“Mars Child” ran as a three-part serial in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine’s May, June, and July 1951 issues. That was in the first year of its fabled start, the most honored launch of any science fiction magazine. Editor Horace Gold boasted that 95% of the short stories he ran were picked up for immediate anthology reprinting and every serialized novel made it to hardcovers, a group that included “Time Quarry” (Time and Again) by Clifford D. Simak, “Tyrann” (The Stars Like Dust) by Isaac Asimov, and The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. “Mars Child” also saw a name change when it became Outpost Mars in 1952. Cyril Judd was the credited author, the name being a transparent reference to the team of Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril. Collaborations were often given joint pseudonyms - Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett wrote as Robert Randall, e.g. - easily decoded by those in the know, but there seems to be no good reason why in this case. Gold revealed the pseudonym in his “Editor’s Note” for April, with the odd reasoning that the name was chosen for “wieldiness, not secrecy.” (Cyril Judd would be credited with another novel, Gunner Cade, serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1952, and a novelette, “Sea Change,” in the pulp Dynamic Science Fiction, for March 1953. That story is perhaps the only one from a prominent author of the time that has never been reprinted in any form. Their collaboration broke for personal reasons, though, not lack of writerly success.)
Outpost Mars is not a famous novel, nor a lost classic, nor critically deeply meaningful to the rest of their careers. Both authors had been born in 1923 but neither had made more than a first big story splash by that time, Merril with “That Only a Mother” and Kornbluth with “The Little Black Bag.” (Kornbluth had written a ton of disposable pseudonymous stories for the lesser magazines as a teen-age prodigy before WWII but the war stopped his output for seven years.) This would be the first novel for Kornbluth and the second for Merril, after Shadow on the Hearth. Sometimes the ordinary serves better as a reading of a time and place than the extraordinary, and Outpost Mars is an uncannily good example to pluck for the always reductionistic task of examining what a genre looked like at a particular time, in this case the fall of 1950, their writing start. That’s also exactly when I was born, a hugely important year in the sudden growth of science fiction as a genre, and the year when many of the cultural trends and traits we now associate with the 1950s developed. Few science fiction novels of the time contained such a fine-grained depiction of American culture, few are so much more about people than technology, few have social commentary as savage. Outpost Mars barely pretends to be about the Future, even for a field about which I proclaim: Science Fiction is Never About the Future. It Is Always About Today. This is reductionistically true, though its truth must often be teased out from under the loads of distracting invention. In transplanting their contemporary American culture whole to Mars, Judd (a wieldy name) are explicit in the way that Isaac Asimov – whose view of the future never much varied from his boyhood view of Brooklyn – is implicit.
Like Asimov, both Merril, nee Grossman, and Kornbluth were Jewish, graduates of New York high schools, and members of the Futurians, the New York science fiction club that saw nearly every member become professionals within in the field. Grossman married Dan Zissman at seventeen and had a daughter named Merril in 1942. After her divorce she married fellow Futurian Frederik Pohl in 1945. They had a daughter, named Ann, in 1950. Kornbluth was even more of a prodigy than Asimov, graduating high school at 13 and selling professionally, albeit to his Futurian editor friends, at 17. He also married early, to Mary Byers, a Ohio woman who yearned to be a Futurian, though they in fact moved to Boston. He saw heavy action during the Battle of the Bulge, which seems to have left lasting emotional wounds and a weak heart. After the war they moved to Chicago where Mary had two boys, John and David, but kept close ties with the revived New York science fiction community, visiting often. Like most Futurians other than Asimov, Judd were highly political and shared the type of leftist beliefs that were under heavy and public attack in 1950.
Merril had a 20,000 word manuscript that she tucked away when she became pregnant in early 1950 and found herself “totally submerged in biology” as she put it. Kornbluth visited soon after Ann's birth in September. He read the manuscript and added 20,000 words of his own. They collaborated by mail after he returned to Chicago, each adding sections and then sending it to the other to edit and expand. Pohl, who was the agent for both of them, sold the book to Horace Gold, the editor of the then brand-new Galaxy, on the basis of the first half. The last third proved a problem and they kept missing more and more urgent deadlines to submit it. Finally they abandoned characters and plot-lines to shorten the manuscript and resolve the rest of the tangled threads. The story as printed in Galaxy (and illustrated by Ed Emshwiller under the name "Willer") was the final version and not changed for book publication.
Reprinted in 1952 by the small general-interest publishing Abelard Press under the title Outpost Mars and put in paperback under that title as Dell 760 in 1954, the novel is one of the earliest attempts to realistically portray a Martian colony, maybe even the very first depending on your definition of realism. Arthur C. Clarke’s better-known The Sands of Mars, though written in 1947, didn’t see print until 1952, and in Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, a “juvenile” published in 1949, the emphasis is on Mars the planet, with only a few lines describing the colonial setting.
