Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Murray Leinster's "A Matter of Importance" (novelette, psychological warfare, free): A smart cop against a planetful of military

Quote from short story titled A Matter of Importance by Murray LeinsterExcept for stylistic differences, this could have been a story by Eric Frank Russell: a single smart alec pitted against a planetload of bureaucracy with its set ways of thinking. And, of course, winning. It's not as humorous as some of the Russell stories, but there is a basic charm to the plot. I was entertained.

If you've read Greg Egan's "Glory" (one of this year's Hugo nominees), this story starts off with the journey of a similar but less fanciful (almost pragmatic) gadget called a "message-torp". But only for conveying a message over vast interstellar distances using a reasonable amount of power.

One of the "message-torp" traveling technique ("jerky fashion") - hyperspatial hop, exit to normal space, another hop - are also found in interstellar passenger ships in several of Asimov's Foundation series of novels, including the original 3.

Mentions of the "glass-lined hole a rocket leaves" in the ground is a favorite of Larry Niven & is found in many Niven stories.

Story offers a lot of worthy quotations. I collected them here.

Story summary.

Story has space faring humans & space faring aliens called "Huks". Humans have far flung interstellar empire, & had actually kicked Huks off to "far side of the galaxy" when they first came in contact more than 80 years ago (yes, just 80). There is a lame excuse given for kicking them out - they won't live peacefully with humans on human terms, or some such.

We also find mentions of "delinks", the human terrorists, spread through the story. While not exactly words of wisdom, some of the statements regarding these terrorists are very contemporary. But they are part of background, unrelated to main story.

This is a human world where both war & military has been abolished. It's civil cops that do even the job normally expected on military, but with a difference in style. It was these supercops that had actually fought Huks during early contact days.

An interstellar human passenger ship "Cerberus" has developed some trouble midway through a voyage, has sent an SoS via a message-torp to traffic control at the planet "Varenga IV", & is now limping towards the nearest world called "Procyron III". Story follows the convention where Procyron is the local sun, & "III" means third planet going outward.

Curious thing about Procyron III is: it was once an Huk world, before they were kicked out. Everyone is assuming Procyron III is uninhabited, but of course there won't be a story if that were true.

Now a fast 2-crew traffic police "squad ship 390" with Sergeant Madden & Patrolman Willis is headed towards Procyron III to make basic inquiries. "Aldeb", a slower repair ship with the crew of 15 is coming behind. Madden is the supercop that will play smart alec here - with others playing the supporting role.

What the 2 cops find after landing on Procyron III is signs that Cerberus landed there, & then took off. But Cerberus didn't have spare power for take off, it only had for landing.

They could not have taken off without help. But there is no signs of any locals or other ships.

Investigations quickly find (these are supercops!) a local uranium mine, obviously in use. And signs of landing in "an artificial shoal" near the mine door. Looks like Huks are still around, & mine here. But they don't leave equipment behind; bring it every time, do the mining, & go off.

When Cerberus landed, some human passengers that came outside apparently saw the aliens & their uranium mine. So they had to be removed in a way that human authorities will find impossible to trace.

Poor Huks. They'd not accounted for supercops. Cops quickly locate a nearby steller system called "Sirene 1432" that could have a still remaining Huks planet. Of course, they find it - on Sirene IV.

Rest is the story of psychological warfare that safely recovers the kidnapped passengers & their ship Cerberus. This is a less dramatic version of the Russell's hilarious novel "Next of Kin".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, September 1959.
Rating: A
Download full text.
Related: All stories of Murray Leinster.