Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Asteroid of Gold by Clifford D Simak

First published in Wonder Stories, November 1932.
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This is exactly the type of story that I loved when I was a kid: tough guys in a realistic future with a an exciting problem. It’s the sort of thing that filled up the junior anthologies I used to get from the school library or the children’s sections of Titahi Bay and Porirua libraries.

We've left the era of obscure journey men and we're into the Golden Age proper now. I wouldn’t say I was ever a particular fan of Clifford D Simak, but his was one of those names I’d spot in the contents list – alongside other reliables like Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl, Le Guin, Sheckley, Moorcock or Dick that would indicate an anthology was probably worth picking up. It’s a name that I associate indelibly with what I think of as ‘real’ science fiction, and this is a great example of what I mean.

As regular readers will know, I grew up in New Zealand. Because of the time and place I grew up, my cultural background was one of colonialism. I suppose like certain parts of America, we still felt a deep connection with the heroic foundation stories of our nation, the whalers, the gold rush, the New Zealand Company and the wave of immigration in latter half of the 19th century. New Zealand’s recent history was like the wild west – as you can see in Geoff Murphy's 1983 movie Utu – and so we were primed for stories like that.

'The Asteroid of Gold' is a story of prospectors and claim jumping. One might call it a western, but I know that these same types of story were common in New Zealand School Journals and primary school education. When we went on holiday every small town had an early settlers centre (attached to the library) where local tales of hacking civilization from the bush were told and Maori were idealised as doomed noble savages (not unlike the inhabitants of Mars).

SF is the ultimate frontier fiction – I surely don’t have to remind you of the credits of Star Trek here. That is one of the key reasons that SF took hold so strongly in America. In the 19th century America was driven by westward expansion, and in the early 20th century science seemed to suggest similar frontiers, both the planets in space and, as we’ve seen, the sub-atomic world.

This is a really great little story in its own right. The main characters are optimistic go-getters, forging a fortune from hard work and wits. The antagonists are brutal and nasty, and the action writing is vivid and real – these aren’t dignified biffs on the snoot, this is a desperate fight for survival, not honour. In the end, the characters survive through courage and scientific know how. Their story is everything the deeply hidden machismo of my pre-pubescence dreamed life would be, far away from the dreary business of rugby, racing and beer that defined masculinity back then.

Themes: the frontier, spaceships, futurism, capitalism, adventure, manliness.

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