" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Camel's Tail by Tom Jolly and me as a younger reader

  One of the favourite stories Doug and I read as part of our science fiction reading project was "The Camel's Tail" by Tom Jolly, which appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Analog. I think I can safely say it reminded us of some of the first science fiction we read but updated for today. 

The year is 2076, and Garaad Gullet is applying for a job as a spaceship pilot with the family firm that runs the Faraax-Qamaan Launch Site in Southern Sudan. The area around the site is home to both traditional herdsmen, solar arrays and air to water converters. The launch site contains several solar system runabouts, including a Tesla-Space X Explorer and a Ford Chariot. Once in the office, Gullet meets Axmed Qamaan, who will conduct the interview. The business is family-owned; they run the launch site, a livestock operation and own the older Ford Chariot. Gullet learns that Halima, the young woman he mistook for the secretary, is Qamaan's daughter and an astrobiologist. The previous pilot, behaved inappropriately and is no longer with the company. Gullet asks if he was fired, but Qamaan states that he killed him and ground up the body.  Gullet takes this in stride and gets the job.

A few years later, Gullet and Halima are married. They have made several successful flights, and things seem to be going well. Then they learn that a cousin has absconded with the family's funds. Gullet offers to use his savings for one last flight. Their ship the Sabamisa is one of three registered Somalian near-space explorers. The solar system is dominated by ships belonging to governments or large corporations. While alien tech is the holy grail, smaller operations search the debris field resulting from asteroid mining for minerals or recover extremophilic bacteria from the trojan clusters. Then word comes of an unknown object moving towards the sun, and the race is on.

Overall I enjoyed this story. It seems up to date. Gullet and Halima sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding because the family is worried about his student debt. They use implants, data chips, and an AI to operate in space.  Jolly has also updated the concepts of the economy of commercial space exploration. Discoveries are often data rather than physical objects. The data can be patented, funds transferred, mergers and joint ventures between corporate entities negotiated and announced while the ships are still in space. There appears to be an element of potential criminality within the space exploitation business. Jolly mentions that Somalis are treated with care because some of their ancestors were pirates, and Gullet uses this to his advantage at one point. (I did find this a problematic and wonder if Jolly could have handled this aspect of the story differently.) 

Analog included Jolly's profile, which indicated that his mother worked as an aerospace engineer through the 1950-70s on satellite programs, and his father was a machinist. Tom grew up reading science fiction and also became an aerospace engineer. In the profile, he says, "I had a very science fiction type of life." 

I was weaned on this type of story. From Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, Andre Norton's The Solar Queen stories, Larry Niven's Tales of Known Space and Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, I ate this type of story up. It would have been hard to write a story that appealed to me more. There are Martian colonists, Belters, and space elevators for goodness sake. It is the kind of the hard science fiction that people wrote when we just knew humankind would soon move out into the solar system and that anything was possible. I also enjoyed (spoiler alert) that the situation is resolved without violence. It did remind me of the first science fiction I read in public school. Even though I was reading those books in the mid-1960's, they tended to have been written ten or even twenty years earlier. The Russians and the Americans were in a red hot space race during this period, but that was not the model I read about. Space flight was the purview of intrepid "boy" geniuses, somewhat absent-minded scientists that never noticed the stowaways, (but had enough oxygen, food and fuel for everyone), families and business tycoons. Then for a long time, space flight was the business of governments; the bigger, the better. Jolly's story made me wonder if that is going to change. 


  1. Nice to know that the old style can be updated, if anyone cares to.

  2. Hi Charles

    Thanks for the comment.It is a theme I enjoyed and it was fun to revisit it.