Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, August 27, 2020


 Rocket to Limbo by Alan E. Nourse (1957)

Alan E. Nourse (pronounced Nurse; 1928-1992) was a medical doctor who, in part, paid for his education by writing science fiction.  Many of his early novels were juveniles (today they would be called Young Adults) but he also published several adult novels in his career.  Always entertaining, Nourse's science fiction is infused with a positive outlook, an appreciation for technology, science, and medicine, and (often) a sense of humor.   He is probably best-known out of the science fiction field for his nonfiction, including Intern, a major best-seller published under the pseudonym "Doctor X" in 1965.  He also had a monthly medical column in Good Housekeeping, which earned him the nickname "Family Doctor."  Nourse also wrote a number of nonfiction books for young people, including the So You Want to Be a...[Doctor, Nurse, etc.] series, a half dozen books on astrometry, books explaining medical topics such as viruses, hormones, herpes, safe sex, STDs, and AIDS, as well as the Life Science Library book The Body.

Although not marketed as such, Rocket to Limbo is a young adult novel, the fourth (and the third science fiction) published by Nourse.  It first appeared in Satellite Science Fiction (October 1957) and was published in hardcover from David McKay later that year.  Ace issued it as one of their science fiction doubles (backed with John Brunner's Echo in the Skull) in 1959, and as a single in 1986.  A British edition from Faber and Faber came out in 1964.  It also has been translated and publishednin Spain and Germany.  An E-book version was released in 2013.

The novel begins with a prologue in the distant future of 2008, where space travel is limited to the solar system and outpost colonies have been established on Mars and Venus.  Earth is overcrowded, hungry, and wracked by war.  In a desperate attempt to save humanity, the Argonaut, a generational starship is launched, headed for Alpha Centauri -- a "Long Passage" that will take a century and a half or so.

Fast forward some 350 years.  Mankind has discovered the Koenig drive, a means for a "Short Passage" -- what would have taken a couple of centuries can now be achieved in a couple of months.  With the Koenig drive, mankind has expanded to several hundred stars, still not enough to keep up with humanity's ever-growing numbers.  New planets are needed.  And what about the Argonaut?  It never make it to its destination; lost or destroyed in space, it remained on of the early mysteries of space travel.

Young Lars Heldrigsson, 18, has just graduated from the Colonial Service Patrol's academy and has been assigned as an Officer-in-Training on the starship Ganymede, slated for a routine trip to Vega III to check on a new colony on that planet.  A milk-run, perhaps, but an exciting opportunity for the young spaceman.  The Ganymede is captained by Walter Fox, a legendary spaceman who was also noted for his firm belief that out there...somewhere...are alien races which Fox believes must be benign.  In all of its travels to over one hundred stars humanity has yet to met up with an intelligent race of aliens, and many in the Patrol believe that there are no aliens at all.

There is something off about the Ganymede and its mission.  There is too much secrecy about the mission and why is the ship carrying hidden nuclear bombs?  Once underway, the 21 officers and crew of the ship learn the true mission.  In the outer limits of where man has traveled in space is the star system Wolf.  The starship Planetfall had been investigating the system for possible colonization when the ship strangely went quiet after approaching Wolf IV.  Considering all factors, it was possible that the ship met with aliens and was possibly destroyed by them.  The Ganymede was to go to Wolf IV and try to discover what had happened to the PlanetfallRather than being in space for a couple of months as the crew had originally been told, they were to be in space more than three times that -- a dangerous prospect that did  not sit well with some crew members.

About a third of the men rebelled and tried to stage a mutiny.  They failed and supposedly accepted their fate to go to Wolf IV.  That, or to be jettisoned in space with two week's rations.  Their decision was easy-peasy.

Wolf IV turned out to be a frigid planet with wild winds and a strip of mountainous land extending across its equator.  The wreck of a starship was spotted strewn across a mountain top.  The nearest place to land was miles away and the men were split into parties with six to remain with the ship.  One party would travel to the east and one to the west, each trying to find a passage to the ruined ship.  One reliable crew member had spotted an improbable city rising out of a great chasm but, on second look, it was not there.  Hallucination?  Much of the planet's limited flora and fauna did not make sense.  Lars discovered a backpack from the Planetfall miles from the wreck.   Had some survived the crash?  The planet held more questions than answers.

During the first night of their trek, four members of Lars' team snuck off in the night, taking with them the supply of food, radios, and other essentials.  Obviously the mutineers had not given up.  Not able to discover whether the same had happened to the other party that had been sent out, and not being able to make their way back to the ship, Captain Fox and his three remaining men, including Lars, determine to make it to the wrecked ship in hopes that there might be some supplies to help them survive.  Grit, determination, and stubbornness was all they had left.

Climbing to the top of a mountain where they could see back where their ship had landed, there was no ship there.  This seemed impossible because had the ship taken off, they would have seen the flare of the rocket.  More mysteries appeared.  The men make it (just barely) to the wrecked ship to discover the wreck is not of the Planetfall, but of the centuries-missing Argonaut.  Then, they discover the chasm where the vanishing city had been spotted.  It was there again -- shining. sparkling, with unnatural spires and towers that continuously changed shape, and with bridges that would suddenly move.  There figures that could be seen moving about the city.  And the city was floating some three hundred feet in the air.

Lars makes it to the city and encounters a friendly race of human-like creatures with astounding psi abilities.  These capabilities were so great that the race never learned how to talk.  And that was just the first of the strange events that Lars uncovered.  What was the city, who inhabited it and how, and what happened to the Planetfall and the Ganymede?  All questions Lars must solve if he has any hope of returning to Earth.

This is a book where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in handy.  (Certainly the fallacy of solving overpopulation merely by establishing star colonies mus be glossed over.)   But this is good old-fashioned science fiction, the kind I devoured when I was much younger.  It is certainly worth a quick read.  In a 1960 review of the novel, Frederik Pohl wrote, "[T]his is an entertaining volume, if not a very memorable one."

Here!  Here!


  1. As a kid back in the 1950s, I read Alan E. Nourse SF novels and loved them. Later, I learned Nourse was a doctor. Thanks for bringing back some good memories of good old-fashioned Science Fiction!

  2. I've read some Norse, but not this. Wish I could find a copy.