offended by the idea. Under the Kondalian Code, he is obligated to supply Seaton's ship first and only then see to his own needs. Dick apologizes. He doesn't understand why this matter of honor is so important to Dunark any more than Dunark understands Seaton's need to wear pants, but he knows that it is important and respects that.

Suddenly, the Mardonalians fleet attacks. Dunark scrambles his air fleet and Seaton and Crane join him in the Skylark with DuQuesne manning the guns. The Mardonalians have several tricks in store for the Kondalian defenders, including sonic attacks and heat-based attacks. Perhaps most deadly, they have a beam to create high voltage currents in the metal of the ships, which electrocutes or stuns most of the crew of Dunark's flagship. "It's a good thing for all of us that you have those fancy handles on your levers," DuQuesne comments.

After a furious battle, the Kondalian Navy, led by the Skylark, soundly defeats the Mardonalian attack. Afterwards, the Karfedix Roban honors Seaton and Crane for their service to Konal. Even DuQuense is given a reward to recognize his part in the battle.

After the victory celebrations are over, the Skylark heads back for home. The trip is uneventful. Thanks to object-compass Seaton still has fixed on Earth, they have no fear of getting lost. When they finally get within sight of home, DuQuense brings up the question of what will be done with him.

"I'd like to have you in a square ring with four-ounce gloves," Seaton says. "You've been of altogether too much real help on this trip for either of us to enjoy seeing you hanged. At the same time, you're altogether too much of a scoundrel for us to let you go free..."

DuQuense is unimpressed. He tells Seaton that thanks to the wealth he's acquired on the trip -- Roban's gift to him amounted to a fortune in precious jewels and a sealed container holding a half-pound of metallic radium -- he no longer has any need to associate with World Steel. Unless it is in his interest to do so.
"I may find it desirable at some future time to obtain a monopoly of X. If so, you and Crane, and possibly a few others, would die. No matter what happens or does not happen, however, this whole thing is over, as far as I'm concerned. Done with. Fini."
Seaton laughs at this. He's confident that he can handle anything DuQuense might throw at him. But then he becomes more serious.

"But listen, DuQuesne," Seaton said slowly, every word sharp, clear, and glacially cold. "That goes for Crane and me, personally. Nobody else. I could be arrested for what I think of you as a man; and if anything you ever do touches either Dorothy or Margaret in any way I'll kill you like I would a snake -- or rather, I'll take you apart like I would any other piece of scientific apparatus."
DuQuense takes the point. Shortly afterwards, as the Skylark has entered the atmosphere and is flying somewhere over the Panama Canal, the airlock cycles and DuQuesne slips out wearing a Kondalian parachute and carrying his fortune; much as Long John Silver escaped at the end of Treasure Island. Dorothy declares that he's earned his liberty. Margaret disagrees, but is simply glad to have seen the last of him.

Soon the Skylark lands at Crane field, where Martin's faithful servant Shiro is waiting for them. Dick and Dorothy embrace. They are home at last.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 5: When In Rome, Be a Roman Candle

In our last thrilling installment of E.E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space, scientist Dick Seaton and his buddy, millionaire industrialist and inventor Martin Crane, have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, who had been abducted by Seaton's rival, Marc C. DuQuesne, and another damsel in distress, Margaret Spenser. Now all they have to do is get back to Earth.

This won't be easy, because the desparate chase after DuQuesne has left the Skylark several light centuries away from home. Seaton and his crew are now trying to find a planet where they can acquire enough copper to power their ship for the return trip.

The Skylark has entered a dense clusters of stars and identified a promising planet. The planet's climate is warm, and it's gravity less than half on Earths, but it has a breathable atmosphere. More importantly, the sample of sea water they test shows the presence of ammoniacal copper sulfate -- a sign that this planet has significant copper deposits.

While scouting the planet, they come across an aerial battle between a group of armored aircraft and an equal number of flying leviathans. "They must be animals," Crane says. "I do not believe that any engineer, anywhere, would design machines like that." The creatures have immense wings and dozens of tentacles and are covered with a kind of transparent armor which seems impervious to the attacks of the airships.

