Retro Review: “Highwayman of the Void” by Dirk Wylie a.k.a. Frederik Pohl

Planet Stories, Fall 1944“Highwayman of the Void” by Dirk Wylie is a space opera novelette, which appeared in the fall 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Regarding the author, Dirk Wylie was the name adopted by Joseph Harold “Harry” Dockweiler, a member of the Futurians and frequent collaborator with Frederik Pohl in the 1940s. However, Frederik Pohl subsequently stated that he wrote “Highwayman of the Void” alone and submitted under Wylie’s name. So I will refer only to Pohl as the author from this point.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

“Highwayman of the Void” has an absolute killer of a first paragraph:

Steve Nolan was three years dead, pyro-burned in the black space off Luna when a prison break failed. But Nolan had a job to do. Nolan came back.

After this promising start, we follow the undead Steve Nolan across the icy surface of Pluto towards a domed city called Port Avalon. Gradually, we learn that Nolan was once a reporter for the Interplanetary Telenews Company. Now, he’ s looking for revenge on his sworn enemy Alan Woller, his former boss and the man who framed him for treason for supposedly collaborating with a terrorist group called the Junta. Woller’s lies got Nolan a life sentence on Luna. Nolan managed to escape and nearly died. And because he was presumed dead, he decided not to correct the error. But as a result he can never return to the inner worlds. And now Woller is on Pluto, heading a shipping company. Nolan will make sure that he pays for his crimes.

Nolan still has fifteen miles to trudge across Pluto, when he gets lucky and a skid breaks down right in front of him. Nolan forces his way into the skid and persuades the pilot, a young woman, to give him a lift to Port Avalon. In return, he’ll fix the broken skid. The young woman agrees, not that Nolan gives her much of a choice. After an encounter with some local fauna – a giant crab-like critter – Nolan and the young woman reach the city. The young woman – neither we nor Nolan learn her name at this point, with good reason – is quite taken with Nolan and offers to buy him dinner, which is remarkably progressive by 1940s standards. However, Nolan rebuffs her. He has other things on his mind.

He heads to a disreputable bar (are there any other bars in space opera?) named The Golden Ray, where he meets with an old acquaintance, a gambler named Petersen who rescued Nolan after his nigh-fatal prison break and is the only one who knows Nolan’s true identity. Petersen warns Nolan not to go after Woller, because Woller is even more influential than he used to be. But Nolan is determined. He will see Woller dead.

So Nolan sneaks into Woller’s hotel, into what he believes is Woller’s bedroom, only to get the surprise of his life, when he finds not Woller, but the young woman who’d given him a lift, in the bed. “Where is Woller?” Nolan demands, but the young woman refuses to answer. The encounter ends with Nolan retreating, because he can’t bring himself to shoot an innocent woman, even if she is Woller’s mistress, whereupon the woman raises the alarm and the guards come running.

Nolan braces himself for a shoot-out. But suddenly, alarms go off all over Port Avalon. The dome that protects the city against the harsh environment of Pluto has cracked and is rapidly losing air. Soon, everybody in Port Avalon will be dead.

Nolan knows that he should use the chaos to escape, but instead he goes back into the hotel room and tells the young woman to put on a spacesuit (though Pohl calls them heatsuits). Then he flees, desperate to find a spacesuit for himself. But just outside the hotel, he is intercepted by Petersen, who triggered the dome breach alarm to give Nolan to chance to escape the guards. Petersen also informs Nolan that Woller was called away to Mars in a hurry and that his ship will be leaving in the morning.

Nolan tries to bribe his way aboard Woller’s ship. When that doesn’t work, he just forces his way aboard and hijacks the ship. But when Nolan finally comes face to face with Woller, he doesn’t kill his sworn enemy. Instead, he wants Woller to confess and clear Nolan’s name. But before it come to that, the captain – who is a black man, by the way – and the crew overpower Nolan and lock him up.

When the ship lands, Nolan causes an explosion and escapes in the confusion. He also realises that the ship never travelled to Mars at all. Instead, it just landed in another part of Pluto. Nolan is quickly recaptured – there are a lot of escapes and recaptures in this story. Woller, who was wounded in the explosion Nolan caused, very much wants to kill him. However, first he has other business to attend to and so, in the manner of careless villains everywhere, exposes his grand plan.

Turns out that Woller is the one who is collaborating with the Junta to build a fleet of warships in a secluded part of Pluto. When intrepid reporter Nolan accidentally stumbled upon Woller’s schemes, Woller framed him to get rid of him. Nolan also learns that Woller is not actually the head of the Junta. A man in a mirrored helmet everybody only calls Chief is.

