Deadly Litter – James White (1964)
“People in space must be prepared to encounter the bizarre… the horrifying… the hostile… and the alien. And in DEADLY LITTER man is threatened from all sides, struggling for sanity and survival against the hazards of space, frantically seeking new ways of conquering the unknown and the unpredictable…
But man’s greatest enemy in space is… man. The most dangerous obstacle he must overcome… himself.
four stories of man dealing with man in space…”
Blurb from the 1968 Corgi paperback edition.
The Ideal Captain
The Lights Outside the Windows
Deadly Litter – SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES No 13, February 1960
A collection of four stories by White in which he explores the effects (on Man and in ‘Deadly Litter’ on space itself) of space travel.
‘Grapeliners’ is a first contact story in which a rather bizarrely designed passenger transport encounters its first alien ship.
The transport vessel, crewed by mostly elderly people who find the effects of radiation on their reproductive capabilities not really a problem, and the extension of their lifespans by life in low gravity environments a bit of a bonus – drags its passengers behind it in individual globular compartments; hence the name Grapeliners.
The plot – in which the Captain has to find a way to communicate with the aliens whose ship has become entangled in the ‘bunch of grapes’ – is far less interesting than White’s exemplary characterisation and attention to detail.
Like the rest of the stories it is well-structured and contains what seems to be White’s trademark technique of initially confusing and intriguing the reader who has to read on to find out what’s actually happening.
‘The Ideal Captain’ uses the same ploy in a somewhat more complex tale of a new second-in-command aboard a five-man ship. the ship has a new Captain, who has interviewed the three remaining crewmembers and impressed them mightily. As it turns out, there is actually no Captain at all. The men have been hypnotised to believe that their Captain is the best Captain there could be. the second-in-command however, has a secondary mission; to investigate the secret organisation which seems to have taken over the space servicer from within.
It’s an oddly van-Vogtian piece with its logical master of psychology hero and his esoteric science.
In ‘The Lights Outside The Windows’ White again flips out the red herring and initially gives the impression that the secret of this space passenger line’s success is that it is crewed by children.
In this future it is discovered that men are fundamentally incapable of living in space. The sight of the immensity drives them mad. Women, on the other hand, cope with it rather well.
So, most liner captains are women, and different companies employ different strategies in order to deal with the problems of the crew. One would have thought –given the vast body of evidence of women taking over men’s jobs during World War II – that the ideal solution would be all-female crews, or ships with no windows.
Sadly, White is of the opinion that men are more technically and mechanically minded, so this company’s solution is to hypnotise the male crew into believing they are four years old and in a training centre preparing them to be space-ship crew when they grow up.
The passengers are drugged to save them from the horrors of space, but one is a spy and having palmed his drugs, escapes from his hammock and tries to discover the secret of the Liner company’s success.
The Captain and the ‘boys’ must stop him.
‘Deadly Litter’. The title story is set in a future where ‘litter’ dumped in space has become a deadly menace. After years in which ships – concerned by the economics of a mass/fuel ratio – have been routinely dumping excess weight into space. It has been discovered that the ‘litter’, retaining the same velocity as the original flight, has in many cases become trapped by the sun’s gravity and is speeding around the solar system, waiting for a ship to crash into.
Caulfield, an officer on board an earlier flight which dumped much of its mass in order to make an emergency landing, has now been apprehended. Caulfield’s deposition could help to chart the course of the debris in order that ships could avoid running into it.
Caulfield is hiding something however, and it is up to the captain to find out what that is before the deadly litter causes further deaths.
As is usual for White, this is a clever and complex tale, fusing drama and science seamlessly. For modern readers one suspects that Caulfield’s secret isn’t that difficult to work out, but the beauty of this story lies elsewhere. At its heart is an ecological message probably more important to us now than it was in the early Nineteen Sixties.
White also includes some amazing decorative flourishes, such as the ‘gardens’ created on the outside of ships from recycled materials, and also providing a logical, ecological and psychological reason for their existence.
It’s a shame that White, a writer of such obvious quality, is not more widely recognised as a major voice within the genre.