YGSF: The Planet Strappers

The Planet Strappers
Raymond Gallun

It’s been a little while since I last posted a book review here, so I rooted around the cellar for something properly off-kilter to get things going again. I can’t remember where I heard about The Planet Strappers, though it may have been mentioned on an SF Signal podcast. The reference I’m looking at now says that Gallun published this in 1961; the copyright has since lapsed and it is available on Project Gutenberg. This is pretty much the ultimate post in the Yo’ Grandpa’s Sci-Fi series, what with the obscurity and surprising thematic interest.

The person that recommended the book did so because of Gallun’s vision of the privatization of outer space, one that seems to mirror our current expectations. The book interests me partially because of that, but more for the contrast between wholesome, Golden Age goodness and the above mentioned near Earth colonization. Strappers is at once wholly archaic and wholly relevant, in subjects that would probably surprise the author. In a way, it is the opposite of Clarke’s 200: society has moved far past what he expected, while technology has lagged behind. (Not that the technology in Strappers is contemporary. We’ll have to swap in political economy instead.)

Things start in rural Minnesota, because in 1960, what is more American than high school boys surrounded by corn fields? These are good kids, who say things like “golly” and “shucks,” kids without a lot of money, but with big dreams. They can dream because they’re handy with tools, because summer jobs provide a little bit of cash, and because in this future, boys can buy space suit kits from the back pages of magazines and build them in a shed out behind the house. Even better, the government takes people who have built these suits and tosses them up and out of the gravity well, leaving them more or less alone to make a go of it Out There. I have to admire these people, because I certainly wouldn’t trust my own handiwork to withstand the vacuum.

I will give Gallun some credit, because not everyone is a white male. There are a few females, usually capable actors themselves, and there are some token minorities. For the most part though, we’re looking at the heartland. The usual American can-do attitude is on full display, the main characters are typical Competent Men, and space is for Strong Individuals. (Fortunately, some ideas of community are present. It’s not a complete libertarian fantasy.) There are other relics of the past as well, starting with the exceedingly mechanical technology. No computers, no nanotech, no mobile devices, etc. Strictly nuts, bolts, and radio. Further, nobody in the book is surprised at life on Mars, or that signs of intelligent life are peppered throughout the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids. None of our embittered cynicism about being the only life anywhere, ever. All in all, this is about what one would expect from a short novel published in 1961.

It’s the way humanity is taming outer space that surprises a bit. While Apollo was yet to land on the Moon in 1961, Gallun was about to enter the heyday of government sponsored space exploration. It would seem natural to assume that governments, specifically the US and USSR, would be building space stations and colonies, running their enclaves in the vacuum, and generally continuing familiar geopolitics. Strappers goes in completely the opposite direction. Once the US hurls its besuited countrymen into the void, they are on their own. A token security force exists, but rarely enters the frame. We are looking at a wild, ungoverned frontier. Even giant corporations are mostly absent, replaced by the equivalent of general stores and saloons.

Clearly, this is not exactly as we predict near Earth colonization now, but some aspects are shockingly close. As late as the 1980s, I think most of us assumed that any Moonbase would be an extension of the government, that the Space Shuttle (or its successor) would keep flying, and that private actors would have neither the capital nor the inclination to jump in. Multiple private companies making independent space flights and jockeying for asteroid mining position is a scene that would surprise many back then, though for us now, this seems a logical inevitability. The Planet Strappers is fascinating precisely because Gallun somehow saw past the age of governments in space, envisioning his Solar System full of wildcatters and outlaws. I don’t believe that the asteroids will be Dodge City transplanted into space, nor do I think that vacuum appropriate habitats will be constructed in backyards across America, but it is clear that actors called Space X and Planetary Resources will do more for space exploration than actors called NASA. (Whether Gallun honestly foresaw this, or was just cooking something up that fit his story is not a question I can answer. I’m all for giving the benefit of the doubt and going with “partial visionary.”)

What about the rest of the book? It’s not bad. Not exactly memorable or profound, but entertaining. There’s probably a reason why nobody is zealously defending the copyright and cranking out commemorative editions, but the book is noticeably better than some other crap from the era. I recommend it more for the meta textual questions it asks than the plot, but it’s still worth reading. Maybe not a high priority read, but definitely worth checking out to get a feel for how the genre has developed.

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