Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fritz Leiber's "A Pail of Air" (short story, post apocalypse, free): "survival in the face of desperate circumstances"

Quote from short story titled A Pail of Air by Fritz LeiberLeiber is another author I got introduced to via the wrong story, & kept avoiding. This one is a much better story compared to his "Coming Attraction" (included in Silverberg's SF Hall of Fame, vol 1).

While I won't put it in the league of best stories by anyone, it's a fine example of fighting extreme adversity with a positive outlook. Many familiar tropes have been mixed well.

Story summary.

A "black star" (or "dead sun") was moving through milky way in a direction opposite Sol, & passed rather close by. Earthmen never had a warning. At the time of passing earth was on one side of sun - towards black star; other planets were on the other side of the Sun.

In the gravitational tug of war between the Sun & the visitor, earth got torn away from Sun & was captured by the black star; moon was pulled in by Sun - so earth doesn't even have moon now. There were major geological upheavals on earth at the time of passing - leading to much destruction. Parts of this narrative sound like H G Wells' "The Star".

More than a decade has passed since the event. Earth is now in orbit around this new sun, & its axial rotation period is now 10 times longer. It's now a dead frozen world with no sunlight, currently "beyond the orbit of the planet Pluto", moving "farther out all the time."

A hardy man named Harry not only survived with his wife, they decided to have children after the event & teach them what it takes to survive in this harsh world. No one else is known to be alive, though near the end of the story they will not only meet other survivors but find hope in this world.

Story is narrated by the 10 year old son of Harry. His accounts of the events are based on what he has heard from his parents - he himself has never known a friendlier earth. Fourth member of the family is his sister. Family has figured out a way of living in a makeshift shack ("Nest") that is not airtight.

They burn coal for fire that they get from somewhere on a lower floor of the old building that now houses the Nest & is mostly under the frozen atmosphere; these coals were may be previously collected (I'm not clear). Living off old canned food, I think - I don't recall many mentions of food sources.

Title comes from buckets of solid oxygen the family needs to collect from outside & melt in fire indoors - since earth's atmosphere is now frozen.

Some interesting descriptions of this world:
  1. "when the Earth got cold, all the water in the air froze first and made a blanket ten feet thick or so everywhere, and then down on top of that dropped the crystals of frozen air, making another white blanket sixty or seventy feet thick maybe."
  2. "all the parts of the air didn't freeze and snow down at the same time."
  3. "First to drop out was the carbon dioxide... Next there's the nitrogen ... it's the biggest part of the blanket. On top of that and easy to get at, which is lucky for us, there's the oxygen that keeps us alive. Pa says we live better than kings ever did, breathing pure oxygen... Finally, at the very top, there's a slick of liquid helium, which is funny stuff. All of these gases in neat separate layers."
  4. "Odd things happen in a world that's about as cold as can be, and just when you think matter would be frozen dead, it takes on a strange new life. A slimy stuff comes crawling toward the Nest, just like an animal snuffing for heat—that's the liquid helium." There is a mention of a similar effect in Larry Niven's "Wait It Out" (set on Pluto).

Collected in.

  1. David Drake, Jim Baen, & Eric Flint (Ed)'s "The World Turned Upside Down".

Fact sheet.

First published: Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1951.
Rating: A
Download full text or MP3 (later via Wikipedia).
Update 20 July 2008: Michael Williams' comment below gives a link to a 1 hour unabridged version, as opposed to my MP3 link above which is a dramatization; I haven't heard either of the two MP3s. Thanks Michael.


Michael Williams said...

The MP3 you linked to is a dramatisation. There was a wonderful unabridged reading on Resonance FM/Freaky Trigger here in the UK recently, which was followed by an interesting disucssion: