Short Reviews – Battlefield in Black, by George A. Whittington

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Battlefield in Black by George A. Whittington appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

Captain Jon McPartland has problems.  His girlfriend Almira is the daughter of Marshal Denton, “Supreme Commander of all Solar System forces”.  The peoples of Earth and her solar colonies are governed by a “Congress of Specialists”, which is sort of like a cross between a PhD review board and a Senate.  Academics are running everything and the worlds have been disarmed.  Only the “Space Patrol” remains to enforce law in the Solar System.  Almira is trying to get into Congress as a head shrink by putting together a presentation psychoanalyzing Jon; as the daughter of a military bigshot who’s presenting on a bona fide war hero, why she’s a shoe-in to be welcomed into the ranks of the ruling class!  Jon doesn’t want to have his head served up on a platter to a bunch of egg heads who’d probably like to put him out of a job, and the couple has a big fight right on the eve of disaster.

All hell breaks loose when communications at multiple bases go dead and a giant black sphere engulfs a huge chunk of the Solar System.  Bad guys have a device that removes “ether” from space.  This “ether” is more magic than science; you apparently don’t need it to breathe but it is required for everything from sound to radio waves to light to pass through.  And it does make a convenient excuse for additional drama-cheese (even the glow-in-the-dark indicator tape on controls can’t be seen!)  The “Terra Council for Freedom”, a mix of pirates and Congressional academics led by Mark Baron, the “notorious and deadly outlaw”, have turned out the lights as part of a ploy to rid the Solar System of its last military forces.  It’s a simple scheme: wait for the Space Patrol to take Congress into protective custody and accuse Marshal Denton of being a dictator trying to commit a military coup.  It’s up to Jon McPartland to find a needle in haystack, blow up the darkness generator, clear his future father-in-law’s good name and work things out with his pushy social sciences girlfriend.

Battlefield in Black is a story that’s silly in its seriousness.  Bad or silly science is easier to handwave once you’ve accepted magical premises; in a “serious” Mil-SF story the science upon which the story hinges can itself become a running joke if presented as preposterously as it is here.  This story also suffers a bit from the indistinguishable flat characters (the Captain So and So, Lieutenant That Guy, Ensign The Other One phenomenon) who exist mostly to shout emergency statuses to the one or two characters we’re supposed to care about.  That’s not to say Battlefield in Black is bad story; it’s got action, excitement and a cool (if scientifically flawed) premise to try to get around the ‘no such thing as stealth in space’ quandary.  It’s not remarkable, but it is another example that busts the “Planet Stories was nothing but space opera” narrative.  There seems to be this notion that Planet Stories only published one kind of story and Astounding only published another kind.  And of course, these publications are often framed as antithetical to one another, Astounding/Analog being the “serious” publication and Planet Stories being therefore the “unserious” publication.  I haven’t dug deeply enough into Astounding/Analog to make a claim about that magazine, but Planet Stories showcased a wide variety of science fiction with fun, excitement, action and adventure being the common thread.

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