One of the earliest SF books I can recall reading, and definitely the first I can remember owning, is Rip Foster Rides the Grey Planet by Blake Savage (a writer I have never heard of since). The editon I had was a hardcover from 1952, and twenty years later (I think; I must have been around seven) I think I acquired it from the second-hand bookshop in Lichfield that’s no longer there (R.I.P. best bookshop in the world ).
I must have read it a hundred times. Forty-odd years later, I could still remember loads of significant details from it. It had spaceships, and action, and heaps of gritty detail about planets and astronomy. And in the intervening years I have convinced myself that this one book was probably responsible for not only a life-long love of SF, but a love of science and engineering that steered my future education and therefore pretty much my entire life. One chapter was called “Peril at Perihelion”. How can you read a phrase as cool as that and not immediately want to find out everything you can about astronomy?
So, last summer I found it in my mom’s loft.
I think there’s a danger in revisiting things you once loved, because you inevitably can’t see them again in the way you once did. So I left it. And left it. And finally read it. And
Holy moley, I think this is the best hard SF novel I have ever read.
Everything I remembered … it’s all true. All of it.
Yes, the book is basically an adventure book for kids. At under 200 pages and written in prose aimed at children, it’s a quick and easy read for an adult. The plot revolves around Lieutenant Richard Ingalls Peter (“Rip”) Foster and his squad of “Planeteers” sent out to the asteroid belt to stake claim to an asteroid of pure thorium, fighting off the evil Consolidated Peoples’ Republic (thinly veiled Soviets, obviously) in the process. There are space flights and missile attacks and zero-g fights and everything else you need for an exciting adventure yarn.
But the heart of the book is an engineering problem. Rip has to work out how to blast the asteroid out of orbit and “ride” it (get it?) to Earth so the thorium can be productively used.
The writer gives you easy to understand and (as far as I can tell with my adult knowledge) accurate and realistic explantions of Rip’s plans, he explains the tools and the celestial mechanics he uses, the perils he faces (at perihelion!), how he deals with working with zero gravity, radiation, and Newtons laws. The whole book is a geek’s dream, wrapped up in an adventure yard for kids.
Why did this ever go out of print? You could read this today, and it all still works. It works for an adult (completely at face value and non-ironically) and I’m sure it would still work for a child. Ok, it’s a product of the 50s and some things are dated: Rip calculates celestial mechanics longhand while on the asteroid, because he doesn’t have access to the “electronic brain” on the space cruiser, for example. But that’s not a flaw, just a point of historical interest.
This is just so, so good. As an adult I am in awe of this book, and I can fully understand why it made such a big and lasting impression on me.
I’m going to read it again…