Impulsively, Seaton intervenes in the battle by literally blowing one of the critters out of the sky with one of the explosive shells he's devised tipped with his X metal. He then lands the Skylark near the crippled flagship that had been fighting the monsters to meet with the natives.

The natives of this world are a lot like the Red Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom: They look exactly like idealized, perfectly-formed humans except for their exotic skin color; (like Mr. Spock, their skin in green; no doubt because of copper in their biochemistry); they are not as strong as humans due to their planet's lower gravity; their technology is more advanced than earth's in some respects -- enough to make them exotic and interesting -- but behind earth in other ways -- to give the earthmen an edge beyond mere punching and leaping as John Carter does. They also have a warlike and rather Darwinian culture. Oh, and they don't wear clothing, save for ornaments and utilitarian harnesses.

The scene in which Seaton establishes First Contact with the leader of the natives, a guy named Nalboon who turns out to be the ruler of one of the major superpowers of the planet, plays out like every "White Explorer Meets Chief of Jungle Tribe" scene -- which is probably why when I first read the novel as a kid I kept on envisioning Nalboon's people living in grass huts -- albeit with a few interesting subversions. Seaton startles them by pulling some sleight-of-hand with a cigarette and matches, but they are only moderately impressed by a display of signal rockets.

Later in private, Dick comments on this:
"I don't get these folks at all. ... They've got next century's machines, but never heard of sleight-of-hand. Class Nine rockets are old stuff, but matches scare them. Funny."
It's not terribly plausible, but Martin lampshades the situation:

"It's surprising enough that their physical shape is the same as ours. ... It would be altogether too much to expect that all the details of development would be parallel."
Nalboon offers Seaton the gift of several prisoners from his ship. Dorothy isn't happy about bringing them aboard the Skylark, but Crane surmises that if they don't accept these slaves, the slaves might be executed anyway -- a guess which turns out to be accurate. Besides, as Dick observes, "when in Rome, you've got to be a Roman candle."

Nalboon's surviving battlecraft escort the Skylark to his capital city, an impressive metropolis of tall buildings with wide green plazas. The buildings vary in their layout, but all are have identical heights; a subtle point suggesting the totalitarian nature of their government. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

The Skylark crew are treated to a lavish banquet by Nalboon. Seaton and DuQuesne check out the food first; they have strong reason to suspect that much of it will be poisonous to humans. "These probably won't poison us too much," DuQuesne says selecting a few of the safest dishes. "That is, if we don't eat much now and don't eat any of it again too soon." Their doubts are confirmed when a bowl of blue crystals is set out intended to season the food and Seaton recognizes the crystals as copper sulfate.

Anticipating this problem, and remembering how impressed the natives had been with his sleight-of-hand, Dick has hidden various eating utensils and such about his person, which he now produces. Nalboon is interested in the pepper-shaker and finds the pepper quite tasty; but the salt startles him even more than the matches did. Nalboon summons an officer to examine the salt crystals, and then through signs requests the whole shaker. Seaton consents; they have plenty of salt in the Skylark's stores so it's not big deal to him; but evidently it is to Nalboon.

A heavily-armed honor guard escorts Seaton and his company to private rooms to spend the night. Seaton is liking the set-up less and less, but at the moment sees little to do but play along. The slaves Nalboon gave them with are still with them; and Dorothy insists that the female ones sleep in the quarters with her and Margaret and the males stay with the boys.

The leader of the prisoners, a tall man wearing a thick metal belt collects some of the stuff from Seaton's pockets. When Dick has gone to sleep, the man opens up concealed pockets in his belt and removes a set of tools and electronic components. As Seaton's party sleeps, he begins constructing an elaborate device.
Seaton spends a hot, uncomfortable night. Well, night is not exactly the right word. Located as it is in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet always has several suns in the sky at any time and so there is not actual night. He meets with the others to discuss their situation. Dorothy has made friends with the female prisoners and picked up a little bit of their language. She is able to relay the message that the man with the belt wants Seaton's help to get something which is being held by Nalboon's people. It's something extremely important. Seaton agrees.

Seaton is able to bull his way past the guards outside their sleeping quarters to the room where the somthing is being kept. There's an altercation there in which Dick gives another guard a forceful shove which, thanks to the lower gravity, proves fatal. More armed guards show up and Seaton pulls the pistol he had hidden under his shirt. Another of his explosive rounds obliterates the reinforcements, as well as that wing of the palace. The prisoner with the metal belt recovers more electrical components from the guarded room and they all withdraw back to the sleeping quarters.

