Over the Top, by Lester del Rey, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. You can’t read it at Archive.org, because John Betancourt had it scrubbed. A little birdie told me it can be found as a .cbr here, though.
After that Asimov stinker, this issue of Astounding makes a fabulous 180 with not one, but two good stories in a row! (The second one, which I’ll talk about next week, was the first half of a Heinlein spy thriller.) Thanks, guy in the comments who said this was a good issue—you may actually be right!
A midget has been launched into space to make a manned landing on Mars; being an adventure SF story, something goes wrong and he gets stranded and unable to contact earth. While he has food for months, he’ll run out of air because of the damage to the filtration system that was going to suck oxygen out of Mars’ atmosphere and pump it into his ship. Why a midget? Because of economy of scale; smaller astronaut, smaller ship, fewer resource considerations.
The Mars of Over the Top is the Mars that still supports life but has expectations scaled back drastically. The vegetation appears homogeneous, is scant, and isn’t very good to eat. The one Martian animal lifeform the astronaut comes into contact with is a weird anemone-like thing that behaves a bit like a cat.
The little astronaut contemplates the goings on back on earth and how disasters and tragedies are the few things that can bring different nations on earth together while he tries to while away the monotonous days before he’ll die from lack of oxygen. Luckily, the weird Martian critter has taken a liking to the miniscule mariner and starts filling his ship with the hearty Martian scrub plants.
The plants end up providing enough oxygen that the ship effectively has a stable life support system. And hey, the hero’s able to radio for help, and help will arrive eventually. In the meantime, the efforts to hasten the lost astronaut’s return serve as a focal point of international cooperation to avert various crises, and the Rooskies’ll even pitch in!
Okay, this one was a lot better than I’ve probably made it sound, in no small part because of Lester del Rey’s writing chops. Over the Top is much closer to what you’d see in Planet Stories than much of the Campbellian Astounding I’ve reviewed so far, though there are undertones of defeatism that permeate much of the story until the very end. While the “hero” doesn’t really save the day, he hangs on long enough without giving in to defeatism to be saved. This one’s good,
but you’ll have to take my word for it, unless you want to hunt down an anthology, because it’s been scrubbed from the archive of this issue.
Hey, want to help support indie SFF? Cirsova is offering pre-orders now for the final issues of volume 1