Written in 1954 and set in 1966 by Arthur Dekker Savage, “Fly by Night” is a nice, short read. This story is science fiction that never intentionally delves into deep issues, but paints some interesting scenarios for us to consider.
For example, in 1954, just 9 years after the end of World War II and 3 years before Sputnik, modern feminism was still in its infancy, and many resisted the movement. Some fiction like this was even written as a warning against feminism. As a result, the image portrayed in “Fly by Night” of the liberated woman of 1966 is confused. You get the sense that the female lead is supposed to be considered an equal, but all the “technical stuff” is done by the male lead. The woman’s role seems to be mostly decorative and mildly nagging… but somehow “liberated”.
The central characters are Ken and Carol, two career military types who have been bred and trained for this mission – and each other – since they were children. Even on the day of the mission they were just barely adults, Ken 19 and Carol 18. Ken seems to have been more “prepared” than Carol, as the reader very early on gets the idea that the two are expected to be, uh, “romantic” during the flight. Ken is overeager to get the flight underway, but Carol doesn’t seem at all thrilled about the prospect.
The mission itself is an unusual one. Ken and Carol are to fly their rocket, the “Latecomer”, around the moon and this story was Arthur Dekker Savage’s vision of man’s first flight into space.
The romantic aspect of the mission seems to be the brainchild of the mission psychologists. Apparently the thinking here is that their cultivated intense devotion to one another will keep them focused on their mission, and will serve to at least delay the onset of paralyzing “space fear” – whatever that is. What could possibly go wrong? It seems more to me like a cheap plot device to promise some hot-n-steamy teen lovin’ for the young sci-fi audience.
Some of the technology is humorous. The rocket they fly is nuclear powered. The mid-’50s was at the beginning of America’s honeymoon with nuclear power, but for getting a rocket into space, our best technology today is still simple fuel boosters based on Newton’s Third Law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nuclear power just isn’t practical for achieving escape velocity.
The author also had some strange ideas about space flight. The two characters featured in the story control the rocket from a couch – an anamorphic couch that surrounds them when necessary for protection. He also had some unusual ideas about the nature of time, theorizing that it is dependent upon gravity.
Not long into the flight, before they even have a chance to get to second base, they receive a strange-sounding message to turn back to Earth immediately. Their mission was being aborted. Something was wrong. They do so, and the change in plans gives them some time to talk awkwardly through some typical teen insecurities, only to find that Carol is just as frustrated as Ken is.
They receive landing instructions and instead of heading for splashdown, they are to make touchdown in Oregon at a secret base. This is visionary, as the story features a reusable launch vehicle that lands horizontally like an airplane. Those were the two most distinguishing design specifications of the modern Space Shuttle program.
Ken and Carol return to a disconcerting radio silence. They are not receiving any transmissions of any kind, even after dropping into the atmosphere. The reason why became quickly apparent. As they flew over New York City, they saw that it had been reduced to a series of yawning craters. Closer inspection revealed trees growing in the craters. Whatever happened to decimate the Big Apple had apparently happened a significant amount of time ago.
This puzzle only makes it more urgent that they carry out their orders and land in Oregon. As they make their way West, they discover more cities to have vanished: Detroit, overgrown with wilderness; Chicago, underwater. There is no sign of human life at all. For all they can see, they are returning to a dead planet.
How did Earth get like this? Was it an alien assault? Was it an all-out nuclear war? How did so much time seem to have passed while they were only a few hours into their original mission? Is the Earth now a desolate planet? Do Ken and Carol live out the common adolescent sci-fi fantasy of repopulating the planet? Read the story and find out!
Fly By Night was originally published in the May 1954 issue of IF Worlds of Science Fiction, and the story is considered to be in the Public Domain as no evidence has been found that the U.S. copyright was renewed.