The prisoner connects the new components to the apparatus he had built the previous night; a device of a complexity that impresses even DuQuense. The device has several headsets which he motions that Seaton and his party should put on. They all agree, except for DuQuense: "Go ahead; let them make zombies of you. Nobody wires me up to a machine I can't understand."

His caution, although prudent, turns out to be unnecessary. The device is an electronic educator, designed to download knowledge of the native language from the man with the belt to the earth-folk. It's an experimental design and the prisoner happened to have the necessary parts hidden in his his belt. Because you never can tell when something like that might come in handy. It works almost perfectly; but an unexpected short in the apparatus winds up copying all of the prisoner's memories into Seaton's brain and vice-versa.

Now much becomes clear. The name of the planet is Osnome; and they are currently in the nation of Mardonale. Their new friend is Dunark, prince of the rival nation of Kondal, who along with his entourage had been captured by Nalboon's forces. For something like six thousand years now the two nations have been at war. Nalboon had been in the process of executing Dunark and his people in an elaborate ritual when his sky vessel had been attacked by the karlono, the armored sky leviathens. Rather than feeling gratitude for Seaton's rescue, Nalboon has decided that Seaton is a pushover and plans to kill him. Salt is a rare substance on Osnome, and it is also a vital ingredient in the production of arenak, a transparent nearly invulnerable metal which the Osnomians use to armor their warships.

This puts Seaton in something of an ethical dilemma. Nalboon intends to use the technology on board the Skylark, and it's unlimited (by Osnomian standards) supply of salt to obliterate Kondal. But if he aids the Kondalians, they will do the same to Mardonale.
"So ethically, perhaps we should leave you all here and try to blast our own way to the Skylark. Then go on about our own business." 
"That is your right." 
"But I couldn't do it. And if I did, Dottie would skin me alive and rub salt in, every day from now on ... and Nalboon and his crowd are the scum of the universe ... Maybe I'm prejudiced by having your whole mind in mine, but I think I'd have to come to the same decision if I had Nalboons's whole mind in there as well."
Another point which he does not mention is that the presence of the Skylark has already upset the balance of power on Osnome; Nalboon's people have already learned quite a bit just from their cursory examination of the Skylark, and the salt shaker Seaton gave Nalboon contains more salt than is know to exist on the whole planet -- enough to give Mardonale a tremendous advantage in the Osnomian arms race.

In any case, at the moment the ethical concerns of taking sides in a millenia-old conflict take a back seat to the immediate concerns of escaping from Mardonale. Seaton leads a break for freedom, overpowering the guards and seizing their weapons. With the explosive-tipped X cartridges in Seaton's pistol, they are able to blast their way back to the Skylark, taking Durnak and his followers with them.

But the explosive force of the X shells does not just wipe out their opposition; it also damages the Skylark. Her thick quartz windows have been shattered; her frame dented and warped, and much of her plating ripped away. They'll be able to fly it out of Mardonale, but the Skylark will require some major repairs before it can go back into space. For better or worse, Seaton and his friends will have to throw in their lot with Durnak.

As they head out, Dick and Martin have a discussion about the subject.
"Do you think we can really trust thes Konalians, any more than we should have trusted the Mardonalians? It might be better for us to stay in the Skylark instead of going to the palace at all." 
"Yes to the first; no to the second," Seaton replied. "I went off half-cocked last time, I admit; but I've got his whole mind inside my skull, so I know him a lot better than I know you. They've got some mighty funny ideas, and they're bloodthirsty and hard as tungsten carbide; but, basically, they're just as decent as we are. 
"As for staying in here, what good would that do? Steel is as soft as mush to the stuff they've got. And we can't go anywhere, anyway. No copper -- we're down to the plating in spots. And we couldn't if we were full of copper. The old bus is a wreck; she's got to be completely rebuilt. But you don't have to worry this time, Mart. I know they're friends of ours."
The die is cast.

NEXT:  Honored guests of Kondal; a Royal Wedding; Karlono Hunting; and the Final Battle for Osnome!