Sunday, April 17, 2011

Story conceptions: "Old Faithful" by Raymond Z. Gallun (1934)

Thanks to Google Books, I’ve been browsing Starclimber: The Literary Adventures and Autobiography of Raymond Z. Gallun (Wildside Press, 2007). Born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in the early 1900's, Gallun began writing during the pulp era of the late 1920's and by the mid 1930's established himself as one of the leading American science fiction authors of his time. Here's how Gallun described one of his most beloved works, a short story titled "Old Faithful," which was published in the December 1934 issue of Astounding Stories magazine.

The job was physically straining, noisy, and entirely monotonous. It put me into a kind of somnambulistic state; my rapid motions continued, but they were zombie-like. My mind had to go somewhere—into escape.

I began to imagine, according to some patterns already set. Mars, my red star, was my favorite getting-away region, back then. Going to work and coming home, both in the dark, there were realistic hints in the grimed snow of the fields, as revealed by my flashlight beam. Mars, near its polar caps? Sure, it would be far harsher there, climate-wise, but the likeness was sufficient to suggest what was lacking.

Pa was usually with me, crossing those fields, but we weren’t very talkative company for each other. And I needed a special friend. So…a Martian? All day, struggling with bundles of hemp, I’d try to dream him up. I wasn’t trying to compose a story for sale; I was disgruntled about doing that; this was just for myself, and maybe my companion on Mars. No—he wouldn’t be anything like an Earthly person, physically. The chance that another chain of evolution would produce similar beings on a rather dissimilar world was, after all, very remote. And I wanted to make him as real as I could; I was getting onto a basic drive of mine: that an important function of whatever I imagined should be an interim substitute for mysterious realities not yet revealed—to respond a little to a burning urge to know. I think I’ve usually favored realities about other worlds well above any imaginings about them; they’re generally more satisfying, and at least as wonderful.

My Martian wouldn’t have any conception of smiles or frowns or tears. But, being alive, he would have to have similarities to us. Though I did make the reckless assumption that he would have a mind. Having physical needs, and being subject to injury, he would probably know hunger and thirst, distress and comfort. Needing to defend himself, he would probably understand fear and courage. Needing to reproduce, and to look after his young, he would probably have the equivalent of love. And, possessing a mind, he would probably have intense curiosity, a yearning to find out.

So what if he wanted to learn more about Earth, just as I wanted to know more about Mars? Here was a solid likeness, to contrast dramatically with all the differentness! A basis for sympathy that would stand out! Something beyond the rather tiresome story motivation of conquest and defense, common in many yarns, including mine. Instead, just to learn—to find out! The scientist’s fundamental drive….

I constructed my Martian and his world from all that I read that was considered fairly solid, scientifically, about Mars back in those days: thin air, dryness, cold, plus Percival Lowell’s—proven fanciful now—idea about “canals.” I borrowed a few touches from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—much more convincing than anything in Burroughs’s Mars books. Adding a sense of struggle and obstacle came easily, direct from the job I was doing: my Martian, his efforts—and thus him also!—condemned as useless and worthless by his own, hard-pressed-to-survive kind. But he goes on, trying to make use of what little he has learned of terran methods of communication by his studies of messages in Morse code flashed in telescopic light signals from Earth by attempting to compose an understandable message in the same medium. He tries to hitchhike his way to Earth from Mars, on a comet that will pass quite close to both. And so, before he perishes in the effort, he at last achieves a little of his fondest intention: seeing Earth at ground-level range.

That was how I cooked up “Old Faithful,” which was to become my best-remembered story.

But maybe there was another factor in the process, which I’ll recount again almost as a joke.

You see, the large variety of hemp, grown for its fiber, is a close relative of marijuana....

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-1994) is also the author of Skyclimber (1981), a novel in which “a space settler is torn between loyalty to his Martian home and allegiance to Earth.”

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