‘A BREATH OF
‘Alien Dust’ by EC Tubb
(July 1955, TV Boardman, cover by Gerard Quinn)
novelisation based on six short stories
‘1995. First Colonising Expedition lands on Mars’
‘Outside the sun was setting, casting long shadows down the narrow streets of the settlement. Landry leaned against a wall. He felt suddenly tired. A mining town must have looked like this, he thought. One of the old boom-towns where men gathered to wrest wealth from the earth. A pioneer town. New born, without culture, tradition, or roots. Which is exactly what the colony was.’ This is EC Tubb’s Mars. And this is the long hard story of its painful colonisation.
In September 1955, in the same issue of ‘Nebula’ (no.13) that the short story “Operation Mars” topped the reader’s poll, taking 34.8% of the votes cast, Kenneth F Slater reviews ‘Alien Dust’, as ‘this novel – or rather, connected set of stories, is based on tales which have seen magazine publication, but have been almost completely rewritten to form a connected whole.’ For the novel, Tubb has reordered the random sequence in which the episodes first appeared, and added a future-history timeline to link the events into cohesion, from the 1995 first colonising expedition, through to 2030, and the first Mars-born children reaching maturity.
For example, the opening chapter is also the last to appear in magazine form. Framed by detailed art from Alan Hunter, showing needle-sharp spacecrafts on the Martian surface unloading their freight of supplies and materials for the scattered human figures in their long shadows, “Operation Mars” occupies the major portion of ‘Nebula no.11’ (December 1954). It is prefaced by the dramatic caption ‘They were conquerors of a new world, but they found that it would not yield without a grim struggle’. In general, at the time of its publication, the novel was seen as groundbreaking in its grim unrelenting authenticity. Unlike much fiction at the time, there are no Martians. No Martian lifeforms at all. No evocative ruins of graceful Martian cities left by ancient extinct civilisations for Terran archaeologists to rummage through. The Mars that the colonists discover is a pitilessly grim waterless wasteland. ‘There’s no native life on Mars’ says Verrill in an earlier Tubb novel, ‘jut the desert and the wind. No plants, no insects, nothing.’
There are no ‘canals’ either. But while Tubb dismisses the artificial nature of those mysterious surface-features, he utilises their ongoing myth-value by describing them as ‘only what Schiaparelli had originally called them’, that is – they are natural channels ‘a hundred miles wide and several miles deep.’ Tubb didn’t know at the time, but we can now think of the Valles Marineris, the subsequently discovered canyon system that – at 5000kms length, 500 wide, and 6kms deep, neatly accords with his speculation.
The thorny issue of whether it’s possible to breathe Martian air was still very much ongoing in the mid-fifties. Although it was generally agreed by then that it wasn’t really a good idea it nevertheless persisted in SF for some time. The movie ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964) neatly circumvents the problem by using ‘air pills’. And while Tubb has his colonists breathing the thin air he adds two caveats, firstly that ‘the air was just bearable to treated and conditioned lungs’ – that is, the colonists had been trained and prepared. And secondly that ‘we can live here without breathing apparatus providing we keep to the lower regions’ – that is, within the canyons. CS Lewis had used a similar device with his ‘handramit’ Martian lowlands in ‘Out Of Silent Planet’ (1938). Yet, although Tubb’s pioneers take refuge in the shell of the ship during the first freezing nights, it’s still strange to envisage their base-camp as a ‘primitive affair’ made up of ‘a few flimsy tents’. Tents…? On Mars? Which means that when the sandstorm hits, as it always does in novels set on Mars, they are totally exposed to its swirling grit.
The colonists arrive in three ships – ‘like two dreams and a nightmare.’ Ships that don’t carry radio, presumably for reasons of excess weight, so that when Ship No.2 crashes and explodes they can only speculate about the causes. Gyroscope failure perhaps? Yet its loss involves not only the death of ten men, but the bulk of the expedition’s food and water supplies. While the first ship is dismantled for materials, the remaining ship returns to Earth, leaving the colonists with no exit strategy. Jim Hargreaves captains the project – the ‘New Cortez’, backed up by Doc Winter and Weeway the dietician, who plans to cultivate yeast as the first step towards self-sufficiency. The other survival-scheme involves laying a hundred-mile water-pipeline, made of fused Martian sand, to tap the ice at the pole. But five of the thirty survivors die when the three-day sandstorm hits, and the failure of pipe-laying detail escalates the casualty list to thirteen.