Not that Outpost Mars is scientifically accurate to modern readers, although a common set of what must have been the then-latest speculations underlay all three titles. Clarke, Heinlein, and Judd each gift Mars with what all call a “thin” atmosphere, although Judd posits a few with “marsworthy” lungs who can breathe it. Each describe water: Clarke, frozen ice caps; Heinlein, canals built by the ancient Martians; Judd, meagre supplies that are unsourced. Water means life and all three make use of plant life. Surface temperatures range from Antarctic to human comfort. The details, the ways which this background is essential to the plots, vary considerably. Judd have normally-lunged humans use oxygen masks or the gee-whiz OxEn “miracle enzyme pill,” which, taken daily, does something or other. Temperature also matters. The colonists walk around on the surface, sometimes bundled up against the cold, sometimes in the warm comfort of an autumn day. Ludicrous, but necessary, since finding bare footprints is essential to the plot.
What little there is to the plot. Outpost Mars is very much a slice-of-life novel, concentrating on characters and the small, endless, everyday efforts to survive on a Mars that is truly alien in most ways. A women has a mysterious wasting disease, a newborn baby won’t breastfeed, a crate of an expensive drug has been stolen. The last two prove to be related, but we never learn why the woman is ill, perhaps cut in the rewrite just as a half-dozen other potential sub-plots simply disappear by the end. The bad guys remain, as essential as oxygen. Our heroes are the small colony called Sun Lake, a band of idealists and Mars-lovers who conscientiously mine radioactive materials to turn into purified isotopes for medical uses. They, like any small outfit in a western, are in the pincers of a big-time company, this one Brenner Pharmaceuticals, which mines radioactive materials to turn into purified isotopes for medical uses. In case you don’t automatically understand that kibbutz-like communes are intrinsically good and big capitalist firms are intrinsically bad, Brenner’s industrial colony uses big polluting factories that emit Los Angeles-style smog; roughneck crews who don’t care for the planet and won’t stay around to raise families – they have, horrors, a brothel; fully heated buildings (the wimps) instead of what we would call today space heaters; and eat synthetic meat, eschewing the Martian beans modified for Earth tummies. Brenner’s cheaply built factories leak their main product, a drug with real medicinal value that is also a hallucinogen worth a fortune on the black market and addicts workers just from its leaked mist. Brenner wants to buy out or kick out the Sun Lakers, legally or illegally, so he can take over their superior facilities. The dynamic from season 3 of Deadwood captures the flavor of this ancient but always serviceable plot. Mars is based on frontier mining towns, right down to the old crazy coots who are the survivors of the first phase of prospectors before the families started arriving.
The irony here is thick. Horace Gold famously ran house ads for his new magazine that showed a western rewritten with space terminology and declared in blazing headline type: You’ll Never See It in Galaxy.
“Mars Child,” starting its run in only the seventh issue of the magazine, is completely a western rewritten with space terminology. John W. Campbell once said, “I want the kind of story that could be printed in a magazine of the year two thousand A.D. as a contemporary adventure story. No gee-whiz, just take the technology for granted.” Outpost Mars exemplifies this credo, being forthrightly about 1950, thrilling contemporary readers with the notion that they could handle the challenges of Mars given the barest minimum of necessary futurisms, like interplanetary spacecraft and oxygen pills. Modern eyes stare in incredulity at such a pastiche planet; we take gee-whiz future technology for granted and today it’s the lack of any that shatters our suspension of disbelief.
The story is set in the year 2135, almost 200 years into Judd’s future. The year is snuck in almost subliminally. “Sounds like one of those weather reports,” complained Sam. “The coldest three p.m. reading at the corner of Spruce and Juice on a January 16th since 2107.” Later we learn that ’07 was twenty-eight years earlier. Why so far into the future? In 1950 rockets had almost no operational history. The V-2 rockets from Germany to England and a few missile tests at White Sands in the New Mexico desert gave little indication that large-scale regular rocket travel to Mars could be possible in Judd's lifetimes or in those of their youngest readers. Realistic science fiction was paradoxically conservative. No rocket even crashes on Mars until 2095, although the development off of that base is rapid. As befits a non-gee-whiz technology their rockets are given scant description. One lands, on tail fins taller than trucks, firing retros with blasts “pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, like a machine gun,” only two hundred meters from a crowd of spectators. The trucks drive directly under the exhaust nozzle – remember, it has just been firing rocket blasts and must be red hot and yet crews immediately scramble into its maw to remove the reaction motor. We don’t think of safety as a modern concept, and the novel is hypervigilant about radioactivity, yet rockets seemingly never triggered warning bells. In my ebook Max Valier: Rocket Man I cite newspaper reports of tens of thousands of spectators crowding around tests of rocket cars and sleds. The authorities would shut down testing after explosions (no onlooker ever got hurt, although that was sheer luck) but enchanted crowds would return in masse a few weeks later for the next demonstration. In the Golden Age, rockets were advanced planes; nobody thought twice about proximity.
