Friday, January 20, 2017

Planet of Dread! and Traveller World-Building

Last night I read a fun short story from the pulp era: "Planet of Dread" by R.F. Starzl, in Astounding Stories of Super-Science (August 1930), which I got from Project Gutenberg.
Our heroes are attacked by a space-frog while climbing a spider web inside a mountain. Yes, it makes no sense.

I picked it at random from the several issues available. Is the plot original?  No. Are the characters vivid, dynamic and engaging?  No. Does the dialogue crackle and sparkle?  No. It's also a good thing the Martian sidekick was an alien and not a Terrestrial, because his dialogue would be excoriated today for its stereotyped pidgin English. Was the conclusion dramatic and satisfying?  Not really. 

So why was it a fun story?  Because it was a great setting, and just the sort of planet that could and should appear in Traveller.

The planet, named Inra, is inhospitable to humans, but there's a trade outpost there to buy one of the few types of harmless local fauna, an orchid that's selling like mad back on Earth. Inra is not a garden world by any means:
"It was a rain such as is never seen on Earth, even in the tropics. It came in drops as large as a man's fist. It came in streams. It came in large, shattering masses that broke before they fell and filled the air with spray. There was little wind, but the steady green downpour of water and the brilliant continuous flashing of lightning shamed the dull soggy twilight produced by the large, hot, but hidden sun."
Inra as a Traveller world: Inra - (location unspecified) E-668200-0 Na

The local wildlife isn't friendly:
"Through one of the round, heavily framed ports it could be seen, the lower part of its large, shapeless body half-floating in the lashing water that covered their rocky shelf to a depth of several feet, the upper part spectral and gray. It was a giant amoeba, fully six feet in diameter in its present spheroid form, but capable of assuming any shape that would be useful. It had an envelope of tough, transparent matter, and was filled with a fluid that was now cloudy and then clear. Near the center there was a mass of darker matter, and this was undoubtedly the seat of its intelligence.
They had called it the Ul-lul. Well, let it be so. It was an amoeba, and it was watching him. It floated in the downpour and watched him. With what? It had no eyes. No matter, it was watching him."

Ul-Lul Omnivore Eater, amphibian  1600 kg  32/12  as thrasher+4D  
Jack-1 armor  A2 F9 S1
Slow, but dangerous.
And even the local flora is dangerous:
"When they awoke the chronometer recorded the passing of twelve hours, and they had to tear a network of strong fibers with which the tree had invested them preparatory to absorbing their bodies as food. For so keen is the competition for life on Inra that practically all vegetation is capable of absorbing animal food directly. Many an Inranian explorer can tell tales of narrow escapes from some of the more specialized flesh-eating plants; but they are now so well known that they are easily avoided."
Meat-eating tree  Carnivore Trapper 30,000 kg  60/28  as claws x4 
Mesh armor A-surprise F0 S0

The protagonist (there's nothing really heroic about his actions, it's just self-preservation) succeeds in getting to safety by the end, and is able to make enough money to go home and propose to his girl. A decent ending, if not compelling. But the world of Inra, that was interesting. 

Also, I think that I must find a way to introduce the flash pistol he uses in the story. It's a 'ray gun' that was typical of earlier sci-fi, but it has more uses than a laser pistol, as it has a variable ray field - from narrow to wide. And it has limited power, unlike Star Trek phasers, so it is still a limited weapon. 

Speaking of weapons, guess what else makes an appearance, and saves the day at least once?  This -

"(h)e dragged out a long, heavy, .45 caliber six-shooter in a holster, and a cartridge belt filled with shells. The Martian stared.
"Know what it is?" his master asked, handing him the weapon.
"Gunga not know." He took it and examined it curiously. It was a fine museum piece in an excellent state of preservation, the metal overlaid with the patina of age, but free from rust and corrosion.
"It's a weapon of the Ancients," Forepaugh explained. "It was a sort of family heirloom and is over 300 years old. One of my grandfathers used it in the famous Northwest Mounted Police. Wonder if it'll still shoot."
He leveled the weapon at a fat, sightless wriggler that came squirming through a seam, squinting unaccustomed eyes along the barrel. There was a violent explosion, and the wriggler disappeared in a smear of dirty green. Gunga nearly fell over backward in fright, and even Forepaugh was shaken. He was surprised that the ancient cartridge had exploded at all, though he knew powder making had reached a high level of perfection before explosive chemical weapons had yielded to the newer, lighter, and infinitely more powerful ray weapons. The gun would impede their progress. It would be of very little use against the giant Carnivora of Inra. Yet something—perhaps a sentimental attachment, perhaps what his ancestors would have called a "hunch"—compelled him to strap it around his waist."
Six-guns in Space for the Win!


  1. Great find. Sure, it may be dated, but it was written nearly 90 years ago. Jeffro's masterful work on "Appendix N" should hopefully spark more interest in "pulp" sources because there's a LOT of ideas there to borrow. Like you, I found the planet and it's nasty biosphere to be great setting fodder. There were other nice touches too, despite the story dating from 1930.

    The trade station is protected from local wildlife not by armor or Trek-like shields, but by the induced vibrations of a quartz crystal much like the ultrasound devices now used to insects, rodents, and other vermin. The base doesn't have an "atomic" power plant because radium (!!!) is too expensive and instead uses hydrogen in some sort of fuel cell/combustion process.

    A couple years ago I came across some of Edgar Wallace's stories. He was a hugely popular writer of crime, spy, and adventure stories for the first few decades of the 20th Century. He's nearly forgotten now, only rarely remembered for having written "King Kong". His various "Sanders" stories is set somewhere in West Africa and deal with the district commissioner keep's the "King's peace" among the natives.

    Given the explosion of NILs in T5, I've been re-reading Wallace's stories while squinting at places like Craw and Tionale.

    1. yes, I trace my Traveller relapse to reading a history of European exploration up the Nile in C19th (Particularly Napier's expeditionary force to Ethiopia)