30 July 2014

Staying Afloat

I recently got my hands on a hoard of very old Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, and have been skimming them for dusty gems.  Came upon a little oddity in the April 1969 issue.  The first odd thing is that the story was a reprint - it had first appeared in EQMM in 1947.  And the editor -- that would be Frederick Dannay -- reports that upon the original appearance "(a)lmost without exception, readers and critics disapproved of the story, and editor-EQ [Dannay], to put it mildly, was pilloried."  Now, he reports, people have been asking to see "that prophetic story."  He suggests that he and the author were ahead of their time.

Well, we will get into that.  The story was "The President of the United States, Detective," by H.F. Heard.  Now, I would bet a shiny new quarter, featuring the Everglades National Park on the reverse side, that that title came from the editor, not the author.  First of all, Dannay was addicted to title-tinkering.  Second, it stinks of special pleading:  "This isn't science fiction!  It's a detective story.  See?  It's in the title."

It is science fiction.  The story takes place in the year 1977--

Okay, let's pause for a moment and deal with this crazy-making real-life time travel.  The story was written (or at least published) in 1947.  It was reprinted in 1969.  But I just read it (while flying around in my jetpack, of course) in the year 2014, which means this reader is further removed from the date of the story than Heard was when he wrote it.  Mind-boggling.

The hero of the story is President Place, "a mammoth of a man.  His hands were bigger even than George Washington's, he was taller than Lincoln, he weighed more than Taft. 'The biggest president ever.'"  Clearly not modeled on Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, both of whom graced the Oval Office in 1977.

And now I should put in a SPOILER ALERT because I am going to reveal the plot of this almost seventy-year-old story. 

During one day President Place gathers info from several sources that convinced him that the Commissar of the USSR is up to no good.  The Commissar was Yang Chin, a Mongolian ("China, as usual, had swallowed those who rashly tried to get her into their clutches").  And as it turns out Yang had dropped atom bombs on his own permafrost, melting the ice, which would inevitably lead to parts of Europe and the Americas being flooded.

Ah, but he didn't count on shrewd President Place who, the same day, (apparently Environmental Impact Statements don't exist in this version of the 1970s) ordered the Air Force to bomb Greenland and Antarctica, causing their ice packs to melt, causing the land to be lightened, and therefore rise up.  

I told a friend about this and he said "Physics no do that."  He is a native English speaker,   but he was stunned.

An aside: the late author, H.F. Heard, also known as Gerald Heard, was an interesting guy.   His web site, which doesn't seem to mention our target story, does tell us about a Sherlockian novel, A Taste For Honey, and a lot of religious texts.  Apparently he was a big influence on the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous as well.

Getting back to the short story, one interesting point, obviously, is its prediction of human-made climate change.  I went on the web searching for comments on the story and  found Cli Fly Central, a website dedicated to climate change science fiction, which it suggests should be called Cli Fi.  Mr. Heard's piece is one of the earliests entries.  There is even an award for Cli Fi novels: The Nevil. 

This is of special interest to me because it appears that my own contribution to Cli Fi will be published in the next year.  It is, I assure you, crime fiction, not SF.  Even though it doesn't have "detective" in the title.  In the mean time, stay dry.


  1. Wait -- so the president doesn't "detect" anything?

  2. Nice to know some stories have an afterlife.

  3. JOe, he detects the bad deeds of the USSR, putting together several different sources of info to do so. And congrats on being the cover story in AHMM this month!

  4. So, did President Place evacuate Florida just before launching missiles to Greenland? Silly rabbit, of course not!

    "Physics no do that." I have memorized that line for future reference. I think I'm going to need it.

  5. Interesting piece, Rob.

    I played around with "future projection" stories in a post some time back --

    http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/07/soothsayers.html --

    My favorite example of this genre is (as discussed there) Robert Heinlein's The Door into Summer. What is fun about the book is that even now it remains a very good read even though it consistently gets the future sort of charmingly wrong. And like the story you discuss, the reader gets to look "back" at the predictions of Heinlein from a vantage point years ahead of the various years depicted in the book.

  6. So here's a fun thing: The part about the land rising has roots in a real phenomenon called "isostacy". Land *does* indeed rise (go up in elevation) as continental glaciers melt. Those glaciers are so heavy they depress the land because continents are made of relatively light (less dense) rocks such as granite, "floating" in denser rocks that are primarily basalt. As continental glaciers retreat -- they were up to 7 miles thick in some areas currently undergoing isostacy -- the granitic land mass floats higher in the basalt supporting it. So it increase in elevation. The process is VERY slow. But it's been measured as on-going in parts of Scandinavia, at rates of several inches per century, and is now being measured and monitored in places like Nunavut. What isostacy does not do is elevate land that was either never depressed by continental glaciers or that was "released" so long ago that it's already returned to pre-glacial elevations.

  7. A bunch of the Kuttner stories about the inventor Gallagher are set in the 1970's (written in the 40's!)

  8. Rob, I had a similar experience while putting together a collection of Edward Hoch's science fiction, horror, and alternative history stories (to be published by Wildside Press). A number of those stories, which I found only through archaeological digging of my own, were written in the 1950s or 60s, and set in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s. It was pretty mind-bending.

    The most significant discovery, once I put aside the fact that history hadn't always panned out the way Ed's stories predicted, was that as stories they still held up well.

  9. Clearly a President that huge couldn't have been a natural born citizen, probably from Kenya or Pluto or somewhere.

    You're friend is right: The effect would have been the opposite of what the author expected.

    Judging from the web site's books, it appears W.H.Heard may have been a bit kinky.

    Oh, the bird to the right on that coin is a snake bird, either an anhinga or cormorant. Being a Florida quarter, it's worth 13¢.

  10. ''room for debate'' climate cli-fi

    hi i am dan bloom who runs cli fly central, and at the nytimes.com/roomfordebate....tell me more about yr book and want to join our FB groip on cli fi?

    email me danbloom@gmail.com or twitter @clificentral

  11. Daniel, thanks for dropping in. I will join the FB group and contact you about my book.

    Anon, thanks for the science.

  12. Talk about coincidence, look one the NY Times wrote about on Tues
    day. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/07/29/will-fiction-influence-how-we-react-to-climate-change?smid=tw-roomfordebate&seid=auto


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