As they debate their crisis-hit predicament it emerges that their venture has been based on one solitary previous survey to determine the planet’s habitability, and that the whole thing is a shoestring spin-off project from the military budget allocated for the Lunar Tycho base. If they fail, there’s no political will to fund a follow-up. This is the human race’s one-shot chance to colonise Mars, and Hargreaves is determined it will not fail, regardless of the extreme human cost that is now becoming apparent. Food supplies diminish. After immense effort the pipeline is completed, but the saline-content determines the untreated water undrinkable. So thirst is taking its toll. Yet against the odds they survive. In two ways.
In the ‘Nebula’ short story they miscalculate the remaining time by confusing Earth and Martian days, so that the relief ship arrives earlier than they’d estimated. One reader – and later novelist in his own right, Bob Shaw is critical in the letter column of the following issue. To him, the story is ‘guilty of the one mistake that should never be made by a writer who worships at the shrine of the progress of science – namely, underestimating the power of the scientific mind.’ More specifically he points out that ‘I can assure you, they (the space pioneers) would never forget about the difference in the lengths of Martian and Earth days.’ His objection seems entirely reasonable. And in the novel version of the same events they survive differently, by cannibalising the bodies of the dead. A gruesome, if logical solution, and one well-documented in history. In the 1972 Andes airplane disaster, for example, the living consumed the dead. As did the blizzard-bound Donner Pass covered-wagon pioneers in 1846 Colorado. And the early Jamestown colony in 1609 Virginia. So why not the desperate colonists on Mars? But what made Tubb make the last-minute plot-switch? Surely it was too late for him to have taken note of Bob Shaw’s comment and acted upon it (the novel appeared barely six months after the magazine issue)? Maybe ‘Nebula’-editor Peter Hamilton was nervous of introducing such a distasteful theme into his magazine. Perhaps he considered cannibalism too extreme a solution for his readers? So Tubb hurriedly contrived the weaker and less satisfying solution? We’ll never know.
Nevertheless, from group jeopardy the next tale moves forward into a more directly personal dilemma. With the colony established as ‘a huddle of low, rounded buildings, dun-coloured, made of tamped and fused sand, their surfaces bearing a faint polish’ standing ‘where a few flimsy tents had once been’, the new problem is presented as a teenage stowaway on the supply-ship from Earth. Again, a somewhat unlikely occurrence, but one also used by Kenneth Bulmer in his short story “First Down” (‘Authentic SF’, no.44, April 1954), in which a pressman smuggles himself aboard the first moon mission. Although Tubb himself was more ‘peeved’ by yet another similar tale. As he explained to me in a tone of wry humour, it is ‘the perfect case of me missing the boat entirely. It’s one of those – I won’t say ‘peevish’ things, because it’s nobody’s fault, it just happened. I wrote a story called “Precedent” about a stowaway on a ship bound for Mars. And they find him, and they have to throw him out. It was just a story.’ It was more than just a fine story, it provides an effective change-of-pace chapter for the novel. Originally published under Tubb’s ‘Charles Grey’ alias, it goes to great lengths to stress that ‘on a spaceship one extra passenger can mean the death of all,’ to the amusing extent that pilot John Manders surrenders his dentures as ‘unessential weight’ prior to launch. And with no fuel safety-margin, returning ships splashdown in Lake Michigan.
‘But’ Tubb muses, ‘I think it was Tom Godwin who wrote a story – “The Cold Equation” (‘Astounding/Analog’ August 1954), where they find the stowaway on the ship, but it’s a she. And they have to throw her out. And I look at that, and I think ‘oh dear’ – and I know I was first, not that it matters because you get overlap anyway, but why didn’t I think of a GIRL? Why did it have to be his bloody son-in-law or his brother-in-law or something (it is the captain’s seventeen-year-old brother-in-law, Carl), and the moral dilemma is ‘what would the wife say?’ Because logically again, at that time it would never have occurred to me that a woman would do that. It was just one of those things. It was a good story. But he got anthologised and lauded, rightly so. It even got on TV. While poor old “Precedent” just sat there, twitching…’ The Godwin story was indeed televised, first by the groundbreaking ABC-TV series ‘Out Of This World’ (14 July 1962) – introduced by Boris Karloff, and later by the revived ‘The Twilight Zone’ (7 January 1989).
