Pauline Ashwell was the pseudonym of Pauline Whitby (1928-2015), who wrote a number of science fiction short stories and just two science fiction novels, Unwillingly to Earth (1992) and Project Farcry (1995), both published by Tor. So far as I know neither has been reprinted since , which is a great pity.
Unwillingly to Earth brings together four of Pauline’s short stories: “Unwillingly to School”, published by John Campbell in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction ; “Rats in the Moon” published in the November 1982 issue of Analog; “Fatal Statistics” published in the July 1988 issue of Analog; and finally “The Lost Kafoozalum” published in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction. Despite written decades apart they work perfectly as a sequence.
The stories all centre on Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, who recounts her various adventures to us in gauche, breathless prose replete with Capital Letters to make sure we get the Point. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, it’s just that the other people don’t know it yet. I would hazard that her spiritual ancestors are Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
The first story “Unwillingly to School” introduces us to Lizzie, the daughter of a former miner who made a lot of a money from mining, and is now a farmer. They live on a small, distant planet Excenus 23 (population 3, 320, 99% men), whose main industry is mining Areopagite. (For some reason I imagine the miners sound like Australians).
Left to her own devices after her father has an accident and has to go to hospital, Lizzie gets into a number of scrapes which means she has to leave the planet for a time. With the help of Dr D J M’Clare, and against her better judgement, she is shipped off to Earth to study Cultural Engineering at the Russet Interplanetary College of Humanities. Cultural Engineering isn’t just a theoretical discipline involving the study of different planetary cultures, it also involves practical fieldwork, as we shall discover.
In the second story “Rats in the Moon” Lizzie goes to the Moon on holiday to visit a friend and gets caught up in a series of events including an explosion, being a suspect in a case of attempted murder, intervening in interplanetary diplomacy, and taking a court case in the Piepowder Court.
In the third Story “Fatal Statistics” Lizzie is sent to do some field work on an obscure planet called Figueroa, but on landing discovers that the planet’s society has collapsed and much of the population has left. Those that are still there – and some visitors – are in dispute over resources. Lizzie has to figure how bring about a peaceful resolution and also get her and her fellow students off the planet in one piece. At one point she is chased by a Cybercrane:
..there is a rending Crash as the roof is knocked sideways and I am left crouched in a corner Staring up at the thing, oh Damn this is a stupid way to die-
The head suddenly jerks back and I hear the sound which means it is Readjusting its legs, I suppose this where I should Review my past life but all I can think of is, I can’t help closing my eyes but I am not going to Scream. …
Then there is a Flare that burns dazzling white even through my eyelids and a most godawful Bang! and then nothing happens and goes on happening until I realise I am not Dead after all.
Just the same it is quite difficult to get my Eyes open; when I do, all I can see past the broken edges of the roof is the Sky.
In the final story “The Lost Kafoozalum” Lizzie, her room-mate and best friend B Laydon (we never discover what the B stands for), and some of her fellow students are brought together by Dr M’Clare to solve a problem on a planet called incognita which has recently been rediscovered. Ingognita was colonised some centuries by humans who are divided into two sides:
The ship that spotted the planet as inhabited did not land, but reported to Central Governmnet who shipped Observers out to take look….The Observers are not named but stated to be graduates of the Cultural Enginering Class.They put in a few month’s work and sent home unanimous Crash Priority Reports the situation is bad, getting worse, and the prognosis is War.
In a group discussion Lizzie comes up with a solution that might stop the war and plays major role in its implementation. However its execution goes wrong and Lizzie has to use every resource at her disposal to put things right, including doing the Dance of the Little Robot. She also comes to a crossroads in her personal life.
This is a lovely book which you should all read – and soon. I do hope it gets back into reprint along with her other work.