Short Story Review: Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” (1962)

The following review is the 14th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

As always, feel free to join the conversation.

Previously: Anthony Boucher’s “Star Bride” (1951) in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Mines (December 1951). You can read it online here.

Up Next: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” in Fantastic Universe, ed. Leo Margulies (September 1955). You can read it online here.

3.5/5 (Good)

Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” first appeared in the February 1962 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith. You can read it online here.

At first glance Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” (1962) reads as an archetypal disaster-in-space tale of intrepid spacemen making courageous decisions under great duress. Around that central core, Anderson delves into far more sinister reaches–the media’s role in televising and manipulating grief. Anderson’s astronauts maintain their heroism despite the machinations of nefarious media men in pursuit of ratings.

The Disaster at the Core

Astronauts Jim Holt and Bill Swanberg blast off for the last of a long series of orbital voyages to test new radiation screens (10). As an overtly Cold War mission to triumph American advances at the hands of American heroes, their mission is televised back on Earth to millions of viewers. A few hours after blastoff, disaster strikes! A valve is stuck and one of the two men must subject himself to deadly radiation in a spacewalk so the other can return home. The problem is, who should go? The general in charge of the mission defers to the president. And the president, mulling the political implications of choosing one over the other, prepares a statement. But what will Jim and Bill do?

Mr. and Mrs. America Watch Televised Terror!

On Earth, Tom Zellman orchestrates the TV coverage of the mission. Competing against the start of the “Dodgers-White Sox game […] on another network,” Zellman lays on the sensationalism to keep millions watching: “Cold thousands of miles above the green fields of their native land, two young men are entering the deadly radiation current […] trusting their lives to an invisible shield of pulsed magnetic energies and to God” (12). Jim and Bill are deeply aware of the image the media has constructed for them—“We’re clean-limbed American boys bound forth to Ride Out The Lethal Space Storms” (10).

After disaster strikes and the decision to sacrifice one of the astronauts looms, Zellman, without blinking an eye, takes full advantage of the terror and impending familial grief. Communications between the astronauts and their families is piped through the TV with Zellman’s commentary. Jim’s wife Jane and their children are perfectly positioned on the screen as if actors in a drama (17). Jane panders to Zellman’s desires in order to have her husband chosen to survive: “I’ve played your game! Why not? It might get him back” (19). Through the television, trauma becomes spectacle. And the heroic men are but playing out pre-set narratives for audiences ensconced on their couches….

But Jim and Bill’s final decision removes agency from the networks and politics and places it literally in their own hands.

Final Thoughts

By 1960 the vast majority of American families owned a television. TV became the entertainment of choice (9% in 1950 to 90% in 1962). The first TV dinner hit the market in 1954. I find myself drawn to 50s/60s SF speculations about the often sinister role of media produced during this technological maelstrom. The ideas in Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” (1963) place it among Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” (1958), Robert Silverberg’s “The Pain Peddlers” (1963), Kate Wilhelm’s  “Baby, You Were Great” (1967), and John Brunner’s “Nobody Axed You” (1965) as some of my favorite takes from this era on the theme.

Is the disaster story itself transfixing? At the character level, yes. The actions of each family back on Earth, for example Jane’s reluctant but desperately choreographed attempt to give in to network demands so Jim is chosen to survive, cut to the core. And I felt Bill’s reluctance to talk to his family due to the millions dialed into his every word. At a technological level, the story flubs its lines–the lack of system backups and checks (that would have caught a stuck valve) always make me cringe. The human tapestry of media-manipulated trauma elevates “Third Stage” above disaster stories of its ilk.


For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

10 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Poul Anderson’s “Third Stage” (1962)

  1. the lack of system backups and checks (that would have caught a stuck valve) always make me cringe
    Mary Robinette Kowal called Andy Weir on his omission of checklists and redundancies in PROJECT HAIL MARY. Absolutely rightly…but this early, 1962, things were less rigid. It took until 1967, Apollo 7’s hideous fatalities, to firm up NASA’s risk aversion into Gospel.
    As always a pleasure to read your review, Dr. B.

