Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Taking Aim at "The War of the Planets"

As I pointed out in my remarks on Harl Vincent's "The Golden Girl of Munan", the Author Avatar character of Professor Nilsson displayed several Mary Sue traits in that story, such as taking control of the Munanese terrorist/dissident group without a murmur of protest. In the sequel, "The War of the Planets", Nilsson's Mary Sue qualities become more pronounced. First, the God Mode Sue traits he exhibited in the first story are amplified: he is The Man Who Is Always Right; the other characters (especially the Secretary of Scientific Research) spend an inordinate amount of time telling him how wonderful he is; and he takes over a Venerian spaceship single-handed (admittedly with the aid of a bad-ass ray gun).

Second, he starts to demonstrate some Jerk Sue traits as well: instead of allowing the rest of the world to make use of the revolutionary energy/motive force behind the Pioneer, he keeps it a secret; he also refuses to allow his brilliant lab assistant Walter Hamilton to get so much as a glimpse of the Pioneer until deciding to use it to travel to Washington.

One of the most peculiar aspects of "The War of the Planets" is that, even though the story takes place in the year 2526, the human race is completely confined to the earth. The accepted belief among 26th century scientists is that the rest of the Solar System in uninhabited; Nilsson argues that they are wrong (citing the Bible as his authority); but both sides are arguing largely in a vacuum, since the only information available is what has been gathered from ground-based optical telescopes. Nobody knows the truth about conditions on Mars or Venus, because nobody has ever bothered to travel to the other planets to find out. Space travel is identified so closely with science fiction these days that it's difficult to remember that it was only with E. E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (which appeared in Amazing Stories in between "The Golden Girl of Munan" and "The War of the Planets") that it became a commonly accepted trope.

Another plot point that strikes the modern reader as odd is that none of the surviving Munanese in New York are consulted when the government discovers that Mador of Munan is leading the invasion fleet, even though two of the survivors are married to the two men who are called on for help. This is doubtless a manifestation of the prevailing sexism of the time. When the story was written it was only twelve years since Jeannette Rankin had been the first woman elected to Congress, and eight years since the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. It would be another five years before Frances Perkins was appointed to the Cabinet, six years before Florence Allen was appointed to the federal judiciary, fifty-three years before Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court, and eighty years before Hillary Rodham Clinton narrowly lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama. Apart from Thelda Hamilton, Zora Nilsson, and Dorothy Nilsson, all of the story's characters are male, and every character in a position of authority is male.

Vincent ends the story on a cliffhanger: the Venerian prisoner Kardos reveals that his people are allied with the Martians, and that both worlds intend to continue the war against earth. Nilsson is appointed earth's Secretary of Defense (possibly the first use of that phrase in literature) and tasked with leading the fight against them. However, Vincent wrote no more stories in the series (just as well, given Nilsson's growing Mary Sue-ness), and it may well be The Skylark of Space that stopped him, rendering the background of the Professor Nilsson stories obsolete. Keeping up with the growing sophistication of the field, Vincent's later stories are set against a background where interplanetary travel is commonplace in the 21st century.

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