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.
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.
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.
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