“Between the Thunder and the Sun” by Chad Oliver – Classics of Science Fiction


“Between the Thunder and the Sun” by Chad Oliver – Classics of Science Fiction

While my Facebook group is reading twenty stories selected as the best short science fiction of 1957, I’m also searching for other stories from that year that also deserve to be remembered. I think I found one with “Between the Thunder and the Sun” by Chad Oliver, from the May 1957 issue of F&SF.

The trouble is I can find no other recognition for this story. That makes me doubt my own interest in the story. I want to advocate “Between the Thunder and the Sun” not because it’s an exceptional story but because it tackles a serious subject, one that might be new to science fiction in 1957. If you know of early stories on this theme, leave a comment.

Chad Oliver was an anthropologist who worked at the University of Texas. He wrote a fair amount of science fiction, but I only remember him for Mists of Dawn, a 1952 Winston Science Fiction juvenile I read as a kid. Oliver had more success as a western writer. “Between the Thunder and the Sun” was only anthologized in one notable anthology, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Seventh Series edited by Anthony Boucher, which is essentially the best of 1957 from F&SF, so it’s picking its own children to praise. Still, I need to remember that anthology in my search for other standout SF stories from 1957.

What makes “Between the Thunder and the Sun” significant is it’s a Prime Directive story, a concept that emerged from Star Trek: The Original Series. Evan Schaefer is a professor contacted secretly about a mission to a planet where the population of intelligent beings were dying off on one continent. Because those beings have not reached a stage where they could survive the culture conflict of meeting a technologically superior species from Earth, it is against all our laws to even contact them, much less help them. However, a secret group wants to break those laws and save those beings. Their method of helping the aliens is to get them to understand ecology, because their current practices are self-destructive. And even still, their altruistic efforts only reinforced the Prime Directive laws.

What made this story stand out to this afternoon was I had just watched a YouTube review of Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a 1964 Russian novel that was translated into English in 1973 that is also about the Prime Directive. This made me wonder when the concept first appeared in science fiction or as a public concept. I can’t answer that question, but I hope readers of this blog can, and will comment below.

“Between the Thunder and the Sun” is a pleasant enough story to read, but it lacks suspense, drama, tension, and when conflict does arrive near the end, it just happens. Oliver wrote the story as an unfolding narrative. There’s lot of interesting ideas in the story, lots of imaginative details, but the story just doesn’t zing.

Should we remember a science fiction story just for its ideas? If you look at a list of the most remembered SF short stories, they are often based on remarkable ideas. But nearly all of them have remarkable storytelling too.

Neither Judith Merril, T. E. Dikty, or Asimov and Greenberg included “Between the Thunder and the Sun” in their anthologies of the best science fiction stories of 1957. That’s striking out three times. However, Merril did include the story in her honorable mentions.

If you get a chance, read “Between the Thunder and the Sun” and let me know what you think. Here’s the link again.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/24

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