An elevator takes at least three loads of people off the rocket; that plus the cargo offloaded also hints that it is huge. Yet the big industrial colonies named get only six, three, and two men, the brothel is supplied with one new prostitute. Sun Lake gets a full ten new colonists, including a family with two children, allowing Judd to remind us they must adapt to the low Martian gravity. Both the gravity and the new colonists disappear from the plot; the rocket is a macguffin, necessary only to provide an artificial deadline – the missing drug must be found before it takes off again. Although rockets land four times a year, Judd needs a character who can thrill at an arrival. A 12-year-boy, who, moreover, had arrived on Mars a mere year before, accompanies the Sun Lake doctor on what is apparently his first ever sighting of a rocket. That they can for a moment think this is plausible reinforces the frontier town aura, from a 19th century time when kids would not have made multi-hour journeys to other camps. The plight of the mother in labor, whose “Mars child” drives the plot, is equally ancient; her 36-hour-long suffering is alleviated by almost no medical technology that couldn’t be found in a western. Her plight makes the reader wonder how other Martian births are handled and where all the rest of the children are. Sun Lake is a permanent colony that had been around for fifteen years; given the frontier analogy, kids should be underfoot everywhere, not to mention that the plot requires them – it’s child-sized bare footprints that are found where they shouldn’t be. Yet only one other child is seen and she quietly disappears after a few brief mentions. Merril soared to instant fame in the field because she, unlike her male colleagues, wrote about mothers and babies in ways intrinsic to her stories; though a true collaboration, her base contribution is obvious. In the finished piece, though, events concentrate on adults and adult relationships while occasionally tugging on sentimental heartstrings concerning babies. The mix congeals like swirled ice cream, with layers always visible, in the same way that the constant descriptions of technological adaptations to Martian conditions vie with the need to base them on familiar notions of the possible.
What Sun Lake lacks in technology is today far more interesting than the ingenuity of getting 1950’s equipment to function on Mars. Forget DNA testing and communications satellites, both of which would instantly undermine the plot, Sun Lake has no screens. No computers, no television (no entertainment of any kind), and apparently no mirrors or other glass. Line of sight radio transmission (and retransmission) is the only way to communicate between colonies. People needing to summon the doctor send out a runner, meaning they don’t have in-home radios or telephones. It gets worse. The airplane – yes, an airplane: the “thin” atmosphere is remarkably like Earth’s except with less oxygen – can’t transmit voices; it uses a spark gap transmitter to send morse code. It’s never clear if the planet has a radio that can reach Earth. No mention is ever made of this and no one knows that the supply rocket is coming in two weeks early until it’s a day away. The colonists have no idea that new members are on the rocket so don’t know their numbers or their needs to prepare housing for them. They simply show up, as if on a stagecoach. A reporter is able to cancel a damning story on Sun Lake before anyone on Earth can read it because it apparently needs to physically transmitted on paper by the rocket. Mars has women; it needs radio.
True to the tenets of 1950s science fiction, the society portrayed in the novel is sheer whitebread middle-class Americana. The default assumption makes every inhabitant on Mars white, with no hints that any other race or ethnicity is present except for one character named Juarez. Hispanics had long been Americans, although few other ethnic heritages are tagged, and Judd’s Earth is geopolitically different, with the Panamerican World Federation dominating it. No matter. Earth is a cesspool that the Mars-lovers have put behind them. One paragraph – the most explicitly in-your-face example of Judd’s social commentary – exemplifies this:
You got born into a hate-thy-neighbor, envy-they-neighbor, murder-thy-neighbor culture. In infancy your overworked and underfed mother’s breast was always withdrawn too soon and you were filled again and again, day after day, with blind and squalling rage. You were a toddler and you snatched at another one’s bit of candy; you were hungry and you hated him; you fought him. You learned big boys’ games – Killakraut, Wackawop, Nigger Inna Gravyard, Chinks ‘n’ Good Guys, Stermation Camp, Loot the City. The odds were you were hungry, always hungry.
Overpopulation is the reason for the hunger. The implication is that the Other is outbreeding the “middle classes with their relatively stable, relatively sane families.” Mars apparently is above that because it excludes them, allowing characters to mouth smug pieties. One industrial foreman, Hack Hackenberg, no less, talks of the “rough justice” he administered to native coal miners in Johannesburg, admitting that “you can’t do that to the Panamericans.” The hero, Tony Wellman (what else could he be but a doctor) muses sourly on that.
It was a good thing, thought Dr. Tony, that there wasn’t any Martian animal life. An intelligent race capable of being sweated would really have got the works from Hackenberg, who could justify abominable cruelty to his brothers on the grounds that they’d be born in a different hemisphere of his own planet. God only knew what he would think justified by an extra eye or an extra set of tentacles.
