Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, February 17, 2012

1974: Earthwreck! (Scortia, Thomas N.)

Cavalcade of physics, death, sex, and innuendos (3/5)

Thomas N. Scortia must have been a man with a lot on his mind. He wrote two solo science fiction novels (this being one of them [1974], the other Artery of Fire [1972]) and four science fiction novels with Frank M. Robinson, who is best known for his generation ship novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991). The duo also penned a fictional disaster novel which some should be familiar with because it was made into a movie: the novel The Glass Inferno (1974) became The Towering Inferno (1974) with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and a forgettable performance by O.J. Simpson. BUT, Thomas N. Scortia is even lesser known for his patent on "Nitronium Perchlorate Propellant Composition" - which we will come to shortly.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Americans watched from space as the earth erupted in flashes of incredible brilliance. Their probes told them all they had to know. The earth was buried under a blanket of radioactivity. No life remained. Except for them--and their Russian counterparts. Together the American and Russian space stations had enough resources to build a colony on the moon. But could they bear life imprisoned in a tiny, man-made pocket of air? There was no alternative. Or was there? A far more perilous course might, just might, ensure the survival of the human race."

As the Italian stallion Quintus Longo is launched from earth with his fantastic pilot Steinbrunner to become a member of the 150-member crew of the American orbital, ten to fifteen low-yield nuclear devices are seen bursting over the Middle East. Colonel Farrington and Comrade Colonel Voroshilov, each commanding their respective orbital, also witness the destruction on earth. The two commanders and most of the crew begin to realize that earth has been sterilized, they are the only remaining humans alive, and that "they have a responsibility to renew the race." (63)

With limited skepticism on either side, the two orbiting stations begin with plans to combine their resources with the hope of establishing a lunar colony. But to renew the human population requires women and the American orbital has only one--Dr. Svoboda, an academic type far from pulchritude. Aboard the Russian orbital, the sex ratio is even, so naturally the Americans observe that the population can not be renewed without the help of the Russians.

Jesus, where do I begin? Though I finished this book in a day and a half, it was a tumultuous journey of human apocalypse, sexual reminiscing, chemical propellant lectures, and homosexual innuendos. It's a zany, crazy, silly, odd, scatterbrained spread of material which offsets the deeper issues of noble attempts at characterization through reminiscers of personal experiences with death and sex. Yes, you have read that correctly.

If it wasn't the addition of the sympathetic characters, this novel would have fallen flat. Remind yourself that Thomas Scortia has a patent on a chemical propellant when you read his droning lectures on the subject:
"The motors were... hybrid propulsion units... combustion instability... thrust vectoring and orbital corrections... polymethylmethccrylate... enthalpy change of the oxidizer-fuel system... heat-yielding thermal processes... mass injection from the fuel..." (133)
Additional droning comes care of a vertical take-off:
"Take off acceleration was only two Gs... nitric oxide thrust vectoring stabilized... thrust of the motors stabilized at a steady twelve and a half million pounds... balanced minimum drag losses... hidden pyrotechnic gas generators pressurized... analine and inhibited red fuming nitric acid were hypergolic." (14-16)
Aside from the lectures, the areas of interest are when some of the more sympathetic characters (Longo among them) start to think of their dying families, lost loves, plague-ridden continents, nights of passion, radiation-sickened wives, and their first consensual coital encounter. The contrast is odd yet invoking, but it's not as black and white as I paint it here with words (except for the line on page 37). Some of the better sexual lines of reminiscing include: "Her figure was lush, with great breasts meant for a platoon of children" (32) and "...he touched her and she touched him in the most delicate way he had felt since his mother died." (37) and behold the pièce de résistance:
"She was a marvelously hairy woman, very much true to her French ancestry. He had persuaded her, in spite of the style, never to shave under her armpits. She had a lush growth there, and its clean perspiration odor had an exciting effect on him." (72)
I mention the book has "homosexual innuendos" simply because I was looking for them (kind of like when watching Top Gun). I know Frank M. Robinson (a co-author in many of Scortia's novels) is a gay science fiction author, but I wasn't sure of the sexual orientation of Thomas Scortia yet I'm assuming they had a bonhomous relationship. However, the innuendos proved to be true when one character shared his emotional experiences in East Germany. The character Longo used to be father of three on earth, but he has a rather wide-opening experience during his love scene with Dr. Svoboda, where they are experiencing love making in zero gravity:
"There was no place to do it but on one of the tables, hanging from the bulkhead with a row of animal cages near at hand. He found it perversely exciting, especially when the hamsters seemed to catch their excitement." (150)

Aside from the silliness I found upon the pages and the sympathy the occasionally oozes from the cast, Thomas Scorria isn't really a very gifted writer at all. Some of his sentences are plain terrible, especially when he's trying to heighten the mood: "Gloom invaded the ship like a tangible thing." (217) I'm also sensitive to repetition, when an author uses a word or phrase over and over again ("atomic" is Asimov's Foundation, being notable). Scortia uses "jury-rigged" exactly eleven times through this novel. Oblivious to most, but used to an annoying degree for me.

Scortia has some good ideas and a partnership with Frank M. Robinson looks promising. He also has a short story collection in Caution! Inflammable! which looks enticing. Scortia is going on my list of books to find next time I rummage through some second-hand book stores...while biting my tongue with reluctance.


  1. Haha, "Thomas Scortia isn't really a very gifted writer at all." That was my opinion of him when I read his overblown and annoyingly ham-fisted short story The Weariest River in the collection Future City (1973)... Your experience sounds similar -- a weary slog through half-interesting bits of everything dumped, mixed, and muddled together.

    1. It's kind of cute how bad and good it is at the same time. I'm always unsure whether to keep or chuck these 3-star books, but this one has an endearing quality to it... the terrible quotes. She's a keeper.

      So bad it's almost good. Keeping my eye out for his collection, which has his novelette The Weariest River (it's the longest story in the collection).