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2009/06/21

The Ultimate Weapon by John W. Campbell

Space patrol responds to a distress call on Pluto and finds a scout ship from an unknown alien race attacking the colony there. The patrol ship is destroyed but two of the crew survive -- who, thankfully, are sooper scientists who can deduce how the alien weapons work based on minimal evidence. They return to Earth and begin developing countermeasures for when the aliens return in force.

And inevitably, the aliens do return. After a little fine-tuning, the countermeasures do work, but the aliens adapt, and humans adapt to the adaptations. Rinse, repeat.

In concept, The Ultimate Weapon bears some similarity to Clarke's Superiority -- only without the irony, wit, and characterization. Which, let's face it, is what makes Superiority a classic of the genre. The Ultimate Weapon is, instead, filled with enough technobabble about magnetic fields, element-90, and proton beams to fill an entire season of Star Trek: Voyager. About 40,000 words worth of technobabble, to be exact. It's a wonder Campbell found room for any plot.

Nor is the technobabble scientific, even by the standards of the Campbell Era. There are more howlers in here than the monkey-house at the zoo. For example, Campbell comments that gravity on Deimos is so light that a man can move a 100,000 ton spaceship by himself. Ignoring for a moment that Campbell is ignorant of the difference between weight and mass, such a ship would still weigh 40 tons on Deimos.

And that's nothing compared to the ending, in which Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle allows the Earthicans to build an Infinite Improbability Drive.