Women are marginally better regarded, though like Merril in pregnancy they are dominated by biology. A woman is a member of the Sun Lake council, others are pilots or nurses. No women is in an equivalent role elsewhere, save, perhaps, the brothel’s madam. The strongest men are brought to their knees by a women in labor or the helpless infant she produces. The dynamic between the sexes, about as advanced as a Hepburn-Tracy movie, towers over other contemporary depictions of Martian culture. Clarke has a pert 18-year-old girl as a love interest in an otherwise all-male cast. Though Heinlein would later win praise for a few strong female characters, Red Planet might be the most chauvinistic book of its time. No woman is shown holding a job or position of any description; they are instead weak, helpless, or shrill impediments to the manly men who protect them, even though the men are still boys. The slightness of the improvement in Outpost Mars is shown in two death scenes. One woman dies courageously, by crawling outdoors from her sickbed to expire while pointing out the route of a set of the mysterious footprints; one man dies courageously, by jumping a man with a gun and choking him to death while being filled full of holes.
Mars is not exactly a utopia. The message Judd sends is less communalistic than hierarchical: we few who think differently can act on our superior beliefs and flee the hordes for better worlds. American frontier mythology is lousy with such characters; so is science fiction. As the 1950s progress the insistence of writers in the field that American culture is sick and doomed takes on greater and greater urgency. Judd is ahead of this curve. Kornbluth would soon switch to Pohl as a writing partner for a series of social satires that brought them greater fame – The Space Merchants (“Gravy Planet” in Galaxy), Search the Sky, and Gladiator At Law (“Gladiator-At-Law” in Galaxy) – along with diminishing returns, rather like SNL pounding the humor out of a repeating sketch.
The adult themes in Outpost Mars made for good literature in the early 1950s. By the end of the decade, though, “adult” started taking on the connotation of “sexual.” There is no sex in the novel, although several places imply that men and women continue that activity on Mars: the brothel, of course, the fact that the madam attempts a self-abortion, and a kiss with the promise of further activity. Astonishingly, this grown-up albeit chaste book was reprinted in 1961 under the title Sin in Space. A blonde bombshell stares out at the reader while lifting her blouse; a helmeted astronaut leers sideways at her. “An Expose of the Scarlet Planet” is banned across the title page. The back cover blurb is: “A rocketing, sensational exposé of sin in space; a story about a drug deadlier than heroin, more vicious than morphine – this was the Martian narcotic that drenched a planet in crime and perversion!” If this were a few years later, the blurb writer would have referenced LSD and free sex equally misleadingly.
The spine is labeled a Galaxy Prize Selection, inside the Galaxy Publishing Corporation is given as the publisher. Only a careful reader would see the small Beacon symbol on the cover, a sign this book was part of their soft-core “sleaze” paperback line. The full story is given in The Look of the Future – Galaxy Novels.
What reward did a reader get for seeking sin in space? Someone added scenes for spiciness, failing to an almost ludicrous extent. The reporter flashes money at a prostitute, buying her time for an interview, learning that the guys on Mars are nicer than the ones back home in Altoona. At the end he slips her another fifty for her regular services. Not a word of description is provided.
Whether that is a kindness depends on what you think of the other insertion, a what-happens-next after the kiss.
Her slender body was like a child’s to lift. But the fierce flood that ran between them was man grown, women strong. “Ansie,” he whispered, and lost himself. There was only one body. There was only one mind. In the time that followed Tony was himself and her, he touched her flesh and in her flesh responded, he invaded and welcomed; it was he who invited and he who entered; it was she who clung and she who thrust; not he in his body and she in hers but the two of them … together … in each. There was no shame. There was no hesitation. There was only the affectionate joyous habit that years might have taught, and a driving compassionate fury that linked them and cleft them. And that a thousand centuries would not explore.
Someone, presumably the same hand that added text, shortened the remainder by cutting out clumps of paragraphs that didn't affect the plot. Among them was the dialog in which Sam made the comment about 2107. With the Mercury program well under way, no future that pushed a Mars rocket off to 2095 was remotely plausible. For those few years in the early 60s space travel appeared to be inevitable, closer than even the most optimistic science fiction writer predicted. Attitudes about the Future can shift overnight: linear extrapolation of trends never resemble reality. Yet authors (fiction and nonfiction) are constrained to merely three alternatives for writing about the Future: an extension of today, gee-whiz technology, or dystopia and destruction. Each has pluses and minuses, none can hold up to the close scrutiny of history and hindsight. Judd chose the first. The choice was a sound one for their time and place. Nobody today can speak to 2080. Judd wanted a better world for themselves and for their children, so they shouted loudly in the language that they knew best: science fiction. Only a few heard, but we know today that many more should have listened.