The Chief is not at all pleased to see Nolan and orders one of the others to give him a gun. But once he has it, the Chief aims his gun at his co-conspirators and tells Nolan to disarm them. For the man behind the Chief’s mirrored helmet is not the man the Junta were expecting. But that’s a risk that all villains who hide their identity behind a mask run and in fact I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. The fake Chief tells Nolan to put on a spacesuit and blows a hole into the side of Woller’s hideout. The explosion and the loss of air kill many of the conspirators. Nolan and the false Chief flee through the hole and commandeer a skid.

Once aboard the skid, the fake Chief finally takes off his mirrored helmet and reveals none other than Nolan’s good friend Petersen underneath. Petersen finally comes clean and admits that he is no gambler at all, but an agent of the interplanetary police force known as Tri-planet Law. Tri-planet Law knew about Woller’s treachery all along and they also knew that Nolan was being framed. Nolan was never supposed to go to prison, instead he would have been questioned and given a new identity or taken into protective custody. But Nolan messed up that plan with his escape attempt. So Nolan was officially declared dead. Petersen was sent to rescue and befriend him to find out what Nolan knew.

When Nolan couldn’t be deterred from going after Woller, Petersen did his best to protect him, including disguising himself as the Chief to infiltrate the meeting of the Junta leaders.

Nolan insists that since the Junta leaders are all at Woller’s hideout, they must do something about it. Petersen says that’s already being taken care of. Together, he and Nolan watch as Tri-planet Law bombs Woller’s hideout, killing everybody inside and putting an end to the Junta

But there is one more revelation to come. For Petersen also tells Nolan that the young woman he met in Woller’s hotel room is not Woller’s mistress but his stepdaughter Ailse. Ailse found out what her stepfather was up to and was planning to confront him. Before Petersen could intervene, she vanished. Petersen fears she may have been at Woller’s hideout, when it was bombed.

Nolan is devastated, until he remembers a coffin-like box he saw aboard Woller’s ship, a so-called sleep box wherein human beings can be kept in suspended animation. And that same sleep box is now in the cargo hold of the skid Petersen and Nolan commandeered. So Nolan rushes to the hold to kiss Snow White – pardon, Ailse – awake.

The Early Pohl by Frederik Pohl“Highwayman of the Void” is a cracking good, action-packed space adventure, even if the title is misleading, because there is no highwayman anywhere in the story, unless Nolan sort of hijacking Ailse’s skid makes him a highwayman.

Action-packed space adventure is not really something I associate with Frederik Pohl. Nonetheless, his two pseudonymous stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project are just that. And in fact, Pohl’s pseudonymous contributions to Planet Stories feel very much as if Frederik Pohl was trying to channel Leigh Brackett.

The opening scenes of “Highwayman of the Void” with Nolan trecking across the icy wastes of Pluto and later walking the mean streets of Port Avalon sound very much like Brackett in her noir mode. And in fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if “Highwayman of the Void” had turned out to be a forgotten golden age Leigh Brackett story. Though I suspect that Leigh Brackett would have given Ailse a more active role than spending the bulk of the story as Snow White in a sleep box.

The most notable difference between Leigh Brackett’s and Frederik Pohl’s takes on noir space opera is that in Pohl’s stories, representatives of the authorities are portrayed mostly positively. Petersen, the Tri-planet lawman posing as a gambler, is a good example. Meanwhile, Leigh Brackett has much less faith in the system. In her stories, interplanetary police officers mainly exist as a foil for the outlaw heroes, Lundy from “Terror Out of Space” and Simon Ashton from “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and the Skaith trilogy being notable exceptions.

And even though Steve Nolan is a convict on the run with revenge on his mind, he is not a typical outlaw protagonist like the ones Leigh Brackett favoured. Instead, Nolan is the heroic journalist, a common character type in popular fiction during the 1930s and 1940s, who took on the wrong corrupt capitalist and was framed for a crime he did not commit. There are several crime movies of the 1930s with this very plot. One example that comes to mind is the 1939 prison drama Each Dawn I Die starring James Cagney. There were others as well. Indeed, it is often forgotten that golden age science fiction drew on influences from beyond the SFF genre spectrum, influences which are more difficult to detect today, because the tropes in question have often vanished.