In a later throwaway addendum it seems that pilot Manders becomes subsequently lost on the Venus-colony run. But Tubb’s point about the girl in the story is indicative of the novel in total. Until well into its halfway point there are no women on Mars. None. This omission is less due to misogyny on Tubb’s part, more that he’s an unreconstructed gentleman who could never conceive of female pioneers in space. Subsequent fiction, and subsequent events in space itself, have proved him emphatically wrong. No SF tale, and no Sci-Fi blockbuster movie can make it to first cut without a feisty ass-kicking femme. For the ‘Alien’ movie franchise. But not so for ‘Alien Dust’.
‘2005. Major Randolph recalled to Earth
to aid in recruiting of women for the colony’
Born in London, 15 October 1919, Edwin Charles ‘Ted’ Tubb was a dominating figure in British Science Fiction throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, and a considerable presence in the decades that followed. Scarcely a magazine issue zapped by without his name, in one of its many guises, being strongly featured on the contents page. By the time of ‘Alien Dust’ he’d already chewed out an innumerable stream of extravagant two-fisted pulp-novels, starting off with ‘Saturn Patrol’ (1951, as by ‘King Lang’). It isn’t actually about patrolling the planet Saturn at all, despite what the quaint cover-art suggests, but a force of mercenary Warbirds defending the worlds of the Rim during a kind of Asimovian post-‘Galactic Empire’ anarchy. And it is hard-hitting fast-action fiction. Gregg Harmond, a recruit from freezing backwater planet Lagos, is briefed that his new companions are ‘unwanted, but necessary. You’ll fight the aliens of a thousand worlds, and you’ll fight the most deadly foe of all – men. Planets will employ you, pander to your every whim, and when the battles are over, kick you out. You’ll do the dirty work of all the Galaxy.’ As in some future-glimpse of the ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) movie they face hordes of Dreeda – ‘a cross between ants, spiders, and the devil himself’, who have the temerity to inhabit planet Prokeen required for human colonisation. And their payment-cheques are delivered via hyperbeam to the Inter-Galactic Bank!
The story charts Gregg’s uneasy ascent to Commander of the Eagles through mutiny, space-battles and war on cold dead moons, which leads him to turn his predatory ambitions towards the decadent wealthy empires of the galactic centre, playing one off against the other. Until The Tri-Combine and The Arsenal move in – like Asimov’s ‘Foundation’, to establish order once he’s unwittingly achieved their purpose. For Asimov, the space-battles happen off-stage, whereas Tubb describes each manoeuvre, every tortured starship blasted into ‘incandescent gases and semi-molten metal’ in eye-searing explosions. For a debut novel it’s surprisingly assured Space Opera, on an epic scale.
Other pulp novels rapidly followed with such wonderfully garish titles as ‘Atom War On Mars’ (1952), ‘Dynasty Of Doom’ (1953, as by ‘Charles Grey’), ‘City Of No Return’ (1954) and ‘The Hell Planet’ (1954), set on an implacably hostile Mercury. They remain highly-collectable. Tubb had even visited Mars before. Verrill, the hard-drinking Venusian Teng-weed smoking protagonist of ‘Journey To Mars’ (Scion, 1954) uses the planet’s ‘Port Mersham’ launch-point for the Big Jump to Alpha Centauri by Quendis Drive. But only after he flees tropical Jurassic Venus, calling off at Mercury and bypassing Vulcan on the way (a tiny world supposedly located within the orbit of Mercury). But ‘Alien Dust’ was intended to be different.
Describing its Mars in conversation he asked me to envisage taking the Sahara Desert and dumping it down in the Antarctic, then – incidentally, taking away the air. That, he said, is Mars. Ironically this hard-scrabble world has since proved to be as obsolete as the exotic exaggerations he sought to replace. I loved Leigh Brackett’s tales of the dying ERB-ian Mars, but her ‘Sea-Kings Of Mars’ (1949) was a step too far. Mars is arid, always has been. The ‘Dead-Sea Bottoms’ are an imaginative conceit that are no more seas than the Lunar Mares. Except that recent probe-data indicates that, yes, there once were liquid-water seas on Mars, albeit briefly and billions of years ago.
