Thursday, October 18, 2018

More Traveller Literary History? or Not

Traveller literary history – or maybe not.

The Inverted Man

I thoroughly enjoyed Clarke's Hide and Seek short story, so when I brushed up against another one of his from the following year, I stopped to say hello.

It was a dull conversation. I am really disappointed with The Inverted Man
(Thrilling Wonder Stories, V36, #2 June 1950) Perhaps I should have read the cover story instead.
Here, there is Something at Stake. Look at the guy's eye. He's thinking "Get her clear of the line of fire, and this chump is Mine."

The story concerns a power plant engineer named Nelson. He is caught inside his new very modern generator apparatus when a freak set of circumstances throws it into overload. There is a huge thunder-clap, and Nelson goes down, but survives.

In the hospital, the doctors discover that Nelson has been Inverted: he is now a stereo-isomer of himself. His left hand is now his right, his hear is on the other side, etc. He reads and writes backwards.
So far so good, right? Good old H G Wells Invisible Man stuff. But at this point Nelson fades into the background. He has no more dialogue and takes no independent action.

The focus shifts to Dr Hughes, another engineer at the power company. Three science lectures later, Hughes tries to recreate the conditions of the accident to put Nelson 'right' again.

I'm going to ruin the ending now, so if you want to read this story, stop here.

Hughes does not succeed. Or rather he does, but it ends in disaster anyway. During the Inversion, Nelson somehow shifted in time for a short span. When the process is repeated, the time shift is longer. Nelson re-materializes inside the generator machinery. This causes a tremendous explosion and a blackout. The End. The story stops right there.

No action. No tension or stakes to be had. Nelson is described as starving to death (he can't absorb non-Inverted nutrients because Chemistry lecture) but we are told this not by Nelson himself, but by his physician relating this to Dr. Hughes. We don't 'see' the effect the Inversion has on Nelson, so we don't feel the threat of it as much.

The reversing process is attempted at the order of the power plant's board of directors, who think that trying to keep Nelson alive while Inverted is too expensive! Not 'the right thing to do' or 'what's best for him' but as a cost-saving measure.

Riveting stuff this is not. Nor is it Thrilling, nor producing any sense of Wonder. It is I grant, a Story. Now I'm sure this isn't Clarke's best work ever, but compared with the earlier entry, it shocked me with how tedious it was.

I can't say that Clarke's science is unsound, I'll take it as read he knows that stuff better than I do. But if I want a theoretical science lecture, I'll read a theoretical science lecture. When I read something called Thrilling Wonder Stories, I want a thrilling, wonderful story.

Clarke and Traveller

This story had no direct influence on the foundations of Traveller, nor does anyone claim it did. No foul there. What we could do though, is salvage the essential idea, that of a person (PC or important NPC) who becomes Inverted.

In a setting as expansive at Traveller, whether the OTU or an ATU like mine, there is more than enough technological frippery to produce an effect like this. All you need is a mad scientist (see my thoughts on the Scientist career), and you can find those about anywhere.

Once the Inversion happens, the Referee can send the PCs on a mission to find the Negative Space Wedgie or the rare mineral or whatever else they need to reproduce the conditions that led to the Inversion. Let the PCs bring the hope of undoing it. The starvation angle is good for the ticking clock element, but only if the players care about the Inverted person. Instead of starvation, the Inverted may begin to 'fade away' into another dimension. There are many possible effects to use, it's all imagination and fiction anyway.

Just don't, whatever you do, let it be a boring science lecture dressed up like an adventure.


  1. So that's where GDW got the idea they used in 2300AD's "Bayern".

  2. "Technical Error", the original name of the story, is earlier in his career than "Hide and Seek". I'd put it down as part of his learning process.

    1. Thanks, Brett for the chronology. Over at G+ I've gotten several suggestions of other ACC works that have more action than The Inverted Man. Guess I've got more titles on my reading list now.