“Double-Cross” by James MacCreigh is a science fiction short story, which appeared in the winter 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
And in case you’re wondering about the author, James MacCreigh was a pen name Frederik Pohl used several times in the 1940s for his solo stories.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!
“Double-Cross” takes us once more to the fog-shrouded. swampy and permanently cloudy Venus that never was that is a familiar setting in pulp science fiction published in Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and similar magazines.
The story starts with some exposition heavy dialogue between Lowrey, Officer of the Deck aboard an Earth spaceship, and the Executive Officer who never gets a name. Lowrey remarks that everything is quiet and that he cannot even note anything in his logbook, because nothing is happening.
The Executive Officer is more sceptical, because he doesn’t trust the “natives”. When Lowrey points out that those “natives” are human just like them, descendants of the crew of the first starship to Venus, the Executive Officer declares that they might have been human once, four or five generations ago, but that Venus has changed them into something else. And so the Venusians have pallid white skin due to lack of sunshine and they have no hair either. That’s not how evolution works, at least not that quickly, but then the Executive Officer is something of a bigot.
Lowrey, on the other hand, thinks that the natives are friendly enough. Some of them are hostile, worried that now humans know that Venus is habitable, the planet will be overrun with immigrants from Earth who will displace the original settlers. There is an underground movement as well, which Lowrey dismisses as paltry and unimportant. Though he is not bothered that settlers from Earth will displace the Venusians. After all, survival of the fittest is the basic law of evolution. We suspect that Lowrey doesn’t know how evolution works either. Lowrey’s musings are interrupted, when the sensors detect that a spy ray is aimed at the Earth ship.
If there was a ranking of “As you know, Bob…” scenes in golden age science fiction, Frederik Pohl’s version in “Double-Cross” would rank higher than Isaac Asimov’s various attempts, if only because Pohl’s dialogue is less clumsy than Asimov’s. On the other hand, Asimov gets points for cleverly using an “As you know, Bob…” scene as a vital clue in a mystery in “The Big and the Little” and just making fun of the convention in “Catch That Rabbit”.
It’s also interesting that Pohl’s “As you know, Bob…” scene takes the form of a conversation between two ship officers. Idle conversations about the plot between random guards, soldiers, crewmembers, etc…, who often will never appear in the story again, are a common convention in space opera and military science fiction (and elsewhere) that predates the pulp era by centuries (you can find variations of this scene in Shakespeare plays) and one that still persists to this day. A recent example, played for laughs, was the scene with the two idiotic Stormtroopers who punched Baby Yoda (Boo, hiss) in The Mandalorian.
At any rate, the scene between Lowrey and the Executive Officer does its job of setting up the central conflict between the original settlers of Venus and the newcomers from Earth neatly enough. Any parallels to historical events are entirely coincidental, I’m sure.
The scene then switches to what is going on at the other end of the spy ray, where the Venusian underground has been listening in on the two Earth officers and are now convinced that the worries about immigrants from Earth displacing the Venusians are justified. We meet Svan, leader of the underground, and also learn that the underground has the support of the Venusian council.
Svan is a militant and wants to make sure that the spaceship never returns to Earth. And in order to ensure that the Earth ship never makes it home, Svan has a handy Atomite bomb. He also has a plan how to plant it aboard the ship. Svan and his co-conspirators will go to see the Earth ship like the rest of the town. On the way back, they will feign a car accident to draw away the ship guards, giving one of the conspirators the chance to get close enough to the ship to plant the bomb.
Svan’s followers are a lot less militant than he is. An old man named Toller has issues with the fact that planting a bomb aboard the Earth vessel is essentially murder. And a young woman named Ingra remarks that their ancestors came from Earth, too, and therefore Venusians and Earthpeople are of one blood. Svan rightly points out that according to the Executive Officer aboard the Earth ship, the Venusians aren’t even human anymore.
Because none of Svan’s followers are volunteering to plant the bomb, Svan has them draw lots. Svan draws a blank, but when he looks around, none of his followers announce that they have drawn the lot that makes them the bomber. Therefore, Svan assumes that one of his followers is a coward or worse, a traitor. But if he accuses his followers of treason an cowardice, the traitor will be warned. So Svan quickly marks his own piece of paper, while the others aren’t watching, and announces that he will plant the bomb. Why Svan didn’t volunteer in the first place, especially since it was his plan and he is the most militant of the bunch anyway, remains a mystery.
Svan’s plan hits a not entirely unexpected snag, when he and his party are stopped by a Venusian guard who announces that no one is allowed near the Earth ship anymore, because Svan’s spy ray warned the Earthpeople that there was something afoot. Svan signals to the guard that he is on Council business. But the guard refuses to budge and is not a fan of the Council (which we learn is not an official administrative body, but the name of Svan’s underground group) either, so Svan attacks and kills the man to the shock of his co-conspirators.
