|Series||The Psychotechnic League|
|Genre(s)||science fiction short story|
|Published in||Astounding Science Fiction|
|Publisher||Street & Smith|
|Publication date||August 1957|
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (July 2012)|
"Brake" is a science fiction short story by Poul Anderson that was first published in 1957 in Astounding Science Fiction and reprinted in the collections Beyond the beyond (1969) and The Psychotechnic League (1981). As a component of the Psychotechnic League future history / alternate history, "Brake" takes place in 2270, as the civilization built up in the aftermath of the 1958 Third World War is being torn between mutually antagonistic factions, on the verge of collapsing into "the day of genocide and the night of ignorance and tyranny".
The story was written and published within two months of "Marius" and they were clearly written as companion pieces - the dawn and sunset of the same culture (later stories of this Future History would be set in the further future, when a still newer civilization would arise from the ruins of what would be called "The Second Dark Ages").
Marius and Brake are linked by various common themes - one featuring the first appearance of the maquis Stefan Rostomily, the other having the last appearance of Rostomily's cloned "sons"; in one Étienne Fourre appears for the first time, in his heroic effort to restore the shattered world, in the other the memory of Fourre is abused and his legacy is claimed by one of the militant factions busily working to shatter it again. In fact it Captain Banning, the story' protagonist, who is Fourre's true heir, bravely striving to preserve, as long as still possible, what Fourre and his companions had built.
Social and Political background
The entire plot is set on board a spaceship bound for the moons of Jupiter, but it is directly related to the deep crisis and malaise of Earth's social and political system, a "civilization about to go under".
While science and technology eliminated poverty and provided material plenty to all, they failed to resolve humanity's deeper needs. With machines doing much of the work, most people are unemployed - and while materially provided for, feel frustrated and alienated, an issue featured prominently in "Quixote and the Windmill" and "What Shall it Profit?".
This led to the rising of the anti-Technonogical ideology known as "Humanism", whose followers seized dictatorial power in 2170. Though eventually defeated ("Cold Victory") and the democratic government of the Solar Union restored, the underlying problem was not resolved but in fact grew worse. Earth's soul had been scarred by the Humanist episode, and a century later, there is a "civilization-splitting tension, wrung daily one notch higher". Being for or against Science and Technology is the hottest of politically controversial issues, with the struggle between numerous mutually antagonistic political and religious factions carried out not only via psychodynamics, telecampaigning and parliamentary maneuver but also by "knives in the night".
The schism is often perceived in simplistic geographic and cultural terms of "Oriental Kali worshipers versus a puritanical protechnological Occident". However, as the story's protagonist points out, the adherents of Kali the Destroyer, a mutated form of Hindu mythology, are only one branch of the Ramakrishian Ecclectics; there are many Asians who support birth control and Technic civilization, while some American professors are fanatical Kali worshippers; the Western New Christians oppose science while the Eastern Husseinite Muslims support it; and so on. Of major importance to the story are the influential and well-funded Western Reformers - in fact no reformers but utterly ruthless fanatics, who would stop at nothing in their efforts to "end the government's spineless toleration of the Kali menace in the East and the moral decay in the West".
The Psychotechnic Institute, which in earlier centuries subtly "guided" and manipulated the government and sought to prevent such polarization, had become corrupt and discredited and was not restored after the fall of the Humanists. Its last members degenerated into themselves becoming a fanatic exile faction on Ganymede seeking to seize power by breeding a mindless loyal army of genetically modified troops. The Institute's place was partly taken by the Order of Planetary Engineers, a secretive "quasi-military, almost religious" organization based at a castle on the edge of Archimedes crater on the Moon. With its members known as capitalized "Engineers" and bound to contract no formal marriage as long as they are on active duty, it has some characteristics reminiscent of the Free Masons and of the Military Orders of Medieval knights. Among the Engineers are also found the last of the Rostomily clones. Though basically concerned with physical nature and the terraforming of worlds, and officially neutral in politics, the Order maintains an Intelligence arm and an unofficial symbiosis with the Solar Union's Guard.
The above polarization does not spread beyond Earth, with colonists in space well aware that it was science and technology which created the very environment where they live. It is assumed that, whatever cataclysm would eventually engulf Earth, the space colonies would not be seriously touched by it, assuring humanity's survival.
Luna City on the Moon is cosmopolitan metropolis. The terrafroming of Venus - a Messianic dream for the oppressed earlier colonists depicted in "The Big Rain" - had come true, and freed of a dictatorial regime the Venusians reverted to a clan society reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands (they habitually wear kilts and berets). Though sometimes engaging in bloody vendettas, Venusian violence is relatively innocuous compared with what is going on Earth. Mars too is terraformed, its moon Phobos being an important station on the space routes.
The newest of humanity's outposts are the Jovian moons - Ganymede and Callisto terraformed, Europa due to be. The as yet poor and backward Jovian Republic - reminiscent of early Australia - has recently established its University of X, "X" being the name of the main city and spaceport on Ganymede. Its inhabitants have developed their own dialect of English ("Missed y' 'gain. Do' know 'f we c'n come near, nex' time").
As noted, the catastrophe which would eventually engulf Earth did not seriously touch these space colonies. This point is reiterated in this story, as in much of Anderson's other fiction and non-fiction writings - i.e., in his view, space exploration and colonization was not an unnecessary "luxury" or "waste" but essential for humanity's very survival.
"The Thunderbolt" is a space freighter, built as a steelloy spheroid, 300 meters in diameter. She is a fast ship, not restricted to Hohmann Orbits and capable of reaching the Jovian moons in less than a month. The flip side is that - since her speed is greater than the Solar Escape Velocity - should anything prevent "The Thunderbolt" from decelarating, she would go on forever into interstellar space, and all on board would die when supplies run out. For that reason, she carries no lifeboats - jumping into a lifeboat which cannot decelarate either would save nobody. Also, for most of her voyage, she is out of radio range and cannot call for help; her crew must deal by themselves with any emergency - natural, mechanical or (as in this story) man-made.
