ASTEROIDS


ASTEROIDS
   The asteroids (or minor planets) mostly lie between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The first to be discovered was Ceres, identified by Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) in 1801; three more, including Vesta and Pallas, were discovered in the same decade, and more than 2000 have now been catalogued. Only a few are over 150km (100 miles) in diameter, the largest (Ceres) being some 700km (435 miles) across. A once popular but now unfashionable theory originated by Heinrich Olbers (1755-1840) holds that the asteroids may be the debris of a planet torn asunder in some long-ago cosmic disaster. A few moral tales of the 1950s - and works of PSEUDO-SCIENCE to this day - suggested that atomic WAR might have been responsible. The theory features prominently in James BLISH's thriller The Frozen Year (1957; vt Fallen Star), while the hypothetical war transcends time to continue in the mind of a human astronaut in Asleep in Armageddon (1948) by Ray BRADBURY. Some asteroids have extremely eccentric orbits which take them inside - in some cases well inside - the orbit of Mars or even that of the Earth. One such is featured in Arthur C.CLARKE's Summertime on Icarus (1960), and the climax of James Blish's and Norman L. KNIGHT's A Torrent of Faces (1967) involves a collision between Earth and asteroid Flavia. In primitive SPACE OPERAS the asteroid belt tended to figure as a hazard for all ships venturing beyond Mars. Near misses and actual collisions were common; Isaac ASIMOV's Marooned off Vesta (1939) begins with one such. Modern writers, however, generally realize both that the matter in the asteroid belt is very thinly distributed and that, as the asteroids all lie roughly in the plane of the ecliptic, it is easy to fly over or under them en route to the outer planets. The asteroids figure most frequently in sf in connection with mining. In early pulp sf they became an analogue of the Klondike, where men were men and mules were second-hand spaceships. Notable examples of this species of sub-Western space opera include Clifford D.SIMAK's The Asteroid of Gold (1932), Stanton COBLENTZ's The Golden Planetoid (1935), Malcolm JAMESON's Prospectors of Space (1940) and Jack WILLIAMSON's Seetee Ship (1942-3; fixup 1951; magazine stories and early editions as by Will Stewart). The analogy between the asteroid belt and the Wild West was soon extended, so that the lawless asteroids became the perfect place for interplanetary skulduggery, and they featured frequently in space-piracy stories of the kind popularized by PLANET STORIES; examples are Asteroid Pirates (1938) by Royal W.Heckman and The Prison of the Stars (1953) by Stanley MULLEN. The mythology was co-opted into juvenile sf by Asimov in Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953 as by Paul French; vt The Pirates of the Asteroids). The use of the asteroids as alien worlds in their own right or as places fit for COLONIZATION has been understandably limited: they are too small to offer much scope. Clark Ashton SMITH's The Master of the Asteroid (1932) and Edmond HAMILTON's The Horror on the Asteroid (1933) feature humans being marooned as a result of unfortunate collisions and meeting unpleasantly strange fates. The creature in Eden PHILLPOTTS's Saurus (1938) was dispatched to Earth from the asteroid Hermes but, as he was still an egg at the time, he was unable later to give much of an account of life there. Asteroidal Shangri-Las are featured in Fox B.Holden's The Death Star (1951) and Poul ANDERSON's Garden in the Void (1952), but in general the most interesting sf asteroids are those which turn out to be SPACESHIPS in disguise, like the one in Murray LEINSTER's The Wailing Asteroid (1961). The asteroid/spaceship in Greg BEAR's EON (1985) turns out to be pregnant with all manner of astonishing possibilities. Jack VANCE's I'll Build Your Dream Castle (1947) depicts a series of asteroidal real-estate deals, but the feats of TERRAFORMING involved stretch the reader's credulity. Charles PLATT's Garbage World (1967) features an asteroid which serves as the dumping-ground for interplanetary pleasure resorts, but this is not to be taken too seriously. A scattered, tough-minded asteroid-belt society, the Belters, plays an important role in Larry NIVEN's Tales of Known Space series. Niven, in traditional fashion, sees the Belters as miners similar in spirit to the colonists of the Old West. One major work on this theme is Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains (1963-5 ASF as by Winston P. Sanders; fixup 1970), an episodic novel tracing the development of the asteroid culture from its inception to its declaration of independence. (An earlier Sanders story set in the asteroid belt was Barnacle Bull 1960.) A more up-to-date image of life on the belt frontier is offered in Mother in the Sky with Diamonds (1971) by James TIPTREE Jr, and a notable modern HARD-SF story partly set on an unusual asteroid is Starfire (1988) by Paul PREUSS. Stories in which asteroids are removed from their natural orbits include Bob SHAW's melodramatic The Ceres Solution (1981), in which Ceres is used to destroy the MOON, and Farside Cannon (1988) by Roger McBride ALLEN, in which a similar but less desirable collision is averted. The asteroids have become less significant as action-adventure sf has moved out into the greater galactic wilderness, but the idea that colonization of the Solar System might involve the construction of purpose-built SPACE HABITATS rather than descents into hostile gravity-wells has suggested to some writers that hollowed-out asteroids might have their uses; the most extravagant extrapolation of this notion can be found in George ZEBROWSKI's Macrolife (1979).

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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