The conspirators go forth with their plan. They drop off Svan at some distance from the ship and drive onwards, unaware that Svan has planted a second bomb in the car. Since he can’t trust his followers anymore, he has decided to blow them up, because an explosion will make a much better diversion than a car accident. He does briefly waver, when Ingra kisses him good-bye and wishes him good luck. But then Svan decides that even if she isn’t a traitor, Ingra is weak, so she must die for the cause with the others. This confirms that Svan is a murderous arsehole, in case there was any doubt.
Svan makes his way to the ship and waits for the explosion to draw the guards away, while fingering the lot he has drawn and wondering once again who the traitor might be. As terrorists go, Svan is certainly unlucky. For once more, his grand plan goes awry, when the car unexpectedly returns, driven by the loyal Ingra. Ingra tells Svan to jump into the car, because the dead Venusian guard has been found and both Earthpeople and Venusians are now after them. Svan just screams, “Go away!”, and Ingra and the car and tries to leg it, because he knows that the bomb is about to go off. But he never makes it.
After the explosion, Lowrey and the ship surgeon find the dying Svan. They also find the second bomb and realise that the Venusians were trying to bomb them.
“Poetic justice if I ever saw it,” Lowrey says. Then he notices the piece of paper that Svan is still clutching in death and frowns.
The surgeon asks him what’s the matter, whereupon Svan shows him the piece of paper and notes that it is marked with a cross on both sides. So there never was a traitor – Svan was just too stupid to turn over the paper.
“Double-Cross” is a neat science fiction thriller with a surprising, if somewhat contrived conclusion. The title (a good title, which I have used a for science fiction story myself) is also doubly relevant, both the in metaphorical (Svan double-crossing his own followers) and literal (there are two crosses on the piece of paper) sense. It also a good example of the twist ending stories that were so popular during the golden age.
Not a lot of stories surprise me these days – I can usually tell where they’re going in a few pages. “Double-Cross”, however, did surprise me. Initially, I was expecting something along the lines of a Leigh Brackett story about a revolt of native people against the invading Earth capitalists similar to the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “Citadel of Lost Ships” or the later Eric John Stark stories. Never mind that forty years of Star Wars and its imitators have primed us to inevitably assume that the plucky rebels fighting against overwhelming forces are the good guys. But sometimes, the plucky rebels are just terrorists. And sometimes, those terrorists become paranoid and turn on their own.
Though Lowrey and the unnamed other members of the spaceship crew don’t come across all that well either. And indeed, various remarks made by Lowrey and the unnamed Executive Officer suggest that the Venusians were right to worry about the influx of Earthpeople. “Double-Cross” is a story, where there are no good guys, which shows again that morality was not always black and white during the golden age and that there were shades of grey. Furthermore, “Double-Cross” also belies claims from certain quarters that golden age science fiction was just apolitical fun.
Of the named characters in the story, Svan is the only one who has a personality, though it’s not a very pleasant one. He is domineering, militant and paranoid to boot. Even if the cause of the Venusian underground is justified (and Pohl hints that it might be), Svan’s zeal goes beyond any reasonable boundaries. Svan only lives for the cause and is willing to sacrifice anything and anybody to achieve his aims, whether it’s the innocent crew of the Earth spaceship (and while Lowrey and company might not be the most pleasant people, they haven’t harmed any Venusians), the Venusians guard who gets in his way or his own followers. In short, Svan is a murderous arsehole. His character also rings true, because revolutionary movements tend to attract people who just want to cause mayhem and will turn on their own comrades at the slightest provocation. In many ways, Svan is an interplanetary Andreas Baader (de facto leader of the West German terrorist group Red Army Fraction) or Charles Manson, even though Baader was only one year old and Manson ten, when “Double-Cross” was published.
Frederik Pohl’s left political leanings are well known and he was a member and even chapter president of the Young Communist League for a few years in the 1930s. I wonder whether Pohl encountered types like Svan during his time with the League, especially since Communist groups during the Stalin era were often riddled with paranoia.
The solution with the piece of paper marked on both sides may seem a bit contrived, though it’s not entirely unrealistic, because thankfully, quite a lot of terrorists are stupid and tend to blow up themselves rather than their targets. The ideological bent doesn’t matter, stupid terrorists come in all political and ideological flavours. Here is an article listing some exceptionally stupid Al Qaeda terrorists and here is one about their equivalents in the IRA.
“Double-Cross is short, only six pages long, including an illustration that takes up three quarters of a page. Most of those six pages are dialogue. We get little in the way of description, unlike what you’d find in a Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Clifford D. Simak or C.L. Moore story. But if you’ve read enough golden age science fiction, you know what Venus looked like during the golden age and don’t really need it. And while Pohl may not have been a particularly poetic writer, his prose is less clunky than Asimov’s.
Like several of the stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project, particularly those originally published in Planet Stories, “Double-Cross” has only been reprinted once, in a 1976 collection entitled fittingly enough The Early Pohl. It consistently surprises me how many of the stories that have rarely or never been reprinted are pretty good, sometimes better than the stuff that was reprinted.
A short and punchy science fiction thriller, that offers no heroes to root for, but some genuine surprises.