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Literature / C-Chute

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This story was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (October 1951 issue), by Isaac Asimov. The Central Theme is "What makes a hero?"

During the current Earth-Kloros war, a civilian transport ship is captured. Six humans survive the hostile takeover, forced together despite their wildly different attitudes towards their captors. They all want to go home, but only meek little Mullen is willing to risk his life to do anything about it.

John Stuart takes a leadership role within the group due to having the greatest familiarity with the Kloros. Colonel Anthony Windham, the oldest passenger, is a nationalistic War Hawk within the group. He encourages them to fight the alien menace, but makes excuses for not leading the charge. Ben Porter had been to visit the Kloros to negotiate trade in canned foods, and is terrified of the indefinite internment. Claude Leblanc is a recently married young man, who is utterly lost with the current crisis. Demetrios Polyorketes is mourning his (possibly twin) brother, Aristides, who was killed by Kloros when they boarded the human ship. Finally, there's Randolph Mullen, a small and unassuming man, who has spent around ten years in the Arcturian System, working as a clerk.

These six passengers come up with a plan to retake the ship and bring it back to human-controlled space. The only problem is, who will be brave enough to try, and why?

"C-Chute" has been adapted into an episode of X Minus One, and republished at least nine times; Shadow Of Tomorrow (1953), Urania (issue #12, October 1953), Second Galaxy Reader Of Science Fiction (1954), Through A Glass Clearly (1967), Nightfall and Other Stories (1969), The Best Of Isaac Asimov (1973), Other Worlds Of Isaac Asimov (1987), Space Dreadnoughts (1990), and The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990).

