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Jan 1, 2017

Retro Reading

cover art by Ralph Joiner
Project Gutenberg has an online version of the short story "Shock Treatment" by Stanley Mullen, which was published in the November 1952 edition of If magazine. I'm a sucker for stories like "Shock Treatment" that explore the motivations of space aliens who have been visiting Earth for millions of years.

Triplanetary
In some alternate universe, Venus, Earth and Mars all had stable ecosystems that allowed humanoid life forms to evolve. However, in this universe, as early as 1784, astronomers knew that the atmosphere of Mars was very thin and cold. This was confirmed by spectroscopy in the late 1800s.

retro-reading; pulp on my desktop
In the late 1800s, there were absurd reports of "canals" on Mars that fueled a new industry of fantastic stories about civilizations on Mars. By 1910, better telescopes had debunked the bogus canal "sightings", but many fictional accounts of life on Mars continued to be written.

Astronomers discovered that Venus is the opposite of Mars. By the late 1700s it was known that Venus has a thick atmosphere. By the 1940s, it had been calculated that the surface of Venus must be extremely hot and smothered under a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere.

By 1952 everyone who cared about the science already knew that Mars and Venus were not likely to support advanced forms of life, but science fiction stories about civilizations (often extinct) on those worlds continued to be written. Many science fiction writers had long since given up on the pass-time of writing stories about life on Mars and Venus... they now set their stories about space aliens on imagined exoplanets of distant star systems.

Venus
In "Shock Treatment", Mullen wrote about there having been a great catastrophe on Venus about half a million years ago... which was bad news for the once glorious civilization of the Venusians. Still, the surface of Venus is depicted as relatively Earth-like, with sand dunes... and the two protagonists get to put on environmental suits and go for a stroll on the surface.

On the run! No rain? Interior art by Wilson
But first, Spud Newlin is tending bar on the bad $ide of the tracks of Venusport. Things are boring until Songeen walks in. Spud mutters to himself, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the worlds, she walks into mine."

No, not really. However, Mrs. Songeen wants Newlin to kill her husband. It turns out, Mr. Songeen lives in a futuristic spaceship on the good $ide of the tracks of Venusport. Newlin soon learns that Mr. and Mrs. Songeen are space aliens from a nearby star system, sent to help humans get over Humanity's sicknesses. Poor Mr. Songeen has become infected by the "human disease", so he must die.

Nanites
see If, November 1952
One of the intriguing parts of "Shock Treatment" is that although Mr. and Mrs. Songeen can disguise themselves as human, they seem to be some sort of nearly immortal artificial life form. In 21st century terms, maybe while they are visiting Earth or Venus the aliens are composed of nanites, but on their home world they seem to reside in some fantastic virtual reality simulation. After the murder of Mr. Songeen, things are "too hot" for them on Venus so Mrs. Songeen takes Newlin through a teleportation terminal to her home world.

As advanced as the culture of Mr. and Mrs. Songeen seems to be from the perspective of the poor stupefied Newlin, there are also the Masters, non-material creatures who advise lesser beings like Mrs. Songeen. The entire galaxy (under the stern guidance of the Masters) is ready to exterminate the human species since human scientists are madly at work... discovery of technology for interstellar space travel by humans is imminent. Nobody wants the diseased humans spreading through the galaxy.

Golly, Mr. Science!
You'll have to read the thrilling conclusion of "Shock Treatment" to find out why the story is called "Shock Treatment".

Odo from DS9
There are parts of "Shock Treatment" that are painful to read, but it is easy for me to relate this old (written before I was born) story to my own personal science fiction story writing obsession, the Exode Saga. It was not until about 1959 that people started thinking seriously about very small options that are available to technologically advanced creatures. In this century, nanotechnology has become an integral part of many science fiction stories, and "Shock Treatment" can be interpreted as having described aliens who made use of advanced nanotechnology.

Positronics in 1941
This (above) is part of a series of blog posts about old science fiction short stories and novels...
Previously: "Reason" by Isaac Asimov (1941)
"Inheritance" by Arthur C. Clarke (1947)
Also, find a link here to an old (1950) Jack Vance story.
Asimov (again) Nightfall in 1941.
The Lani People by J.F. Bone (1962)
Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night (1948)
also: some Sci Fi from 20,000 B.C.E.
Astounding 1932
Project Gutenberg
and "The Moon Woman" (1929)
Related Reading: Project Gutenberg Science Fiction Bookshelf.
Next: evolving a better human (1937)

 Retrofuture: some detail from Tomáš Müller's Technicall magazine cover (Jan. 2010).

visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers

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