Short Reviews – Battlefield in Black by George A. Whittington

Friday , 15, January 2016 11 Comments

Battlefield in Black by George A. Whittington appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

Captain Jon McPartland has problems.  His girlfriend Almira is the daughter of Marshal Denton, “Supreme Commander of all Solar System forces”.  The peoples of Earth and her solar colonies are governed by a “Congress of Specialists”, which is sort of like a cross between a PhD review board and a Senate.  Academics are running everything and the worlds have been disarmed.  Only the “Space Patrol” remains to enforce law in the Solar System.  Almira is trying to get into Congress as a head shrink by putting together a presentation psychoanalyzing Jon; as the daughter of a military bigshot who’s presenting on a bona fide war hero, why she’s a shoe-in to be welcomed into the ranks of the ruling class!  Jon doesn’t want to have his head served up on a platter to a bunch of egg heads who’d probably like to put him out of a job, and the couple has a big fight right on the eve of disaster.

All hell breaks loose when communications at multiple bases go dead and a giant black sphere engulfs a huge chunk of the Solar System.  Bad guys have a device that removes “ether” from space.  This “ether” is more magic than science; you apparently don’t need it to breathe but it is required for everything from sound to radio waves to light to pass through.  And it does make a convenient excuse for additional drama-cheese (even the glow-in-the-dark indicator tape on controls can’t be seen!)  The “Terra Council for Freedom”, a mix of pirates and Congressional academics led by Mark Baron, the “notorious and deadly outlaw”, have turned out the lights as part of a ploy to rid the Solar System of its last military forces.  It’s a simple scheme: wait for the Space Patrol to take Congress into protective custody and accuse Marshal Denton of being a dictator trying to commit a military coup.  It’s up to Jon McPartland to find a needle in haystack, blow up the darkness generator, clear his future father-in-law’s good name and work things out with his pushy social sciences girlfriend.

Battlefield in Black is a story that’s silly in its seriousness.  Bad or silly science is easier to handwave once you’ve accepted magical premises; in a “serious” Mil-SF story the science upon which the story hinges can itself become a running joke if presented as preposterously as it is here.  This story also suffers a bit from the indistinguishable flat characters (the Captain So and So, Lieutenant That Guy, Ensign The Other One phenomenon) who exist mostly to shout emergency statuses to the one or two characters we’re supposed to care about.  That’s not to say Battlefield in Black is bad story; it’s got action, excitement and a cool (if scientifically flawed) premise to try to get around the ‘no such thing as stealth in space’ quandary.  It’s not remarkable, but it is another example that busts the “Planet Stories was nothing but space opera” narrative.  There seems to be this notion that Planet Stories only published one kind of story and Astounding only published another kind.  And of course, these publications are often framed as antithetical to one another, Astounding/Analog being the “serious” publication and Planet Stories being therefore the “unserious” publication.  I haven’t dug deeply enough into Astounding/Analog to make a claim about that magazine, but Planet Stories showcased a wide variety of science fiction with fun, excitement, action and adventure being the common thread.

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Astounding published its share of space opera. The most famous example might be Doc Smith’s Lensman series.

    • Alex says:

      It would not surprise me at all to find that Astounding and early Analog have just as broad a spectrum of stories. I’ve got a pretty big stack of Astounding from the early 50s I’m working my way towards. In fact, Astounding was in the middle of its serialization of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade when Campbell began the process of changing the name to Analog in an effort to distance the magazine from the hyperbolic and thus sillier-sounding science fiction publications.

      Still, there’s a perception today, and even back then judging by some of the contemporary letters to the editor, that certain titles catered more towards the discerning sci-fi connoisseur because they focused more on this or that brand of science fiction. In her intro to Best of Planet Stories, Leigh Brackett gives the impression that Planet Stories was a refuge for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t write the kind of sci-fi Campbell wanted. Despite being the “space opera friendly” publication, Planet had its share of “hard” and military sci-fi, just as having a reputation for being unfriendly towards softer sci-fi doesn’t mean Astounding didn’t publish it.

