George O. Smith – Hellflower

hellflower The only things that I’ve read by George O. Smith were published in Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1940s and early 50s. John W. Campbell, jr. published many of Smith’s stories. As I remember, they were engineering stories and I especially liked the Venus Equilateral ones about engineering and human problems exploiting the planet Venus.

Smith stopped publishing in Astounding when he ran off with Campbell’s first wife. (A nice juicy bit of SF gossip).

Hellflower (1953) is a good space yarn with rockets and aliens and a bustling solar system where a ship could make it to Pluto in a few weeks. The plot surrounds the illegal smuggling of a narcotic flower that is destroying the stability of human society. This, of course, is an alien plot to take over Earth.

The story starts out with an old tried but true plot device. A man ruined by a mistake in his past is offered a chance to redeem himself by working on the side of truth, justice and the American way. The love interest is a remarkably complex but believable drug addicted woman who hates the protagonist. I have known a few drug addicts and the painting of the character is right on the money. In the 1950s, as some might remember and others might know, American society was remarkably naive about drug fiends and how they behaved. Smith must have been close to someone addicted to hard drugs or else known a very bad alcoholic.

The Hellflower drug is all that the drug ecstasy is supposed to be and isn’t. It imbues the user with a sense of sensual well-being and a loss of inhibitions. It also seems to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain or makes them more receptive. Overuse leads to the inability to feel anything except intense emotions and users become addicted to hatred. This is quite complex for an early Science Fiction novel, which is why I think Smith may have had some experience with addiction. The protagonist only drinks non-alcoholic beverages.

The plot carries the protagonist around the solar system and eventually out of it. He moves in and out of danger and escapes by good luck or quick wits. It is a page turner of a book. The characters are a little out of date (they dress for dinner and the women wear party dresses). The technology is never really gone into in detail. Efficient atomic rocket drives and later FTL travel are assumed, but not explained. The protagonist does some course calculations by looking up angles in an ephemeris and uses a slide rule to do the math. This doesn’t bother me that much. It seems to me that it was not too long ago that I used a slide rule to solve engineering problems.

Interestingly enough, the aliens aren’t any worse than humans. They have read earth history and realized that humans can never deal with aliens on an equal basis. Humans are not to be trusted and eventually, because of their greater numbers they would overwhelm the aliens and exploit their world and reduce the aliens to poverty. (Do Native American’s come to mind?) The aliens decide to do this to earth before it was done to them. This makes sense.

George O. Smith is mostly forgotten today. He wrote in the grand old Golden Age style (think Heinlein). Hellflower is only around 60k words and I finished most of it in just two bus rides. It is fast paced adventure. It is the kind of story I like to read and the kind of story that I would like to write. I am on the lookout now for more George O. Smith books.