Nevertheless, ‘Alien Dust’ constitutes a conscious attempt to ratchet the fiction up a level. A determined shot at credibility. As Leslie Flood points out in the novel’s ‘New Worlds’ review ‘Tubb, I think, in his more serious work has developed a style no less striking than Hemingway in his field, and in my estimation, comparable. Often brutal, but always logical, he describes the dire struggle of men to establish a hold on the inhospitable red planet. A tenure made precarious by cruel fate, lack of support from Earth, biological setbacks and, above all, the unrelenting fury of the red Martian dust which chokes every endeavour.’
It is very much a 1950’s novel. His pioneers enjoy none of the techno-gadgetry we now take for granted, which would help alleviate the bleak drudgery of their lives. Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sands Of Mars’ (1951) covers a similar events-span, but unlike the Port Lowell base of Clarke’s novel there’s none of the descriptive eulogies of dawn rippling over the ochre Martian desert or the terrifying wonder of its tremendous valleys. There’s no beauty on Tubb’s Mars, and little poetry. Even the fleeting glimpse of lyricism is tainted. ‘A faint wind blew from the east, a gentle stirring in the air, and beneath it the undulating dunes altered in some subtle fashion into new, more fantastic configurations. Little clouds scudding over the desert, rising, falling, eddying and finally collapsing to add their burden to the dunes.’ But even that wind is terminally rifted with ‘dust. The curse of Mars.’ You wonder, faced with such relentless unrewarding toil, why they even stay. Until Jud Anders, from Earth’s ‘Department of Extra-Planetary Affairs’ arrives in chapter four (“Without Bugles”) with threats to withdraw funding, the irony is that by now it’s impossible for the men to leave Mars, their inhalation of this alien dust has wrecked their respiratory system, lift-off acceleration would kill them.
Against mounting evidence, Arthur C Clarke hangs onto the idea of kangaroo-like native creatures cropping indigenous plants. But nothing will grow in the radioactive grit of Tubb’s Mars. Why is it radioactive? In the short story he muses ‘once, how long ago we can only conjecture, there was a war, or maybe it was an accident, and radioactive dust was loose on the planet?’ For the novel, even this faint hint of once-Martians is scrupulously edited out. Substituted by ‘maybe Mars is as it is through purely natural causes. Maybe not. I doubt if we shall ever know.’ Instead, the reader shares the parched dryness at the back of the throat. Smells the staleness of its dust. Feels the grit griming beneath their nails. The chill penetrating to the bone. Tubb razors back bug-eyed myth in a calculated assault on the alt history encoded in the SF planetary legacy of ER Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Stanley Weinbaum and Ray Bradbury. Ruthlessly stripping away all romance, as trivial distractions from its neo-realist stone-hard truth. All that remains is pain.
At what point the initially one-off stand-alone stories began to assume a uniting contour is not certain. The editor of ‘New Worlds’ was certainly a proactive element in bringing the novel together, with an enthusiastic input that earns him a dedication – ‘To John Carnell, without whom this book would not have been written.’ The reshaping process is most evident in the next story-into-chapter, which is radically restructured. The basic plotline is that Major Randolph returns to Earth after five years as commander of the Mars colony, to drum up awareness through lectures and promos, to seek new, and female recruits. Only to find the unfamiliar terrestrial gravity and atmospheric pressure unbearable. He has become a Martian. Only now, the manipulative Jud Anders is reinserted to aid continuity (in the short story the character is ‘Senator Wilson’). While accompanying Anders in the earlier “Without Bugles” episode was Pat Easton, the more sympathetic reporter for ‘Trans-World Commentary’, and first woman on Mars. She also reappears in a passage unique to the novel, immediately prior to “Home Is The Hero”. While an entire sequence in which ‘Randy’ visits a dying John ‘Atom’ Lomas, third man on the Moon and head of Tycho Station, is dropped for its novel revision. In a terrible warning, his tenure on the Moon has also resulted in muscular atrophy and irreversible physical deterioration.