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    Ether is the theoretical medium through which electromagnetic radiation passes, the way a sound wave passes through air or a tidal wave passes through water. It was a serious modern physics theory up until about 1850, and an alternative theory didn’t appear until Einstein. From the review, this story seems to treat the classical theory pretty well.

    tl;dr- The only magic here is the technology that removes the ether. The science isn’t magic, it just turned out to be an incorrect theory.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for pointing this out. Looking at the link, I realize I HAD heard and read about aether-theory before, but it had slipped my mind when I’d been reading this.

      Would there be any version of the ether-theory that would allow for both a removal of ether in space while still leaving breathable atmosphere intact?

      Also, would use of an incorrect theory this long after it had been disproven be tantamount to a magical element (or at least Law of Awesome)? I ask because I’m not particularly well-versed in what pop-science understanding of physics was in the 1940s, but even in the letters to the editor of sci-fi magazines, Einstein is a big deal.

      • Aeoli Pera says:

        You’re welcome. I’m a psychotic spergy nutjob and I’m here to help :-D.

        >Would there be any version of the ether-theory that would allow for both a removal of ether in space while still leaving breathable atmosphere intact?

        Yup, the original theory assumed that ether != air. It made no assumptions about what the ether actually was, and the high-precision attempts to detect it were the reason it was discredited.

        >Also, would use of an incorrect theory this long after it had been disproven be tantamount to a magical element (or at least Law of Awesome)?

        Sort of. I’ve never really discussed sci-fi before, so I’m not clear on the connotations of that vocab.

        It would be comparable to using a pre-Copernican, geocentric solar system.

        • LurkingPuppy says:

          re aether theories: Ross Anderson and Robert Brady have used one of the pre-Einstein aether theories of electromagnetism to explain why quantum computers had not progressed beyond 3 coherent qubits. Since they published their first paper on that topic, someone has reported the successful construction of a 4-qubit quantum computer in a non-coplanar configuration, as the theory proposed by Anderson and Brady had predicted would be possible.

          I have seen another brief blurb which claimed that that particular aether theory was never disproved, even by the experiments which are widely claimed as ‘proof’ that Einstein’s relativity theories are correct, and gave a brief explanation of how that aether theory can handle moving frames of reference which seemed intuitively plausible to me. (I’ll dig up the reference to this later.) I haven’t looked into the details yet, and I wouldn’t have taken this seriously at all if I hadn’t seen the Anderson/Brady papers first.

          re removal of EM aether: The description in (your review of) the story is not consistent with the consequences of incapacitating the electromagnetic force, which is transmitted by the aether. Without the EM force, the atoms within molecules would not be held together, and the electrons within atoms might not be bound to nuclei.

          Eliminating the EM force would only eliminate acoustic waves in air if it eliminates collision interactions between the molecules in air. If ‘aether removal’ would eliminate sound waves, then it would also prevent a human’s lung tissue from interacting with the molecules in air.

          And nerves rely on electric charge separation and electric current, and thus on the EM force, too.

          • Blue SFF Reader says:

            No dog in this fight whether ether exists or not, but science can be a political battleground with a lot of dirty fighting and low blows, just like any other endeavor of Man.

            The existence of ether means no Theory of Special Relativity, so no Theory of General Relativity, and modern Cosmology gets turned on its head. And all that is tied to funding for a boatload of scientists — and I always ascribe to “follow the money”.

            Here’s some interesting reading with a few references to check for veracity.

            Dayton Miller’s Ether-Drift Experiments: A Fresh Look

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    So basically, it’s as if the author chose to write hard sci-fi from the perspective of a scientist from 1850.

    For instance, the fact that electrons whizzing around nuclei sometimes produce electromagnetic photons would not belong in the story, because Bohr’s model of the atom didn’t exist yet.

    • cirsova says:

      I don’t want to go too “death of author” on this, but maybe it could be perceived as criticism of technocracy? Not only have a bunch of egg-heads and social scientists stripped the inner solar system of the security that a military presence provides, by ignoring the very real risks posed by a universe actually operating on pre-Einsteinian physics, Earth may be forced to acquiesce to the demands of terrorists!

  • […] does a good deal better, I feel, with this Planetary Romance than with his space thriller A Battlefield in Black; with fewer characters, he’s able to bring more life to them without too much taken up by the Lt. […]

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