Mining the Oort
I had a sudden craving for a Fred Pohl story recently. I’m not sure what triggered it, but these things happen once in awhile and I’m not one to turn down such urgings. So off to the library I went and grabbed something that sounded like utterly obscure Hard SF. When the title of a novel can be mistaken for a NASA policy paper, I know I’m on the right track.
Mining the Oort is true throwback SF, nothing neo- or -eqsue about it. It was published in the early 1990s, but I was certain it was twenty years older before checking. In fact, the only part of the book that betrays it as post 1969 is the prominence of the Japanese. (Nobody really noticed the Japanese until the late 1970s. Oddly enough, this went to press in 1992, just after Japan’s Bubble burst, but before anyone noticed them spiraling into an economic morass.) The book is short, the characterization light, the plot somewhat of an afterthought, and the world and science behind it thoroughly constructed. I’m having trouble right now remembering the main character’s name, but could explain in detail how and why the Oort comets are winging their way into the book’s Solar System. A certain type of reader will hate this sort of thing.
Pohl is his usual cheery self throughout. His books generally demonstrate a low opinion of humanity, little hope for anything better than a muddled future, and a society teetering on the edge of collapse. Oort isn’t as satirical as Space Merchants, neither is it as grim as A Plague of Pythons, but this is no rosy future. The typical critiques of Anglo-American capitalism, corporatism, and our inability to get along with each other are all present. On the other hand, he also sends his main character through Martian education, with its bizarre Docility Training. This is like Japanese communitarian education on steroids, but the main character laps it up. Of course it’s easier to train docile Martians, because the harsh environment demands cooperation. Earthlings, on the other hand, basically have Angry Hour every day, where they get to call each other terrible names, wrestle out their aggression, and agree to leave all the hate in the Angry Classroom so they don’t kill each other during the rest of the day. Pohl is not subtle with his opinions.
While the plot takes a back seat to Science, the author at least has the decency to avoid tacking it on randomly at the end. While nothing actually happens until the last 30 pages or so, there is sufficient foreshadowing throughout that the reader is well aware that Something Is Happening. When things finally get underway, nobody is surprised except our erstwhile hero. I still haven’t decided how Pohl feels about him. The protagonist is technically right, and even gets to utter some oddly hopeful words at the last, but one gets the feeling that he is a naïve bumpkin, and that Pohl is fully aware of it. Still, he is sympathetic and I cheered for him, even as I wished he’d grow up a bit.
Finally, Mars fulfills its usual role, often shared with the Moon or the Asteroid Belt, as the oppressed and restive colony. I suppose there is little reason to expect anything different, but I wonder if we will find a new way of relating to the frontier by the time Earthlings finally make it off our rock. Anyone who reads science fiction knows that colonialism will only breed inter-system war; from there it is a short slide to lobbing rocks down gravity wells. Will we learn in time?
Mining the Oort is a perfectly acceptable diversion. It will never be mistaken for an immortal work, though it’s a good way to pass a few hours. It doesn’t belong on a list with Pohl’s essential books, but there’s no reason not to check it out when delving into his more obscure catalog.
Rating: Wolverhampton. A middle of the road, unremarkable team in one of the world’s great leagues.