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Literature / The Cosmic Express

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Science fiction story written by Jack Williamson and published 1931, this is notable as the first appearance of a teleportation beam in science fiction.

Eric Stokes-Harding is an author of adventure tales in the hyper-civilized New York of 2432 A.D. He lives in luxury, but yearns for the adventure and excitement of a more primitive life. His newlywed wife Nada agrees with him. So they embark on a real adventure — they travel by the matter transmitter beam of the Cosmic Express to the savage jungle world of Venus, in hopes of enjoying a less artificial existence!

The story is available here.

Tropes appearing in this work include:

  • Affectionate Parody: Between his name and the sort of stories he writes, Eric Stokes-Harding was almost certainly a parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Eric romanticizes the natural life in exactly the way that ERB did in his tales, especially the Tarzan series. It should be noted in this regard that Jack Williamson actually did grow up on one of the last American frontiers (rural Arizona and New Mexico in the 1910's and 1920's; while Edgar Rice Burroughs grew up in Chicago but was stationed on the very same frontier as a US Cavalry trooper in the 1890's, over a decade before Williamson was born, so both men had seen truly savage surroundings — but Burroughs had the more urban upbringing.
  • Arcology: Not discussed in detail, but near the start of the story, Eric and Nada order food through a wall control panel and it is shot up by elevator from their building's "kitchens," which implies that they are living in a rather self-sufficient skyscaper.
  • Bed Mate Reveal: G-rated version. The story introduces the two main characters in its first two sentences in this fashion:
    Mr. Eric Stokes-Harding tumbled out of the rumpled bed-clothing, a striking slender figure in purple-striped pajamas. He smiled fondly across to the other of the twin beds, where Nada, his pretty bride, lay quiet beneath light silk covers.
  • Big Applesauce: The story takes place in the New York City of 501 years in the future — now equipped with a dome to keep off the weather.
  • City Planet: Earth is well on its way to becoming one of these. Much of the world is covered by cities, often domed cities, with most of the remaining space being used for farms, parks, and resorts. Wild Nature is gone, which is one of the principal complaints of Eric and Nada.
  • Creator Couple: In-universe, Eric and Nada are both successful writers, and were even before they got married. He's a best-selling adventure author, and she's a prominent poetess.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: New York, and presumably the entire world, has evolved into this sort of place:
    Below him was a wide, park-like space, green with emerald lawns, and bright with flowering plants. Two hundred yards across it rose an immense pyramidal building—an artistic structure, gleaming with white marble and bright metal, striped with the verdure of terraced roof-gardens, its slender peak rising to help support the gray, steel-ribbed glass roof above. Beyond, the park stretched away in illimitable vistas, broken with the graceful columned buildings that held up the great glass roof.
  • Deus ex Nukina: Atomic-powered residential lighting is common in the world of 2432. This may well be an accurate prediction, however, as some forms of low-temperature fusion theoretically possible may turn out to be small enough to use in individual light bulbs, and if one could do this, one would have an artificial light which could last longer than a natural human lifespan, independent of any central power source.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Despite both Eric and Nada being writers on natural themes, and thus people who should be aware of what is required to survive in primitive conditions, they travel to Venus without any equipment.
  • Domed Hometown: New York City is now equipped with a "great glass roof" which is supported by "graceful columned buildings." When the story commences, a blizzard is raging outside, while Eric and Nada are warm and comfortable in the controlled environment.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: The Aesop of this story: the ultra-urban writer couple Eric and Nada are utterly unsuited for survival in primitive conditions.
  • Exty Years from Publication: The story was written in 1930 and published in 1931, and is set in 2432 — which is just a bit over half a millennium from the date of publication (Jack Williamson was not yet a big enough name to be sure of an immediate sale).
  • Fat Comic Relief: A fat woman at the Cosmic Express office, who is worried about her dog Violet.
    A very fat woman, puffing angrily, face highly colored, clothing shimmering with artificial gems, waddled pompously out of the door ... Shrill words floated back:
    "I'm going to see my lawyer! My precious Violet—"
  • Funetik Aksent: This gem from a French cardiologist at the Cosmic Express office:
    "Queek! I have tell you zee truth! I have zee most urgent necessity to go queekly. A patient I have in Paree, zat ees in zee most creetical condition!"
  • Happily Married: Eric and Nada. Their love survives their disappointment with Venus, too.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: Eric and Nada can't light one at all. Amply justified, in that they are trying to light wet wood, in the rain, by rubbing sticks together — they have brought no matches and have apparently never heard of the concept of "tinder." Jack Williamson, who grew up on the Southwestern Frontier, would have been quite aware that what his characters were trying to do was utterly impossible.
  • Herr Doktor: The Cosmic Express, the titular teleportation beam, has just been invented by "Ludwig Von der Valls, the German physicist." 1930-31 was just long enough after World War One that the resentments of the war had begun to fade in America, and 2-3 years before Those Wacky Nazis took over and began destroying the German scientific tradition.
  • Horrible Camping Trip: Eric and Nada's experience on Venus. Made more horrible by the presence of dinosaurs and the fact that they have brought no camping equipment.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Eric and Nada's ambition, which drives them to voyage to Venus. Utterly and totally subverted by their lack of survival skills.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Both Eric and Nada are writers: he, an author of best-selling adventure novels; she, a widely-admired poetess.
  • Nature Lover: Both Eric and Nada are obsessed with returning to a more "natural" way of life — he because he wants adventure and excitement, she because she loves the (theoretical) poetic beauty of the natural world.
  • Teleporters and Transporters: The Cosmic Express machine is one of the first examples of a "transporter" in science fiction. It works exactly like the Star Trek type, too — it can transport matter from machine to machine, from machine to a location, or from a location to a machine.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Eric and Nada, who teleport themselves to a savage jungle planet with no survival equipment or skills. They live anyway, because the story is comedic satire rather than survival tragedy.
  • Two-Fisted Tales: Eric writes these sorts of stories, which are not-so-coincidentally exactly what Jack Williamson was writing at the time:

    He wrote "thrilling action romances," as his enthusiastic publishers and television directors said, "of ages past, when men were men. Red-blooded heroes responding vigorously to the stirring passions of primordial life!"

    He was impartial as to the source of his thrills—provided they were distant enough from modern civilization. His hero was likely to be an ape-man roaring through the jungle, with a bloody rock in one hand and a beautiful girl in the other. Or a cowboy, "hard-riding, hard-shooting," the vanishing hero of the ancient ranches. Or a man marooned with a lovely woman on a desert South Sea island. His heroes were invariably strong, fearless, resourceful fellows, who could handle a club on equal terms with a cave-man, or call science to aid them in defending a beautiful mate from the terrors of a desolate wilderness.
  • Venus Is Wet: In the story, Venus is a habitable jungle planet similar to pre-Cenozoic Earth, complete with dinosaurs.
  • Wish-Fulfillment: Eric Stokes-Harding is a prolific best-selling author (audience of over 100 million, which means he's probably sold over a billion copies of his books) whose success enables him to live in a swanky New York apartment. He's just married a beautiful and prominent poetess. At the time Jack Williamson wrote this story, he was a single 24-year-old, just starting in the business and with serious emotional and physical health problems.