    • There is a check that happens with their spacesuits before they enter the spaceship — but it’s described as absent minded as they had gone through it so many times. But, unless I’m missing something, there was not a systems check when they’re in the spaceship. Also, the astronauts themselves make the call to launch vs. experts after a sketchy weather event the night before!

      Rich mentioned below that it’s similar to the problem that caused the Challenger disaster — icing caused a seal breach in the historical event and icing causes a main engine valve to not open in Anderson’s scenario. I still think a main engine valve on the third stage of the spaceship refusing to open would have been caught by a systems check.

  2. I wrote about this issue of Amazing a few years ago — I should have remembered this story and pointed it out to you — it obviously fits your review series!

    I didn’t like it as much as you did — I thought the situation highly manipulated. But you are right that for that period it was somewhat impressive in predicting the media treatment.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    “Anderson’s “Third Stage” is a very minor story from this giant of the field. Years ago I made a list of stories Anderson had never collected – this was one of them, though it was anthologized twice (by Robert Hoskins and by Martin H. Greenberg) as well as being reprinted in one of the awful reprint magazines Amazing’s later publisher, Ultimate, used to put out. It’s about a mission to test a new space capsule design that will protect astronauts from the deadly Van Allen belts. There is a malfunction (oddly presciently, given Challenger, caused by icing), and one of the astronauts must go out into the radiation to fix the problem – but he will certainly die as a result. The story is all about the political and personal issues involved in deciding which of them must die. I just found it clunky and unconvincing.”

    • I agree with you on almost all counts (your comments and the review itself). However, your mini-review does not mention what is most bizarre/fascinating about the story i.e. The role of the media in manipulating what happens. Yes, the story is about the political and personal issues in deciding which of them must die — but all of that is mediated by the TV program itself parading the astronauts and their families, like Jaqueline Kennedy and her kids post-assassination the following year, across the screen through public rituals of grief and sadness. And it is only this element that adds any spice to what could be interpreted as a bit too mechanical of a story…

      • Yes, you’re right — the media manipulation is the most interesting part of the story, and I kind of missed that in my review — partly because, either through my fault as a reader or Anderson’s fault as a writer, I felt like the story was focussing more on the interplay between the political and personal aspects, which were unconvincing, rather than the TV influence, which was actually creepily effective, and kind of prescient given that it preceded the Kennedy assassination and most of the TV coverage of the Mercury/Apollo program.

        • Rich H.: ‘“Anderson’s “Third Stage” is a very minor story from this giant of the field. Years ago I made a list of stories Anderson had never collected – this was one of them.”

          Correct me if I’m wrong. But doesn’t this story bear some strong thematic resemblances to another, better story by Anderson, “Escape from Orbit,” which appeared later that year in the same venue, AMAZING, in the October issue?

          • I read and reviewed “Escape from Orbit” and disliked it. Definitely more straightforward and surface than “Third Stage” where at least trauma and terror is viewed and manipulated by TV.

            ‘Escape from Orbit’ (1962) 3/5 (Average): Feels straight out of the most banal works of the fifties. A group of astronauts are stranded in space. An ingenious plan involving a satellite allows them to land on the surface of the moon near a human station. It’s predictable, lacks any emotional involvement, provoking social ruminations, or fun plot twists. Although readable, it’s best avoided.”

            Book Review: Time and Stars, Poul Anderson (1964)

        • Oh, I interpreted the entire purpose at the end of “Third Sage” was both astronauts breaking free from the media and making their own decision. As for politics, that’s far more in the background. The president speculates which would serve his political purpose more but tosses a coin to make his final decision. And, of course, his message to the astronauts, while on the surface choosing one over the other, indicates that they should make their own call.

  3. Incidentally, a discussion of THE RIGHT STUFF (which is one of my favorite movies) might be interesting in this context, or indeed in the context of your whole review series.

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.