In a subsequent passing comment, it seems that although his mission succeeded, Major Randolph never survived the rigours of the return trip. Yet there are now women on Mars, in spite of his scarcely enticing pitch – ‘you want a husband? You want children? You are prepared to leave Earth for ever in order to get them?’ Despite adjustments to compensate for the gender imbalance – which Tubb presciently terms ‘Feminist’, there are cancers, stillbirths and birth defects among what ‘Randy’ calls these ‘brood mares’. Even as it appears the raw radiation responsible has a dubious upside. As the political situation on Earth grows increasingly unstable the ‘fissionable elements evenly distributed throughout the (Martian) dust’ is found to be weapons-grade and capable of producing ‘more refined atomic death.’ The strategic value of a processing plant accelerates the colony’s slow and gradual expansion. Allowing Randolph’s grim satisfaction that ‘when you’ve finally managed to blow the Earth into atomic ruin, the colony will be safe.’ With the women and children evacuated back to Earth, his prophecy is fulfilled as the chronology dates the outbreak of atomic war to 2014. Communication between the two worlds is temporarily lost.
2020. ‘Countless millions of tiny particles,
worn to razor-edged crystals by eons of erosion
and friction, swirled and drifted about him,
lifted by the planet-wide winds’
The final two chapters complete the cycle, while working independently as well-constructed self-contained stories. The title-tale charts the arrival of a resentful group of juvenile delinquents at a settlement that has been neglected and sidelined by other more vital Solar System events. Commander Ventor makes his objections clear to Mars being used as a penal colony, while oldster ‘Pop’ takes a more sympathetic approach. The characters are strongly defined. It’s a big empty planet, but they’re claustrophobically confined to the low domes, trekking no further than the power-pile. Grudgingly young Sam Weston grows to respect Mars, and ultimately gives his life to repair the essential power-lines during a vicious sandstorm.
Then, as the colony faces terminal shut-down, they’re forced to resort to desperate measures. New Commander Tony Denton threatens to blitz a major Earth city with toxic radioactive Martian dust until he gets his concessions. It’s the defiant outlaw determination that impresses the Earth populace rather than the threat itself, leading to a new respect for their plight. Meanwhile, denied the genetic-engineering possible today the colonists have been attempting to devise something that will grow in the arid Martian regolith. So far they’ve subsisted on a flavoured mulch of hydroponic yeast. With renewed Earth investment in Mars provoked by Denton’s audacious ultimatum, the first laboriously cross-bred modified fungus takes root in alien dust, and the Mars-born children return with an immunity to the cancers and sterility that afflicted their parents. The novel closes on the up-beat with the evocative final line, ‘arm in arm the Martians stared across the rolling dunes of their new world.’
The TV Boardman hardback edition of ‘Alien Dust’ – with its striking Gerard Quinn cover-art, was critically well-received, selected to be no.21 in ‘The Science Fiction Book Club’ (July 1956), and published in America through Avalon Books (1957), where it was favourably reviewed by P Schuyler Miller (in ‘Astounding SF’, August 1957), Anthony Boucher (in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, May 1957) and by Calvin M Knox (in ‘Science Fiction Stories’, September 1958). Stylistically, Tubb followed it with ‘Window On The Moon’ (1963, variant title ‘Moon Base’), which also started out as a three-part serial in ‘New Worlds’ (nos.129, 130 and 131, April, May and June 1963), and which takes a similarly grit-hard approach to lunar colonisation during a time of Cold War rivalry. But it was with ‘The Winds Of Gath’ (1967) – the first of his ‘Earl Dumarest of Terra’ novel-series which eventually ran to thirty-three titles, that EC Tubb would be promoted into the best-remembered SF-writers category.
And when it comes to colonising Mars, Tubb is hardly alone in his anticipations. Some decades later Kim Stanley Robinson expands the ‘Alien Dust’ scenario into an ambitious, if ultimately unsatisfying trilogy on novels – ‘Red Mars’ (1993), ‘Green Mars’ (1994) and ‘Blue Mars’ (1996), detailing the terraforming and populating of Mars, taking the vision across the worlds of the solar system and, ultimately, beyond. Around the same time Ben Bova was also regurgitating the much-paced saga of Martian colonisation (in ‘Mars’, 1992, and ‘Return To Mars’, 1999), with his Navajo geologist Jamie Waterman not only turning the fiction-clock back to discovering lichen in Tithonium Chasma, but the remains of earlier habitation in caves in the Valles Marineris walls too. They face the same government-imposed threats of budgetary cuts that Tubb’s pioneers had been subject to. And the same sandstorms. They were shoplifting ideas from a back-catalogue of images, dressed up in new techno-gimmickry.
