One Step From Earth is a collection of vignettes by Harry Harrison and published in 1970. The collection presents a possible timeline in human history that follows the development of “matter transmission” technology. I read the Macmillan hardback edition with cover art by Carl Titolo.
Harry Harrison (1925 – 2012) is known for his Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, The Galactic Hero series. He was a fairly prolific writer – besides his own works, he wrote many reviews and essays as-well-as editing a number of anthologies. The only other item that I have read by Harrison is The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), which I rather enjoyed. In contrast to the SSR novels, this collection is more serious-minded and was better than I expected it to be.
I admit that I was skeptical of this endeavor by Harrison. I might have been suspicious because I was thinking that such a collection of stories would be very forced and heavy-handed. All of the stories are on “matter transmission,” so I did wonder how much interesting stuff could be plumbed from this topic. One always hopes the authors are creative and insightful, but there is always the worry that the stories will be awfully boring and tedious. Or, worse, that the stories are more like “etudes” and practice-writing than fully developed pieces. After all, anything can be a writing prompt, but very little of what gets written is quality.
Luckily, all of these stories are decent enough works. Overall, the entire collection ends up with an average feel to it. I gave the whole thing three stars. However, there are several stories that rated a bit higher because they were well done. Nothing here is something extraordinary or vastly superior to the great stock of science fiction writing, but there was not a story that was so wretched that it tanked the whole group. This ended up being a great read for mellow evenings. So, no pulse-pounding, action-thriller, pulp pandemonium here!
- Introduction: The Matter Transmitter (essay)
- One Step from Earth – (1970) – 3 stars
- Pressure – (1969) – 4 stars
- No War, or Battle’s Sound – (1968) – 3 stars
- Wife to the Lord – (1970) – 2 stars
- Waiting Place – (1968) – 4 stars
- The Life Preservers – (1970) – 3 stars
- From Fanaticism, or for Reward – (1969) – 2 stars
- Heavy Duty – (1970) – 2 stars
- A Tale of the Ending – (1970) – 4 stars
As expected, the vignettes here are glimpses into the usage of the matter transmitter technology. Naturally, I assumed Harrison would try to present a variety of aspects of the technology, and Harrison did do this, but I feel there were also many other points of view that could have been used for even more stories. The ones here are decent and do present a variety so that the reader does not feel like the same story is being retold. The introductory essay is good enough, letting the reader understand some of the purpose behind this collection.
Most MT stories have been of this fun-and-games variety, all involved with building the machine and seeing what it does to the first victims who are fed therein. All of which can be very interesting, but is by no means a complete picture of the possibilities of MT. Let us think ahead a bit. If we can imagine an operating MT we can certainly consider the possibility of the widespread use of MTs. If the machine works it can be made to work cheaper and better and soon we might be using MTs the same way we use telephones now.
But what is the effect on man and his institutions when this happens? – pg. x
Well, what Harrison refers to as MT is something very like a portal in a videogame that allows the player to “zone” to a new area. Where have we seen things like this? Sliders TV show (1995 – 2000), portals in EverQuestII and in World of Warcraft, Nether portals in Minecraft, etc. But most obviously, we are all thinking of the transporter in Star Trek, which is the one example I have listed here that predates this collection by Harrison. It is 2016 and so we (particularly looking at pop culture and entertainment) are so familiar with MT that it really does not impress us at all. But in 1970, this would be a far more interesting subject to ponder. And, yes, Harrison’s MTs do not operate like Star Trek‘s (this is not a molecular dissolution via energy source, but rather like doorways Cp. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series).
All of this background stated, I do not think that Harrison really does present the effect on mankind and his institutions. Maybe just peripherally, but not to the depth or with the facets that a scientifically/philosophically-minded reader would want from such an investigation. In the end, most of these stories are more on the superficial side of that investigation, instead of giving a deep examination of repercussions and reactions. Still, let us also recognize that Harrison is writing fiction – meant to entertain, so it is probably a good thing that we are left with entertaining stories that are not desperately boring, which is how scientific investigations could have turned out.
Anyway, it is no sweat or work to get through this comfortable-reading collection. The couple of slips are the stories I gave two stars. Those pieces were ones that I felt just did not carry enough purpose or value. The three stories that I rated four stars are really the ones readers should focus on, but there really should not be any challenge to just reading all of the collection regardless. I liked the setting of Pressure the best and while I feel it is not the most realistic set-up for the story, the setting is exciting enough to carry it through. Plus, Harrison gives props to Yuri Gagarin (hero!). The overarching setting is the planet Saturn (a far under-used planet in science fiction, in my opinion). Another disturbing element of this story is the cigarette smoking, which, by 1970, Harrison should have known not to include here.
The story A Tale of The Ending was one I was very worried about. It takes place (as one can surmise on its place in the contents) in the far, far, very super-far future. Obviously, it takes a vast imagination and good writing skill to pull off any kind of story that takes place so far in the future. Generally, writers who attempt such settings usually fail and their stories seem either straight out of an LSD-trip or cannot maintain the futuristic-ness of their original insight. So, I must admit I was really surprised that this one came out so very nicely done. I like the little hints of academic fields, I liked the hints of communication protocol, and overall, I liked the characters – for as short a time as I got to know them.
In some stories (e.g. One Step From Earth) Harrison puts a lot of the story’s weight on the actual MT. In other stories (e.g. Wife to the Lord) the MT is in the background as a foundation element, but not highlighted. Overall this balance holds throughout the collection. Sure, the stories are about the MT, but not always an MT crammed in our face. A gentle, mellow read; above pulp, below “hard scifi.”