"C-Chute" contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The setting is a future with FTL interstellar travel, and humanity has recently encountered their first alien species. Both groups have colonized multiple star systems.
  • Artificial Limbs: While a guest of the Kloros, John Stuart had mangled his hands irreparably. Since they couldn't fix the human hands, they used their advanced chemistry knowledge to grow artificial hands out of artiplasm instead. The new hands are weaker than the originals, and require delicate care.
  • Atom Punk: The references to 'steam-nozzles' seem strange, but they are actually using atomic-heated steam like a modern nuclear reactor would.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Stuart reminds the other humans that Kloros aren't just physically different, they are also psychologically different. The Kloros will assume that any group is a social union deeper than family bonds, even a group that just happen to share a ride on a transport.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Stuart's prosthetics are too weak for him to keep piloting, so he was transferred to paperwork.
  • Central Theme: Each of the characters has a reason why they don't want to be prisoners of the Kloros, whether it is due to their pride/honour or their fear. However, the character who actually takes action against the aliens doesn't give a reason until after the climax; he was homesick.
  • Cranial Processing Unit: Mullen crushes the alien's head-stalk when he sticks it into the steam-nozzle, but realises too late that the brain is in its body when the Kloros rises again and starts stumbling blindly around the bridge after him.
  • Deflector Shields: The ship's use of force fields occur off-screen, but Colonel Anthony Windham is familiar enough with space combat to be able to identify the sequence of events despite being in the passenger area. He knows when the "screens" fail and the ship is forced into evasive maneuvers to avoid boarding action.
  • Disabled Snarker: Stuart lost his hands, and admits this is behind his tendency to question to motives of others. Mullen points out he has nothing to complain about, as his Artificial Limbs are less obvious than Mullen's lack of height.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Demetrios Polyorketes shares his name with the second king of the Macedonian Antigonid dynasty. Also something of an Ironic Name, as "Polyorketes" literally means "Besieger" (which the original certainly was), but when the situation calls for someone to step up to seize back the ship, he proves to be just as much all talk and no action as the others (except Mullen).
  • Fantastic Racism: Once humanity went to war against the Kloros, most humans became blindly nationalistic and think the Kloros are a horde of savages, and those humans who point out that they are perfectly civilized, merely on the other side of the war, are accused of being traitors to their species.
  • Height Angst: Randolph Mullen is the shortest of our protagonists. He is about five feet tall, putting him eight inches below average, something he is very aware of. He claims to have had a Napoleon Complex, but realized that outwardly expressing any emotions simply turned him into an object of ridicule, so he trained himself to be The Spock.
    Mullen: A small man can have no respectable emotions. Is there anything more ridiculous than a man like myself in a state of rage? I'm five feet and one-half inch tall, and one hundred and two pounds in weight, if you care for exact figures. I insist on the half inch and the two pounds.
  • Hitler Cam: Lampshaded when Mullen muses that they'll uses a close-up and low-set camera when pinning a medal on him.
  • Improvised Weapon: Mullen takes a spare oxygen cylinder with him in case he's blasted free of the ship, so he would at least have a chance of getting back by using it for Improvised Microgravity Maneuvering. As the Kloros are chlorine breathers he ends up using it to kill them.
  • It's the Only Way: Mullen points out that there is a practical means of entering the bridge that the Kloros won't be expecting—they put on a spacesuit and go out the C-chute used for Burial in Space, then enter through the steam-nozzles used to maneuver the spacecraft. Of course there's a lot that can go wrong. If the nozzles fire when you are in them, you'll be crushed to death or blasted free of the ship to die a slow death in space. Also there's no way to re-enter the ship once you're inside the nozzle—Mullen has to enter the nozzle (which is wide enough to allow maintenance) and bang on the hull and hope that the aliens inside will think something has gotten caught inside and open it to investigate.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Col Windham tries to inspire common ground with Stuart by citing national identity and Fantastic Racism. Stuart, however, disagrees with an "unprintable" response.
  • Only Sane Man: John Stuart appears to be the only one of the surviving passengers who understands that the aliens are just combatants on the other side of a war and not Always Chaotic Evil monsters. He happens to be stuck with an armchair general and naive jingoist, a man so blinded by revenge that he wants to kill the aliens indiscriminately, a paranoiac who accuses him of being a species traitor, a newly married young man, and a bookish fellow whom everybody assumes to be a nebbish clerk.
  • Pet the Dog: Stuart points out that the Kloros are actually treating their prisoners better than humans would under similar circumstances by keeping an oxygen-filled room aside for them. His own lack of hate is because the Kloros surgeons took the trouble to create new hands for him despite his alien biochemistry. Pointing this out only gets him labelled as an alien sympathizer.
  • Ray Gun: When Demetrios Polyorketes tries to ambush one of the Kloros that boarded their ship, it blasts him with a pinkish ray that leaves him paralyzed and in great pain.
  • Silly Reason for War: Humanity and the Kloros went to war over the mining rights of an asteroid. None of the protagonists describe this in very positive terms, from naked nationalism and bigotry, to outright describing it as foolishness.
    "If it weren't for the stupidity of some of their people — and, by God, of some of ours — we wouldn't be at war."
    • Even Polyorketes — who viciously hates the Kloros over his brother's death, and is the most hostile toward Stuart — finds himself inwardly conceding that the man has a point. He's disgusted to realize that his brother died over such a petty issue, one which had no relevance to either of them.
  • The Spock: Randolph Mullen acts like a stereotypical bookkeeper; small, nebbish, and neat. When involved in discussion, he only makes logical arguments, resisting the impulse to express an emotional reaction. After the climax, he explains to Stuart that it was because short people look ridiculous when emotional, so the only way he could be respected was to be logical.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Each of the six protagonists takes a turn narrating the events, starting with Colonel Windham, and cycling around until the story ends with Stuart's perspective.
  • War Hawk: Colonel Anthony Windham, the oldest passenger, regrets his age/infirmity, but is very willing to stir up anti-Kloros feeling amoung the remaining passengers. His idea for preventing the Kloros from taking the ship is to charge the occupied bridge and activate the ship's self-destruct before they die.
  • Who Will Bell the Cat?: Mullen comes up with a dangerous plan, but no-one is willing to carry it out, so he decides to do it himself.
  • You Killed My Father: Demetrios Polyorketes hates the Kloros because they killed his brother, Aristides, when they boarded the ship at the start of the story. This is despite the fact that Aristides panicked and ran out into the crossfire, and could just has easily been killed by a human defender.

Alternative Title(s): The C Chute