Sunday, 12 May 2013

One Prehistoric Night by Philip Barshofsky

First published in Wonder Stories, November 1934.

You can download this story from this site. I'm not sure if this is in the public domain: if you're the copyright holder let me know and I'll take this link down if you want. Otherwise I'll leave it up as a service to readers.

Many of the stories in this collection revolve around science lessons of one sort of another. We’ve had lectures on the sub-atomic world in Out of theSub-Universe, cellular biology in The Eternal Man and The Coming ofthe Ice, and astronomy in The Voice From the Ether; scientific principles are more subtly laced through The Asteroid of Gold but the story still provides a decent grounding in the physics of gravitation and space-travel.

This didactic element is one of the key parts of what I think of as ‘real’ science fiction. The story needs to outline the science that surrounds the plot, and it can’t help but be somewhat pedagogic. It was one Gernsback’s original motivations for publishing ‘scientifiction’ and maybe it’s why my school years were packed with those junior SF anthologies stocked with Golden Age stories like these.

As the title implies, this one gives us a Walking With Dinosaurs-style glimpse into the Jurassic age.

Dinosaurs have become part of the SF arsenal through monstrous threat of mad scientists or time travellers, and the lost remnants of archaic survivors. Barshofsky does a nice job of making this pseudo-nature reportage exciting, and really brings the relatively new idea of dinosaurs alive with great beasts chewing the cud or chasing each other around as is their particular ecological niche.

However, they’re just a part of this story. This one combines the decadant civilization of Mars from The Voice of the Ether with the frontier atmosphere of Martians with the frontier spirit of The Asteroid of Gold and Out of the Sub-Universe.

The other half of the story complements the atmospheric scenes of dinosaurs in the wild with a plot about a spearhead colonial mission, setting up camp in the Jurassic jungle. We slowly gather that Mars itself is becoming uninhabitable (as in The War of the Worlds) and this is the tester group that will establish whether the Earth is suitable for Martian life.

Despite the courage of the explorers, but the colony is finally destroyed by the mighty perhisoric beasts. For all their technology, there’s not much they can throw at a hundred tons of rampaging allosaur, and there’s the inevitable implication that it’s the very presence of the Martians that sets the events in motion. These kinds of heroic disasters were an essential part of the myth of the frontier and here we have a story that not unlike Jamestown or part Scott of the Antarctic, a demonstration of indomitable spirit in the face of imminent destruction.

Unlike Wells’ Martians, though, these are Men like Tuol Oro in The Voice of the Ether. We feel their failure as if they were our brothers. Perhaps that’s the point, that the human spirit is universal and universally admirable. More likely, though, is that we’re being presented with a lesson in hubris here: it’s happened before and it’ll happen again. This is where we’re headed and we’d better be better prepared for it than the Martians.

Themes: vastness (gulfs of time), the frontier, plucky but doomed explorers, dinosaurs vs aliens, pedagogy.

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