Salvage in Space, by Jack Williamson

Yep, I’ve still got more invisibility stories to discuss! In fact, I found 4 more through searching old magazines today. Reminder that I’ll have a book on the history of invisibility physics coming out next year!

Although invisibility is a science fiction trope, we haven’t seen that many invisibility stories yet that really embrace the traditional “outer space” setting of sci-fi. We’ve seen Slan, although invisibility plays a minor role in the story, and “The Attack From Space,” which mostly takes place on Earth, though the alien invaders are from Mercury.

Let’s look at something much more Golden Age sci-fi with “Salvage in Space,” by Jack Williamson! It first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science. It features a meteor miner coming face to face with an invisible alien that has annihilated the crew of a now derelict spaceship.

Before discussing the story, can I just mention how much I adore the illustration of the monster that comes with it?

It looks very reminiscent of a Japanese oni, a sort of demon or ogre, and I suspect the artist was inspired by such a source!

Jack Williamson is another classic pulp science fiction author, one who was incredibly prolific and penned dozens of novels and countless short stories during his life, even to the very end of his life: his last novel was published in 2005, and he died in 2006, at the age of 98!

“Salvage in Space” begins with meteor miner Thad Allen performing a spacewalk to secure his latest acquisition, an iron meteor the size of his head, to his accumulated ore. Reading these introductory scenes, you can understand why Williamson was so successful as an author:

The strangeness of interplanetary space, and the somber mystery of it, pressed upon him like an illimitable and deserted ocean. The sun was a tiny white disk on his right, hanging between rosy coronal wings ; his native Earth, a bright greenish point suspended in the dark gulf below it; Mars, nearer, smaller, a little ocher speck above the shrunken sun. Above him, below him, in all directions was vastness, blackness, emptiness. Ebon infinity, sprinkled with far, cold stars.

Thad was alone. Utterly alone. No man was visible, in all the supernal vastness of space. And no work of man—save the few tools of his daring trade, and the glittering little rocket bolted to the black iron behind him. It was terrible to think that the nearest human being must be tens of millions of miles away.

While working, Thad catches sight of an object speeding towards him. At first, he assumes it to be another floating bit of space ore, but soon realizes that it is a derelict ship, tumbling out of control. Such a prize could be worth more than everything he’s collected, even his own ship, so he takes a leap of faith and secures himself to the drifting craft as it passes by.

On board, he finds the ship in good order — except there is no crew. The only living being he finds is a dog, clearly hungry and needing companionship. Thad explores further, and finds journal entries, describing how the crew landed on a moon of Uranus, finding exotic animal life and treasure in the temple of some unknown alien race. But when they depart the moon to head back towards home, crewmembers start disappearing, one by one. The bloodstains that Thad finds are a hint of what happened to them.

But Thad and the dog are not alone. An invisible being, a murderous stowaway, soon sets its sights on Thad, and his only weapon is the welding arc he brought with him! He must think quickly to avoid the fate of the original crew…

More than anything, “Salvage in Space” reminds me of the movie Alien. We have a strange monster, picked up inadvertently by space travelers, picking off the crew one at a time. The monster is picked up from the site of mysterious aliens, just like in the movie. Heck, the dog even reminds me a bit of Jonsey the cat in Alien! Williamson’s story definitely has some of the paranoia and fear that would eventually make the movie famous.

I have no idea if “Salvage in Space” might have influenced Alien, but I suspect Williamson was inspired himself by another famous story of a derelict ship: the Mary Celeste, a sailing ship that was found inexplicably abandoned off the Azores Islands on December 4, 1872. The unexplained disappearance of the passengers and crew has led to many theories, from the mundane to the supernatural, and it is such a well-known tale that it is not unreasonable that Williamson may have used it for inspiration.

1861 painting of the Mary Celeste, then known as The Amazon, via Wikipedia.

But returning to “Salvage in Space,” how is the invisibility explained in the story? Thad ponders the monster’s origins:

When he had time to think, the invisibility of the thing was not so incredible. The mounted creatures he had seen in the hold were evidence that the flier had visited some unknown planet, where weird life reigned. It was not beyond reason that such a planet should be inhabited by beings invisible to human sight.

Human vision, as he knew, utilizes only a tiny fraction of the spectrum. The creature must be largely transparent to visible light, as human flesh is radiolucent to hard X-rays. Quite possibly it could be seen by infra-red or ultraviolet light—evidently it was visible enough to the dog’s eyes, with their different range of sensitivity.

So again we have the classic explanation first pioneered by Ambrose Bierce in “The Damned Thing” in 1893: the creature is of a non-visible color!

The story is not one of the best invisibility stories out there, but it is quite enjoyable and does a great job setting up an atmosphere of mystery and dread as Thad tries to figure out what is going on. You can read it here.

Tune in tomorrow for a post about another vintage story featuring invisibility!

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