Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Native Soil by Alan E. Nourse

As exciting as mud
Alan E. Nourse was an American science fiction writer who was active from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Like Michael Crichton, Nourse was also a physician and worked his way through medical school with the income he earned from his writing. Nourse also wrote nonfiction works on science and medicine, including children’s books, and often inserted medical ideas and subject matter into his science fiction. His novella The Native Soil, for example, briefly works a medical concept into a story of interplanetary exploration. It was originally published in the July 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine.

After much speculation as to what sort of world might exist beneath the thick clouds of Venus, the first Earth expedition to reach the planet discovers that its terrain rather disappointingly consists almost entirely of gooey mud. Nevertheless, a pharmaceutical company finds a valuable resource buried within the mud and sets about trying to extract it. The problem is that every mining base or piece of equipment they set down on the surface ends up either sinking or becoming hopelessly mired in the muck to the point of malfunction. The company enlists Venus’s indigenous inhabitants, a race of intelligent beaver-like creatures who dwell in the mud, to help with the extraction. Though eager to assist, they are not smart enough to operate the Earth tech and end up hindering more than they help.

That’s pretty much it for most of the story’s length. The plot becomes a repetitive one-trick pony, humorously chronicling the foibles and failures of the extraction team. After about a half an hour of that, the reader comes to a twist ending that is clever but not really surprising. Though there are a few interesting ideas here, it is difficult to get excited about a story that is mainly about mud.

The Native Soil is the first work I’ve read by Nourse. In subject matter and tone, it reminded me of the writing of H. Beam Piper, whose work I enjoy quite a bit. Nourse shows enough promise that readers who enjoy vintage sci-fi pulp fiction will probably find at least a few good stories among his body of work, but this particular offering isn’t very impressive.
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