Yet the historically inevitable human outward expansion into the solar system that seemed so obvious to Tubb’s generation of SF writers is now less certain. Its vision no longer quite so clear. The world is still waiting. The worlds are still waiting. Yet at the same time, a ‘Mars One’ project co-ordinated by Paul Romer’s Dutch reality-TV company, co-creator of ‘Big Brother’ and Nobel prize winning physicist, Gerard’t Hooft – proposing a one-way red planet trip financed through a not-for-profit conglomerate of corporate sponsorship and wealthy individual donations, attracted 850,000 unique web-visitors and over 30,000 volunteers. Even with the promise of a nine-month trip in a radiation-frazzled phone-box-size cubicle drinking your own recycled urine to arrive on a freezing airless rock, if they launch tomorrow rather than the 2023 target-year they’d still be overwhelmed with eager candidates. E-technology, miniaturisation, micro-circuitry and new flexible-light materials make the trip more feasible. Private enterprise is sensing exploitable opportunities. And emerging power economies in China, Brazil or India are expanding into a new space-race. So maybe it will still happen. On some level. In the foreseeable future. Just a little later than EC Tubb envisioned. Perhaps Tubb’s vision has been not so much outmoded, as merely postponed…?
THE ‘ALIEN DUST’ CHRONICLES
‘Alien Dust’ by EC Tubb (July 1955, TV Boardman, cover by Gerard Quinn) novelisation based on six short stories published in the followed sequence,
(1) “Without Bugles” in ‘New Worlds no.13’ January 1952. Art by Gerard Quinn. ‘The Red Planet was pretty much a dust bowl. As a business project it didn’t rate much. Once there, however, it was difficult to return to Earth’. Story voted no.1 in ‘The Literary Line-up’ in no.15
(2) “Home Is The Hero” in ‘New Worlds no.15’ May 1952. Illustration by Alan Hunter. ‘After five years on Mars it was wonderful to be back. Or was it? In fact, what did happen to all pioneers of spaceflight?’
(3) “Precedent” as by ‘Charles Grey’ also in ‘New Worlds no.15’ May 1952. Art by Clothier. ‘A stowaway on an ocean-going liner isn’t much of a problem – but a stowaway on a spaceship can be disastrous!’
(4) “Men Only” in ‘New Worlds no.16’ July 1952. Art by Quinn. ‘Even when the Martian colony had settled its marital problems and life on the dusty planet was almost bearable, there was little hope for future generations. If there were any future generations’
(5) “Alien Dust” in ‘New Worlds no.19’ January 1953. Art by Quinn. ‘This story concerns an isolated incident in Mr Tubb’s Martian history – its characters are ordinary individuals, its hero is a criminal. The setting, a dust storm on Mars’. Tubb is also present as ‘Gordon Kent’ with the short story “Heroes Don’t Cry”. “Alien Dust” is voted no.2 in ‘The Literary Line-up’ in no.21
(6) “Pistol Point” in ‘New Worlds no.21’ June 1953. Art by Quinn. ‘At last a ray of hope for the destitute Martian colony – a plant that will grow in the desert. But to get recognition they had to threaten Earth itself!
(7) “Operation Mars” in ‘Nebula no.11’ December 1954. Art by Alan Hunter. ‘They were conquerors of a new world, but they found that it would not yield without a grim struggle’
The order in which they appear in the novel is:
1995 – Chapters one and two, “Operation Mars”
1998 – Chapter three, “Precedent”
2000 – Chapter four, “Without Bugles”
2005 – Chapter five, “Home Is The Hero” (radically revised and preceded by new bridging section) 2010 – Chapter six, “Men Only”
2020 – Chapter seven, “Alien Dust”
2030 – Chapter eight, “Pistol Point”
Reviews appeared in
‘Nebula no.13’ (September 1955) by Kenneth F Slater,
and in ‘New Worlds no.37’ (July 1955) by Leslie Flood
For more interviews and Book Reviews on EC Tubb visit