“Highwayman of the Void” suffers a bit from what I call Van Vogt plotting, i.e. there is a random plot twist every 800 words or so. Though attributed to A.E. van Vogt, the frequent plot twists were a common technique in the pulp era. Lester Dent’s famous pulp fiction master plot, requires a plot twist every 1500 words, though Dent was better at pulp plotting than van Vogt (but then pretty much everybody was) and his plot twists usually make sense.

“Highwayman of the Void” has plenty of plot twists and several of them seem rather random at first glance. Our hero is trapped by the goons of the villain with no way out. Oh look, a handy dome breach alarm, quell coincidence. No wait, there is no dome breach – the hero’s pal has triggered the alarm to give our hero a chance to escape. And then our hero has been captured by the villains – again – and is only seconds from execution, when he is rescued by an unknown saviour wearing the mirrored helmet of the conspirators’ leader. What a coincidence – again. And then the unknown saviour is revealed to be the hero’s best pal – again. Hmm, that guy sure gets around and also knows a whole lot for a guy who gambles for a living in dingy spaceport bars. Oh, he’s really an undercover policeman – that explains a lot.

Pohl is already a skilled enough writer at this point of his career to come up with logical explanations for his seemingly random plot twists, though he isn’t yet skilled enough to avoid the pulp school of plotting with its random plot twists altogether. There also are some loose ends, for example the true identity of the Chief in the mirrored helmet is never revealed. That said, it is notable that Frederik Pohl was a better writer at this point of his career than his friend and near contemporary Isaac Asimov, though not yet as good as his other contemporary Ray Bradbury. Pohl is mostly remembered for his fandom activities during the 1940s, but he was already a good writer and editor at this time. Even if “Highwayman of the Void” and his other stories from this period have been reprinted only once in a collection fittingly entitled The Early Pohl.

Another problem with “Highwayman of the Void” is that there is too much plot for a novelette length story. Usually, golden age science fiction stories are exactly the right length for what the idea and plot will support. Occasionally, they are too long, padded out with technobabble and random plot twists. “Highwayman of the Void” is the rare example of a story from this era that I wish would have been longer. Because a novella or even novel-length story would have given Pohl the chance to flesh out the plot and the characters more.

After reading a lot of golden age science fiction stories in a row, including several from the more lurid end of the market such as Planet Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, I’ve noticed that many of those stories are set in the same consensus version of the solar system. In this pulp science fiction shared universe, Earth is the dominant force and the tri-planet configuration of Earth, Mars and Venus is the centre of civilisation. Sometimes, Mars and Venus have native humanoid populations, sometimes their populations are the human descendants of early colonists (see “Double-Cross”, also by Frederik Pohl). But whichever is the case, Martians and Venusians are usually considered primitive and not on the same level as Earth people. Mercury is inhabited, but a hell world. The rest of the solar system all the way to Pluto (which was still a planet) is inhabited as well, though anything beyond Mars is the wild frontier. Space cops patrol the space lanes.

Earth’s Moon serves a prison in this universe (and would still be portrayed as a prison world all the way to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1966 and beyond – e.g. the Second Species Trilogy by Jane O’Neill features a prison on the Moon in a 21st century series) from which the protagonists either escape or try to prevent being sent there. I’ve never actually read a golden age story set in the prison on the moon (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress doesn’t count, since it’s a 1960s story), but the place sounds about as cheery as a Soviet gulag of the same period.

Science made this pulp science fiction shared universe obsolete in the 1960s, when space probes reached Mars, Venus, the Moon and later on the other planets of the solar system. But nonetheless, we can still see the influence of this pulp science fiction shared universe in contemporary science fiction. The Expanse is set in an updated version of the pulp science fiction shared universe. Earth and Mars are the human core worlds (and perpetually at loggerheads), though science has taken Venus and Mercury out of the game. Meanwhile, the belt and the moons of Jupiter are the wild frontier, populated by marginalised and exploited people and beset by space pirates, murderous capitalists, local revolutionaries and terrorists, space Mormons and fedora-wearing detectives who walk the mean streets of Ceres.

A far more common approach is just transposing the pulp science fiction shared universe to another solar system with more habitable worlds than our own or just the entire galaxy. How many space opera universes feature core of wealthy, high technology worlds (which we rarely visit, because the protagonists usually can’t show their faces there) and a galactic rim of much more primitive frontier worlds, which are often oppressed by the core worlds? It’s an extremely common set-up in space opera, used by Star Wars and Firefly among others. Even my In Love and War universe features a similar set-up. This trope is so common that we have almost forgotten where it came from.

“Highwayman of the Void” is a good example of a story set in the pulp science fiction shared universe of the golden age.  A fine noir space adventure that deserves more recognition than it got.

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