The Trouble with Tycho


By Clifford Simak

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In his classic 1968 novel
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
builds the centerpiece of his narrative around the discovery of
magnetic aberration centered on the moon crater
Tycho.   Further investigation uncovers a large
black slab hidden beneath the lunar surface—a
puzzling artifact not made by humans.  The
mystery of this monolith links the different
elements of Clarke’s plot, which span some three
million years of history, and more than 300
million miles.

Yet seven years before Clarke’s novel, Clifford
Simak wrote his taut adventure story
The
Trouble with Tycho
which also presents a
mysterious alien relic on the moon—and one
centered in the exact same crater later chosen by Clarke.  What are
the odds that two different authors would select the same plot of lunar
real estate—only fifty miles in diameter—as the epicenter of activity
for extraterrestrial intelligent life?  

Simak’s novel is more compact than Clarke’s, and more limited by
pulp fiction conventions.  Simak blends in a love story—never Mr.
Clarke’s strong suit, thank you very much—and a hero who (in time-
honored sci-fi fashion) takes on the worst that the universe can throw
at him.  In this case, the protagonist is Chris Jackson, who is working
over the deserted lunar landscape the way prospectors took on
California in the wake of the Gold Rush.  

Funded by a syndicate back on earth—really just the banker, barber,
and assorted retailers from his home town—Jackson is hoping for the
big strike in uranium or diamonds that will make him some serious
money and please his backers. But the “eureka moment” eludes our
ambitious treasure hunter.   His prospecting trips have yielded little—
mostly a few strange moon lichens which contain microbes that can
be used for medical treatment.  These strange quasi-life forms seem
to be concentrated in the area around Tycho.

But none of the moon prospectors are willing to visit this ominous
crater.  Thirty years before our story begins, the Third Lunar
Expedition landed in Tycho, only to vanish—two ships and eleven
astronauts gone without a trace.  Further attempts to survey the area
led to further disappearances.  Nowadays lunar residents give the
area wide clearance.

Jackson runs into Amelia Thompson, another prospector who is an
illegal immigrant on the moon—yes, they probably need a big fence
up there too—who thinks she can find her way to the remnants of the
missing Tycho expedition parties.  If Jackson will accompany her, they
could be on top of the story of the century, and pick up some
valuable odds and ends along the way.   Fame, money, adventure,
maybe romance too—what self-respecting moon prospector can turn
that down?

Simak works all the angles on his story, which makes up for lackluster
writing with its pacing and endearing details.  A master of sci-fi pets—
Simak’s
City is the Lassie of speculative fiction—our author
hypothesizes a type of free-floating lunar energy which resembles a
hound dog, at least in its loyalty to humans and skill in hunting
(lichens in this instance).  He also takes time to add commentaries on
the best places to construct a building on the moon, or the best of
way of exiting from your lunar rig (“like a worm wriggling from an
apple”).  Simak’s imaginative immersion into his story and setting are
often best demonstrated in the asides and throwaway passages.  

Other sly details add to the texture of the book.  On the moon, you
never need to send your spacesuit out to the cleaners, no matter how
stinky and sweaty it has become;  just leave it on your doorstep,
exposed to the atmosphere-free outdoors, and the next day it is clean
as a whistle.  And did you know that the booze on the moon is always
the best?—given how ridiculously expensive freight costs are, no one
saves money to buy a lesser brand.   

Simak has put enough thought into these particulars to flesh out an
otherwise thin story.  Our hero and his lady friend, needless to say,
decide to journey into the depths of Tycho to find out the source of all
the trouble—and create some of their own.  They don’t run into a big
black slab.  But leave the monoliths to Arthur Clarke.  Simak likes
extraterrestrial intelligent life forms that bring better special effects
along with them on their journeys.  Probably more than few readers
will as well.   
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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

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The Fifty Year Sword

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House of Leaves

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Babel-17

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Dhalgren

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The Einstein Intersection

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Nova

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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VALIS

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Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Burning Chrome

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Dune

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Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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The Wanderer

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His Master's Voice

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The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
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Magic for Beginners

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Mann, Thomas
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100 Years of Solitude

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Store of the Worlds

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Frankenstein

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The Trouble with Tycho

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Snow Crash

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More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
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Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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