Captain Peter Banning is a veteran, highly capable spaceman, with a lot of experience also in hand to hand fighting (especially in zero gravity conditions). He has considerable intellectual curiosity and knowledge of such abstruse ancient history subjects as Weimar Germany and the struggle between Nazis and Communists - names which mean nothing to most 23rd Century people. Having observed the fast deteriorating situation on Earth, he tries to avoid being there and has bought a ranch on Venus to serve as his refuge; however, Earth's crisis would soon reach into his own ship.
On what seems a routine voyage, "The Thunderbolt" sets out with a cargo of terraforming equipment for Europa. Banning strikes up a friendship with Planetary Engineer Luke Devon, with whom he shares an enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Nothing much happens on board, except for a budding love relationship between Devon and Cleonie Rogers - one of the few people in this period with the money and leisure to engage in space tourism, and one of the few women to keep up an alluring female appearance at a time when the typical Western woman is a "crop-headed, tight-lipped, sad-clad creature". Banning has some vague suspicion about the ship's four other passengers, but nothing concrete - and they all have plausible reasons for traveling to Ganymede.
In fact, the four are members of the fanatic "Western Reformers", who plan to take over the ship. This is part of a much wider plot: the "Reformers" have started a secret asteroid base, which they plan to expand and build there a fleet of nuclear-armed ships, with which they would ultimately launch a surprise attack on Earth, destroy India and other centers of the Kali cult in a genocidal attack killing hundreds of millions, and take over power in the remaining part of the planet. To build up the base to such an extent they need a big, fast space freighter - and also the Thunderbolt's cargo of terraforming equipment would be useful for them.
Devon - a late clone of the Rostomily Brotherhood, whose struggle to help unite the Earth two centuries earlier was described in "Un-Man" - recognizes Serge Andreyev, one of these four passengers, as a former Engineer who had been expelled from the Order "for good reasons" and confronts him - whereupon Andreyev pulls a gun. Captain Banning comes upon the tableau and manages to get Devon free. This precipitates the conspirators into acting quicker than they planned, taking over strategic positions in the ship, killing two crew members out of hand an imprisoning several others. However, Captain Banning remains at large and manages to free and rally his crew. To begin with, they are hampered by the "Reformers" having a monopoly of firearms - such normally not carried by space freighters. This, however, is compensated by turning off the ship's artificial gravity - free fall conditions giving spacemen a considerable advantage over "landlubbers" - and by the Captain's considerable skill in throwing knives. Captain and crew, together with Luke and Cleonie, engage in a series of grim battles and manage to kill three of the four would-be hijackers, though Luke gets severely wounded.
However, Professor Gomez - leader of the Reformers' group - holes up in the ship's engine room, where it would take the Captain and his crew hours to cut through the thick metal partitions. He demands that everybody surrender to him and take the ship to the conspirators' asteroid. Otherwise, he would flush the ship's reaction mass off into space, dooming everybody to die in interstellar space; with "a face of embodied Purpose, known through millennial of slaughterhouse history" he declares his determination to die, too, if they reject his terms.
From the revived Devon's knowledge of the "Reformers", the Captain concludes that he and his crew would in any case be killed out of hand at the conspirators' asteroid, and that therefore they have nothing to lose. They do cut through the partitions, get into the engine room and kill Gomez - who already flushed a large part of the reaction mass into space.
Having done what they could to avert Earth's doom, Captain Banning and his people must find a way to save themselves. The remaining reaction mass is too little to reduce the ship's speed and stop it from leaving the Solar System. It is, however, enough to send it on a course through the giant atmosphere of Jupiter, where friction would slow them down - a risky maneuver never tried before. They lighten the ship by cutting off all internal partitions and throwing them out cargo hold; all but the most essential gear. After the last of the reaction mass is used the ship's motor is also cut off and jettisoned. The course defined takes the ship into the Jovian atmosphere, where friction reduces its speed considerably, whereupon it emerges into space and than again plunges into the atmosphere, and so again and again.
On their brief re-emergence into space, the obsolete ships of the Jovian Republic make a valiant effort to intercept and take them off - but in vain. Finally, the "The Thunderbolt" comes to rest in the upper Jovian atmosphere - "a hollow steelloy shell , three hundred odd meters in diameter, could carry more than a hundred thousand tons besides its own mass, and still have a net specific gravity of less than 0.03". Therefore, the ship could float in the Jovian atmosphere "like a free balloon over Eighteenth Century France". The people in her have enough supplies and stored energy to last them until rescue by a big ship; one capable of entering the Jovian atmosphere and taking them off the Jupiter. The group is hopeful that their rescuers would arrive from Earth.
The story introduces the theme of protagonists aware that their culture is nearing an inevitable collapse and a "Long Night" and who nevertheless strive, with great courage and sacrifice, to "halt the Norns" - even if for only one more generation. The same basic premise would be at the basis of Anderson's later Dominic Flandry series.
The next story in the series, Gypsy, takes place several hundred years later, when a new civilization had arisen out of the ashes of the Second Dark Ages and is already in possession of FTL ships. There is thus no information on how much time the heroic struggle of Captain Bannering and his crew bought for the embattled Earth, how did the final catastrophic collapse happen, and whose action touched it off - the Western Reformers, their Kali foes, some other factions or all of them together. Also Sandra Miesel, who closed up many gaps in this future history, did not concern herself with this one. The underlying assumption is that the civilization was moribund, and it is of secondary importance to point out exactly who struck the final blow.