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A Tradition of Looking Behind the Curtain
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 Post subject: ossian's ride
PostPosted: Fri Nov 10, 2017 9:22 pm 
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Location: Broomfield, Colorado
Scientists might be expected to be good science fiction authors, but of course you have to be a good author before you can be a good science fiction author, and scientists are generally too busy sciencing to be authoring. Still, it happens now and then; Isaac Asimov is the most famous example. Lensman series author E. E. Smith had a PhD in chemical engineering. Leo Szilard wrote The Voice of the Dolphins and some short stories, and paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote the time-travel story The Dechronization of Sam Magruder. (Diana Gabaldon, author of the time-travel Outlander series, has a PhD in marine biology, but Outlander is more romance than science fiction).

That brings us to astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was something of a wunderkind, working out the details of stellar nucleosynthesis in the 1940s and 1950s (he later went off the rails with “steady state universe” and interstellar panspermia theories). While doing all this, he found time to write science fiction stories. The MileHiCon Denver science fiction convention always has booksellers vending “classical” science fiction, and this year I picked up Hoyle’s Ossian’s Ride.

Although authored in 1959, the novel is set in 1980. A mysterious entity, The Industrial Corporation of Eire, has persuaded the Irish government to give it tax breaks in exchange for land in Kerry. The ICE quickly pays back the money, and begins delivering wealth and high-technology products to Ireland; in exchange, though, the ICE demands and gets complete secrecy for its operations, establishing a barrier (the “Erin Curtain”) fencing off its facilities in Kerry and turning the rest of Ireland into a police state; ordinary citizens aren’t affected too much but anybody – especially foreigners – investigating the ICE gets character-building experiences.

British intelligence recruits the hero, Thomas Sherwood, to go to Ireland and investigate. Sherwood is a recent mathematics graduate from Cambridge; the seeming incongruity is explained by noting intelligence professionals haven’t had any luck at all and someone with a science background will be better able to understand what the ICE is doing. Sherwood is supposed to pose as a student on holiday and work his way into the forbidden area.

Most of the novel has no science fiction at all; instead it’s a “pursuit adventure” story, with Sherwood trying to evade the Irish police, the ICE, and a mysterious third party, the PSD, which is also after ICE secrets. Cover blurbs compare Sherwood’s adventures favorably with The 39 Steps. Sherwood eventually does get into ICE territory and discovers what’s going on; this is where most of the science fiction comes in and I won’t explain because spoilers. On the way, Hoyle makes some fairly prescient observations; one of the ICE’s benefits to Ireland is contraceptive pills. The pill was known in 1959, but wasn’t available in England until 1961 (and not in Ireland until 1973). Similarly, Sherwood notes with some surprise that ICE has provided farmhouses in rural Ireland with television; he comments to the effect that if you give Irishmen money they’ll just spend it in the pubs but if you give them televisions they’ll stay home (Ireland didn’t have television until 1961, although people could pick up signals from western England and Northern Ireland). The ICE also builds superhighways on “the American pattern”, and most of the automobiles Sherwood encounters are Chevrolets; he deduces that the ICE only builds things that can’t be bought elsewhere and imported. Finally, the ICE has fully electrified Ireland with a grid of thermonuclear reactors. Sherwood’s contact in English intelligence comments that if the ICE can build thermonuclear reactors they can certainly build ICBMs, something else which was just peeping over the horizon in 1959 (although thermonuclear reactors are still science fiction). One of the things Hoyle missed about the world of 1980 was satellite reconnaissance; of course, that would have spoiled part of the story.

Interesting mostly for the historic value and the author’s notoriety. Certainly worth $2 from the “bargain” shelves at MileHiCon.


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